Published September 29, 2011
At 13 in his hometown of La Mesa, Colombia, Jose "Pepe" Vargas wanted to be a soccer player, but his sports dream was frustrated when he broke a leg and then life took him down other roads and ultimately to Chicago, where his ambition now is to build a Latino culture megacenter.
"An ambitious and expensive project, like the Americans like, a kind of Latino Kennedy or Lincoln Center," Vargas told Efe in an interview.
His aim is "to better share who we are" and to demolish stereotypes "using a very powerful weapon which is the contribution of our artists" to U.S. culture.
Pepe, as everyone calls him, wants to balance the dialogue with the English-speaking public so "that they look us in the eyes equal to equal and not from above."
Before arriving in the United States in 1980, Vargas earned a law degree in Argentina, from which he escaped the then-military regime's "dirty war" against leftists in a cargo vessel with the help of the Panamanian Embassy.
He lived for a time in Mexico before settling in Chicago with a tourist visa that expired after six months, making him an undocumented immigrant.
Until the 1986 amnesty, which allowed him to obtain permanent residence, Pepe survived "as a complete immigrant," without speaking English and earning a living as a taxi driver and kitchen helper in a restaurant.
"I lived the life of an immigrant without any education, because I had to leave behind my training as a lawyer, learn the language and reinvent myself studying communications at Columbia College," he said.
Working as an undocumented immigrant left a strong mark upon him, above all when he recalls that the restaurant customers looked down on him and his 14 Mexican workmates, not greeting them and always ordering them around, saying "bring me, put this here, clean or take this."
"I was an educated person and I was prepared to endure it and get by, but the discrimination was a fact and it hurt," he said.
His moment came in 1985 when St. Augustine College invited him to collaborate in the organization of the first Chicago Latino Film Festival.
The funds for the project were very limited and the 14 films in the initial program were shown against a wall rather than on a screen.
The first edition of the festival attracted 500 people and the second brought in 3,500.
Vargas' initial collaboration was limited to obtaining several films and suggesting other titles, but by the third edition, he had been put in charge of the festival.
The $20,000 in the initial budget for two festivals has expanded to almost $2 million today, and some 35,000 people attend the exhibition of some 120 Latin American and Spanish films.
In 1995, the International Latino Cultural Center of Chicago came into being, which - besides showing films - began offering dance, classical music, theater and tango shows.
Despite the recession, which makes it very difficult to collect the millions of dollars needed to begin construction of the cultural center in downtown Chicago, Vargas keeps pushing ahead with his initiative.
"The project is a little bit on hold, maturing," but the architectural and marketing plans are ready at any time to put together a project in Chicago that "will reflect the cultural impact of Latinos, who are 25 percent of (the city's) population," he said.