Last Friday, Skinner Memorial Chapel was even more packed than usual. Fifty-five Northfield High School students and twenty-five middle schoolers - part of the college access and academic support program TORCH - sat right next to the stage.
The scheduled Convocation speaker for Latino Heritage Month, Jose Antonia Vargas, won a Pulitzer Prize in 2008; two years later, he unmasked himself as an undocumented immigrant in a story for The New York Times Magazine.
His talk, “Define American”, was a highly anticipated discussion on cultural assimilation, legality, and immigration, especially considering the speech’s close timing to the U.S. presidential elections.
As Joy Kluttz, director of the Office of International and Intercultural Life - which invited Vargas to Carleton - approached the lectern, her expected introduction of the journalist’s accomplishments and background never emerged. Instead she gave an apologetic announcement of an “unexpected personal emergency” that prompted Vargas to cancel his talk at the last minute.
The reaction from the student body was a mixture of awe, disappointment, and sheer confusion. “I’ve been to ever single convocation since my freshmen year,” said one senior Asian Studies major as people started filing out of the Chapel. “This has never happened before.”
Several other students joked, albeit reservedly, about the possibility that Vargas had been arrested for being undocumented. Others countered such assertions by pointing out that his legal status had been made public for more than a year: why would he be arrested now?
Then came Saturday morning, and brief news stories began circulating on Facebook. Vargas had been arrested Friday morning in Minneapolis and charged with driving without a license, a misdemeanor.
Initially it was unclear as to why he had been stopped, and only subsequent articles a few days later clarified that Vargas had been stopped because he was driving with headphones.
Around sixty Carleton students attended an informal dinner conversation session with Vargas the day before his scheduled convocation. There the journalist energetically recalled personal anecdotes and experience as a young immigrant in America.
Vargas moved to the United States at the age of twelve from the Philippines, and had aspirations to become a journalist. His first major break was publishing an article for The New Yorker, which as some noted, is a major -- and atypical -- accomplishment.
He also talked about his employment at The Washington Post and the difficulty of “being the only one there without a degree from Harvard or Yale or the Ivies. You’re really treated like nobody there unless you have such credentials.”
During the question and answer session, Vargas gave elaborate responses on a number of topics such as family, visibility and sudden fame, U.S. citizenship, and his plans to write a book. He commented on the surreal nature of his current daily life and the fact that he could technically be arrested at any time.
“I think the government recognizes just how visible a public figure I have become,” Vargas remarked, without pride or admiration for his new-found position. “Also, there are around seven million Filipinos in the United States, and they would definitely start making noise if word got around that I had been arrested.”
He noted that a lot of it probably had to do with his accomplishments as an award-winning journalist, emphasizing just how different the outcome would be if “I were an immigrant farmer who spoke English with an accent.”
Vargas briefly outlined his motives to announce his undocumented status, including the enormous pressure he faced ever since realizing at age sixteen that his Green Card was fake.
He kept it short, promising he would go into greater detail in his convocation speech and “didn’t want to bore” anyone by repeating himself. But the attending students surely would have preferred hearing him say the same thing twice rather than not at all.