Wide Angle

How Superstore Got Its Portrayal of Undocumented Immigration Right

Journalist Jose Antonio Vargas explains how his organization helps TV and movies tell sensitive and accurate stories.

A confident-looking Asian man rests his head on his hand.
Jose Antonio Vargas Gerry Salva Cruz

On this week’s episode of Working, June Thomas spoke with Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. They discussed his decision to write publicly about his status as an undocumented immigrant, his work to highlight how diverse the United States’ immigrant communities are, and his attempts to demystify and destigmatize these topics. This partial transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.

June Thomas: What is Define American?

Jose Antonio Vargas: Our role at Define American is, how do we really humanize this most partisan and political of issues? How do we humanize the immigrant narrative, one story at a time? That’s the tagline. We do that through our work in Hollywood. We work with a lot of TV shows and films—over 100 films and TV in the past decade that we’ve consulted on.

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Define American got some coverage for your involvement in the show Superstore, where there was a character called Mateo who was gay, Filipino, undocumented. In season 4, he was arrested by ICE. How did you get involved? What did you do?

We actually got involved in that in 2016, so we worked on that show, and were involved with Mateo’s storyline specifically, for four seasons. That happened because we heard of the show, and we heard that they were partly inspired to make this character undocumented by reading my story. So we just reached out and said, “Hey, we’re here. We’d love to be of help.”

What was great about that experience for us was working with writers. Writers want to be writers. They don’t want to be told what to write. I know this because I’m a writer. I know that the last thing I want is somebody telling me, “Do it this way.” Our job was to just make sure that they’re aware of all the possibilities. At a time like this, storytelling is one of those places where complexity and nuance can still exist. Mateo is someone who’s a romantic person. Mateo is someone who dates. Mateo is someone who’s not a perfect guy. He could be kind of an ass, and that’s OK. He doesn’t have to be some good immigrant trope.

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Twenty-three episodes aired in that storyline over the past three years. This is really important for us to note, because a lot of what we do at Define American is really research-driven, and we know that research suggests that exponentially, it’s more impactful when a viewer sees a portrayal again and again and again, over a period of time. So all of a sudden people who have never been exposed to someone who’s undocumented, Filipino, and gay got to know this guy as just this guy. There was a relationship. They were being informed without being pedantic about it, or without telling you, “Here’s the headline. Here’s what’s happening.” We worked consistently with the writers’ room to improve accuracy around the points where immigration was an issue, like when he got arrested, for example.

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Let’s dig a little deeper. For example, when you say, “We work with the writers’ room at Superstore to work on this storyline,” can you say specifically what happens? Do you literally go into a room? Who goes into that room? What’s the advising process?

This is where I think my background as a writer has been useful. Writers are sensitive people. I mentioned that the last thing writers want to be told is how to write and what to write. A lot of it for us is actually just making sure that they know that we are not necessarily a “safe space,” but we’re there to help them. We’re there to serve their artistic process. We’re not there to judge them. Although there’s been some times where we’re like, “Hey, this is just outright …” But that happens when you have mutual respect and mutual trust.

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Before the pandemic, when we started this program, we did go to writers’ rooms. We actually bring undocumented immigrants, or just immigrants of whatever status, or connect them with people who are, who then tell their stories that end up in many ways serving as inspiration, where they take little tidbits. Then of course, as writers, they’re the ones that create the character and create the arcs. We don’t do that. But they go to us to say: “Hey, could this have happened? Could this have been possible? What was the process if they wanted to hire a coyote, for example? How much would a coyote be? If they wanted to adjust their status through marriage, how does that happen? How long does that take?” I think the relationship is really special in that way, because the rooms themselves and the showrunners who are basically in charge of the shows, they see us as part of their process. As somebody who is a process person, I just find that really thrilling, to be a part of that space.

To listen to the full interview with Jose Antonio Vargas, subscribe to Working on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, or listen below.

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