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'Jane the Virgin' writer recounts growing up undocumented in 'Illegally Yours'

Rafael Agustin was a writer on the CW network show <em>Jane the Virgin</em>, and is now CEO of the Latino Film Institute.
Marvin Lemus
Grand Central Publishing
Rafael Agustin was a writer on the CW network show Jane the Virgin, and is now CEO of the Latino Film Institute.

TV writer and producer Rafael Agustin was 7 years old when he first came to the United States from Ecuador with his parents. He remembers being so young and naïve that he thought the 4th of July fireworks over the Los Angeles airport were there to herald their arrival. He also thought his family was just visiting the U.S. for a vacation.

"After several months, going into a year, I was like, 'Wait, how long is this vacation lasting?'" Agustin says.

In actuality, Agustin's family had immigrated to the country illegally — a fact that the Jane the Virgin writer didn't realize until years later, when he tried to apply for his driver's license as a teen. That's when his parents sat him down for what he calls "the Talk."

"It wasn't about the birds and the bees; it was about Uncle Sam and the United States," he says. "Essentially, they told me that I was undocumented. They told me that they had Social Security numbers, but I didn't."

In his new memoir, Illegally Yours, Agustin recounts how his parents — who had been a pediatric surgeon and an anesthesiologist in Ecuador — wound up working at a car wash and a Kmart in the U.S.

"They came [to the U.S.] thinking that things would be calmer, would be better, that their work can get them ahead in life," he says. "But little did they know that they would be caught up in menial jobs and trying to learn the language and the hard realization that medical licenses don't transfer from country to country."

Money was tight, and Agustin's family moved frequently to hide their immigration status. Still, he has fond memories of sitting down together to watch American TV shows and movies after his parents got off work.

"That's where my love for the entertainment industry began," he says. "I was like, 'Wow, this is the one thing I can share with my parents in this country.' ... We always connected late at night watching a movie or a TV show to escape our realities. And that's when I was like, 'Oh, I think I want to do this for a living.'"

Interview highlights

<em>Illegally Yours</em>, by Rafael Agustin
/ Grand Central Publishing
Grand Central Publishing
Illegally Yours, by Rafael Agustin

On the loss of status his parents experienced when they moved from Ecuador to the U.S.

I did carry their sacrifice close to my heart, because I did see them be doctors one week and then work these menial jobs the next week. But the beauty of our story is no matter how hard things got, they tried to shield the reality of our documentation from me so that I wouldn't have to experience that. Yeah, it was hard to come to a new country and make new friends, learn a new language, and we moved a lot. I didn't know [the reason] why we moved so much [was] because every time someone discovered [my parents'] immigration problems, we had to pack up and leave and go to a different town to try to find a different job. But all of that they withheld from me. So I was able to grow up an oblivious, stupid American kid.

On why he stopped speaking Spanish during his childhood

I must have been like fourth grade or fifth grade at most, and I'm walking down the beach with my parents in San Clemente, California, which ... has an immigration checkpoint. ... And I remember what appeared to be an undocumented worker ran past us and then immigration officers chased him and tackled him. I turned to my dad and in Spanish I said, "What's happening?" And he turned to me with fear in his eyes, and he said, "Don't speak Spanish." And I had never seen my dad afraid before. So this moment really shook me to my core. And because whatever was happening put this much fear in my dad, I internalized it and thought he meant, "Don't speak Spanish ever again."

Looking back, I know he said, don't speak Spanish for that moment in time until the immigration officials went away. But I didn't speak Spanish again for several years. Like, even my parents would speak to me in Spanish, but I would reply in English. And I didn't realize this until late in high school. And my mom told me what happened. And I was like, "Oh, wow. I had no idea that that was the inciting incident for the fact that I was turning my back on my native tongue."

On going to the UCLA school of film and television

I quickly realized that for me to have a career doing this, I had to write myself into existence. And that's how I begrudgingly became a writer.

I had been acting like an American for most of [my life], so being on stage felt natural to me. I felt like I've been playing a role my whole life. And again, you can't make this stuff up, because if I write this in the script and turn it in, my producer, showrunner would be like, "That's not realistic," but I received my acceptance to UCLA and my acceptance for my permanent residency on the same day. Oh my God, when we opened that mail together, my mom, dad and I just hugged each other and cried on the floor. It was, like, 14 years of pain, all gone and the promise of a new American future. So I ended up at UCLA on an acting scholarship. And I think, "OK, this is going to be this is it. This is my path. This is my career!" But I quickly realized that there are no roles for people of color, let alone Latinos and Latinas. So I quickly realized that for me to have a career doing this, I had to write myself into existence. And that's how I begrudgingly became a writer.

On writing the stage show N*W*C with his best friends

I didn't want to play stereotypical roles. I didn't want to buy into negative stereotypes just to make a paycheck. That's why I wrote the show that I wrote, which I can't really say the title of it, but it stands for three derogatory terms. It's called N*W*C*, and it starred my best friend, Miles Gregley, who's African American, my other best friend, Allan Axibal, [who] was Asian American, and myself. And this little show was simply supposed to be a showcase for our talents, because as Black and Asian American [actors], they were feeling the same. They weren't being seen and they couldn't get roles that can fully highlight the complexity of their existence.

So we created the show. It's supposed to be simply a showcase, and it catches fire. It becomes like this cult phenomena at UCLA, even the L.A. Times came and wrote about it. So we became "campus famous" real quick. And we go from a student show to a professional run in downtown Los Angeles (thanks to the Latino Theater Company at the Los Angeles Theater Center), to a national tour in just three months. It was a crazy trajectory. And we were selling out every night in downtown [L.A.]. And the only reason we put an end to the run was because we had finals and we were going to be the first in our families to graduate from college in this country, and that meant a lot to us.

On touring N*W*C* around the country, often to white audiences, and talking about race

People would bring us in not just for the show, but for the Q&A that we would have and for the residencies that we would do with the community, which was at times more powerful than the show. It was being able to bring people together through comedy, because laughter builds community. So we toured the show for 5 to 6 years. We went to like 44 states. We were famous in, like, Casper, Wyoming. ...

We were in Utah, and this older Black gentleman walks up to me after the show, and he was like, "Listen, man, you need to know that I've been fighting for social justice my whole life. As a kid, I marched with Dr. King, but what you guys did today was completely different and just as powerful, because this is not a march or a dissertation or even a debate or dialogue. When you share your pain and your oppression and the racism that you felt on stage, everyone in the audience felt it." And it no longer was us trying to convince [people] that this racism is real because it becomes all of us through the power of catharsis on stage. That really blew my mind. That's when I was like, "Wow, the power of art and the power of storytelling can be more impactful than any lecture or any discourse."

On his parents' differing feelings about their immigration story

My parents are a tale of two different people. My dad was a little resentful of me because I was able to dream freely and wildly while he wasn't, and he was so prepared and so educated and so brilliant, but he could not overcome the immigration problems that we had in this country. My mom was just an optimist who always wanted to do what was best for the family, and she wanted to support my dad and she wanted to support me. And I didn't know, but there were several times when my dad was like, "OK, this American experiment is not working, let's go back." And my mom put her foot down and she said, "We're not going to go back until Rafa graduates. We're not going to go back until he has accomplished everything he started here." And once I did, once they saw me become a small-business owner, have a successful touring company, they both turned to me and said, "We're going back to Ecuador. We're going to go back to do what God put us on this world to do, and that's to save children's lives." And when they left, I like to think that they left still searching for their American dream just in a different part of America, in South America. And I stayed behind to accomplish everything they set out to do. That's how I became the American citizen that I am today.

Sam Briger and Joel Wolfram produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz and Molly Seavy-Nesper adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.

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