'All-American' and undocumented: Rafael Agustin's funny and touching memoir strikes a chord

Albinson Linares, Noticias Telemundo

NBC News

Oct 11, 2022

In high school, Rafael Agustin was desperately trying to be a "normal" Southern California teen. He was a young American who liked action movies, television shows like "Saved by the Bell" and of course, the singer Paula Abdul.

But he had a big secret.

“We came as immigrants and they never told me we were undocumented," Agustin said, speaking about his parents, who were physicians in Ecuador — an anesthesiologist and a pediatric surgeon — but had working-class jobs in the United States. "I grew up an ignorant but all-American kid and, in high school, I couldn’t get my driver’s license because I didn’t have papers. It was like a shock."

Agustin, 41, an acclaimed screenwriter ("Jane the Virgin"), producer and actor, has received widespread praise for his recently published book, "Illegally Yours," a memoir in which he describes growing up in the United States and grappling with his undocumented status more or less on his own. He has written it in a style that combines humor and heartbreak — and best describes the way he sees life.

“I always wanted to tell our story as a comedy because, for me, it is very important that it be accessible and entertaining. I have read other memoirs that are — very sad, but I don’t see the world like that,” he said. “I want anyone, documented or undocumented, to be able to read the book and not only laugh or have fun, but also feel identified."

“Illegally Yours” elicits both tears and laughter as he writes about trying to become the most popular student in high school while wrestling with his immigration issues, upbringing and heritage.

Agustin, the CEO of the Latino Film Institute, came to the U.S. as a young child in 1988 when his parents emigrated from Ecuador seeking better opportunities.

In his book, the author explains that he finally became a U.S. citizen after his parents obtained their permanent residence, but the long years before that happened inspired him to write his memoir.

He evokes the memories of his upbringing with large doses of humor and many pop references. Legendary TV series such as "Full House," "Family Matters" and "Alf" and action movie classics such as "Terminator" and "American Ninja" parade through its pages.

Agustin with his mother and his grandmother. Courtesy of Rafael Agustin

Agustin with his mother and his grandmother. Courtesy of Rafael Agustin

Afraid of speaking Spanish

One of the most moving moments of the book captures a terrifying incident for the author. Early one Sunday morning in the late 1980s, he was walking with his father on the beach in San Clemente, California.

Suddenly, a man ran past and was later stopped by two armed immigration agents. Agustin never forgot two things. He asked his father what was going on and then saw the intense fear in his dad’s eyes as he ordered Agustin, 'Don’t speak Spanish!'”

“Now that I’m an adult," Agustin said, "I understand that he was telling me not to speak Spanish while the migra (immigration authorities) were there. But since I was a child and I saw the terror in my dad's eyes, I decided not to speak Spanish for the rest of my youth, and that hurts a lot."

He said it wasn't until high school that he started speaking Spanish again with his parents, a little bit at a time.

Agustin’s book joins a series of notable memoirs that have stood out for vividly capturing the U.S. immigrant experience. These include "The Distance Between Us" by Reyna Grande, "Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen" by journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, and even the recent collection of poems — "Diaries of a Terrorist" — by Christopher Soto.

“We have to change the narrative of immigrants in this country to change the minds and hearts of Americans," he said. "People have to remember that most of the immigrants from Europe who came to Ellis Island were undocumented and processed in two, three hours. We can do that today, but we don’t want to and that’s the problem."

Below is an edited and condensed version of the interview with Agustin.

An important moment in the book is when you find out that you were an undocumented person in the U.S. What do you remember about that time in your life?

In high school, the whole truth falls on me. The truth is that I was very ignorant of our immigration status, imagine that I was always very nerdy but I couldn’t find my place. I liked both hip-hop and punk rock or Carlos Vives, so I didn’t know what my group was and when my parents told me that I didn’t have a social security number, I got depressed for a while. But then, I started wanting to be the most popular student in school because I didn’t want anyone to find out about my reality.

Was it a way to compensate for the insecurity generated by not having papers in the country?

Sure, I believed that if I was class president or prom king or an honors student, no one would think I was undocumented. So it was as American as it could be so that people wouldn’t find out what I was experiencing.

One of the successes of the book is to be able to recount the hard experiences of your migratory experience with a great sense of humor. How did you achieve that narrative balance?

It is true that life is difficult and work is hard, but we never lose our sense of humor or happiness and I wanted to put all that pride and love in the book. Very soon, I realized that my parents understood that the American dream was not for them but for their children, and I think that is the reality of many immigrants in this country.

Have you recently seen any positive change in the representation of Latinos in Hollywood?

The truth is, no. I agree with studies by the Norman Lear Center that show that, in real life, undocumented immigrants have higher levels of education, own more businesses and commit fewer crimes than what we see on television. It’s a big deal, which is why I wanted to write this book because we never hear the story of undocumented immigrants who are American in every way but one.

I always like to remind people that in Ecuador, I am not Latino but Ecuadorian. In Mexico, they are not Latino, they are Mexican. And that is the case in all countries. But in the United States, we are Latinos, so, for me, being Latino is something authentically American.

Many critics see that lack of representation as a step backward, even compared to the situation in the entertainment industry in the last century.

Definitely, one of the people who inspires me the most and who impacted the industry the most is Cuban American Desi Arnaz. When people ask me about the problem of the lack of diversity in Hollywood, I always say that in the '50s, we were used to one of the main characters of "I Love Lucy" — the most important series in the country — being a Latino and being in our homes every holy day. We’re trying to get back to where we were in the '50s, go figure.

Despite the fact that the U.S. has a large Latino population, that's not reflected in shows. What is the challenge for Latino creatives in this social context?

My dream is to continue writing in English for television and film because for many years when a Latino story is written, it's automatically assumed that it will be in Spanish, and I want to make sure that Hollywood executives know that we exist. We live in this country and we are bilingual — some of us don't even speak Spanish and that’s fine.

But to meet that goal, we have to understand how to write our stories and the difference between Latinidad and a genre. It can be a love story or a horror story or a comedy — Latinidad is not the genre ... It’s important that we start writing commercial stories that understand that.

Many "Dreamers" (young people brought to the U.S. as young children who lack legal immigration status) live in situations very similar to those you narrated in "Illegally Yours," which makes it a very timely book. What is your message to those young people who are struggling to have a better future despite bureaucratic and legal measures?

We are fighting politically for your future and I know it is very frustrating because I have suffered that frustration, but I want you to know that you are not alone. We listen to them, we see them and we are going to continue fighting for them, and it's very important that they know that they are Americans. It doesn’t matter what anyone tells them, or what the politicians say, because they are Americans and we have to treat them that way.

An earlier version of this story was first published on Noticias Telemundo.

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