Vargas: My father’s musings on police work and what it meant to be an American


It’s Father’s Day, and it’s a special time to reflect on the man in my life who really made me who I am today.

My father, Jose Vargas, was a unique and larger-than-life figure.

At 15 years old, he rode the trains from San Martin Hidalgo in Jalisco, Mexico, to the border, where he hoped to find his American Dream. Working on farms at first, he eventually ended up as a garbage collector in Anaheim. He returned to school at the age of 25 to better his English and received his high school diploma when he was 30 years old.

Liking a challenge, he enrolled at Fullerton College, where he majored in police science. At the age of 34, he became an American citizen and a police officer for the City of Stanton. He had achieved his dream job and it became his life’s calling. In 1975, he transferred to the Santa Ana Police Department, where he was the Hispanic affairs officer for most of his career. He retired in 1997.

Last week, I discovered that my dad had done an interview with the Lawrence de Graaf Center for Oral and Public History at Cal State Fullerton. The interview was conducted in 1974, when my dad was a police officer for the City of Stanton. He was just six years into his career and had already received notoriety as the former “illegal alien” who had become a cop.

The interview explained a lot about my dad’s approach to policing, which in 1974 was considered groundbreaking. He was recognized by the International Association of Chiefs of Police in 1979 as one of the outstanding police officers in the country.

Here are some of the musings he shared during the interview recorded 44 years ago:

When I started working for the Stanton Police Department there was a big difference of opinion between the Mexican-American people and the police department. Just a few months before I started working, the police had shot a 15-year-old kid. There was lots of animosity between the Chicanos here and the police department. Boy, I could feel that at the beginning. The Chicanos used to call me a sellout, they used to tell me all the bad things the police department had done. I made it a point from the beginning that I’m going to work with these people in such a way that eventually we are going to communicate again. They’re going to have to forget about some of these things that have happened to them and the police department; we’re just going to have to be friends in order to survive. I was not only talking for the whole police department, but for myself. They’re going to have to accept me as a friend first and a policeman later.

My father, Jose Vargas, worked for the Santa Ana Police Department from 1975 to 1997, where he was a beloved figure in the community. Photo provided by Joe Vargas/Behind the Badge OC

People are good no matter if they commit crimes or anything. I just treat them like human beings first of all. I don’t ever threaten them, don’t ever tell them that they are bad. I treat the local wino, laying on the gutter, like the mayor of this city, and vice versa. People like it that way. You’ll be surprised how much cooperation you can get out of people that way. I love people. I think people are beautiful.

If I would have my way, I would like to change many of the concepts involved in police work. My job is to protect the weak from the strong and the ignorant from the wise and etc. I think the job of the police department really consists of, and I know there is a lot of professional police officers that agree with me, consists of just making sure whenever we have a crime people need justice.

The job of the police department is not to apply justice. You would be surprised how many officers are under the impression that they are judges. Our job is to make sure that the people are taken before the court so they can get justice.

My father and I in 1986. I was working for the City of Anaheim and he was an officer in the City of Santa Ana. Photo provided by Joe Vargas/Behind the Badge OC

I think that as far as this country is concerned, this is the most beautiful country in the world. I will give you proof  there is not a country like this country in the world. You know who gives you the best testimony to this effect? Every wetback that climbs across the fence. Every wetback that comes here is a living testimony that this is a great country. Like I tell my children, we have a debt of gratitude to give to this country. Thanks to the United States, you guys are going to have a good education. You guys are not going to be poor. You guys are going to be able to reach your goal, whatever goal you have in life. I really feel myself with a debt of gratitude to this country. 

My father passed away in 2013, after nearly a decade of fighting Parkinson’s Disease. He left behind a legacy of eight sons and one daughter. Two of his sons, including myself, entered the police profession and currently two of his grandchildren are police officers.

Joe is a retired police captain. You can reach him at