5 quotes from Jose Antonio Vargas at Mia that reveal the power of storytelling

By Stephanie Mann //

Jose Antonio Vargas is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist, Emmy-nominated filmmaker, and leading voice for the human rights of immigrants. He’s also an undocumented immigrant himself, which he revealed in 2011 in a groundbreaking essay for the New York Times Magazine. That same year, he founded Define American, a nonprofit that counters injustice and anti-immigration rhetoric by consulting on film and television projects and producing its own.

Mia recently hosted Vargas for a virtual talk, where he expanded on his story and asked us to consider the complexities of immigration—including the motivation for moving on in the first place. In his opening, he remarked that he isn’t often asked to speak at art museums, but he believes that “more than ever, we need storytelling, we need art, to transcend politics and policies and insist on our shared humanity.”

Here are five more insightful quotes from Vargas’ talk on the power of storytelling.

1. The stories we tell—and the stories we listen to—define our reality.

“We are the stories we tell. And for the most part, the stories we’ve been watching, reading and listening to have been hurtful, incomplete, inaccurate, and irresponsible. We need more stories to change the anti-immigrant narrative that’s taken a deep hold over our country. A narrative that says we identify undocumented farmers—whose labor we cannot live without —as essential workers but not as essential people. Not essential enough to qualify for economic relief during this global pandemic.”

2. Cultural shifts needs to happen for policies to shift.

“You can’t change the politics of an issue unless you change the culture in which we talk about the issue. So long as this issue is about driver’s licenses, about pieces of papers, about pieces of laws—these acronyms that people don’t even remember—then we’re not actually defining the terms of the conversation in humane and human terms.”

3. People’s stories are more nuanced and complex than the policies we’ve enacted surrounding immigration. 

“When it comes to immigration, we have been so distracted by partisan politics and often inscrutable policies that we’re not even asking the most basic questions. Questions like, ‘Why do people even move?’ … We’re asking all these questions around immigration reform, right? To me, what’s been really missing is a conversation about what does this actually feel like? This whole ‘illegal’ thing?”

4. Diversity and historical context are necessary parts of any discussion on immigration. 

“Your legality is actually part of the question around the circumstances of when you came and which country you came from. Legality is that. It’s not like some sort of law enforcement official, it’s actually legislated, it’s cultural. So, history and diversity I would put front and center. And I would hope that museums see yourselves as part of that storytelling that needs to happen.”

5. Practicing hope is what gives others hope.

“In many ways, undocumented immigrants in this country actually show America what America is, which is that it’s a fight. You have to fight for it. You’re not just born with it. It’s not given. It’s a fight, right? And the challenge is not to fight yourself while you’re fighting it.”