“Journalism is My Church”: A repsonse to a talk by Jose Antonio Vargas

by Isabel Braverman

A half hour ago I ate dinner with an alien.

Ok, so the “dinner” was an array of Ithaca College catered food, and the “alien” was undocumented immigrant Jose Antonio Vargas.  Vargas was here to give a talk called “Immigration…Beyond Media Myths” as a part of the Park Center for Independent Media speaker series.

The biggest myth that Vargas wanted to bust is that illegal immigrants don’t pay taxes. They do. He said, “I pay so much taxes in this country that I should be a Republican.” His sense of humor in the midst of a quite serious situation was comforting and provocative. After all, it is humor that can get us through the hardest of times.

Vargas also advocated storytelling as the best way to get an issue out in the open. And he is a very good story teller. I especially liked the story of when he had to profile Mark Zuckerberg for the New Yorker. He said this was his “turning point” when he realized that he had to stand up for immigration rights. He was assigned to profile Zuckerberg (for the New Yorker no less, a job he said as a young journalist would be one of his final goals. I agree). He said Zuckerberg talked in compact sentences, “subject, verb, period,” and he needed to get more out of him for the profile. So he convinced him to just take an hour long walk around New York City without any press people around. With the city as the backdrop he got Zuckerberg to talk, and he also realized he had gotten everything he wanted– the New Yorker job and to be a New Yorker (which he wanted to do after seeing Woody Allen’s Manhattan. I agree). Zuckerberg asked Vargas, where are you from? And it was then that he realized he had everything except that one thing– to say he is an American. ( I hope I’m doing this story justice).

But what does it mean to be an American? That’s what Vargas’s project, DefineAmerican.com, strives to do. He talked about American exceptionalism, or the idea that America is inherently different and better than other countries. Vargas agreed with this, saying it is good to be American and so many Americans abuse it.

Besides being an undocumented immigrant, Vargas is first and foremost a journalist, and a good one at that. He told us, a room full of disillusioned journalism majors, that now is the best time to be a journalist. Finally, someone who’s positive about the current state of my future career! It’s a good time to be a journalist, but you have to want to be one, you have to love it. Check.

There are so many issues now to talk about, immigration being a top one, that you have to have the passion to write about them. He said now is the time that journalism is becoming personal, it’s giving a voice to the voiceless through social media and blogs, aka what I am doing right now. He said don’t forget that there is a “me” in media. Even if we’re talking about personal situations or telling stories the “personal becomes political.”

And so, how we can strive to solve issues such as immigration is by talking about it. But, as Vargas said, we can only begin to see it move forward when we stop talking about the problem and start talking about the solution. So get out there and talk.