Reading to Learn: Dear America, Notes of an Undocumented Citizen

In an attempt to better educate myself on the struggles and issues that others face in our country, I’ve been reading a much more diverse selection of nonfiction since the 2016 election (and will hence title future posts "Reading to Learn"). My most recent read, Dear America, Notes of an Undocumented Citizen by Jose Antonio Vargas continues this trend. Vargas, a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist, writes about his experience living in the US without documentation as a gay, educated, Filipino. His candid memoir humanizes him and millions of others who so often get offensively labeled and objectified- without a doubt a must read for all.

Vargas came to the US with a man he thought was his uncle when he was twelve and didn’t find out that he was actually without proper documentation until he tried to obtain a learner’s permit at the DMV. He was told that his green card was a fake and sent off, changing Vargas’ life forever. He quickly learned of his family’s secret, that his grandparents had saved up thousands of dollars to have him brought to the US while his mother remained in the Philippines. He struggled heavily his secret for the nearly fifteen years afterwards, only letting those who were close to him know. Luckily, he went to an extremely affluent high school in Mountain View, CA and was able to acquire some very generous benefactors who created a scholarship that made it possible for him to go to college. He went on to earn several internships and positions at reputable newspapers, like the Washington Post and even win a Pulitzer for his collaboration on a story.

Eventually, though, the pressure of working so hard to keep his immigration status a secret started to take it's toll and he ended up revealing the truth in an essay he published about himself. After clearing the air, and not being instantly deported as feared, he began working hard for those like him. Vargas founded Define America, an organization that works to advocate for kids like the DREAMers (which Vargas barely missed the cutoff for). He's also been involved in documentaries, legislative efforts, and countless awareness events on the topic. 

I have taught many hardworking DREAMers as a high school teacher and am so proud to have seen so many of them go on to college. I've witnessed their determination, fear, and honesty and am so thankful that I work at a high school that even has a club for these students to find additional assistance. I saw so many of my kids in Vargas and it deepened my perspective of the emotions they have most likely felt to some degree at one time or another (or will, as they mature). 

This book also made me realize how I often I take my own citizenship for granted. It was a breeze for me to get my driver's license (well, minus the running into a curb on the first try part), I got my passport a month earlier than expected, and I've never had to hold my breath through an ICE checkpoint. The pressure of needing to do everything perfectly all the time to fly under the radar would be suffocating- I can't imagine (that's why I read books like these). 

While the subject matter is dire, especially in the current state of politics and administrative empathy, Vargas still maintains a consistent tone of realistic optimism and hope. I teared up a few times at his recollections of people who have been so overwhelmingly kind and generous to him over the years, whether with financial support or emotional. There may not be enough good people in the world, but there sure are some.

Tomorrow my students will be reading exerts of Vargas' revealing article after watching Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's TED Talk "The Danger of a Single Story" and reflecting on their own experiences (and practicing a bunch of skills necessary for state testing, of course). I'm excited to hear what they think and hope some will opt to read his book for their outside reading requirements. 

No matter what side of the aisle you vote for, this is an important read. Let me know what you think if you've read it!

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