As an illegal immigrant with seven young sons, a poor command of English and a heroin addict for an estranged wife, garbage collector Jose Vargas wouldn't have been anyone's idea of cop material.
But through hard work and a lot of sacrifice--not least by his children, who seldom saw him--Vargas survived the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department Academy, squared his citizenship status, got hired as a Stanton police officer and, in 1975, joined Santa Ana police, becoming one of the nation's first Latino community affairs officers. In 1977, Parade magazine named him one of the country's 10 officers of the year.
Now 63, the former Guadalajara street urchin has received more than 400 commendations during a 30-year career. Today, he is arguably the most recognizable face of law enforcement for millions of Southern California Latinos because of his frequent public service spots on Spanish-language television stations.
Vargas also can poke fun at himself.
"I don't know of another officer who has been commended more," he said. "I also don't know of another officer in America who can say he served time in a federal jail."
Yet success exacted a heavy price.
Vargas' determination to succeed--whether as trash man, rhubarb picker or police officer--kept him from his children and broke up a few marriages. Because he worked long hours, nights and weekends, his oldest son, Joe, then 15, became a surrogate parent to the others after his mother left.
Though the boys swore they wouldn't become like their father, today three are police officers, two are ministers, one is a factory supervisor, and the youngest finished a stint in the U.S. Army.
"Dad missed out seeing his sons grow up," said Santa Ana police Lt. Ken Vargas, 37 and the third oldest. " Thank God, it eventually paid off for all of us, but it came at a cost too."
Jose Vargas even pushed a younger sister, a sheltered churchgoer working at a Christian radio station, into police work. Today, Lucy Prouse, 52, is a Riverside County sheriff's sergeant. And Vargas--now semiretired though he often puts in 40 hours a week--is on his fourth marriage--to Leticia, a 41-year-old former lingerie model who is now a lay Methodist minister.
The tale of this Santa Ana cop is an improbable one. But Jose Vargas has never seen a mountain that could not be moved.
Jose Vargas' father died when he was 12, making him the man of the house as the eldest of six children. His elderly grandfather taught him a code he has lived by since: "A man's most important obligation is to provide for his family."
"I sold newspapers on the streets of Guadalajara, shined shoes and made rosaries. I did everything I could, legally and illegally, to make money to buy food for my mother and brothers and sisters."
At 15, he tried to enter the United States at Tijuana. He was a scraggly Mexican kid who tried to tug at a border agent's heart strings.
"I told him my brothers and sisters were fatherless. I asked him to let me enter the United States to work, so I could help my family," Vargas recalled. "He grabbed my shoulders and shoved me back to Tijuana."
Fifteen attempts, numerous arrests, jail stints and deportations later, Vargas jumped off a train near Beach Boulevard in Buena Park. The year was 1952. It was the last time he arrived as an ilegal.
"I heard a couple of women speaking Spanish nearby and asked them if they knew where I could find a job. They directed me to a farm near La Habra, where my first job was picking beets at 60 cents an hour."
Soon, he rented a room in Buena Park. He took an immediate shine to the owner's sister, Phyllis Maldonado. He tagged the 4-foot, 9-inch girl "Shorty."
"I was 12 the first time I saw Jose--I was doing laundry, and he followed me to the laundry room," recalled his former wife, now Phyllis Bouknight, who remarried 21 years ago and now counsels gang members in the central California town of Selma. "He scared me to death, but I ran away with him when I was 15."
When they began having children, she said he "buckled down to become a real hard worker."
Her family didn't think much of the poor Mexican.
However, "he was an overachiever, even in the fields," said Bouknight, now 58. "One year, he was picking peaches in Parlier. Before you knew it, he was made a foreman."
Vargas eventually got a job driving a trash truck for an Anaheim disposal company. Operating a truck with multiple gears and levers was a heady experience for an immigrant who had done only menial labor.
"I felt like a jet pilot . . . like I had finally arrived," he said. "But I made the same mistake that many of us make. . . . We arrive hoping for a roof over our heads and food on the table. We find both, and that's as far as we get. We don't strive for anything more. I had settled down to driving a trash truck for the rest of my life."
His kids remember those days fondly.