“I'm going to tell you this story of a family you consider illegal but you're gonna recognize as uniquely American,” writer Rafael Agustín says of the “edgy, Latino Wonder Years” TV show he's sold based on his life growing up undocumented in L.A. “I always wanted to call it Illegal because I wanted to make a statement: 'Listen, we're gonna get rid of this word once and for all.'”
We're at Silver Lake's El Caserio, and since Agustín is Ecuadorian, not only are my tastebuds grateful that llapingachos beat out Salvadoran pupusas (my suggestion) but there's also a realization of a shared experience as our talk centers on being Latin American immigrants in America. We indulge in a varied spread, ranging from the origins of ceviche to magical realism to telenovelas to Trump and DACA.
“We lived a minimum-wage existence for a very long time, but my parents always instilled hard work and education,” says Agustín, 37. Currently writing for The CW's runaway hit Jane the Virgin, he echoes the experience of not just many a Dreamer but also a majority of Americans. His experience as an Ecuadorian immigrant would be familiar to many Angelenos as well.
Nigger, Wetback, Chink is the name of the play that put Agustín on the map. He co-wrote it, co-starred in it and toured it all over the country to much critical acclaim, if some predictable controversy due to its unspeakable title. The play is a three-man show dealing with cultural stereotypes in the time of “Obama, Sotomayor and the Tea Party,” as the Weekly wrote in 2011.
Considering there are comparatively few Ecuadorians in L.A., I ask him how he'll portray growing up Latino on that autobiographical show he's sold, which he's developing with Jane star Gina Rodriguez. “My starting point is my experience, which is Ecuadorian. But it's gonna be global real quick. You cannot tell a Latino story in the U.S. without taking into account the Mexican and Central American experience.”
That experience just got a lot richer for many kids throughout California, thanks in part to Agustín's role as executive director of the Youth Cinema Project for the Latino Film Institute. Open to inner-city students of all races, the program arms fourth- to 12th-graders with movie cameras to point, shoot and inspire at a time when schools are being threatened with insane ideas on how to make learning environments safe.
“We bring graduate-level film class to schools, hoping to engage kids in a different way, trying to prevent dropouts. Our secret is we don't want to make filmmakers, we want to make sure every kid goes to college,” Agustín says.
This summer, Agustín also will help enrich the cinematic landscape as executive director of the Los Angeles Latino Film Festival (June 20-24 at the Chinese TCL Theatre). As a Latino writer, he's aware there's a lot at stake in not only curating the talent but also being part of the talent pool that's tearing down walls and breaking glass ceilings.
“There are phenomenal directors, actors, DPs. But we haven't focused on our writing, and that's what we need a bigger push on. We're just now telling deeper, meaningful, complex stories.” If Agustín's personal story is any indication, there will be a wave of meaningful, complex Latino stories to celebrate in our future.