Define American

Using the power of story to transcend politics and shift the conversation around citizenship

About Jose

After being born and reared in the Philippines, my mother wanted to give me a better life. So she sent me to live with my grandparents in Silicon Valley. It was 1993, and I was 12 years old.

I loved America the moment I got here, and embraced the language, the culture and the people. English was my second language, and I learned to speak "American" by watching Frasier, Home Improvement and The Golden Girls.

At 16, I rode my bike to the DMV to get my driver's permit. I brought my green card with me. The woman at the DMV looked at it, leaned over and whispered, "This is fake. Don't come back here again."

I went home and confronted my grandfather. He confirmed it. That was the first time I realized I am an undocumented immigrant — what some people call an "illegal."

I decided then that people could never doubt that I am an American. Speak English well. Write English well. Contribute to this society. If I worked hard enough, if I achieved enough, I felt I could earn what it means to be an American.

The first person I told was my choir teacher, Mrs. Denny. After learning of her planned choir trip to Japan, I told her I couldn't afford it. When she replied that we'd figure out a way, I then told her the truth. "I don't have the right passport," I said. "I am not supposed to be here." The next day, she told me the choir was going to Hawaii instead.

Mrs. Denny was the first member of my personal Underground Railroad: Americans who have chosen to help undocumented immigrants like me. Other members include Rich Fischer, my high school superintendent, and Pat Hyland, my high school principal. They found a way to get me to college. For more than a decade, Rich and Pat, among others, have helped guide and support me as I've tried to define myself as an American: graduating from college, building a career as a journalist. And after writing hundreds of stories — including covering the 2008 presidential campaign for The Washington Post; profiling Al Gore for Rolling Stone and Mark Zuckerberg for The New Yorker; writing and producing a documentary on the AIDS epidemic in the nation's capital; and winning a Pulitzer Prize for helping cover the Virginia Tech massacre — I am taking full responsibility for what I've done.

Now, I'm telling my story.

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