‘Jane the Virgin’ writer Rafael Agustin on ‘Illegally Yours’

On the shelf

Illegal Yours: A Memoir

By Rafael Augustin
Grand Central: 304 pages, $29

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There’s something oddly appropriate about the painting that looms behind Rafael Agustin during our video interview. The ‘Jane the Virgin’ TV writer opens up about his new memoir ‘Illegally Yours’ about growing up undocumented in the Los Angeles area and succeeding against the odds. The artwork behind him is a rendition of The Doors – Jim Morrison and the rest in their extravagant 1960’s glory.

For Agustin, 41, it all makes sense. His fascination with America and Hollywood began at an early age; still in Ecuador, he adored “American Ninja,” pored over DC Comics, and hilariously watched Spanish-language reruns of Adam West as “Batman.”

A few years after his family arrived in LA, an aunt worked as Oliver Stone’s nanny. “She had a bunch of his signed posters and I asked for one,” says Agustin. He wasn’t a Doors fan by the age of 12, but as his family hopped from one Southern California city to another struggling to keep jobs and pay the rent, he was enamored with the connection to wealth and fame.

“The occupation [of ‘The Doors’] Stone had given this painting, but he couldn’t match it with all his Picassos and whatever, so he had given it [the aunt] and she gave it to me,” he says. Perhaps, he adds, it subconsciously influenced his decision to attend UCLA, Jim Morrison’s alma mater.

Agustin’s tortuous journey to college is at the heart of his memoir, which captures the uncomfortable mix of aspiration and alienation that characterizes so much immigrant travel. His parents never told him he lacked legal status in America, even as they struggled to adjust. In Ecuador, his father and mother worked as surgeons and anesthesiologists respectively; here they started at a car wash and a K-Mart.

Her secret allowed him to worry about connecting with classmates, not deportation. His mother later explained, “We didn’t want you to grow up feeling any different. Because dreams should have no borders.”

But it also caused confusion: one day he and his father saw immigration officials stalking someone. When young Rafael asked a question in their native language, his father, in a panic, warned, “Don’t speak Spanish.” Not understanding the implications, he felt ashamed and refused to speak Spanish for years.

In his junior year of high school, Agustin brought home an application for a study permit — and suddenly his journey as a nerd ended in a dead end. His parents eventually declared his status and turned his world upside down.

“I was very depressed after working so hard only to find it was for nothing,” he says. Agustin was accepted into numerous UC schools, only to have his stomach kicked when they asked for a social security number. “It was debilitating.”

He dealt with it by burying his identity. “I decided I was going to be the most popular kid in school,” says Agustin. “I became class president and prom king and a top 10 student so no one would ever suspect the truth about me.”

"Illegal Yours: A Memoir," by Rafael Augustin

Outside of school, however, he learned to keep a low profile. When a friend recently told Agustin that she was pulled over for speeding, he admitted he never got a ticket. He wasn’t bragging, just commenting on how his life was shaped by not being in the country legally. “I always know where the police are,” says Agustin.

He says he never realized there were other teenagers in similar situations. Born too early for the Dreamer generation, he is impressed – even a little jealous – by the sense of self-determination shared by today’s immigrant youth.

Without such a network, Agustin initially faltered after graduation. Then he discovered two passions in the area’s community colleges: theater and debate. He knows many who weren’t so lucky. “There are people in my community who are more talented than me and haven’t been able to move up.”

The author references stories in the book about his friend Eddie, a talented Shakespearean actor whose school was riddled with gangbangers – and who never had the full opportunity to develop his talent. “If students from marginalized communities keep hearing ‘no,’ they stop asking questions in class, they separate,” he says. “When more privileged and affluent students hear ‘no,’ they get creative and try to find a way.”

For Agustin it was important to have supportive colleagues and mentors. “Finding people who weren’t disgusted with me or ashamed of me but were so concerned about me really changed my life,” he says. “That’s when the ‘no’ stopped paralyzing me.”

After finally getting residency papers and enrolling at UCLA, he found himself auditioning for plays by “dead white guys.” He was safe from deportation, but he was still denied representation. He began looking for ways to create a brighter future for himself and other Latinos. He volunteered at the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival co-founded by Edward James Olmos.

He’s also teamed up with two friends – one black, another Asian American – to create a controversial stage show, titled a series of recovered racial slurs, that tells the story of their America. “I wasn’t trying to present myself as an author or make a political statement,” he says. “I just wanted to perform and felt like I had to write myself into existence.” The play ended up touring for years, playing in 44 states.

Gina Rodriguez as Jane and Justin Baldoni as Rafael

Gina Rodriguez and Justin Baldoni in Jane the Virgin. A pilot for “Illegal,” by “Jane” writer Rafael Agustin and starring Rodriguez, wasn’t picked because, as Agustin puts it, “Hollywood wasn’t quite ready.”

(Greg Gayne / The CW)

Soon after, he wrote a pilot for a TV show tentatively titled “Illegal.” It went into development with Jane the Virgin star Gina Rodriguez in 2017 — but seven years later, nothing has come of it.

“The ‘illegal’ pilot was the real starting point for my career,” says Agustin. “It made me a Sundance Fellow, it got me my Hollywood agent, it got me a staff writer’s room on one of the best shows on television, and it got me my first TV sale. However, Hollywood wasn’t ready at the time to tell a story about an undocumented American family. Maybe now – with this book – they will be.”

Those experiences have given Agustin, who is now an American citizen, a degree of both hope and skepticism. “I began this memoir with a simple question: ‘What does it mean to be an American?’ I couldn’t avoid the harsh realities.” Although his memoirs don’t preach politics, he insists on highlighting the dangers of imperialist foreign policies, inhumane immigration policies, and a ruthless capitalism that often fails to grant equal access to the American Dream.

“Immigrants, and undocumented immigrants in particular, have this abusive relationship with America,” he says. “We love this country so much, and it just won’t love us. But we will stay and take the abuse and hope that one day America will see the error of its ways.”

It doesn’t matter that Agustin was personally successful. It was important to tell his immigrant story not in spite of his success, but because of him. “In Hollywood,” he says, “there’s a thing called symbolic annihilation, where certain stories aren’t told, so it’s easy to denigrate people or mistake them for someone else. I want people to understand that we are all in this together.”

He continues to help those who have followed him. He is now CEO of the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival, where he once volunteered, and executive director of the Youth Cinema Project.

And Agustin still has that Doors painting. After being lugged from apartment to apartment for a quarter of a century (and long ago a failed attempt to sell it to Tower Records), this old, extravagant holdover from a famous director to an immigrant service worker has become sort of the marker for the progress of his family. “One day,” he says, “I’ll meet Oliver Stone and tell him the story.”

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/books/story/2022-07-07/a-jane-the-virgin-writer-documents-his-undocumented-childhood ‘Jane the Virgin’ writer Rafael Agustin on ‘Illegally Yours’

Sarah Ridley

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