On the bookshelf
Illegally Yours: A Memoir
By Raphael Agustin
Grand Central: 304 pages, $29
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There’s something oddly appropriate about the painting looming behind Rafael Agustin during our video interview. TV writer ‘Jane the Virgin’ discusses her new memoir, ‘Illegally Yours’, about growing up undocumented in the Los Angeles area and making it through thick and thin. The artwork behind it is a rendering of The Doors – Jim Morrison and the like in their blazing 60s glory.
For Agustin, 41, everything makes sense. His fascination with America and Hollywood began in early childhood; still in Ecuador, he loved “American Ninja,” leaned into DC Comics, and watched Spanish-language reruns of Adam West as “Batman.”
A few years after his family moved to Los Angeles, an aunt was working as Oliver Stone’s nanny. “She had a bunch of her signed posters and I asked for one,” Agustin says. At 12, he wasn’t a Doors fan, but as his family moved from one Southern California town to another, struggling to keep his job and pay the rent, he fell in love with the connection to the wealth and fame.
“The casting [of ‘The Doors’] gave this painting to Stone, but he couldn’t fit it into all his Picassos and such, so he gave it to [the aunt] and she gave it to me,” he said. Perhaps, he adds, this unconsciously influenced his decision to attend UCLA, Jim Morrison’s alma mater.
Agustin’s winding journey to college is at the heart of his memoir, which captures the uncomfortable mix of effort and alienation that marks so many immigrant journeys. His parents never told him he had no legal status in America, even though they had trouble adjusting. In Ecuador, his father and mother worked respectively as a surgeon and anesthetist; here they started at a car wash and a K-Mart.
Their secrecy allowed him to worry about fitting in with his classmates, not being kicked out. Her mother later explained, “We didn’t want you to grow up feeling different. Because dreams should have no boundaries.
But it also caused confusion: one day he and his father saw immigration officers chasing someone. When young Rafael asked a question in his native language, his panicked father warned him, “Don’t speak Spanish. Not understanding the implications, he was ashamed and refused to speak Spanish for years.
During his freshman year of high school, Agustin brought home an application for a learner’s permit – and all of a sudden, his dogged journey hit a dead end. Her parents finally explained her status, turning her world upside down.
“I was very depressed after working so hard to find out it was for nothing,” he says. Agustin was accepted into numerous schools at the University of California, only to feel uncomfortable when they asked for a social security number. “It was paralyzing.”
He coped by burying his identity. “I decided I would be the most popular kid in school,” says Agustin. “I became class president and prom king and one of the top 10 students so no one would ever suspect the truth about me.”
Outside of school, however, he learned to keep a lower profile. When a friend recently told Agustin she was pulled over for speeding, he admitted he had never received a ticket. He wasn’t bragging, just commenting on how his life had been shaped by not being in the country legally. “I’m always aware of 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’s impressed — even a little envious — by the sense of empowerment shared by today’s young immigrants.
Without this type of network, Agustin initially floundered after graduation. Then he discovered two passions in the community colleges of the region: theater and debate. He knows many who have not been so lucky. “There are people in my community more talented than me who couldn’t stand up.”
The writer brings up 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. “When students from marginalized communities constantly hear ‘no’, they stop asking questions in class, they disconnect,” he says. “When the most privileged and affluent students hear ‘no,’ they get creative and try to find a way around it.”
For Agustin, it was about supportive peers and mentors. “Finding people who weren’t disgusted or ashamed of me but were so worried really changed my life,” he says. “That’s when the ‘no’ stopped being crippling to me.”
After finally getting permanent residency papers and enrolling at UCLA, he found himself auditioning for “dead white dude” parts. He was safe from deportation, but representation still eluded him. He began looking for ways to create a better future for himself and for 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 show, titled a series of salvaged racial slurs, that tell their America’s story. “I wasn’t trying to advertise myself as a writer or create a political statement,” he says. “I just wanted to perform and felt like I had to write myself into existence.” The play eventually toured for years, playing in 44 states.
Soon after, he wrote a pilot for a TV show, tentatively titled “Illegal”. In 2017, it entered development with ‘Jane the Virgin’ star Gina Rodriguez – but seven years later, nothing came of it.
“The ‘illegal’ driver is what really launched my career,” says Agustin. “It made me a Sundance Fellow, it got me my agent in Hollywood, it got me a job in the writers room on one of TV’s best shows, and it got me my first sale. However, Hollywood wasn’t quite ready to tell the story of an undocumented American family back then, so maybe – with this book – they will be now.
These experiences combined to give Agustin, now a US citizen, a measure of hope – as well as skepticism. “I started this dissertation with the simple question: ‘What does it mean to be American?’ I couldn’t avoid the harsh realities. Although his memoir does not preach politics, he insists on highlighting the dangers of an imperialist foreign policy, an inhumane immigration policy, and a ruthless capitalism that often fails to provide equal access to the American dream. .
“Immigrants, and especially undocumented immigrants, have this abusive relationship with America,” he says. “We love this country so much, and it just won’t love us back. But we will stay and endure the abuse and hope that one day America will see the error of its ways.
Never mind that Agustin personally thrived. It was important to tell his immigrant story not in spite of his success but because of it. “In Hollywood,” he says, “there’s something called symbolic annihilation, where some stories don’t get told, so it’s easy to vilify people or see them as other people. I want people to understand that we are all in this together.
He also continues to help those who followed him. Today, he is CEO of the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival, where he once volunteered, and executive director of its Youth Cinema Project.
And Agustin still has that Doors painting. After a quarter century of dragging it from apartment to apartment (and a failed attempt to sell it to Tower Records long ago), this old and extravagant heirloom from a famous director to an immigrant services worker became something of a marker of his family’s progress. “One day,” he said, “I’ll meet Oliver Stone and tell him the story.”