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Before his Hollywood career as a screenwriter and CEO of the Latino Film Institute, Rafael Agustin was a Southern California teenager just trying to get his driver’s license.
It wasn’t that he couldn’t drive; rather, it turned out that he wasn’t legally permitted to. Although Agustin had clear and fond memories of an early childhood in his native Ecuador before immigrating to Los Angeles with his parents, he had had no idea that the three had been living without papers ever since. That meant no driving, no four-year university and no international travel — although, as the former Jane the Virgin writer details in his recent memoir, that didn’t stop him from doing two of those things well before he secured his green card and, eventually, citizenship.
Illegally Yours, which was released July 12, debunks many of the caricatures — both villainizing and pitying — that American media has drawn about undocumented Americans. Agustin’s parents were both physicians in Ecuador, but were barred from practicing medicine in their new home and took jobs at a car wash and K-mart instead. And Agustin relates his own coming-of-age journey as one that was as marked by pop-culture obsessions (American Ninja, comic books, Saved By the Bell) as any other American teenager.
Agustin spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about excavating childhood memories, writing for a new medium and why he chose to take a comedic approach to his family’s story.
The early chapters about your childhood feel like perfect little sitcom episodes. Was that deliberate? What was the adjustment process for you in moving from scriptwriting to narrative prose?
A lot of my prose writing I developed on Jane the Virgin. I broke into the business becoming a Sundance Fellow because of a script I wrote [an autobiographical spec pilot called Illegal], but when I got on staff in the writers room, I was writing and rewriting beats out in prose form. There’s so much prose writing and so little screenplay writing, and that blew my mind.
But the real answer is not that I purposely tried to write a TV show, but that I purposely tried to write a comedy. I think that’s why it came out that way. I didn’t want anyone to look at my story as “woe is me” ghetto porn. Latinos and all marginalized communities, we find the humor and the laughter in our lives because it’s so hard. That’s what I wanted to show in the book. I wanted to show the joy and humor that we had in our lives, even though we were going through these very tough circumstances.
Now that a good number of people have gotten the chance to read the book, what’s been their takeaway about how the comedic tone impacted their understanding of your family’s experiences?
It’s the relatability — a lot of people are like, “This was so accessible,” or “I [actually] enjoyed reading about this.” (Laughs.) That comes from a skill set I developed as a playwright doing my show, NWC, when we toured the nation. Because it was a comedy, people compared us to [the satirical performance troupe] Culture Clash and the comedy of Chris Rock, but it was a play about race. Like, how do you make that accessible? What me and my friends always did as playwrights early on was, we have to make people laugh in order to pull the rug from under them, so they can be hit with something serious. If we just hit ’em with something serious, it’s overwhelming.
How did you find the right balance of perspective? For the most part, you’re telling these stories from the vantage point of whatever age you were at the time, but then you pepper in these adult asides, reminiscent of the Daniel Stern voiceover from The Wonder Years, like when you reference redlining randomly in a chapter about ALF.
That’s something I picked up from [journalist and immigration rights activist] Jose Antonio Vargas. He shared with me, “People like us, it’s important that we don’t lead with our politics but with our heart.” My first draft of the book, I was like, “And this is the problem with immigration policy!” I tried to pull back: How do I make [these subjects] more accessible to the reader, especially people who are reading about them or diving into these issues for the first time?
That’s truly the audience I was going after. To preach to the choir, they don’t need to hear another [immigration] story; they’re living it. What I want is to reach general audiences, I want to reach “middle America,” I just want people to see us as American first and foremost, just like them. And what would they do if they discovered one day that they were undocumented? How would their world be turned upside down?
There’s such a poignancy in those childhood memories when there’s a dissonance between what Rafa-at-that-time understood and what we as adults know is actually happening. How did you excavate those memories to figure out that balance?
It’s so hard. And also as a writer, I have to be true to how I felt at that time. That’s why even the word “illegal” was so tough for me to use in the book. I no longer use that word. To me, it’s such a hateful word that’s purposely used to criminalize this population of our nation. But I did use it back then, so I need to guide the audience and tell my story of how I learned to un-use that word.
I had to do interviews. I had to call some uncles, aunts, I sat down with my mother several times. The “Don’t Speak Spanish” story, that was something my mom explained to me. She was like, “Oh yeah, I know why you stopped speaking Spanish: because of the raid.” I was like, “What raid?” She was like, “Don’t you remember? We saw this raid and [after that incident] you started responding in English when we talked to you in Spanish.” They as adults saw it so clearly but as I was going through it I didn’t realize how much I internalized it. I blocked it out of my mind and still it impacted me in that way.
Did you feel nervous or self-conscious writing about people who are still in your life?
My only saving grace was that I knew I was going to be as honest and write with as much heart as I could. As long as I did that, I felt okay and I knew I could sleep at night. There are a few things that people are like, I can’t believe you shared that, why would you say that? And I’m like, “It’s the truth and I want to end this generational trauma.” But everyone saw that I came at it with a pure heart, and that’s why they were okay with it or forced to deal with it themselves. To talk about people who are still here, it’s a big responsibility, it really is.
What did your mom make of this project, that a company was going to publish your family’s life story?
I think the question was, “Wait, people want to hear about this? People actually care to listen? Are our stories even worthy enough to be told?” [There’s an] internalization that their stories don’t matter.
Your book debunks so many stereotypes that this country has so successfully marketed about what undocumented immigrants are like. One of the first scenes with your parents is when you watch them save a little girl’s life in an operating room, and that first impression really allows us to see how nonsensical it is that their opportunities were so restricted in the U.S.
They tried to join the military and become doctors in the Iraq War, and the recruiter was desperate to recruit them, but they couldn’t get past the immigration problems.
And on the flip side, even after you learned you were undocumented, that did not stop you from being a relatably dumb teenage boy.
(Laughs.) I’m friends with [comedian/actor] Al Madrigal, and he told me [after reading the book], “Rafa, every time you got behind a wheel and drove, I was stressed the fuck out. Why did you keep driving?” And I’ve had two different DACA recipients that I know that were like, “How could you go to Mexico and try to come back?” That’s the thing: I didn’t want my documentation or legal status to hold me up.
I was also conscious that I didn’t want to write the model minority immigrant family. Because it’s so easy to be like, “Well, they were doctors, let’s accept them.” No, we’ve got to accept everyone because of how they contribute and work in this country. I wanted to show our flaws, warts and all. Yeah, they were doctors but they made these mistakes. And yeah, I was a good student, but look how badly I was messing up.
Do you have any plans to adapt this book for the screen?
I’m currently adapting; several studios and networks are waiting for the pages. It took me a long time to figure out what [the screen project] was, because there are like three different shows from this book. There’s different ages. Some people were like, it should be the new Fresh Off the Boat. Other people were like, this should be the new Freaks and Geeks, because the high school stuff was fun. An executive from A24 was like, “Do you want to do this as a film? Because your college age stuff is so relatable and never seen from the Latino community.”
[The framing] took me forever to crack, but I finally cracked it, and everyone seems to be very excited about it. I can’t talk about it, obviously.
Last question: Does Oliver Stone know you snuck into his home office when you were a kid? [One of Agustin’s uncles dated the nanny of Stone’s son, and a weekend house-sitting for the director foreshadowed Agustin’s future career.]
To this day, I’ve never met him. I even asked the publisher: “Can you find his address and send him a copy of the book?” There are three people who have to read this book: Oliver Stone; Michael Dudikoff, the star of American Ninja; and Mark-Paul Gosselaar. If those three people know that they’ve affected my life, I’m going to be happy.
Obviously you didn’t know this as a kid, but do you know now that your all-American idol Zack Morris is also a person of color?
Mark-Paul Gosselaar’s mom is from Indonesia, and he identifies as half-Asian.
That makes me so happy. I admired him and wanted to be just like him. And I didn’t know this connection that we already had from the very beginning… Oh God, I wish I would have known that before writing the book! This is going in the revisions.
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