Pulitzer Prize Author Jose Antonio Vargas - Hosted by YBCA & Jerome Reyes

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At The Break had the fortunate opportunity to have a hot second with Pulitzer Prize author Jose Antonio Vargas at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and hear first hand Jose’s personal experience around his migration to the United States, and the continuous struggle he has faced as not only a person of color, but a gay man. Jose wrote the celebrated work “Dear America: Notes of An Undocumented Citizen” and if you haven’t read this book, ATB is touting it as a must read.

Jose candidly declared,  “I didn’t want to write the book as a ‘marginalized’ person - it’s tough enough to be ‘othered’, but to ‘other’ yourself - I didn’t want to do that.” Jose shared this excerpt from his book for the United Nations - Chapter 18, Page 140, last paragraph - and this striking statement resonated:

“Migration is the most natural thing people do, the root of how civilizations, nation-states, and countries were established. The difference, however, is that when white people move, then and now, it’s seen as courageous and necessary, celebrated in history books. Yet when people of color move, legally or illegally, the migration itself is subjected to question of legality. Is it a crime? Will they assimilate? When will they stop?”

This particular excerpt from this chapter hits home and frustrates me to no end because when it comes to even just vacationing, especially by white Americans, they’re notoriously obnoxious and do the exact opposite of assimilation. (I understand that with the current generational shifts happening, our youngbloods are more willing to respect and assimilate more than past generations - or at least this is where I have seen the trends heading.)

Japan was where I resided during my formative years, and this migration was given accolades - and I still receive that praise - for a move to a foreign country. Why is it that me, a white person, gets that good ole boy, pat on the back, “Way to go!” “What an adventure!” “You’re really expanding your mind!” “WOW! “How experiential!” And Jose, who I would define as a true American by all sense of the word, is looked upon as an “alien” for his own migration. (FYI haters - he pays taxes.)

And BTW - I’m not comparing my experience above with Jose’s in any way, shape or form, as I can’t imagine the sheer terror of living my life day in & day out, not knowing if you will be able to reside and stay in a place that you now call “home”, but knowing that you’re by the unfortunate definition, “homeless”.

I am going to say though that being female & white in an Asian country in the 90’s had challenges of its own too. I had people constantly touching my face and of course the occasional grope from some sukebe (pervert) on the train. I know, I know, it doesn’t compare to the awful atrocities that occur here in the US on the regular...

The biggest laugh and shock came from where I was from originally in the suburbs of Chicago. People who met me when I would return would ask me grotesque questions such as, “Do you speak Chinese?” COME ON PEOPLE - I LIVED IN JAPAN. JAPAN! <facepalm> After comments like that, the idea of a mandatory, respectful exposure and empiricism of a world outside of the xenophobic comfortability so many Americans are known around the world for would be humbling to each one of them.

The move to a foreign country by anyone takes balls/guts/backbone/courage. My extended stay in a foreign country myself in my younger years came with a slew of regulations around what you could and could not do so you didn’t face deportation. Proper documentation (aka alien registration cards) were always required to be carried on our persons at all times, no matter what age you were, and we had to whip them out if someone of authority asked if you were there legally. A publication at the time known as “The Alien” was a small satire magazine where gaijin, or foreign denizens, could laugh about the various hilarious cultural snafus such as the aforementioned situations and the humility surrounding them. “Charisma Man” was the farcical manga that featured a foreign dude absurdly trying to assimilate - especially because at the time said foreign men thought that they could easily score Japanese chicks (I know, pathetic and truly insulting was their behavior). Even though I can laugh about these situations now and relate them to these frenzied comics of the 90’s, it still frustrated me to be treated as a complete outsider. Now imagine the trepidation of not only being asked for an ID, but experiencing complete deportation, and these days in the most inhumane, wanton and I’m gonna say it - sadistic ways.

Let’s take the time to put ourselves in another’s shoes for just one moment - to attempt to experience what a unique individual is feeling, considering the trials & tribulations of a different type of life before jumping on the conclusion bandwagon of thought that someone in your family has, or someone at the bar, or within your social community (maybe the bar is your social community - I lived in NYC, I get it). Deductive reasoning and research over jumping on the groupthink train everyone…question the answers folks.

Here’s the most logical ATB Takeaway: Experience, sympathize, travel (if it’s possible for you), read, question, debate, include others, get-to-know something completely different - and most of all practice RESPECT.

In addition to the powerful presentation that Jose gave that evening - ATB would also like to mention the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and the powerful energy and message behind Jerome Reyes’ commissioned art for the YBCA:

YBCA has commissioned Bay Area–born artist Jerome Reyes to create the site-specific billboard project Abeyance (Draves y Robles y Vargas) (2017), installed on the facade of YBCA’s Theater facing Yerba Buena Gardens. Featuring both texts and altered photographic imagery from San Francisco’s Ocean Beach, Abeyance honors three Bay Area natives by sharing their stories of migration, displacement, and resilience. The billboard is located in the SOMA neighborhood, a site that during the 1980s and 1990s underwent dramatic redevelopment, still in process today.

Reyes discussed the inspiration behind his Abeyance billboard, which uses a quote from a New York Times article written in 2011 by Vargas, where he remembers the parting words of his mother, Emilie Salinas, uttered in Tagalog, as he left the Philippines at age twelve to begin a life in the United States—an undocumented immigrant in search of what his mother hoped would be a better life.

Check out Jerome’s work here:


Photos by ATB & Jerome Reyes

Written by: Melissa A. Bolin