César Vargas has been spreading the fire ever since he decided he wanted to go to school. La fogata grew when he passed the New York state bar exam in July 2011 and went on to become a nationally recognized activist in the immigration rights movement. Our American dreamer is an undocumented immigrant and has been living in the U.S. since he was five years old.
Vargas is the co-founder of the pro-immigration reform group Dream Action Coalition. He made headlines when he accepted a position on the campaign of Democratic candidate and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, as the Latino outreach strategist.
Recently, I sat down for coffee and a short chat with Vargas.
Marlena Fitzpatrick: Can you explain what led you to become the poster child for Dreamers?
César Vargas: My mother came to the U.S. to give me a better life. When I was six years old my mother took the decision to risk everything and leave everything behind to come to the U.S. to make sure that, hopefully one day, one of her children had the opportunity to go to school and get a good job—basically have the opportunities she didn’t have in Mexico. We came around 1989. We crossed the border. My mom must’ve been scared in the dark, in the desert.
MF: You literally walked through desert?
CV: I was very young but I still have vivid memories of my mom holding my hand reminding me that she’s there to protect me no matter what. In the dark you can only see the distant lights of the border. So I looked back and can only imagine what was going through my mom’s head. She must’ve been terrified but her courage for her and her children was much more powerful than anything else. I understand the Dreamers came in here as little kids and [critics] blame the parents, but I will never fault my mother. She is my hero. She risked everything to get me a better life.
MF: And now you are a lawyer. So you were inspired by your mom, and you are an inspiration to many. You went from crossing the desert to law school. Explain that journey.
CV: I grew up in Brooklyn. But it was in high school that I went to my counselor and told him I wanted to go to college. All my friends were talking about going to college so it was exciting. The counselor said: “I don’t think you can go to college because of your status. You’re illegal.” And at 17 years old I felt it was over—my future was done. I’ve been working since I was 13 years old as a dishwasher. For me, I felt that was it. There’s nothing wrong with working at a restaurant, but I wanted to demonstrate to my mom and dad that coming here meant I could be a lawyer or an engineer or a great general. So when I told my mother I couldn’t go to college, she said: “When one door closes, another one opens. Go find the open door.”
So I went to open houses and gathered information. After all that, I was able to graduate college in three and a half years with a bachelor’s degree, while working full-time. Then I took two years working full-time, saving $10,000, so I can pay for law school. Once in, I talked to the dean and explained my situation. I came out of the shadow and spoke up. She was able to find me a full scholarship so I can finish my education. It was in law school, in 2010, when I publicly came out in front of the U.S. Senate. I saw a lot of dreamers stepping out of the shadows and telling their stories. I felt I needed to do my part I could no longer stay on the sidelines.
MF: We all need to be surrounded by the right people, and it sounds like you were guided by the right leaders. You work hard and now you are working for Bernie Sanders. How did that happen?
CV: Right after I graduated from law school I was still undocumented, so I didn’t have a work authorization. But if there’s something that I really know is the political process. So we created the Dream Action Coalition to continue to push for access to education. That got me into the political process. And then Arizona we met with Sen. Sanders and the campaign manager. They said: “We want to know what is going on with the Latino issues and immigration.”
MF: Did other presidential candidates reach out?
CV: It’s funny—all three Democratic candidates reached out to us. We realized we have a voice. The defining moment was when the Sanders campaign told us they want us on board to advise on Latino outreach and education. It was 2014 when Obama said he was going to delay executive action on immigration and the expansion of DACA. We went to Iowa to question each candidate if they agreed with the delay. The only one who answered honestly was Sanders. He said he isn’t really with the delay and the action of separating families. I became convinced that Sanders is the only one that will challenge politics into the right thing.
MF: Now it seems like the 2016 election’s main issue for Latinos is still immigration. In your opinion, what other issues should be in the forefront? What should I be focusing on to make an educated decision on who to vote for?
CV: The Latino community deserves respect. We need someone who respects our philosophy and our culture. The other issue is education. We need to make sure that all communities have access to education. When need to ensure college education is free and get off the student loan hack. This was the reality in the ’60s when tuition was free. Latinos and African Americans were able to go to college back then. Now tuition has skyrocketed. All Latino parents should see their children go to school and not worry about having three to four jobs, just trying to pay for two classes.
Which brings me to the economy. We all need to be part of the infrastructure. We all need jobs. We need to build the middle class. We do not need tax breaks for billionaires. We need to raise the minimum wage to at least $15 an hour, and no one working full-time should be living in poverty. We shouldn’t have to choose between family or jobs. We need quality of life. All of this can be done under Sanders.
MF: This election cycle has been very vocal, blunt even, especially in media. How responsible are media platforms in delivering the right information in equal amounts?
CV: Latino Rebels has done a formidable job in elevating community voices and shedding a light to issues other platforms barely cover. We definitely need more of that. In corporate-owned media, we have never seen the media bias until I joined this campaign. This campaign has been completely shut out and that is unfortunate. For the sake of democracy you need to make sure Americans get to hear all the candidates. Media has a responsibility to free speech and to showcase all the candidates. Social media has been an incredible democratic tool for mobilization and information.
MF: So Donald Trump. Is he dangerous?
CV: This election isn’t about Trump. His antics have raised awareness about conversations we should be having including racism, xenophobia and economic inequality. I think what’s dangerous is people acting on his messaging. But most importantly is an opportunity to remind everyone, especially Latinos, that we will not tolerate any politician disrespecting any community. We need to make sure we have political and economic power. We can choose what to spend our money on. This is the time to say: “You’re not going to disrespect our brothers and sisters,” and stay united.
MF: So where there’s a threat, there’s opportunity. We need to be in solidarity.
CV: Be compassionate.
MF: Exactly! And with that, what is your definition of a Latino Rebel?
CV: Someone who puts all crap aside, all the nonsense, and focuses on his or her family and the community. We’re seeing great leaders out there, going to work every day to feed their families. A Latino Rebel focuses on what matters most: family and community.
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Marlena Fitzpatrick is the CEO for Latino Rebels. You can follow here @.