Undocumented Filipino American, Pulitzer Prize Winner Gets High School Named After Him
An elementary school in Mountain View, California was named afterJose Antonio Vargas — an undocumented Filipino immigrant who worked his way up to become a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, an acclaimed filmmaker and an immigration rights activist.
Vargas, the founder of media nonprofit Define American, arrived in the U.S. at the age of 12 in 1993 to live with his grandparents.
On Aug. 15, the new Jose Antonio Vargas Elementary School opened with a dedication ceremony, bringing him, district officials, faculty and community members together.
“You think that someone who gives that many speeches will be fine with this,” the 38-year-old said, according to Inquirer.net. “This [sic] has been very nerve-wracking to write this speech, and I think I’ve been so nervous because I have never given a speech in front of an elementary school.”
The school, located at 220 N. Whisman Road, will initially offer kindergarten to Grade 4 due to a district rezoning.
Officials selected Vargas from a list of plausible choices for the school’s name, which included former President Barack Obama, former first lady Michelle Obama, former Mountain View School Board member Gail Urban Moore, Bay Area philanthropist Ruth Clouse Chance, and U.S. Navy Admiral Grace Hopper.
Board of Trustees President Tamara Wilson told the Asian Journal that Vargas and the Obamas were neck-to-neck during the board vote.
“I believe it was four yes and one abstention on voting for Mr. Vargas as the name of the school,” she said, adding that the Obamas — for coming close — had preschools named after them.
Vargas’s story came to light in 2011 after The New York Times published his groundbreaking essay, in which he chronicled his life in America as an undocumented immigrant.
Two years later, he took his story to a film called “Documented,” while his TV special titled “White People” received an Emmy nomination.
In 2018, HarperCollins published his memoir titled “Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen,” which became a national bestseller.
His most recent achievements are two Tony nominations for co-producing Heidi Schreck’s acclaimed Broadway play “What the Constitution Means to Me.”
I wrote #DearAmerica thinking I would leave the U.S., where I’ve lived for 25 years. But after I finished writing the book—the best therapy I could have given myself—I’ve decided to stay.
In his speech, Vargas shared how the school has become his “safe place,” a venue not only for learning but also where he could be “the most free and the most [himself].”
He talked about teachers who actually cared about him and his story, including choir teacher Jill Denny, whom he acknowledged at the audience for moving a trip to Japan to Hawaii after learning that he cannot travel.
Vargas also pointed out that he “would not be the human being I am without my community.”
“This school, our school, represents the power of community – how to treat people with respect, how to show gratitude…how to live your life with love, how to live a loving life of continuous education, that we can never stop learning, and we can never stop learning about and from each other,” he said.