Dear America is listed as a “Personal Memoir,” but it’d be more than a little
ironic to get caught up on this book’s formal classification. Really, Vargas
suggests a much more apt description in the book’s subtitle: “Notes of an
The book is made up of tiny chapters whose subject matter and tone vary from
page to page. Sometimes defensive, sometimes grateful, sometimes indignant,
Vargas steps through a range of emotions that, while somewhat lacking in
coherence, reinforce his experience growing up full of fear, uncertainty, and
Before reading this book, I wouldn’t have batted an eye if you told me life is
easier for US residents with a documented status. I would have understood
undocumented Americans’ desire to receive permission to live in the country.
From a pragmatic standpoint, receiving a documented status would reduce
uncertainty, and it’d bring a bunch of benefits besides.
Vargas’ loosely-kept “notes” showed me that undocumented Americans could be
motivated by something more than simple pragmatism. How he wants to be more
fully engaged with the country despite all the grief it’s caused him (and, in
the case of “Define American”, because of that grief). The simplistic
conclusion is: despite its flaws, America is a great country. I want to believe
this, so it’s tempting to take it as the lesson and move along.
The trouble is, that cliche says nothing about the specific problem, and the
banality of it can only be offensive to those that are actually struggling
against the “flaws.”
A more nuanced interpretation needs to be more specific in its criticism. Our
government is actively oppressing people, so those with any amount of privilege
are obligated to help. If disdain of human suffering isn’t cause enough, then
we don’t have to look very far to find inspiration from the people who are
already doing their part. There are important distinctions between “America”
the state, “America” the legal framework, and “America” the people who reside
within the borders. It might be that my recent reading has an oversized
influence on my interpretation (this was a much more explicit theme in
Permanent Record by Edward Snowden), but I don’t think I’m stepping too far
from Vargas’ written word.
Whatever the case, Dear America shed some light on this problem, and it was
highly readable to boot. If, like me, your privilege has shielded you from the
struggles of undocumented Americans, I strongly recommend that you pick it up.