In telling his story as a prize-winning US journalist who led the life of a TNT, Jose Antonio Vargas said on a US TV news program, “I am an American. No one can take that away from me.”
What some Filipinos apparently heard was: “I’m not Filipino. I reject my Filipino roots.”
That’s not what he said, of course.
But that, sadly, is how some chose to interpret the words of a young talented journalist who took the courageous step of exposing his undocumented status.
In a way, it’s a puzzling view — that some Filipinos believe that, in claiming his right to call himself an American, Vargas was turning his back on his Filipino identity.
In fact, he did the opposite.
His New York Times essay was perhaps the biggest story of his career. And it was about his Filipino self. It was about an important aspect of the Filipino experience — the story of the TNT, the tago nang tago, the Pinoys who become fugitives in another land in search for a better life.
And as I noted in a previous piece, what Vargas did was no simple matter.
There’s never a good time to expose yourself as an undocumented US immigrant. But the worst time is when a presidential election season is about to begin, when being exposed as a TNT could mean being turned into a political football.
For Vargas’s revelation pushed him onto center stage of the historically bitter debate over immigration and identity in the United States.
But his story could very well trigger a discussion on who is and who isn’t Filipino.
It’s a good time to have that discussion, to engage in that debate. To rethink and maybe redefine who we are as a people. After all, we are now a global people.
The Vargas case became news while I was in the Philippines. And the changing, expanding image of the Filipino is evident, is being celebrated, in the streets of Manila.
On Edsa, there are billboards of two Philippine soccer superstars named Younghusband. A pizza advertisement boasts of having “major major cheese,” the catchphrase made popular by a Filipino beauty queen with a name out of Bollywood, Venus Raj.
I’ve been noting these changes while visiting the Philippines with my wife and two sons. My boys were born in the US. They each grew up with Pilipino as their first language. They’ve been exposed mainly to American culture, but the Filipino way is not unfamiliar to them.
They are Filipinos and Americans — FilAms. That identity itself is still being formed, still being defined. It also makes them vulnerable in a way.
For FilAms have, at times, been the target of ridicule and even scorn from Filipinos who cannot accept Filipinos who also consider themselves Americans.
This largely explains the strong negative reaction to Vargas’s disclosure.
But as Jojo Liangco, a Bay Area lawyer who is also a social entrepreneur in Isabela, says, FilAms deserve more recognition — including the TNTs like Vargas and his former client Chris Camat.
I mentioned Camat in my last column. He was the TNT Pinoy who was granted the right to stay legally in the US after proving that he was a model youth. He asserted his right to stay in the US where he grew up, but he didn’t forget his Filipino-ness. A talented boxer, he even represented the Philippines internationally.
“To our fellow Filipinos who say arogante ang mga Filipino kids who say that they are Americans or functional Americans, let them be reminded that amateur boxer Chris Camat carried the Philippine colors in the 2004 Athens Olympics, the 2002 Busan Games and the 2001 Southeast Asian Games,” Jojo Liangco wrote on my Facebook wall.
“People especially kids, learn and adapt from the environments that they are in. I hope the Pinoy nativists would understand this. I’ve met so many Filipinos in America who have done more for the cause of our Mother Country. Hindi lang sila maingay.”
One of them is Vargas.
And he has done Filipinos a favor by coming out as a TNT — by making noise on behalf of other Filipinos living in the shadows in the United States.
On Twitter @KuwentoPimentel.