Jose Antonio Vargas

Jose Antonio Vargas

CEO and Founder, Define American

The Pulitzer Prize-winning founder of Define American and #EmergingUS reflects on the value of curiosity and empathy, and about what it will take to change the politics of immigration.

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Where are you from? Manila, Philippines.

What did you eat for breakfast this morning? A hardboiled egg and a Starbucks venti iced coffee with soy milk.

Where do you call home? Los Angeles, where my shoes are, and Mountain View, where my family lives. At some point — hopefully soon — I will live my life like the Harold Arlen song: “Any place I hang my hat is home.”

Who are your heroes? Toni Morrison and James Baldwin.

What compels you to do this work? Thankfulness. I believe that you find purpose when you find gratitude. I am thankful for my Mama and my grandparents for sacrificing what they did so I could be here. I am thankful to my mentors at school and at work whose belief in me didn’t require papers and transcended any law. I am thankful to this country for daring me to think deeper and dream bigger than I ever thought possible.

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned in your work? At Define American, we always try to approach new conversations from the perspective of curiosity and empathy, because coming together is the only way we’ll move forward. And that means trying to understand where people are coming from. We are more alike than we are different — that, to me, is the ultimate promise of America.

What’s an achievement you’re most proud of? In the past five years, I’ve traveled to 48 states, visited more than 300 college campuses and participated in more than 850 events, meeting with Americans of all backgrounds, including Tea Party members and conservatives. Our work at Define American is better and stronger because of those conversations. And it’s because of those conversations around the country that I felt the need to start #EmergingUS and to insist on the intersectionality of people and issues. The fact is, we cannot talk about immigration in a vacuum and in isolation. Immigration, as an issue, is connected to women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, the movement for Black lives, and income inequality among all races, especially white working class people. Too often, those of us who work on immigrant rights and other social justice issues are guided by the attitudes and perspectives of D.C., New York City, Los Angeles, and the Bay Area. Alas, those four cities do not represent the rest of the country.

We’ll know our work is done when … New immigrants, documented and undocumented, are welcome in American life, just as the Irish, Italian, German and Eastern European immigrants were welcomed generations ago, before the Border Patrol was established and immigration became synonymous with Mexico and building a wall. We cannot change the politics of immigration until we change the culture in which people see immigrants and immigration.

What is your personal motto? For a long time now, I’ve had a quote from James Baldwin at the bottom of my email signature. It says: “Our history is each other. That is our only guide.” I’m a journalist and a filmmaker. My work is grounded in sharing our stories, learning from history and understanding the impact that culture has.

A social movement that gives me hope is… To me, #BlackLivesMatter is one of the most important movements in recent modern history. The fact that it was started online by three incredible women (Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi and Patrisse Khan-Cullors) and became a real-life movement of millions of people is something that couldn’t have happened in a time before the web and social media. It is a movement that captured how so many people have been feeling, and it has been a much-needed reminder that we’re not at all where we need to be in this country when it comes to racial justice and equality. #BlackLivesMatter gives me hope because it shows that “hashtag activism” doesn’t mean the end of real activism. Social media has been and will continue to be a way for people to unite and organize.


Jose Antonio Vargas is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, filmmaker, and media entrepreneur. In 2011, he wrote a groundbreaking essay in the New York Times in which he chronicled his experience as an undocumented immigrant. He also is founder and CEO of Define American and founder of #EmergingUS.

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