Celebrating Latine/X Authors: Illegally Yours by Rafael Agustín

This summer we had lunch with Ecuadorian TV writer, playwright and author, Rafael Agustín at the Proper Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles to celebrate his new memoir, Illegally Yours.

Why was it important to you to write this story as a memoir?

It’s the book I wanted growing up. Basically. There are several books that really affected me. That gave me the strength to write this. Fresh off the boat was a big influence to me, because when I read it, I was like, wait, we can talk about our immigrant experience and about our immigrant parents. Honestly, I was like, crazy. I didn’t think we could, but Eddie Huang did such a beautiful job. I also read Tina Fey’s, BossyPants and I realized I could tell my story in a conversational comedic way. I was like, oh, okay, I can do that. And then Karla Cornejo Villavicencio’s, Undocumented Americans, how she writes about the intersectionality of mental health and immigration. So, so beautiful.  So to me, it was like, those three books are great and that’s what I wanted. I wanted to be able to talk about my parents’ journey, their sacrifice, how we always felt American. But do it in a comedic way.

Why was it important to you to write this story as a memoir?

It’s the book I wanted growing up. Basically. There are several books that really affected me. That gave me the strength to write this. Fresh off the boat was a big influence to me, because when I read it, I was like, wait, we can talk about our immigrant experience and about our immigrant parents. Honestly, I was like, crazy. I didn’t think we could, but Eddie Huang did such a beautiful job. I also read Tina Fey’s, BossyPants and I realized I could tell my story in a conversational comedic way. I was like, oh, okay, I can do that. And then Karla Cornejo Villavicencio’s, Undocumented Americans, how she writes about the intersectionality of mental health and immigration. So, so beautiful.  So to me, it was like, those three books are great and that’s what I wanted. I wanted to be able to talk about my parents’ journey, their sacrifice, how we always felt American. But do it in a comedic way.

Exactly, the comedic voice in your memoir is one of the aspects that makes it so interesting. Why did you choose to write a comedic memoir?

When I wrote the show that went on a national tour, what brought audiences in, was the comedy. So, I thought that if I wrote my story in a way that wasn’t preachy, people would fully absorb the messages we were sharing. One evening during our theatre tour in Utah, an older African American gentleman came up to me after the show, and he was like, I’ve been fighting for civil rights for a long time. I marched with Dr. King. But what I saw today was groundbreaking, because of the power of theater, when you felt racism, when you felt prejudice, when you felt hurt. Everyone in the audience felt it a second, this is the difference between theater and art, versus a lecture or a debate, or a book about policy. Right?  And as a playwright, I’m hearing the audience reaction in real time. I understood that if I can make people laugh, laugh, laugh and then pull the rug under them when they least expected was a way to make my story memorable and impactful to them. That’s why I talk about the book, I say it’s a comedic memoir, I don’t lead with : it’s an immigrant story. 

Tell us about your process as a writer. How long did it take you to write this book? 

It took me nine months to put this manuscript together. Yeah, like blood, sweat and tears. It’s a comedy, but sometimes I was crying as I was writing it. I was like, I don’t need therapy for at least a year.

Then, I sent it to my book editor. And she’s like, go back to page one

That was the moment I wanted to give up. I was like, No, I can’t believe I gave it my all and this is not good. she was like, “You’re a TV writer, I need to help you become an author. The stories are there, but you’re not walking us through what you’re feeling or what you’re thinking or what you’re going through.”  And I was like: Can I just cut and go to the next scene? And she said: “No, you have to take us through all of it.” That was the hardest thing for me to learn as an author.

"Even when I'm overwhelmed, or scared or feel like I'm not good enough for a project, whether it be producing, writing or whatever, I always come in with an open heart. I'm like, Listen, I'm not the best at this. You know what it is? I think it's a vulnerability. I think vulnerability is what makes the best part. But if we applied that idea to a business, you might be in a better place. Because in business, I've always done that with my board of directors, or with sponsors or clients. I just, I'm very vulnerable, honest, all the time. And I think people like to respond to that."

Before you wrote this memoir, Illegally Yours you were writing a lot of different stories and then, you decided that it was time to share your personal story?

I realized that by telling my story and finding my voice, that’s how I truly broke through. I wasn’t breaking through with those other stories and scripts I was making up. It was Sundance, it was my TV agent. It was the writer’s room for Jane the Virgin. Then, I sold the TV show. It all happened, like back to back to back. As soon as I wrote this, this very personal story, I was like: How do I tell it?  So, I knew I had to pick the right genre for it. And I was like, what’s more American than the television sitcom? So, I decided I was going to write an All American family -who just happens to be undocumented.

Where did you write this book?

I recently bought my mama a home. That was my dream for a very long time. I wrote it mostly there. And it was, it felt good to be able to write in this new sacred space.

Do you have any rituals to get into the mood for writing?

Nope, I have an immigrant mentality about work. I just do it.

I’d wake up and start writing in my bed for hours.

We must say, the story about your mom and all of her love and sacrifice made us fall in love with her. What did she think about your book?

I was waiting to hear her response. She came out of her room and she just hugged me and cried and that was it. That was all I needed. I feel validated. I feel happy. I feel the book accomplished what it needed to accomplish. Everything else after my mom’s reaction It’s just icing on the cake. 

“My favorite moment has been my mom reading the book. That was like the moment that I was waiting for. That's what I most wanted to see.”

You can pick up a copy of Illegally Yours by Rafael Agustín in amazon and everywhere books are sold.

This summer we had lunch with Ecuadorian TV writer, playwright and author, Rafael Agustín at the Proper Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles to celebrate his new memoir, Illegally Yours.

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