Out in the Open

'Belonging is not something any country or law can dictate': Jose Vargas redefines American identity

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas lives in the U.S as an undocumented immigrant. We talked to him for another take on identifying as American, different from the one espoused by author Junot Diaz.
When he was 16, journalist Jose Antonio Vargas found out he was undocumented. (YouTube/Define American)

When he was 12-years-old, journalist and Define American founder Jose Antonio Vargas came to the U.S. from the Philippines. His parents sent him to live with his grandmother.

When he was 16, Jose found out he was undocumented. He didn't have citizenship or any other legal documentation to live in the States. 

Jose continues to live in the U.S., advocating for other undocumented immigrants like himself. He also calls himself an American.

CBC's Out in the Open asked Jose's opinion on Junot Diaz's stance on national identity. Junot Diaz says he doesn't really identify as American but as Dominican, partly to point out the presence of immigrant communities in the U.S. 

To Jose, Junot Diaz's ability to call himself just Dominican is a privilege that comes from having the right papers.

"For many of us, we don't have the privilege of having that choice in that way," Jose explained. "And in many ways, I claim American to claim something that people don't even think is mine or is ours, because of citizenship laws and because of papers."

Jose founded Define American, a non-profit organization that aims to redefine what it means to be American. Jose also points out that the difference between the way he identifies and how Junot identifies are at the core of America.

"The fact that we can define it in these many ways speak to what makes the American experience unique," Jose told Piya.

Jose has visited 48 states in the past five years, speaking with many Americans, including the ones that challenge his right as an undocumented immigrant to be in the country.