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CBS 8 talks to Congressman Juan Vargas about his childhood in National City and the cultural changes he's seen in recent decades.

The Congressman sits down for an in-depth interview with CBS 8's Carlo Cecchetto.

NATIONAL CITY, Calif. — Growing up in National City, with parents who came to the United States as part of the Bracero Program, to his education at Harvard Law School, and his decision to enter politics, Congressman Juan Vargas knows San Diego County like few people do. 

In celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, CBS 8's Carlo Cecchetto sat down with the former San Diego City Councilmember turned U.S. Congressmember to discuss growing up in San Diego and the importance of his Hispanic Heritage.

Looking back

During the interview, Vargas looked back on the changes that Hispanic people have witnessed since his youth and the rise of Hispanic politicians in San Diego County since he got into politics.

"When I first got elected, I basically was it when it came to Spanish speaking people," said Vargas. "People always used to ask me to go on TV to speak Spanish because I was the only Spanish speaker. When it was anything related to Latino heritage month or anything. It was me because there were no other people. That's changed dramatically."

Vargas says National City was just a tight-knit, semi-rural community when he was young. "I grew up speaking Spanish. In San Diego, my first language was Spanish. even though I was born and raised here, in our little enclave, everybody spoke Spanish."

Vargas is one of ten children. His father came to the US from Mexico as part of the Bracero program working on a chicken ranch. His father, Vargas says, taught him the importance of a good education.

"I think I was probably 13. And I was digging a ditch with my father. We're working on planting trees and in landscape and he said, 'Son, are you enjoying what you're doing?' I said, 'No, I am not.' And he goes, 'Then get an education.'

Vargas did just that. 

He graduated from the University of San Diego in 1983. He earned a master's degree from Fordham University and then a law degree from Harvard. 

Elected office

Shortly after he decided to go into politics.

He was elected to the San Diego city council in 1993, the only Latino on the council at the time. Being in the minority forced him to go out and prove to others that he, as well as other minorities, were more than capable of doing their job.

"There were times when I was growing up that I felt I had to prove myself had to work a little harder. I had some questioning about my abilities because I was a Latino."

But those questions soon disappeared. Vargas was elected to the State Assembly in 2000, then the State Senate in 2010, and then to Congress representing the 51st District in 2013. 

Vargas is proud of his record and representation.

"I never did anything that I'm ashamed of; just the opposite. I think I've behaved well and comported myself in a way that is appropriate. And so I feel good about that and most importantly, I feel good about where my community is here in San Diego.

For Vargas, Hispanic Heritage Month is a chance to appreciate progress, which much has occurred since his humble beginnings in National City.

"I think the biggest thing, at least for me, about Hispanic Heritage Month is that you can be proud of who you are as a Latino. Growing up as I did, you know, people call you names and lots of other things that were very negative. They don't do that anymore. You know, people are respectful, because they're proud of the diversity. And that's what I would tell them. I mean, I think we've come a long way, in this community. I think we've come a long way in this country to accept people as they are their backgrounds. And I think that's a fabulous thing.

As for special memories of Hispanic Heritage Month when he was a kid growing up, Vargas says it is great to see just how far Hispanics and other minorities have come in San Diego and how much the region celebrates diversity.

"It's one of the things I love about San Diego. We do try hard. I mean, we do try to integrate everyone in our community. We do try to get along. I think we do. I think we have a very rich culture, not only of Latinos but Irish, Italians, African Americans, and Asians. I think that makes it a wonderful community."

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