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Max Vargas

Max Vargas is the senior policy adviser to Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs.

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Pacific News

Political science alumnus Max Vargas talks about his immigrant experience

Sep 13, 2017

Max Vargas landed in Ecuador all alone at 5 years old, no parents or siblings with him, waylaid by an erratic South American airline schedule or some booking foul up.

As it turned out, that week-long stop was just a short layover on an incredible immigrant journey that one day would lead him to Stockton and degrees at University of the Pacific in 2009 and McGeorge School of Law in 2016. The recollections of the injustices and violence in Peru that caused his family to flee spurred his success along the way.

Now, the 30-year-old Vargas is making an impact in what Forbes just six years ago called "the most miserable city" in the country as the senior policy adviser to Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs.

"It was around the time the Shining Path, which is a terrorist organization in Peru, were trying to ... overthrow the government," Vargas said. "So, we came over with the wave of folks who were escaping the terrorism."

Even though he was a little boy in Peru, Vargas vividly remembers what it was like to live in a country that was under threat.

"Even as a young child, I remember the rationing of certain things, utility outages and the rolling blackouts that would take place," he said. "I think a lot of that was exacerbated by attacks and terrorism and people being victimized that way."

Because Vargas' father was a lawyer in Peru's justice department, his family feared he was a potential terrorist target, so he flew to the United States first. Max followed a few months later, flying from South America to the United States alone, with his mother and infant sister, Kori, to follow later when they could afford fare for another flight.

"I was prepped pretty effectively by my parents: 'Don't freak out. This is for the better. This is important for the family. You need to trust us. You're getting on this plane," he remembered.

The trip hit a major snag when Vargas' plane landed in Ecuador and his connecting flight was unexpectedly delayed for a week. Vargas said he remembers the flight crew huddled nearby trying to decide what to do with him. In the end, a friend of one of the flight attendants took him in.

"I still remember a lot of it," Vargas said. "I'm hoping to go back to Ecuador someday and try to find the family there (to thank them)."

He arrived a week later in Los Angeles, but the family's status was in limbo because they weren't granted asylum right away and soon they would be on the move again. The political climate in early-1990s California was less friendly to undocumented immigrants than it is now, so after living for a while in the Bay Area, the Vargases moved to the East Coast. 

Vargas' father couldn't practice law in the United States or afford to go back to school to get an American law degree, so he took whatever employment he could get. He often worked several jobs, including newspaper delivery, cleaning houses, delivering pizzas and soldering at a jewelry store.

Young Vargas took on an important role translating for his parents and helping them acclimate to American culture. It helped him appreciate the sacrifices his parents were making.

Vargas' family lived with the apprehension that seemingly minor problems such as trouble at school could threaten their ability to stay in the United States. Living with that trepidation prompted his family to always work hard, even after gaining permanent residency status and later citizenship in 2001 after moving to Northern California the year before. 

Vargas said his parents were "emphatic" in their support of education for their children, so after attending high school in Modesto, Vargas applied to several universities. He chose to come to Pacific partly to be near home. When it came to choosing a major, his recollections of Peru fueled a curiosity about how economic and community instability can cause governments to fall apart and spurred him to major in political science. 

"In theory, government could manage (problems) in a way that would be more conducive to equity, parity and better relations between entire communities so they're not so divided and siloed," he said. "Those were things I always remember thinking about even as a kid, because of the experience of coming here."

At Pacific, Vargas took advantage of several opportunities, including an internship at the National Council of La Raza, now called UnidosUS, and worked on immigration issues and access to legal and other services.

Vargas credits George Condon, who ran the Jacoby Center's Sacramento Experience, with sparking his interest in local issues. He learned the nuts and bolts of the political process from state Sen. Patrick Johnson who taught a class at Pacific on California politics.

"Politics is really about having a holistic approach," Vargas said. "It can't just be all substance and no style. You have to figure out how to maneuver."

Vargas said early in his time at Pacific, he took History of U.S. Immigration, and that helped him put his immigrant experience into perspective.

"It was just so fascinating through that course to see all the cycles of xenophobia and discrimination against all kinds of immigration - Irish, Italian, Jewish," he said. "(It) made me feel like even the things that I experienced - because when I got here there was tension and I've experienced racism in the U.S. myself  -  to find there's some level of that experience that makes my experience very American."

After graduating, Vargas worked for Cathleen Galgiani when she was in the California Assembly and later in the state Senate. While he helped her senate campaign, he also earned his law degree from McGeorge, where he took courses in local agency and water law. 

Vargas has worked for Sen. Lois Wolk and several organizations, including the San Joaquin Regional Transit District. In February, he became senior policy adviser to Stockton's mayor, Michael Tubbs. Along the way, he met his wife Candelaria, who was studying Spanish literature and International Studies at Pacific. 

For more information about political science, visit the Department of Political Science. To learn more about the University's law school, visit McGeorge School of Law.