Rafael Agustin On Creating a Sitcom That’s an Edgy Latino ‘Wonder Years’

Photo by Brandon Cruz © 2016 Sundance Institute

If Rafael Agustin has his way, we’ll soon be able to see what an edgy Latino Wonder Years looks like. That is how the writer-performer is pitching the show he’s written based on his life. Oh, and did we mention the series is tentatively titled Illegal? Yep. Agustin is looking to create the very first undocumented family sitcom and, if his experience at the Sundance Institute as an Episodic Story Lab Fellow is any indication, there’s a good chance we’ll be seeing his vision come to life sooner rather than later.

Illegal is a project that’s a lifetime in the making. It began when Agustin, an all-American high school student who had the grades and the extracurriculars to have his choice of colleges ahead of him, learned that, like his parents, he was undocumented. It’s the type of bombshell revelation that could have easily crippled anyone. Not Agustin, though. True to the “pull yourself by the bootstraps” narrative that defines so many immigrant stories in the United States, he enrolled in a community college all the while still waiting for the paperwork that would allow him to live and work freely in the country he had always known as home.

He eventually went on to earn a B.A. and M.A. in Theater from UCLA. It was there where, along with some friends, he developed the provocatively-titled theater production N*gger Wetb*ck Ch*nk. The piece became a sensation for the way it spoke the issues of identity in raucously funny terms. It was professionally staged in Los Angeles and has gone on to have a national tour.

Touring the country as the titular “wetback” of the show, the Ecuador-born performer began to see how what was mostly a comedy show in the coasts, became a lightning rod for controversy and—more importantly—for constructive conversations when they toured Middle America. “We thought,” he told Remezcla, that “like most plays and comedy shows, the audiences would just die out but over time it transformed from this comedy piece to this strange social justice piece.”

“So in Illegal, what I realized I wanted to do was take America through the journey that even I went through.”

The more he talked with people across the country about his own experience as an undocumented immigrant, one who had endured the violence of the label he and his fellow N*W*C performers used in their title, he realized he was changing people’s minds. “And that’s why I was like, I need to just do a piece about my personal journey.” He began dutifully working on what would become Illegal, the title of which has obvious echoes of his previous work.

“So in Illegal, what I realized I wanted to do was take America through the journey that even I went through of how this word was so freely and openly used to define a group of people in the late 90s in particular when this started to come to the forefront with undocumented students. And how those words are specifically designed to silence us.”

He admits he originally envisioned Illegal as another theater project, one that would tackle the cultural politics around immigration through the lens of a very funny personal story. It wasn’t until his mentor and fellow N*W*C creator, Liesel Reinhart, told him: “Rafa! Just write the TV show! This is a great TV show. You’re doing work in TV, why would you not adapt this to a TV show?”

While undocumented characters have cropped up in shows like Ugly Betty, Jane the Virgin and East Los High, here was a chance to make an undocumented story the very center of a television series. “In Donald Trump’s America,” he explained, “this is way too important to be a B-plot.”

This eventually led him to apply for the Sundance Episodic Story Lab, a bootcamp of sorts for up-and-coming voices interested in television. The fellows are part of the year-round support network that the Sundance Institute has been nurturing, positioning itself as one of the few programs around the world committed to offering not only mentoring sessions for aspiring TV writers, but the hands-on work that will turn the 11 spec scripts that made the cut in 2016 into full-fledged series. That includes participating in individual and group creative meetings, writers’ rooms, case study screenings, and pitch sessions to further develop their pilot scripts with guidance from accomplished showrunners, producers and television executives.

It’s an experience that, Agustin says, changed his life. He credits everyone involved with championing his voice and connecting him with some of the best and brightest. “They saw an important story to tell in my journey and then they introduced me to some of the best storytellers in the world of television.”

Now all we have to do is wait until the right exec gives him the greenlight he needs to give us the great undocumented family sitcom we didn’t know we needed.