Well before Jose Antonio Vargas became a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and filmmaker, he was told he couldn’t get an internship at The Seattle Times because he was an undocumented immigrant. At the time he feared that his immigration status would threaten both his ability to build a career in journalism as well as his ability to stay in the United States. Today, with more experience and better perspective, he helps others navigate concerns like these.
One such mentee is Yosimar Reyes, an artist in residence at Define American, an organization Vargas founded that “uses the power of story to transcend politics and shift the conversation about immigrants.” The two met at a film festival several years ago, at a screening of one of Vargas’s documentaries. Since then, Vargas been a mentor to Reyes, helping him think through how he could attend college and offering him a job at Define American after graduation. The two are now developing, among other projects, a play that Yosimar wrote about growing up queer and undocumented.
For The Atlantic’s series on mentorship, “On the Shoulders of Giants,” I spoke with Reyes about how Vargas has influenced his ideas about citizenship, belonging, and forging a career as an undocumented immigrant—especially now that the future of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program is uncertain. The conversation that follows has been edited for length and clarity.
B.R.J. O’Donnell: How do you and Jose help each other with the frustrations that come with being undocumented?
Yosimar Reyes: Jose has always told me that freedom doesn’t come with papers, freedom does not come with having a Social Security number. He’s always quoting Toni Morrison: “Freedom is in the mind.” Freedom is in knowing that you have the ability to do whatever, despite these obstacles. So I think for me, that kind of mentorship has been really vital. Before I met Jose, I was struggling. It was so hard, and I just didn’t see an end to it.
O’Donnell: Have you and Jose talked at all about what DACA means for you?
Reyes: It’s interesting because when DACA happened, our roles kind of reversed. I remember he was really excited, saying, “Oh my God, now you have something that I don’t have—you have a Social Security number.” And he told me, “You need to use that as much as possible and take advantage of those opportunities.”
O’Donnell: What is missing from public conversations about being undocumented in 2017?
Reyes: It’s important that we talk about Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, but at the same time, I want to remind people that DACA is basically me paying the government $500 every two years for a work permit, and to pay taxes. It’s not legalization—it’s a crumb. At the end of the day, what I have through DACA is a Social Security number that works temporarily. And though I’m grateful for the people that advocated for it, it’s not a solution.
O’Donnell: When did you first meet Jose?
Reyes: Five years ago, he did this film called The Other City looking at the AIDS epidemic in D.C., and it was showing at Outfest [an LGBT-oriented film festival] in Los Angeles. Jose wasn’t out as undocumented at the time. We met and said hello. Then two years later, I was watching TV, and it’s announced that “Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas comes out as undocumented.” And I thought, “Oh my God, that’s the guy I met. He didn't tell me he was undocumented.” I’m always telling people I was undocumented. Soon after that, I got invited to something at Sundance, and so did Jose, and that’s where we reconnected. He saw me perform, and then out of that, we built a friendship.
O’Donnell: What made you want Jose to mentor you?
Reyes: I feel like we share similar kinds of backgrounds. I grew up in San Jose; he grew up in Mountain View, which is 20 minutes away. I grew up with my grandmother; he grew up with his grandmother. Oh, and the other thing we have in common—we are both queers, we are “undocuqueer” [laughs]. So I think there were a lot of correlations.
O’Donnell: How has Jose influenced the way you think about your work?
Reyes: His motto is: “You’re ‘a writer that happens to be undocumented’—you are not ‘an undocumented writer.’” My struggle, as an undocumented person, has been that when people tell me to dream big, I always have a sense that there is a glass ceiling, that there are things that are just impossible for me. And for Jose, his outlook is, “No, everything is possible.” I have seen what he has been able to do, and how he interacts with people, and I think that’s such an accomplishment, because when people find out you are undocumented, doors automatically close.
O’Donnell: Can you talk more about how that describes your experience?
Reyes: Because of DACA, I was actually able to return home to Mexico after 25 years. I came to the United States when I was three, so I’ve never really spent time in Mexico. The first person that I texted was Jose. He asked me what it felt like, and I remember telling him it feels good, and I felt honored that I could have that chance to go home, but then I told him, “I don't want to get excited.” Because at the end of the day, I’m undocumented, and something can always go wrong. And then what happened before the trip? Trump got elected.
O’Donnell: What were your conversations with Jose like after the election?
Reyes: After Trump got elected, Jose went Super Mom. He told me something along the lines of “You're not going to Mexico, it’s not going to happen, I'm making a decision.” I just kept thinking, “I need to figure out if I can thrive over there, because I’m not going to be undocumented forever. I’m smart, I’m talented, I can make it anywhere.” And I said to Jose, “Ultimately, I have to make that choice.” And that was hard, because we clashed. But then he came back and said, “I want to apologize. It's your decision to make, and I will support you.” And I ended up going.
O’Donnell: Did the time you spent in Mexico change how you viewed your undocumented status in the U.S.?
Reyes: When I went back to Guerrero, I realized how American I was. I was like, “Jose is right! How does he know these things?” When I came back and told him, he said, “See, I told you.” He just has a sense of these things because I think he’s already been through it, and I think I’m still in the process of unraveling it and figuring it all out.
O’Donnell: What can mentorship do within the undocumented community?
Reyes: At the moment, there is a national platform, and people want to help undocumented people. I tell them, we need mentors. We need people actively sharing skills with people who haven’t had access to those usual paths. Because we are undocumented, they often don’t let us into internships, and they don’t let us in fellowships.
For example, my frustration coming into Define American was that because I’m undocumented, I felt like I had the skill set of a 19-year-old, because I haven’t been able to do certain things. I was just frustrated about it, but Jose told me not to be. He reminded me, “You have the lived experience. That’s sufficient, that’s enough to be a part of what we are doing.” I think that is what mentorship is. Now, I’m out here, making moves.