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I could have done a Vargas

RANDOM THOUGHTS: Chay Florentino-Hofileña

About two decades ago, I had the chance to live in Texas as a newly wed journalist. I was granted an F2 visa as a dependent of my husband who had an F1 or a student visa. He was to start his practical training with a law firm after completing his graduate studies in law, and was allowed to bring with him his new wife of four or five days.

Back then, the word “dependent” did not sit well with me since at the time I had been working as an independent journalist for close to five years. I was told that as an F2 visa holder, I was not allowed to work. That was bad news for me because it meant putting my career on hold and venturing to faraway Dallas, which I wrongly imagined, was mostly desert with American southern-type, picket-fenced houses that were remote from each other.

Married to a lawyer who held a passion for the law, I consigned myself to a life of domesticity. I had to be content with doing volunteer work with Save the Children, writing some project proposals because I was forbidden by US immigration laws to do what I knew best: writing news stories. I had to make do with filing occasional reports for a local paper back home about Filipino-American soldiers and their families who were drawn into Operation Desert Storm or the first Gulf War—after Iraq invaded Kuwait. Also about Filipino immigrants who were living the American dream.

But I wanted to write more frequently and more substantively. And I wanted to earn money on my own and stop being a total “dependent.” I realized it was not good for my ego. On weekends when newspapers almost doubled in thickness because of the classifieds and special sections, I hunted for writing jobs and sent out applications.

I got myself a Social Security card, the same small rectangular bluish card that Filipino-American and Pulitzer winner Jose Antonio Vargas got. Unlike his card which said, “Valid for work only with I.N.S authorization,” mine bore a more explicit “not valid for employment.”

The author's Social Security card

Still, I wanted to see how far I could go on just the merits of my writing skills. I wanted to test the limits because I couldn’t quite understand why territorial boundaries curtailed my right to write about what I was seeing from another part of the world.

Why was my life and my career going to be disrupted by a mere change in marital status? Wasn’t America going to be benefitted by a young and productive person like myself, who was intent on not being a dependent or a drain on its social security resources?

I believed or maybe naïvely wished that any potential employer who saw I could write would readily overlook the INS restriction or perhaps go the extra mile to legalize my employment status. I went as far as two interviews and did quite well. I was hopeful that I would get a phone call that would ask me to report for work within days.

But the hoped-for phone calls never came. And I knew everything had to do with the seemingly harmless but damning blue rectangular card.

The Good Life

I was doomed to be a volunteer for the entire time that my husband was doing his practical training.

Each month that he was extended because his American boss was happy with his performance, I cringed a little. When he was offered to stay for another year, my heart skipped a beat. I didn’t bargain for an inverse relationship between his career and mine.

Fortunately for me, he was, as I was, dead-set on returning home.

Other Filipino-American friends enticed us to stay, some even offering “fixes” to legalize an extended stay and a “cure” to my immigration status. They were puzzled that we were turning them down. “Nandito na kayo, babalik pa kayo? (You’re already here and you’re still returning home?)” they asked.

Though clearly having the best of intentions and intent on sharing the experience of a good life in America, they were, however, persuading us to break the law.

As a journalist past my mid-20s then, I was already uncomfortable with the thought of having to do that. My job was anchored on truth-telling and trust. How could I possibly claim to report truthfully on issues and events when my ability to do that was going to be based on fraudulent means? Besides, I had a low threshold for discomfort and unease caused by secrets being found out.

Vargas lied for many years about his true identity. He used fake documents to get around and make his way up the ladder of journalism. His life was one of deception even as his readers relied on the truthfulness of what he wrote. He was for all intents and purposes a walking contradiction. Even a living lie.

Ironically, he was so good at what he was doing, he was part of a Washington Post team that won a Pulitzer. I thought I could write well enough but never got the opportunity to earn a salary on my own.

Back in his homeland, life for him was uncertain, while I had a career to resuscitate back home. He has probably earned more as a journalist in the US than I have in all my years as a journalist here.

Raised and educated in the US, he also had an advocacy he wanted to push as an “undocumented immigrant.” Raised and educated here—and only briefly in the US for graduate studies—I too had my own advocacy: better journalism in the Philippines.

He chose to stay, I chose to come back home. Chances are, and fortunately for him, he will not be high on the INS deportation list. Unfortunately for me, with an expired US visa, returning to Vargas’ new home is no certainty.

People, they say, can run on the same, if not similar, path in life and then choose divergent directions when they hit a forked road. I’ve never spoken with Vargas and I don’t know him and his personal circumstances. That he has owned up to his deception of close to two decades is one thing I greatly admire.

For sure, his courage has been rewarded with a personal feeling of liberation. I cannot pass personal judgment on him because I don’t know enough about him.

But for me, one thing is sure: I made the right decision when more than 20 years ago, I was presented the chance to do a Vargas and turned it down.

CATEGORY: Blogs, Chay Florentino-Hofileña
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  1. yes i can imagine how frustrating that must have been, not being allowed to write and earn a living while you were there, and legally. i’d have climbed the walls. re vargas it’s a little different because his illegal status was a given, sort of beyond his control. that he was able to advance and earn a living must have made him think for a while that it could all be sustainable. now that he has come out, it’s like a crossroads. stay in america and fight for his american dream as poster boy of illegal immigrants. or come home to the philippines, rediscover his pinanggalingan, and help upgrade pinoy journalism — no doubt pag-aagawan siya ng mga diyaryo at tv network. regretfully he seems to have taken the america road.

  2. Joe Enriquez says:

    I think there is no point of comparison.

    You went to America already an accomplished journalist. He was not even a teenager yet when he did.

    You went to America when you had already built a career and a life for yourself. He was just a kid and had to build a life and career for himself there. (You didn’t have to and still survive, as you did.)

    You had something to come home to, with your husband and family. To him, the Philippines was (and still is) a blur, a distant memory, something his mother made him flee because there was nothing here.

    “He chose to stay, I chose to come back home.” – Really? What choice did he have that could have been even remotely comparable to yours?

    But you’re right: You have no right to judge him. And you don’t. Whether openly or IMPLIEDLY.

  3. i can imagine how wrenching it was for him to reach a decision to come out. while reading some of the news updates on him, i was saddened by the reaction of a former editor, thinking that normally there is bound to be a soft spot for someone you knew well enough to be competent in his job. yet again, i understood that because this was the field of journalism, vargas’s former editor must have felt cheated. at this stage in vargas’s life, home to him is really the US, and he is probably more american than pinoy.

  4. Johnny Lin says:

    Life is full of uncertainties, unpredictable! When the path we chose turns out to be better we claim making the correct choice. When the road is rough,tough and miserable, remorse prevails leading to the expression “I made the wrong decision”. Ms. Hofilena appears to belong to the former while many others, to the latter. Destiny is different for everyone including Vargas and the author. Whatever is the outcome, personal choice for one’s destiny is always right at that very moment. “I could have” afterward is irrelevant because the outcome of the discarded choice is unknown and incomparable.

  5. you have chosen a decision made out from your conviction; gut wrenching decision that totally affect you and your family’s life.
    YOU CHOSE THE LIFE OF TRUTH AND HONESTY .Personally, I admire you
    for your fortitude and patience. truly you possess all these virtues and traits akin to Filipino womanhood! Journalist are held by these principle of truth(will set you free) & honesty (always the best policy) Vargas lied and deceived the public until he got cornered to bare it all. He did this to survive.

  6. Johnny Lin says:

    There are 2 categories of Vargas: the common Vargas, these are illegal immigrants in the US with secured jobs. The other is extraordinary Vargas, that is the person who is an illegal immigrant who won the highest honor in journalism, Pulitzer. The reason Vargas is in the news worldwide is because of the extraordinary one. “I could have done a Vargas”; which Vargas is the author comparing herself? Doubtful this article would be written if it were about the common Vargas? Just curious!

  7. This author should not compare her situation with that of Vargas’ since she was not an illegal immigrant. Her F2 visa status just limited her work opportunity but that is not equivalent to being an illegal immigrant. When she came here to the US, she should have known that she won’t be able to work. I wonder why her lawyer husband did not know that she could apply for a work permit so she could work. An employer could also have petitioned her for a green card if they needed her skills. I have many friends who have availed of those two options. It’s just a matter of finding out what’s available for her. Two decades ago, the INS and immigration officials were not as strict and unforgiving as they are nowadays, especially after the September 11 terrorist attack.

  8. Tito San Vicente says:

    Great read.

  9. Jorge Batoon says:

    “Comparisons are odious.”

    Please. Let’s not trivialize the rich narrative of Vargas’ life — and the bigger, more complex problem it illustrates — by comparing your apple to his orange (or should I say lemon?)

    You were in the U.S. for an opportunity not available to even 0.1% of the Philippine population. That is, your husband got an expensive U.S. education and an even rarer chance to intern for a U.S. law firm. Vargas went there poor, and not out of choice (he was too young to make decisions).

    You thought of working in the U.S. because you were feeling useless. That was the least of Vargas’ concerns. He had to work because he had to live.

    Your story of life in the U.S. as a “dependent” not allowed to work would have been interesting enough. Perhaps. But don’t use the tragedy of Vargas’ story to prop it up.

  10. Thank you for your comments. I will just reiterate what I wrote in another post: The reason why I detailed my circumstances was precisely to show that I had better options than Vargas, that it was perhaps easier for me to make that decision to come home and turn down the offers to “fix” my papers. Yet he felt uneasy at every point as a professional journalist keeping up with the deception. I, too, felt disquieted when the offer was made to fix my status. At whatever age or whatever stage, if one appreciates the principles of journalism, one is bound to feel that discomfort when resorting to fraud and deception. Even investigative journalists feel that. It’s a totally different situation when you speak of repressive regimes where journalists need to work because choices are limited and even lives are at stake. I’ve had journalism graduate students from Burma and China who described their dilemmas and situations. I fully understand them and do not pass judgment on the choices and decisions they make. There are clearly gray areas–most especially when lives are at stake. Going back to Vargas’s case, his coming out is obviously his way of dealing with the dilemma that nagged him through his professional years (I wasn’t referring to his teen years). He owned up to the deception after years and years, and as I said, that’s a courageous and liberating act. We have our own rhythms in life and make our own choices depending on our own circumstances. There’s nothing black and white about that. And if I may add, there is no intent whatsoever to prop myself up at Vargas’s expense. The takeoff point is from a journalism perspective–if one’s appreciation of its standards and values are clear, that nagging voice will always be heard when a journalist resorts to deception. A journalist either listens to it or shuts it out. Vargas eventually listened to it.

  11. Jorge Batoon says:

    You contradict yourself in a very fundamental way.

    Because f that was your intention, then –” to show that( (you) had better options than Vargas — then your whole premise falls. For in that case you could never have done “a Vargas”, as you admit your circumstances were different from (and we should say way, way better than) Vargas’.

    And, with due respect, you weren’t just using Vargas’ situation as a “takeoff point”. You used his ethical choices to give an ethical dimension to your own choices — from takeoff to landing.

  12. Johnny Lin says:

    Granted, your intentions meant well. Yet the title of the article and details delivered an ambigous message. You wrote a comparative tale not out of the blue, picking Vargas story from nowhere but because he won a Pulitzer working as an illegal alien. You are both journalists and probably similar past dilemma or deception( your description) in trying to legalize your stay in America. “Propping yourself up” through Vargas tragic story is in the mind of some readers. My conclusion is different, two words… Sour grapes! Not to disparage but my understanding of the article.

  13. You did not have to resort to fraud and deception to ‘fix’ your status. In fact, you did not have to ‘fix’ your status because you were a legal immigrant. You still don’t get that, do you? A journalist should be smart enough to understand that and to find ways to create that opportunity for himself or herself which you didn’t. You could have applied for a work permit which has a one-year validity and would have to be renewed yearly. Your situation was not in any way tough, not even hard. You just didn’t know or do well enough to improve your situation. Ignorance is not an excuse especially for a journalist like you.

  14. “My job was anchored on truth-telling and trust. How could I possibly claim to report truthfully on issues and events when my ability to do that was going to be based on fraudulent means?”

    Very well said Chay! Thank you for reflecting the convictions of Filipinos who value honesty and integrity over deceit to survive.

  15. Agree. Totally No basis of comparison.
    The privileged (F2 visa holder) journalist here is just trying to pontificate and exalt herself, using baseless comparison.
    She has aboslutely no idea of the diificult life many of our less-fortuntate fellow Filipinos go through in America.
    She had choices.
    Others didn’t.
    So don’t compare.

  16. After reading this article which to me compared apples with oranges, I couldn’t help but reflect on Luke 18:9-14. The personalities in that parable are the best comparison I could come up between the author and Vargas.

    “But for me, one thing is sure: I made the right decision when more than 20 years ago, I was presented the chance to do a Vargas and turned it down.”

  17. Johnny Lin says:

    Spoils of success? Last week, Newsbreak published 3 articles with a common theme: shades of self righteousness; Gil Nartea’s “I click the shutter”, Theodore Te’s ” Way out of line” and Chay Hofilena’s “I could have done a Vargas.” When it rains, it pours! Editorial lapse? Or is the slip unintentionally showing?

  18. Kudos madam! you have made the right decision. Success is not that sweet if along the way, you knew that you broke the law. Vargas may have gone a long way up and rewarded for his craft but he did it the wrong way. Though we cannot blame him for doing that because he may not have the slightest chance to do what he does best.

    I believe there is something better waiting for you here in Manila. When you are erally good and passionate at what you are doing, there is no way to holding it back.

    Go and write your way to the top madam!

  19. Freedom of opinion and a gift of intelligence has no boundaries nor requires legalization of status. People are rewarded with their constructive ideas that is useful to the society.

  20. Poverty and uncertainty is not an excuse to do wrongly. It is not a question of comparison but what is right and wrong.

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