The Los Altos Rotary Club hosted “An Evening with Jose Antonio Vargas,” a fundraiser that raised money for AIDS victims in Liberia through the Child AIDS Prevention Project on Tuesday, February 8. Proceeds are directed to clinics in Liberia for educational counseling, HIV tests and life-saving drugs such as Nevirapine.
The event featured Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas. It focused on his path to journalism and his series of articles on HIV and AIDS in America.
Born in the Philippines, Vargas moved to Mountain View with his grandparents at the age of 12. He attended Crittenden Middle School and later Mountain View High School. In high school, Vargas was first exposed to journalism when he attended a minority journalism camp at San Francisco State University (SFU). Shortly after, he began his first journalism job at the Mountain View Town Crier (his first article covered a fire down his street).
As a MVLA scholar, Vargas later attended SFU, majoring in political science and African American studies, where he was “just trying to make sense what this country’s about.”
While he wrote feature stories for the San Francisco Chronicle, Vargas was also offered an internship on homicide coverage at the Philadelphia Daily News after freshman year of college.
“Covering homicides is the best training to talk to people and learn how to be human,” Vargas said.
Later Vargas was also offered an internship at the Washington Post after he graduated from college.
“Working on the Washington Post forced me to think about the other part of Washington D.C,” Vargas said, “and to not see the city as a city, but rather a city of people.”
At the Washington Post, Vargas began as a features writer, with others soon coining his articles as “Jose stories” because of their different approach on things with an outsider’s perspective. After gaining momentum, Vargas started his series on HIV/AIDS in Washington D.C. and began by mapping the epidemic in the city, interviewing AIDS victims and documenting their stories.
“Though it is the capital of our country, D.C still has the highest rate of HIV and AIDS leading the country,” Vargas said. “Writing about AIDS is like getting to know the city .. it doesn’t matter my background, someone has to tell the story.”
Vargas’ series of articles on HIV and AIDS soon inspired the creation of the documentary “The Other City” (trailer below), which interviewed and documented the lives of HIV and AIDS victims in Washington D.C, many of them being Vargas’ original sources.
“The goal of the movie was to get people thinking about AIDS in a whole different way and face certain realities in our own backyards” Vargas said, “You would never expect a full 5 percent of Washington D.C adult population to be HIV positive, and that is still only the people who get tested.”
During the Q&A section, Vargas was asked about his future plans. Vargas responded by saying that he wanted to move back to San Francisco and create a documentary on undocumented workers living there.
When asked for journalism tips, Vargas said, “when people stop talking, just let the pause sit there. Don’t jump in, and the person will usually say something insightful afterwards,” and “never do anything unethical because gaining people’s trust is the biggest high.”
Even being a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Vargas said “journalism is a privilege that forces me to not dismiss something because I don’t want to believe it, but rather take it as holistically as possible and tell the story in the most compelling way.”