Jose Vargas collected a room full of mementos during his time in Santa Ana, including a giant cutout of himself in uniform. He’s shown here on the last day before he retired.
FILE: JEBB HARRIS, ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
He’s been thought of as the best police officer ever hired in Orange County.
He came to the United States as a teenager and collected garbage to make ends meet. He learned English and became a U.S. citizen. His drive to succeed in this country defined him as an officer, earning him the title as one of Santa Ana’s most recognizable leaders.
After years of struggling with Parkinson’s disease, Jose Vargas died Friday at the home of his caregiver in Corona. He was 77.
Vargas was born Jan. 25, 1936, in San Martin Hidalgo, Mexico. He emigrated to the United States at 15, drove a Jaycox Disposal trash truck for a living, and 10 years later began night school to improve his English. At 30, Vargas earned his high school diploma and began studying police science at Fullerton College.
In 1969, Vargas, who as a youngster in Mexico dropped out of school to shine shoes and sell newspapers to help his family, became an American citizen and a member of the Stanton Police Department in two swearing-in ceremonies on the same day.
In a Register story, Vargas remembered the years he had spent running from the police and how they had occasionally kicked him or ridiculed him. He thought of the respect commanded by the police uniform.
“I decided to go for the biggest challenge,” Vargas said. “The biggest challenge for someone of my background was to be a police officer.”
Within a few years, he distinguished himself with unique ties to the Spanish-speaking community, said his son Joe Vargas, who followed in his father’s footsteps by going into police work, and in 2010 retired as a captain after 30 years with the Anaheim Police Department.
“So much of what I do, and who I am, is a direct result of his example,” said Joe Vargas in a 2010 Register story on his own retirement.
Jose Vargas became the human relations officer for the Stanton Police Department and worked there until 1975, when then-Chief Ray Davis convinced him that Santa Ana, with its growing Spanish-speaking community, was the place to be, his son recalled.
Vargas joined the Santa Ana Police Department and soon was assigned as the department’s first Hispanic affairs officer. “In his role as the Hispanic affairs officer, Vargas was the cornerstone of the department’s community-policing program,” said Cmdr. Bill Nimmo in a statement regarding Vargas’ passing. With the Santa Ana force, he was named one of the outstanding officers in the country by the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
As a veteran officer in Santa Ana, Vargas would often be recognized by residents who would question him in Spanish about how to resolve problems such as a teen drug use or neighborhood gangs. His reach into Orange County’s Latino population was deep.
“He had a tremendous amount of respect from the community,” Joe Vargas said Monday.
Paul Walters, Santa Ana’s former city manager, said Vargas began with the department when community policing was in its infancy.
“He was an instrumental part of that strategy,” said Walters, who joined the Santa Ana police force in 1971 and had been police chief since 1988 before his city manager appointment.
“He had just an incredible network of people who trusted him and believed him,” Walters said. “He was a voice they could always call if they had a problem.
“He was really a great ambassador for the department and the city.”
Vargas retired from the Santa Ana Police Department in December 1997 and shortly after he began a Spanish-language cable show designed to help immigrants seize opportunities in their new country.
The show, “Que Pasa Con Jose Vargas,” gave referrals for abused women, information on high-paying bilingual jobs and a rundown of civil rights. One show depicted the life story of an immigrant who overcame gangs and drugs.
Soon after he retired from the Santa Ana Police Department, Vargas was offered a contract to consult with Anaheim police to build bridges with the immigrant community.
In that post, Vargas said he wanted to educate immigrants on how to avoid negative contacts with police through a tip sheet that included reasons why police can stop motorists, even if they’re driving perfectly, he said, such as driving on bald tires.
In a tense Anaheim City Council meeting in 2001, then-Mayor Tom Daly scolded the audience to keep comments brief as Vargas stood before the council. Around that time, a debate had raged in Anaheim over the policy of having an immigration agent stationed at the city jail.
Vargas spoke of how his sons were police officers and talked about being deported 15 times to Mexico.
“People do not understand that we came to this country to make this country great,” he told the council. “We searched the American dream. We contributed something.”
Joe said his father never forgot his roots.
As a Stanton patrol officer, Joe recalled, his father found a young man locked in a boxcar, dehydrated from recently crossing the border. After being hospitalized, the man was going to be left in the streets.
“He ended up living with us for about three to four months,” Joe Vargas said.
Joe Vargas said the man lived a successful life in the U.S. and said he was one of many his father took in.
“He really felt a strong desire to reach out to people in similar circumstances,” Joe said. “He was a very, very giving man.”
Vargas is survived by seven sons an adopted son and an adopted daughter.
A public viewing is scheduled from 5 to 8 p.m. Friday at Fairhaven Memorial Park, 1702 E. Fairhaven Ave., Santa Ana. Services are set for 9:30 a.m. Saturday at the Waverley Chapel at Fairhaven Memorial.
By ALEJANDRA MOLINA/ ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
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