Jose Antonio Vargas, author of "Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen."
(Courtesy photo)
The Here & Now

‘What does it mean to be an American?’: Book To Action uses immigrant story ‘Dear America’ to spark discourse

The Santa Cruz Public Libraries and the Watsonville Public Library are combining forces this year to promote a deep dive into “Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen” by journalist and activist Jose Antonio Vargas.

Reading is not a passive activity. In fact, it’s often the first step toward meaningful political or social engagement.

At least that’s the principle behind Book to Action, a public-library program designed to get readers immersed in a crucial public issue through the portal of a particular book.

The Santa Cruz Public Libraries and the Watsonville Public Library are combining forces this year to promote a deep dive into “Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen” by journalist and activist Jose Antonio Vargas.

Dear America

The author himself will take part in the program with a live Zoom event on Thursday at 7 p.m. (I am honored to have been chosen as the evening’s moderator.)

“The aim of the program is to bring the community together through literature, to better understand ourselves, each other, and the world,” said Diane Cowen, communications manager for the Santa Cruz Public Libraries.

In May, the county’s public library system and the Watsonville Public Library (Watsonville is a separate entity and is not part of the county system) made available in print, digital, and audio forms “Dear America” in a campaign to get the book in front of as many local readers as possible.

On top of that, a film created by Vargas was also disseminated through an online video link. KSQD (90.7 FM) has also contributed to the program with the airing of its immigration series “Pastures of Plenty.” The Community Action Board (CAB) will sponsor a webinar on issues facing local immigrants July 15.

The program culminates in Vargas’s live appearance Thursday, and an online panel discussion on “Dear America” on July 17.

“Dear America” is a compelling memoir from a young man who decided to step out of the shadows of the undocumented population in order to expose America’s broken immigration system and, on a deeper philosophical level, to explore what it means to be an American.

It’s a political book, certainly. But it’s also a kind of personal reckoning, as Vargas wrestles with his shame in lying to employers and others for years to hide his citizenship status.

Vargas, 40, is an accomplished journalist, having been part of a Washington Post team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2008. Born in the Philippines, he came to the U.S. as a child to live with his grandparents in the Bay Area.

He grew up in Mountain View unaware of his undocumented status, and embarked on a career as a journalist that has landed him bylines across the country, from the San Francisco Chronicle to The New Yorker.

In 2011, at the age of 30, Vargas wrote a piece for The New York Times Magazine revealing what he had labored to keep secret for years, that he was not a legal U.S. citizen. (Vargas first approached his employer at the time, The Washington Post, to publish the story, but after substantial editing and rewriting, the Post decided to kill the story.)

From that moment, Vargas boldly stepped up as a spokesperson for the approximately 11 million similarly undocumented people living in the U.S., appearing in countless media forums, writing a cover story for Time magazine, and eventually testifying before Congress.

His book, published in 2018, is an intimate, sometimes anguished and fundamentally unafraid account of his life up to and beyond that 2011 “coming out” moment.

“Dear America” was chosen as the book to launch the 2021 Books to Action program, said Cowen, because of both its themes and its accessibility.

“We really wanted to have a book that touched on issues surrounding equity and immigration because it is such an important aspect of our culture and community here in Santa Cruz,” she said. “It’s a great read; it’s an easy read. And it had so many different formats available. We have a Spanish language version, we have an adult English version and we have the young adult version.

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“And then each of these versions are also available in audio formats, downloadable from our collections, and e-books as well. So, there are many different ways to access the book and I think the accessibility and the subject matter really made this one stand out for us.”

Vargas is now at work on a follow-up book titled “White Is Not a Country” to be published in 2023. In both “Dear America” and his forthcoming book, he is focused on a broad and perplexing question pertinent to everyone living in the U.S., native-born or not: What does it mean to be “American”? His nonprofit organization advocating for immigrants is, in fact, called Define American, a title that works as a challenge to us all.

“Many of us grew up reciting the Pledge of Allegiance,” said Cowen, “this idea of the melting pot of America, where all people are invited and everyone is equal when they get here. And then, the reality of some of our immigration policies and rhetoric around people who are from other countries is just really diametrically opposed to some of that enculturation that we experienced as kids.

“What does it mean to be an American? Do you have to be born here? Do you have to look a certain way? We really pride ourselves on diversity and inclusion from an early stage, and I think that’s the America that we need to try to lift up.”