Rafael Agustin revisits the moment he learned he was undocumented in 'Illegally Yours': 'How would you know?'

Pamela Avila

USA Today

Jul 12, 2022

It was the week of the Fourth of July in 1988 when, at 7 years old, “Jane the Virgin” TV writer Rafael Agustin first arrived in the United States from Guayaquil, Ecuador. In his debut memoir “Illegally Yours” (Grand Central Publishing, 304 pp., out today), Agustin recalls looking out at the fireworks lighting up the night sky, convinced they were announcing his arrival.

Now 41, the author says fireworks still hold a special place in his memory.

For fans of “Jane the Virgin,” which Agustin worked on from 2017 to 2019, this might sound familiar. The Season 4 finale of the hit CW show, starring Gina Rodriguez, focused on the Villanueva matriarch, Alba, receiving her U.S. citizenship and reminiscing on her love of fireworks. “It represents America and coming to the U.S.,” Agustin tells USA TODAY. “I mean, that’s me. To see those fireworks on the plane when I was this little ethnic South American kid was everything to me.”

Writing his firsthand experiences into the show wouldn’t have been possible had he not brought his culture and identity into the writer’s room.

“I needed to write like my cultural identity needs to be my superpower,” he says. “In this room, no one is going to be able to more authentically speak about being a Latino in the U.S., about being formerly undocumented, about our cultural hangups so the minute I started leaning into that, that’s when I started being successful in the room.”

Agustin's approach is also felt through the pages of "Illegally Yours," a candidly written memoir using humor to unpack growing up undocumented.

A young Rafael Agustin with his mother. "My mom was all love," Agustin says. "My mom was the glue that held us together, like so many of our Latina moms." Courtesy of Rafael Agustin

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However, writing for TV and writing about his personal life proved to be totally different. The epilogue was the first chapter Agustin wrote, saving the most painful memory for the end.

Agustin shares in the final pages the two most shocking revelations of his life. The first was realizing the magical ointment used to soothe his ailments as a child was in fact the mass-produced Vicks VapoRub and not a homemade miracle; the second was his parents' divorce.

Writing the book this way helped Agustin preserve the memories he shared with his dad, which now felt like fiction. “It’s really difficult for me to go into it,” he says. “It was hard to write, but it was so therapeutic. I needed to be in my feelings and in my memories, and I needed to discover that some of the stories I was told as a child were lies.”

Agustin, who serves as CEO of the Latino Film Institute, recalls getting the book deal before his parents separated and felt the need to “protect” his memories from them.

“There are my parents with their flaws … but then there are my parents from my recollections, that I love so dearly and that I looked up to, so I still needed to write the memoir with that sense of love and wonder,” he says.

“Illegally Yours” mostly paints a picture of a young Agustin who grows up seeing the world in that way, too.

Author of "Illegally Yours" Rafael Agustin and actress Ivonne Coll on the set of "Jane the Virgin." Coll played Jane's (Gina Rodriguez) grandmother Alba Villanueva. "Alba's love for fireworks ... it represents America and coming to the United States. I mean, that's me," Agustin says. Courtesy of Rafael Agustin

Agustin rarely doubted whether he belonged – until he tried getting a driver's license during his junior year of high school. That's when his parents told him he was undocumented.

"People are always like, 'How did you not know?' I'm like, how would you know?" he says. "As a child, I knew we were immigrants, and I just thought that was the immigrant experience. My mother truly protected me from this harsh reality. I was allowed to grow up a blissful, stupid American kid, only because she wanted to make sure I didn't feel their pain and struggles."

"Illegally Yours" explores the question: What does it mean to be American?

"My patriotism I would say is that of James Baldwin," he says, quoting the Harlem-bred writer: "I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually."

"That's the type of patriotism that I believe in," Agustin says. "We could be the greatest country in the world and we have to work towards that." But the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade, recent anti-LGBTQ laws and the ever-present harmful rhetoric against immigrants in this country "have shown us how vulnerable we are."

"But we have to keep fighting," Agustin says, hopeful. "We have to keep fighting for that, to that promise of the constitution of becoming a more perfect union."

Agustin’s memoir cements its place in a growing collection of personal literature about the immigrant experience written in recent years.

Authors such as actress Diane Guerrero (“In the Country We Love”), journalist Jose Antonio Vargas (“Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen”) and poet Marcelo Hernandez Castillo (“Children of the Land”) write of family separation. Harvard graduate Karla Cornejo Villavicencio (“Undocumented Americans”) and award-winning journalist Maria Hinojosa (“Once I Was You”) shed light on not only their personal experiences but others' too, weaving history and reporting into their work.

“I love that these memoirs written by our community all of a sudden become a part of this greater tapestry of the real history of the United States,” Agustin says.

In writing "Illegally Yours," Agustin wants to reach readers who are not from the Latino, undocumented or immigrant community. "I want general Americans to be able to read this book and hopefully have a change of heart about how they see these communities."

Rafael Agustin, middle, pictured with his mother, left, and grandmother, right. Courtesy of Rafael Agustin

Young Agustin went from living in Ecuador to setting down temporary roots in Walnut, Calif., and other Southern California cities including San Clemente, Panorama City, Thousand Oaks, Monrovia, West Covina and Duarte. Because of his family's undocumented status, staying in one place too long wasn't always ideal. “Illegally Yours” is not only a story about immigration, but also about the meaning of home.

As an adult, Agustin says "home has never been brick and mortar to me."

"Home really was where my parents were at," Agustin says. It's shifted now following his parents' divorce, but he still fulfilled his biggest dream to buy his mom a home.

His mom left for Ecuador a year before Agustin became a U.S. citizen and recently returned after being apart for over a decade. His 97-year-old grandmother also moved to the States.

So now, "home is truly where my mom and grandma are at. We're living like 'The Golden Girls' right now," he quips, and it doesn't get more American than that.

And there's nothing more like Agustin than living the nomadic lifestyle modeled to him growing up in an immigrant family. "I'm going to move out eventually because that's just my DNA," he adds. "I have to leave again."

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