What it means to be undocumented?
“My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant” is a gripping, thought-provoking personal narrative written by Jose Antonio Vargas.
Who writes about his struggle in pursuing his American Dream, as, as the title states, an undocumented immigrant. Too young to comprehend or question the decision made for him by his mother, Vargas was sent to the United States with his “uncle” (who he later found out was actually a “coyote”, or a human smuggler who helps people enter the US for a high cost). At the young age of 16, Vargas came to the realization that he wasn’t legally in this country when his fake green card was revoked at the DMV while trying to obtain his license – a simple, but meaningful, action for most teenagers in the States. From that moment on, he constantly spent his days in fear of being discovered for being here illegally, but he was determined to validate his presence in this country.
Vargas concluded that the only way he could achieve this was through writing, specifically journalism.
Seemingly simple, this goal was filled with trials and tribulations due to his circumstances. He spent his high school years working, which is a struggle without legal documentation. Beginning with working for his high school paper, he worked at his craft, and was able to work his way up to his local town paper, and eventually all the way up to working for the Washington Post. Though these accomplishments were impressive and helped make Vargas feel accomplished, he still lived in constant fear. It finally led to him writing his personal narrative, exposing himself to the world, hoping to rid himself of the constant worry and feeling of being in the wrong place. Though it was a massive risk, it was one that was carefully calculated.
As someone who has never felt any of these worries, as I was born in this country and do not know what it is like to be an undocumented immigrant, you may wonder how I connected to this piece and how Vargas was able to win my support. It has nothing to do with my life or my experiences – it is directly due to the methods that Vargas used to write his piece. Vargas shows off his skills in the use of rhetoric, using well thought out word choice to create a convincing tone for his writings, while also appealing to readers’ emotions.
These techniques resulted in a piece that left readers feeling sorry, impassioned, and willing to lend their support in the fight in favor of Vargas.
Just to begin the discussion of why Vargas’ piece was successful, the format he chose to put out himself was a smart decision. A personal narrative, such as this article, gives the reader a name and a story, rather than just a fictional situation, and it becomes much more powerful. It allows them to easily paint a picture in their head, making readers connect to the story more easily, which leads to greater amounts of empathy. Spread throughout his narrative, Vargas uses sophisticated word choice and imagery in order to create a tone throughout his piece.
This tone is a feeling of exhaustion and worry, and is shown, for example, when he states that getting his driver’s license renewed only offered him “five more years of fear, lying to people and institutions that trusted me, of running away from who I am. I’m done running. I’m exhausted. I don’t want that life anymore” (Vargas 190).
Vargas isn’t just tired. He is exhausted.
I can almost feel the same exhaustion that he must have felt as he wrote this, and I assume this is felt by most other readers. Vargas also put me in his shoes when he said “the more I achieve, the more scared and depressed I become. I was proud of my work, but there was always a cloud hanging over it, over me” (Vargas 190). He successfully paints a picture for the reader, and almost makes them feel exactly what he felt throughout his life as they read each well-thought-out word. It makes the reader, even someone like myself who cannot relate this narrative to any aspect of their own life, feel as though they know exactly what Vargas felt and what he was going through.
Along with gaining empathy simply by writing in a personal narrative format, Vargas also goes above and beyond in his use of pathos by being sure to include many heartfelt pieces related to his journey. He especially hits the audience hard when he says “[m]y sister, almost 2 years old when I left, is almost 20 now. I’ve never met my 14-year-old brother. I would love to see them” (Vargas 191). This, in my opinion, is much easier for your average reader to relate to, as many people, including myself, have siblings. For this reason, it is a perfect way to appeal to his audience’s emotions, since many could not imagine what it would be like not being able to see, or even meet your siblings.
Furthermore, another example of pathos is when Vargas finishes his personal narrative.
In the second to last paragraph, Vargas makes another appeal to his readers’ emotions when he’s discussing calling his mom after many years to ask her about his younger years, and he writes “part of me wanted to shove the memory aside, but to write this article and face the facts of my life, I needed more details. Did I cry? Did she? (Furthermore) did we kiss goodbye?” (Vargas 191). Essentially finishing his piece with these questions is extremely effective in gaining his audience’s empathy, as they can imagine the pain he must’ve felt while having to wonder about these things throughout his life.
Besides just gaining sympathy through his wordings and using a personal narrative, Vargas also gains support from his audience through his organization of his article. Vargas lays his life out in chronological order and shows his audience how his life did not become any easier as he stayed longer in the United States. Spread throughout his article, Vargas highlights his successes. Paragraphs 18, 21, 28, 29, 35, and 57 all outline the accomplishments Vargas had, from climbing up the corporate ladder in journalism, to getting accepted and eventually graduating from college.
But all the paragraphs in between these successes discuss his trials and tribulations.
From having to lie to his friends and coworkers about his life, to struggling to obtain fake documents in order to even have an attempt to survive in this country. Instead of outlining his successes first and then the challenges he faced throughout his life or vice versa, Vargas lays it all out chronologically, which makes it almost impossible for readers to ignore the struggle Vargas had throughout every single day of his life. This makes the reader even more sympathetic because they see that no matter what he overcomes, there will always be another challenge awaiting him unless they act and lend their support to his cause.
Overall, Vargas impressively brandishes his knowledge in the use of rhetoric throughout his article. Through his choice of writing a personal narrative, his use of an appeal to his audience’s emotions, and a well thought out organization of his life stories, Vargas was successfully able to convince his audience, even when they may have nothing in common with him, to lend their support to his cause, and fight to help keep him, an undocumented immigrant, in our country.