(UPDATED) Get to the Point Book Reviews: Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen, by Jose Antonio Vargas

I had the immense pleasure of meeting Mr. Vargas at signing. I was dumbfounded to discover that Vargas had 1. read this review, 2. bothered to retain the information (what I had written as well as some details about me), and 3. thanked me for it, he also gave me a shoutout on Twitter. Vargas is as professional as he his kind.

Seeing Vargas in person (looking much younger than his 38 years) filled with energy and tension…I can say I have a stronger appreciation for Jose Antonio Vargas on the page. I hope he writes his memoir one day. I’m guessing a memoir from Vargas would be beautiful, and heartbreaking. Heartbreaking to read? Possibly. To write? Decidedly.

Define American
Dear America, Notes of an Undocumented Citizen

Impressionable moments (for me) from the speaking event, October 10, 2019, St. Edward’s University.

When asked about being successful while being undocumented:
“I would have preferred to have a mom.”

On freedom:
“Freedom doesn’t come from the government, it comes from other people.”

Regarding risk:
“What risks do you have to take to be yourself?”


Book Review Rules.

*This review contains some adult language.

The book may (or may not) work for me personally but that’s not to say it didn’t do wonders for (or fail) someone else.


Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen, by Jose Antonio Vargas
Would I recommend?

Favorite Quotes

Above all else, I write to exist, to make myself visible. (p. 58)

I wanted to scream over and over again: THERE IS NO LINE! THERE IS NO LINE! THERE IS NO LINE! (p. 154)

I kept thinking back to that lawyer sipping the Diet Coke: “You weren’t supposed to make it this far.” (p. 116)

I came to the realization that everyone feels excluded from America, even the very people whose ancestors created systems of exclusion and oppression. (p. 172)

Home is not something I should have to earn. Humanity is not some box I should have to check. (p. 221)

To Note

I’ve stepped outside my usual realm of fiction to review Dear America by Jose Antonio Vargas. This book was selected as the very first read of the newly formed St. Edward’s University Alumni Book Club (linked if you are a fellow alum and would like to join). Dear America is also this year’s freshmen studies core theme. 

The Goods

I’m sorely tempted to just state: Read it. And then publish this review. Job done. I mean, “read it” is essentially the point. Some reviews need more expression than others, Dear America’s review will not be one of them. However, I will convey some necessary points.

  1. This point is one that is entirely random to my personal appreciation of Vargas’ story so forgive this piece that specifically resonates with me. Vargas shares how he saw the broadway musical Ragtime in New York in 1998, I saw it live on broadway in 1999. I, along with my theater troupe, spent a week long trip in Manhattan, seeing a different play or musical every evening. I had saved for this trip for months and it was everything I had hoped. Of all the live shows that we saw, it was Ragtime that shook me to the core. Ragtime relates escalating racial tension at the start of the twentieth century, and asks the question, who is an immigrant? What I loved in Vargas’ depiction, and throughout Dear America, is the author’s references to the arts in order initiate difficult conversation, or better yet, throw down the gauntlet, confronting a culture and society as a whole.
  2. Cold. Hard. Facts. Vargas is a journalist and this occupation reflects in his writing. A great deal of his book is dedicated to laying out truths concerning how the United States of America has defined citizenship (and has not defined it), determined immigration processes (or lack thereof), and this doesn’t even begin to address the various political agendas at the heart of it all. There is little room for doubt regarding factuality as all the information Vargas shares is searchable. Dear America is not just one person’s testimony of being undocumented, but an actual traceable pathway of this nation’s thought process in regards to immigration. The conclusion is, we, as a nation, don’t know what the hell we’re doing – this is not an opinion, the conclusion is evident. Read the book.
  3. Vargas’ declarations are startling. As he tells it, Vargas came out twice: first as a gay man, then as an undocumented citizen. The author kept everything about himself to himself well into adulthood. Either way, Vargas relates, he lives in limbo regardless of his citizenship status being known or not known; may as well be out about everything. I have a deep love and respect for that purest form of ‘fuck it, I’m doing this’ mindset.
  4. Vargas’ telling is a not A reflection of our times, it is THE reflection of our times. His story encompasses that of many. Vargas does not seek to emphasize any uniqueness of his own personal history, but rather conveys the story of illegal (whatever that means) immigration itself.

The Not So Good (yet, not a fault)

  1. Vargas is largely absent as a person in his own written portrayal of himself. There is very little sense of feeling or emotion from the author’s end. This is not a criticism, simply an observation. If you struggle with grasping Vargas as a person, it is not a coincidence. Based on his history, I don’t think the author can be faulted for this. And even he addressed this himself several times in the book. Vargas had to hide who he was for years, avoiding details, keeping his worlds separate, avoiding intimacy with others…why would his book be any different? If you’re reading this and, like me, think ‘where’s the anger? where’s the fear? where’s the hate?, where’s the love?’ I’ll tell you where it is…the actions. While the author may not express his feelings, Vargas’ actions speak in his stead. Do keep this in mind if you struggle to get a stronger “feel” for this author.

From the Back Cover:

My name is Jose Antonio Vargas. I was born in the Philippines. When I was twelve, my mother sent me to the United States to live with her parents. While applying for a driver’s permit, I found out my papers were fake. More than two decades later, I am still here illegally, with no clear path to American citizenship. To some people, I am the “most famous illegal” in America. In my mind, I am only one of an estimated 11 million human beings whose uncertain fate is under threat in a country I call my home.

This is not a book about the politics of immigration. This book—at its core—is not about immigration at all. This book is about homelessness, not in a traditional sense, but about the unsettled, unmoored psychological state in which undocumented immigrants like me find ourselves. This book is about lying and being forced to lie to get by; about passing as an American and as a contributing citizen; about families, keeping them together, and having to make new ones when you can’t. This book is about what it means to not have a home.

Christina Schmidt, MA