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Bay Area school named for journalist who publicly identified as ‘undocumented’ immigrant

Jose Antonio Vargas
Jose Antonio Vargas speaks to students at a dedication ceremony for Jose Antonio Vargas Elementary School on Aug. 15.
(Define American)

When Jose Antonio Vargas first heard that an official wanted to name an elementary school after him, he thought he was being trolled.

“I get trolled a lot on Twitter because of what I do,” said the openly gay, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and immigration rights activist, who revealed he was living in the country illegally in a New York Times essay eight years ago.

But the direct message from Mountain View Whisman School District Supt. Ayindé Rudolph was not a joke.

Vargas — together with Steve Jobs, former school board trustee Gail Urban Moore, and Michelle and Barack Obama — was on a shortlist of names under consideration by the Board of Trustees for the district’s new school.

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“We asked our community what characteristics they were looking for out of a person who a school would be named after,” Rudolph said. “Some of the top ones that came up were someone who was local, who would be an inspiration to the kids, and who had an impact on education.”

Parent groups ranked the choices. The list got shorter. The board voted.

On Monday, Jose Antonio Vargas Elementary School opened its doors.

Vargas was there, gifting supplies to teachers. At dismissal, he planned to hand out hundreds of lollipops to students.

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“I came out as undocumented eight years ago in the New York Times, and ... I prepared for everything, every possible scenario — that I would be detained, deported, arrested — all of that I prepared for,” he said. “I did not prepare for this. This is the one scenario that never even entered my mind.”

Now 38, Vargas was born in the Philippines and moved to Mountain View at age 12, when his mother sent him there to live with his grandparents. He didn’t realize he’d entered the United States with false documents until he tried to apply for a driver’s license years later.

But in the classroom — at Crittenden Middle School, then Mountain View High — he found a sense of security and belonging.

Vargas credits his teachers with instilling a lifelong love of reading and writing, which led him to a career in journalism. At the Washington Post, he was part of a team that won the Pulitzer for breaking news reporting for its 2008 coverage of the Virginia Tech shooting.

His first “coming out” was in high school, when he disclosed that he was gay. His second came in 2011, when he revealed his immigration status in an essay for the New York Times Magazine. That same year, he founded nonprofit Define American, which aims to use storytelling to promote dialogue around immigration issues.

“Our job, especially in this climate, is to ask people how they define ‘American,’” he said. “For some people, that may be a controversial question, so I wasn’t sure that the community that I come from would answer that question in this way. But I guess, in many ways, the Mountain View School District decided to answer that question, and they decided I didn’t need papers or need to be born in this country to be considered in this way.”

The idea to name the school for Vargas originated with district Board of Trustees President Tamara Wilson, who first proposed it at a board meeting in 2017.

“I thought why name a school, which is often done, after a long-gone administrator who people don’t often know or remember or connect to,” she said. “My thought was, let’s name it after a successful student, somebody kids can relate to as a success story, and just show that the foundation of our schools are our children.”

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When she researched successful students, Vargas’ name “bubbled to the top,” she said.

In addition to her role on the school board, Wilson is also a parent. Her son, a fourth-grader, began classes at Jose Antonio Vargas on Monday.

She said the new school was sorely needed. After the closure of Moffett Field, which ceased operations as a Navy base in the mid-90s, Mountain View lost residents. By 2006, both of the elementary schools in the Whisman Slater neighborhood of the city had closed, citing declining enrollment.

Now, with Google and other tech employers, thousands of new housing units are being constructed and the area has seen a population boom.

In its first year, Jose Antonio Vargas Elementary will serve about 320 students in kindergarten through fourth grade. It has a projected maximum enrollment of 465, Rudolph said.

He said the choice of name is in line with the values of the Mountain View Whisman School District, which was among the first in the state to pass a resolution declaring itself a “sanctuary” school district.

“Our board has been very cognizant of these kinds of issues across the board, especially because we have a very large Latino population within our community that at times can be undocumented,” he said. “So I think this decision was just reflective of their beliefs in educating every single student, and the power that education has.”

Late Monday morning, Vargas was still grappling with the implications of receiving such a high-profile honor from a community that, in strict legal terms, he was never supposed to be a part of.

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“I’m a product of this community, and to this community, an openly gay, openly undocumented Filipino belongs,” he said. “I think that’s a statement in and of itself.”


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