DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in today for Terry Gross. Our guest, Rafael Agustin, is a successful TV writer and producer, but that's not the subject of his new memoir. It's about his experience growing up as an undocumented immigrant in the United States. Agustin was born in Ecuador, and when he came to the United States with his parents as a 7-year-old, he was so young and naive that he thought the Fourth of July fireworks over the Los Angeles airport were there to herald his family's arrival.
His book tells the story of his parents leaving their middle-class existence in Ecuador and working for menial jobs in America and his life of learning English, constantly moving from school to school and figuring out how to apply to college with a strong high school record but no Social Security number. There are moments of heartbreak and humor, like his dad's exhilaration upon getting a Publishers Clearing House notice from a man named Ed McMahon that he may have won a million dollars. Rafael Agustin was a writer for the CW network show "Jane The Virgin" and is now CEO of the Latino Film Institute, where he oversees the Youth Cinema Project and the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival. He co-created and co-starred in an autobiographical comedy stage show which toured nationally for three years. His new book is "Illegally Yours: A Memoir."
Well, Rafael Agustin, welcome to FRESH AIR.
RAFAEL AGUSTIN: Thank you so much for having me.
DAVIES: You know, a lot of immigrants come to the United States these days from pretty desperate circumstances, you know, driven by poverty or violence or persecution. Your story is different. Tell us about your life in Ecuador.
AGUSTIN: Yeah. You know, it is different but not too different. So I had a little privileged upbringing, right? My grandfather was well known in his city of Guayaquil, Ecuador. I come from a long line of lawyers and politicians. But my mom and my dad were doctors, you know, a pediatric surgeon and an anesthesiologist who came to this country to work at a car wash and work at a Kmart. I didn't understand why we would leave, like, our cushy existence for the hardships of Los Angeles, Calif. But when I look back, you know, as an older man and try to understand why they would make this crazy, insane journey - why would they sacrifice so much, why would they leave their livelihoods behind - I look back at, you know, when I was born, like, the democratically elected socialist president of Ecuador, his plane just miraculously blew up midair when he was trying to nationalize the country's petroleum.
Again, this is a comedic book, but I had to really look into the hardships of what has U.S. foreign policy been doing all over Latin America that has forced these immigrants to come to this country? And while I barely touch on it in the book, conversely we get asked, like, you know, what was Eisenhower doing in Guatemala or Nixon doing in Chile or even, you know, Reagan all over Central America? I hear a lot of Americans say things like, you know, we don't like refugees, and we don't like undocumented workers. But, I mean, the truth is that we need to stop creating them.
DAVIES: Yeah, there's certainly at least a 150-year history of intervention in Latin America. I mean, I'm sure you talked a lot to your parents in researching this book. Did they cite those issues as part of what made them think of coming to the United States? Were they troubled by the instability of the country?
AGUSTIN: They did, and it is the political and economic turmoil. So they came here thinking that things would be calmer, would be better, that their work can get them ahead in life. But little did they know that they would be cut up and the menial jobs and try to learn the language and the hard realization that medical licenses don't transfer from country to country.
DAVIES: Tell us a little more about your parents' medical careers in Ecuador, what they did.
AGUSTIN: Yeah, so my father was a pediatric surgeon, and my mother was an anesthesiologist. And one of the earliest memories I have - I must have been, like, 6 years old, 7 at most. And my mom was at the hospital operating, and my dad gets a call, like, close to midnight. And, you know, they didn't have money for a babysitter, so my dad just took me with him to the hospital. And I remember one of the nurses put me in, like, medical scrubs and put covers on my feet, gave me a surgical mask, walked me down a long corridor and shoved me inside an operating room. And there I was watching my dad operating on a little girl my age. Her chest was completely opened by metal tongs. And she had been shot in the back with a rifle, and my dad was the only surgeon that could operate in - this very complicated surgery and hopefully save this child's life.
And I noticed just by her kind eyes that my mom was the doctor applying the anesthesiology in the surgery. So there I was, like 6, 7 years old, watching my parents save a child's life, which they did. And to me, it felt like 20 minutes. But when we - when my mom talks to me about it today, she's like, I can't believe you stood there for seven hours during one of the most complicated surgeries we ever had. That is so crazy to me.
DAVIES: Yeah. And you remember that?
AGUSTIN: Vividly. Yeah, you don't forget something like that.
DAVIES: So when you left, as you tell the story in the book, your parents didn't even tell you that you were moving to stay. It was just kind of for a vacation. You get there, and, you know, things are different. I mean, there's no maid to make your lunch. I mean, you're living in the garage apartment of some relatives who were there. You had relatives in the States already. Did you resent it? Did you - I don't know. What was it like?
AGUSTIN: Well, you know, they did lie to me. They said we were going on vacation. And after several months, going into a year, I was like, wait, when are we - (laughter) how long is this vacation lasting? And, you know, when you pointed out at the top, I did grow up in this, you know, cushiony existence with, like, maids and chauffeurs, and then we come to the United States, and I'm like, oh, wait a minute - here, we're the maids and chauffeurs. What's happening?
DAVIES: Well, you know, one of the things that occurred to me was that it was clearly, you know, a different standard of living for you and a loss of income. But it's also a loss of status. I mean, your parents were people who - you know, they saved lives in hospitals and were treated with respect as doctors. And, I mean, I certainly hold no disrespect for anybody that works in a car wash. I mean, I come from a working-class family and honor hourly work. But for them, it must have been so different to gone - to being sort of an anonymous sort of helper at so many jobs. Were you aware of that, or did they talk about it at all?
AGUSTIN: I did carry their sacrifice close to my heart 'cause I did see them be doctors, you know, one week and then work these menial jobs the next week. But the beauty of our story is how - 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, right? I didn't know why we moved so much - because, you know, every time someone discovered their 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.
And I loved my life. I loved the United States. And it was in those late nights, after my parents got from - home from work, from long days of work, and you're just so exhausted and want to disconnect that we would start watching, like, American TV shows and American movies together. That's where my love for the entertainment industry began. I was wow, this is the one thing I can share with my parents in this country. We didn't have time for each other in this country. They were too busy working all the time. But 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.
DAVIES: Yeah. It's interesting how a kid, you know, kind of takes their surroundings for granted most of the time, and you can kind of sell them for a while on a different idea. Like, your dad...
AGUSTIN: (Laughter) Only for a while though.
DAVIES: ...Your dad's special meals on Sunday - tell us about that.
AGUSTIN: OK. So my parents worked, like, seven days a week. We really didn't see each other. They worked through holidays, too. But every Sunday, we would get together to go to ampm, which is like a convenience store attached to, like, a gas station here in the West Coast in Southern California. And it's kind of like a 7-Eleven. And so we would go into the ampm, and it would always be the three of us - my mom and dad and me - and we would get burgers together.
And I was in love with, like, American burgers. I mean, ketchup? I had never tasted anything as good in my life. There's no ketchup this good outside of the United States, let me tell you. They have to put some kind of drugs or crack in it 'cause it's so freaking amazing. And then, we would go to ampm, and I would eat these burgers. And it was, like, the time of my life.
And then, a few years later - not a few years later, many years later, I asked my dad, what were your lowest points in the United States? And he said, when I had to take you and your mom to ampm 'cause I had no money then, and all I could afford was that special that they had - two burgers for 99 cents. And that nearly broke my heart. I was like, that's, like, the highlight of my childhood. And those were his worst moments in this country.
DAVIES: We talked about how, when your parents came to the United States, they lost that status they had as medical professionals and worked other jobs. I wonder if they would offer medical advice or treatment just to friends and family. And that was a way to sort of get some of that feeling and stature back.
AGUSTIN: Well, the - because everyone in the family knew who they were, my parents became the family doctors. Everyone came to my parents for a diagnosis. Or if one of my cousins broke their arms, my dad would put a cast on them. I mean, it's what immigrant families have to do in - when we have a health care system that doesn't take care of everybody. I remember one of my cousins. He got injured in a snowboarding accident - snapped his arm in half and had to get a metal plate to keep his arm together. He didn't have insurance, so he came to live with us so that my parents could heal him back to health.
That's how my parents gave back, at least to the family and to close friends who knew them, trusted them, and searched for their medical guidance when they didn't have money to go to the hospital. I mean, I remember one job - my dad got fired for giving a janitor's wife a flu shot 'cause he wasn't allowed to be giving shots.
DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you. We're going to take a break here. We are speaking with Rafael Agustin. He is a television writer and producer. His new memoir is called "Illegally Yours." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF DANILO PEREZ AND CLAUS OGERMAN'S "RAYS AND SHADOWS")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Rafael Agustin, a TV producer and writer and CEO of the Latino Film Institute. He has a new memoir about growing up undocumented in the United States after emigrating with his parents from Ecuador. The book is called "Illegally Yours."
You know, it's interesting that you write that you never thought of yourself as having an ethnic identity. You were a white kid in Ecuador like so many others.
AGUSTIN: A white kid with a beautiful olive tan.
DAVIES: Oh, with an olive tan.
DAVIES: Yeah. Yeah. So when you got to the States - I don't know - did you become aware of ethnic and racial differences among the students? Did that kind of hit you at all?
AGUSTIN: Immediately. Immediately. And that's, to me, more shocking than discovering that I was undocumented. It was discovering that I wasn't white. I internalized so much of the film and TV shows that I saw from the United States as a child that I thought I looked like the people on the TV screens.
But when I get to public school here in the United States, I was surrounded by the great American diversity, right? I see the Asian American students, the African American students, and I'm like, what is this? I've never seen this in film and TV before. And then I saw them, the Mexican American and Central American students. That's when I realized, oh, my God, I look more like them than the white students. So I guess I'm not white. And I'm, like, in third grade trying to figure all this out in my head.
DAVIES: You know, you write that you didn't know it, but your parents had come on tourist visas and overstayed, which is a common experience for immigrants who end up undocumented. But they had kept this from you. They didn't want you worrying about it. Looking back on it, I mean, did you see them behaving with exaggerated caution, that their lives were, in some ways, circumscribed because of their status?
AGUSTIN: Yeah. I mean, my dad went out of his way to make sure that he always paid his taxes 'cause he wanted to make sure that this country knew that he was a patriot, that he loved it, and he gave back. He never took, and he always gave back. And I know this because he would (laughter) - my mom and dad were always happiest when we got our tax refund checks in the mail.
And for them to hide this from me and to live a normal American existence minus one thing - and that's our documentation and our legality - that's what made me realize, oh, my God, like, we are American. No matter what, we are American. Like, we make our economy stronger, our workforce younger. And you can't deny that we make our food taste better.
DAVIES: Right. But then there were moments that you saw things. I mean, your dad was going to get a job once. And there was an immigration raid at the place where he was going to work, which he ended up, actually, eventually working at. And then there was a moment where, I think, you were with him, and you saw some agents chase down a guy and tackle him. And your dad - you asked her dad in Spanish, you know, what's happening here? And he said, hey, hey, don't speak Spanish, right?
AGUSTIN: Oof. Yeah, the first story was actually a federal raid. It wasn't even an immigration raid. It was, someone had tried to hire my dad to do some medical insurance claims but wasn't being legit about it. And then he held my dad's undocumented status against him so he wouldn't say anything. But then the second story, the immigration raid at the beach, 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, Calif., which San Clemente, by the way, has an immigration checkpoint. I don't know how smart it was for us to go move over there. But that's where the work was, so that's where we went.
And when - 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, (speaking Spanish) - like, what's happening? And he turned to me with, like, 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 for - until I got to, like, late in high school. And my mom told me what happened. And I was like, oh, wow. I had no idea that that was, like, the inciting incident for the fact that I was turning my back on my native tongue.
DAVIES: You got a little older and you got to high school. West Covina High, I think, right?
DAVIES: There was diversity in the school, you say. I don't know. What were the different cliques or crews and how did you find yours?
AGUSTIN: (Laughter) Well, the wonderful thing about growing up in San Gabriel Valley is that it is truly one of the most diverse regions in the entire United States. So I like to point out that the Asian American kids were the cool kids. And the African American kids were the nerds. And the Latin American kids were the surfers. And I was always looking for my group. I didn't know where I belonged. I was previous - you know, I was an immigrant boy that was a wannabe little gangster. But I was studious. And I loved my mother (laughter). And I loved listening to punk rock and Spanish music. There wasn't, like, a clique for me. And for a while, I - not knowing my place, the way that changes is when I discover that I was undocumented because when that news hits me, I mean, first, I get depressed. But then I realize, I want to become the most popular kid at school.
DAVIES: Well, now, how did you find out?
AGUSTIN: Well, all of my friends are starting to drive. And they're starting to apply to go to colleges. So I do the same thing. And I, you know, filled out my DMV driver's permit paperwork without telling my parents. And then I was told I needed them to sign off on it. So I come home. And I'm like, hey, I need you to sign this. And that's when they looked at each other. And they were like, well, you need to sit down. And we had the talk. It wasn't about the birds and the bees. It was about Uncle Sam and the United States.
Essentially, they told me that I was undocumented. They told me that they had Social Security numbers, but I didn't. And, you know, I write that it's like - it was, essentially, an end-of-the-world comet hitting my frosted-tipped head because I grew up watching and admiring, like, Zack Morris. I know it sounds dumb. But as a first-generation American, I felt I had no guide in the United States. So I started watching "Saved By The Bell." And I was like, huh, that's what I want. I don't want to live in this broke, poor, little Hispanic barrio. I want to turn West Covina High into Bayside High.
DAVIES: Yeah. So Zack Morris is this totally cool, handsome star of the show, right? "Saved By The Bell," right?
AGUSTIN: He is, like, not just cool, but he has that ease that white privilege gives you and that charm. And he has, like, bleached blonde hair. I mean, so I bleached my hair blond. I joined the band so I can have my own hit - "Friends Forever," Zack Attack, if anyone remembers that. But when I discover I'm undocumented, I don't know how to deal with it because there's no episode of "Saved By The Bell" where Zack gets deported. So I feel all alone and completely confused by my new reality. I jokingly say that I told my parents, like, how am I supposed to join the campus Republicans now if I'm undocumented?
DAVIES: (Laughter) Let me reintroduce you. We're going to take another break here. We are speaking with Rafael Agustin. He is a television writer and producer and CEO of the Latino Film Institute. His new memoir is titled "Illegally Yours." He'll be back to talk more after this short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF DAVE HOLLAND AND PEPE HABICHUELA'S "JOYRIDE")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. Our guest is Rafael Agustin, a TV producer and writer and CEO of the Latino Film Institute. He has a new memoir about growing up undocumented in the United States after emigrating with his parents from Ecuador as a child. The book is called "Illegally Yours."
You know, it's interesting. At the end of your book, in the acknowledgements, you make the point - you tell us some interesting stories about your romantic encounters with girls in junior high and high school. But - and you've changed the names - because why bring them into this stuff? But in the acknowledgments, you thank a woman who you say was willing to marry you after high school to help with your immigration problem. I assume this marriage did not actually happen, right?
AGUSTIN: The marriage didn't happen. And I - man, I'm getting teary-eyed just listening to you talk to me about it. Yeah, Jane Besara (ph) was a girlfriend at the time, and she knew - I mean, I told her my secret, and she was willing to marry me to help me. But we didn't because it was around this time that we finally received our permanent residency paperwork. And it took nearly 13, 14 years to process. But we applied. We were just waiting. My parents had hoped that all of this would have been taken care of before I got out of high school, but it took longer than that.
DAVIES: Right. I was going to mention this, that they had, without telling you, applied for permanent residency. And so that happens. Were it not for that, you might have married her, huh?
DAVIES: So you went to college, and you were in forensics debate, did really well at this. But you also got the acting bug. You - you know, you started doing plays and eventually applied to and were accepted to the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, majoring in theater. And when you tried out for class plays, I'm wondering what kind of roles you got and whether you felt that there was - you know, were there ethnic profiles that people were looking for for roles?
AGUSTIN: Well, it's funny that you mention the acting part of my life because I had been acting like an American for most of it. So being on stage felt natural to me. I had been - 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, turn it in, my producer or showrunner would be like, that's not realistic. But I received my acceptance to UCLA and my acceptance from my permanent residency on the same day.
AGUSTIN: Oh, my God. When we opened those (laughter) - 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 end up at UCLA, like, 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, you know, let alone, like, 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 became - begrudgingly, became a writer.
DAVIES: So even though you, as you say, were acting white (laughter) for years and years and had dyed your hair blonde at times, you still didn't get roles that were thought of as mainstream, slash - you know, "white," quote-unquote, roles.
AGUSTIN: No. And I thought it was me. I was like, I'm terrible. I should switch my major to sociology or something. But then there was a production of a play called "Short Eyes," which was a prison drama, and I got the lead role. And I was like, wait, hold on (laughter). Wait, what's happening right now? Because I didn't want to play stereotypical roles. I didn't want to buy into, like, 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 "NWC," and it starred my best friend, Miles Gregley, who's African American, my other best friend, Allan Axibal, who's Asian American, and myself.
And this little show, which was simply supposed to be a showcase for our talents because as Black and Asian American, they were feeling the same problem - they weren't being seen, and they couldn't get roles that can fully highlight the complexity of their existence. So we create the show. It's supposed to be simply a showcase. And it catches fire. It becomes, like, this cult phenomenon at UCLA. Even the LA Times came and wrote about it. So we became, like, 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. And the only reason we put an end to the run was because we had a finals, and we were going to be, like, the first in our families to graduate from college in this country, and that meant a lot to us.
DAVIES: You know, let's just talk a little bit more about the show. I mean, as you mentioned, it's not a title we can say because it's three words - the N-word and then a word - a derogatory term for Asian Americans and a derogatory term for Hispanics. And people can find this on YouTube. It's - as you said, the abbreviation of it is "NWC." You want to just tell us a little bit about it - about kind of what happens, what's the feel of it, what's the message?
AGUSTIN: Yeah. So because Miles was so big into stand-up and Allan was so big into slam poetry and I was the theater nerd, it became, like, this hybrid of a show that felt like a sketch comedy show. But because we were working with Steve and Liesel, who were professional writers, it was a three-act structured play. But the comedy of it - and because we're such great friends, and we're - there's a familiarity on stage - it felt like a fresh improv every night. The LA Times compared it to the comedy of, like, Chris Rock and early Culture Clash. It was slash political statement, slash social satire, but full-on comedy.
So in the - in LA, where we first premiered, it's strictly a comedy. But when we started performing in Ohio, in Kentucky, in Pennsylvania, it becomes so much more than just a comedy. It became known as the race show because whenever there was social unrest or a racist incident, people would pick up the phone and call us, and we would have to show up like racial superheroes and be like, OK, what's the problem here? We're here to clean up the mess.
DAVIES: So you would perform the show and then hold a discussion? Or is that - what...
AGUSTIN: So, well, that was it. People would bring us in not just for the show, but for the Q&A's 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 - right? - 'cause laughter builds community. So we toured the show for five to six years. We went to, like, 44 states. We were famous in, like, Casper, Wyo., but in LA, no one knew who we were.
AGUSTIN: You said sometimes people would bring you and the show in when there had been an incident of racial conflict - right? - 'cause they needed to have something to address it in a hopefully constructive way. And while it's true - comedy can bring people together - often, circumstances like that, you know, are filled with a lot of tension and sometimes hatred. And I wonder if you found situations where people weren't ready to reconcile or really see each other and it was tense.
AGUSTIN: It - you know, I'm sorry to say that it wasn't at first, but it got - you know when it changed, if I can be so blunt? When Obama became president. The hatred was different. The white students we dealt with were starting to feel oppressed, but they didn't understand why they were feeling that way. To me, that was - during our tour, the first Black president of the United States in addressing the original sin of slavery in this country, that's when things changed.
DAVIES: You know, you spent years writing for the CW series "Jane The Virgin." What was the experience like for you? Did you feel like your experience was valued?
AGUSTIN: On "Jane The Virgin," what I will say is that the showrunner, Jennie Snyder Urman, was really forward-thinking. I mean, she had no business embracing (laughter) a writer with no TV credits from a marginalized community. She really mentored me and took a chance on me, and I hope that I added as much authenticity to the show as she wanted. There's a big sense of imposter syndrome for me in that room, feeling like I didn't belong, like I didn't fight hard enough, that I knew many other people that were more worthy to be in there than I was.
I'm in the room with these TV writers that had been doing it for 10, 20 - some even 30 years. What can I do that's going to beat them at any TV pitch or TV idea? That's when I had to lean in towards my cultural identity, my background. Then, when I started pitching stories about, you know, Catholic guilt or my immigration problems that I had, that's when I started getting stories on the board, and that's when I started feeling like I was making an impact or contributing to the show itself. But it took me a minute to get there because I still had this sense of imposter syndrome.
DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you. We're going to take a break here. Then, we'll talk some more. We are speaking with Rafael Agustin. He's a television writer and producer and CEO of the Latino Film Institute. His new memoir is titled "Illegally Yours." We'll talk more after this break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF ALLEN TOUSSAINT'S "EGYPTIAN FANTASY")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Rafael Agustin. He is a television writer and producer, also CEO of the Latino Film Institute. He has a new memoir titled "Illegally Yours."
You know, I want to bring the story back around to your parents before we say goodbye. You know, they came to the States hoping to build bright futures and eventually practice medicine. How do you think they came to view the experience? And tell us what happened later after you went to college.
AGUSTIN: 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. 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, that - 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 - right? - 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.
DAVIES: You also tell us in the book that, you know, they eventually separated, and your mom returned to LA. Is that right? Are you all in touch and...
AGUSTIN: Yeah. The big secret was that I sold this book, and I got the book deal, and then, my parents got a divorce. And it just crushed me. So my mom, you know, (laughter) separated from her husband of 35 years, got COVID-19 at the start of the pandemic. And this - and Ecuador was ground zero for COVID-19 in South America. I mean, we were literally leaving our dead relatives on the street because the hospital and the morgues were overran. And my mom was fired from her work at the American consulate of over 10 years, all within three-month period. And I told my mom, no. No, no, no, no. It's over. There's a global pandemic happening. We cannot be separated by a continent still. I need you to come back. I'm in a good place in my life, and I want to be able to achieve this one dream I've had since we came to this country. And that was buying my mom a house. Oh, man, you're getting me emotional. So I bought my mom a house, and I was able to move her back to California.
DAVIES: You know, maybe we could end with a smile here.
DAVIES: You want to tell me the story of your grandmother's ointment from Ecuador that had such healing properties?
AGUSTIN: (Laughter) Yes, yes. When my parents moved back, I realized, OK, I'm going to go back and be at the childhood home I grew up in. I'm going to see my grandparents home again. And when I get there, I have this memory of my mom and my grandmother, essentially, bringing me back to health, like, carrying me back to health. My mom was a young doctor, so she was about, like, what medicine I should take, what shots she should give me. But my grandmother, she's a traditionalist, right? She grabbed this little container with this clear, magical ointment and started rubbing it on my chest. And I remember it so vividly as a little kid. And all my life, I was like, what was that ointment that she rubbed on me? It must be like Inca or Indigenous somehow. Maybe it was, like, somewhere in the Quechua language. I can find, like, what this magical word of Vivaporu (ph) meant because I remember she said it was Vivaporu.
So fast-forward, I'm an adult. I'm going to go get some Vivaporu in Ecuador, South America, again. And when I asked my grandma to take me on this journey to - I didn't know if we had to go to the mountains or to some local shaman or is, like, some close friend of hers was doing brujeria in the neighborhood? But I needed to get some Vivaporu. My grandma and I leave her house. We walk down the street. We go to the local pharmacy. So I was like, OK, maybe she's getting, like, some calcium pills or something. She waves me down the aisle and gives me the container, the same container I remember from my childhood. And when I look at it, my life came to a complete stop. When I look at this ointment and realize that Vivaporu was really Vicks VapoRub.
AGUSTIN: And I just couldn't believe it. I never hated my people's lack of enunciation and pronunciation more in my life. I was like, Vicks VapoRub is Vivaporu. I had it down the street from me for nearly 20 years, and I never got it because I didn't know it was the same thing.
DAVIES: Well, Rafael Agustin, thank you so much for speaking with us.
AGUSTIN: Thank you so much for having me. This was amazing.
DAVIES: Rafael Agustin is a television writer and producer and CEO of the Latino Film Institute. His memoir is titled "Illegally Yours." After we take a short break, rock critic Ken Tucker will review the new album "Beatopia" by beabadoobee. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE HUNTER QUINTET'S "MESTRE TATA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.