MISSION — The most striking thing about playing video games with 10-year-old Randy Vargas of Mission is that he doesn’t face the TV.
Vargas often faces directly away from the TV, twirling in place and jumping when he gets excited, shouting out the occasional boast or insult. He’ll rock on his heels during loading screens, babbling constantly about the game and fiddling with a golden medal of St. Jude on a chain around his neck.
He doesn’t face the TV because it wouldn’t help him much. He can’t see.
The second most striking thing about playing video games with Vargas is that often as not he wins — at least, he did so without mercy against this writer on several occasions earlier this week, calling me a fool for daring to challenge him.
Vargas tackles most aspects of life with just as much success and just as much bravado, despite his visual impairment. Earlier this month the precocious young man competed as a finalist in the 2020 Braille Challenge Finals, an academic competition for students who are visually impaired in North America put on by the Braille Institute to promote braille literacy.
Vargas was one of just 50 students from around the country to compete this year, and the first-ever competitor from the Rio Grande Valley.
Despite that distincion, Vargas would much rather be playing video games or, at the very least, talking about them. If you ask him about reading or writing or playing video games, he’ll say it’s not too hard and quickly change the subject.
“I’m pretty used to it by now,” he’ll say.
Vargas’ mother, Maria del Refugio Sanchez, is more apt to brag about her fifth grade son.
“He’s a very intelligent kid, his teachers always tell me they have no trouble with him, he learns the first time (they teach him) and his grades are always good,” she said. “I’ve been trying to make him the most independent he can be.”
By all appearances, she’s been successful. Vargas excels at reading and writing. He has his own YouTube channel, he can swim and use a phone. He’s a blind tennis champ, and was invited to compete in Europe before the pandemic hit earlier this year.
“I try to do as much as I can for him within the Rio Grande Valley,” Sanchez said. “If not, we’d be all over the world.”
The pandemic also canceled Vargas’ travel plans for the Braille Challenge. Traditionally hosted in Los Angeles, this year’s competition was held remotely and the winner will be announced at the end of the month.
There were three parts to the competition. Vargas got through the proofreading part without much trouble, turned in the spelling section in the nick of time and came up just a little short on finishing the last passage in the reading portion.
“The fourth one I couldn’t read it fast enough cause I didn’t have enough time,” he said. “I was so close.”
Vargas is still in the race though, and he’s pretty excited by that. He and his mother made a deal: if he comes in first he’ll get a new video game, he’ll get some other gadget for second and he’ll get a Blizzard for third. His mom says he’ll get a Blizzard for first and second place too.
“… It’s a lot of sugar,” she said. “So he wants a large, and those are the gifts that I promised him.”
Vargas says he doesn’t know what the future has in store for him and he hasn’t decided what he’ll be when he grows up. Even though he’s one of the best young braille readers in the country, he says he doubts he’ll wind up writing a book.
“Not for me, not for me,” Vargas says.
His mother has more concrete ideas about Vargas’ future, ideas he’d likely be on board with.
“He wants to be a software engineer to create games for blind children and make electronics for them more accessible,” she said.
For now though, Sanchez is focused on hoping her son does well when the competition’s results come out next week. Vargas is still focused on his video games.
To find out whether Randy gets his Blizzard, tune in to the closing ceremonies of the finals on July 25 by visiting the Braille Institutes YouTube channel at https://www.youtube.com/user/BrailleInstitute .
Monitor staff writer Naxiely Lopez-Puente contributed to this report.