In his fourth race for Congress, Juan Vargas won an open Southern California district that borders Mexico and includes the southern portion of San Diego. He bested Republican Michael Crimmins to replace veteran Democratic Rep. Bob Filner, who retired to run for San Diego mayor.
Vargas was born in National City, just south of San Diego. He is the son of braceros, legal Mexican immigrants brought to the U.S. for cheap labor. Vargas grew up on a chicken ranch in an urbanized area. He calls it a "great upbringing, something very cool and different from my suburban neighbors." While other kids at school had dogs and cats, Vargas had pet ducks. "I used to fly them for exercise. I'd throw them in the air, and they'd fly around, and I'd catch them. The other kids thought this was the coolest thing," he recalled in an interview.
Vargas considered entering the priesthood but said he was wary of going straight into a seminary. Instead, he stayed close to home and attended the University of San Diego, graduating in 1983. After college, Vargas studied with the Jesuits, working with the poor, orphans, and refugees in El Salvador and elsewhere. The Jesuits sent him to Fordham University, where he studied philosophy and earned a master's degree. At Fordham, he met his future wife, Adrienne, a fellow student who worked with him in a soup kitchen in the Bronx. Vargas then moved on to Harvard, where he earned a law degree in 1991 alongside a student named Barack Obama. Vargas guarded the future president in pickup basketball games and says Obama was the more talented player.