I’m standing in the parking lot of an ampm gas station on a cloudy but muggy Sunday morning in Pasadena with my friend Rafael Agustin. He’s a television writer, CEO of the Latino Film Institute, and most recently author of the critically acclaimed coming-of-age memoir. Illegally yours. And I have yellow mustard all over my plain black t-shirt.
We’re about to devour classic gas station cheeseburgers and talk about burgers and ceviche and the idea of America in such a way that sometimes I’ll feel like I’m in a scene from his hilarious memoir about his misadventures growing up as an undocumented teenager from Ecuador to Southern California in the 90s.
But for now, I’m only thinking of the mustard stain. It makes me feel like a reckless boy again, which is pretty awesome because reading too Illegally yours.
Many stories in Agustin’s memoir moved me because they felt like shared experiences. The time he stole adult magazines from Tower Records, the time he was harassed by cops, the complicated duality of being forced to be a mobster as well as the perfect American boy.
Like the mustard stain on my shirt, reading Agustin’s book reminds me to be a child watching again The good years – if Kevin Arnold found out he was undocumented when he was about to get his driver’s license and spent the whole series trying to get other people to like him, so he has felt a kind of acceptance.
It also made me very hungry, hence the ampm encounter.
I like onions, pickles, ketchup and mustard on my burger, but the mustard dispenser is a little wonky and sprays my chest and stomach instead. Agustin immediately gets me a towel.
“I haven’t had it since I was a kid,” Agustin tells me, gripping his burger tightly. He’s dressed in a pristine Dodger t-shirt and smiles big. “I haven’t either since I was maybe 10,” I tell him. “But I can still taste them. Onions and pickles. Agustin says he thinks he got them with relish. But I’m too distracted, too eager to talk to him, to notice what he really put in his burger.
For a few years, Agustin has been a mentor to me, even though he is not much older. But in the Hollywood years – since his college days when he shot with a landmark race show to his days by writing for Joan the Virgin in his time at the helm LFI and its Youth Cinema Project and Latino Film Festival and now a memoir – Agustin is a savvy creator on a mission to elevate the stories of our community.
The man is a wealth of knowledge and wisdom for any burgeoning TV writer like me. And I often turn to him for things like the legal wording I see in contracts or to help understand conversations with TV executives. Usually over plates of sashimi, lomo saltado or, in this case, ampm burgers, we talk about our shared mission and the difficulty of trying to get Latin American stories past the gatekeepers of the mainstream media. audience.
“We have arrived at a Trojan horse,” he says. “Come in there, then open up and bring our tios, cousins, friends, the whole community with us.”
So I already know that having a meal with Rafael Agustin is rarely about the meal itself. For example, I was not at all surprised when I read Illegally yours to find Agustin talking about ceviche as a way to highlight how Ecuador’s contributions to culture are often overlooked. “Peru had better marketing,” he once told me at a Peruvian restaurant in Highland Park. “But the Incas invented ceviche and Ecuador was part of the Inca Empire. So ceviche also comes from Ecuador.
Ecuador is where the story begins for Agustin. He was raised there by two doctors when he was brought to the United States at a young age on a tourist visa. The United States meant so much to his parents, who had to give up their medical careers for a series of odd jobs here. In Ecuador, Agustin explains in his book, doctors earn very little money and have to deal with a corrupt bureaucracy. For Agustin himself, the representation of the United States came from film and television.
He says he grew up wanting to be like Zack Morris in Saved by the bell. And that he was shocked to realize he himself wasn’t white on one of his first days at an American school.
“I saw all the Mexican and Central American kids and I was like, ‘Oh shit, I’m one of them,'” he says animatedly in the parking lot of the ampm and I can almost see the school campus he remembers.
In a chapter titled “Doctors With Borders,” he writes, “I liked school at Duarte. There were many more immigrant and Latino children. It made me feel like part of a family, it made me feel safer and it helped start my learning process.
This parking lot on the corner of Walnut and Los Robles is no more Royal Oaks Elementary than Bayside High, the fictional “all-American” school where Zack Morris went.. But he is a whole scene. There’s a lowrider stopping, a church across the street where it looks like the service is just beginning, and a black man with a cane asking if we have change for a ticket. of $100.
“All I have is a dollar,” Augustin says to the man, who frankly replies “that’ll do” before diving around the corner towards the entrance of the ampm. I wonder if he just found a really cool way to ask for a dollar or if he really has the hundred.
Back in the 90s, the last time Agustin or I had an amppm meal, a dollar would have got you two burgers plus access to what looked like an unlimited toppings bar. Pickles, relish, ketchup, mayonnaise and whatever, as a poor Mexican American neighborhood kid, I considered the best American food. Back then, those gas station burgers were a luxury for us.
For me, it was the amp across the alley behind my Abuela’s house at Paramount. My dad would give us a dollar and my little brother and I would jump the wall and get two burgers. For Agustin, who grew up as an only child in the northern San Gabriel Valley, Sunday trips to Ampm with his mom and dad were some of his favorite family memories. As he describes in Illegally yoursampm was the first place he had ever had Heinz ketchup.
“Why didn’t anyone tell me how good America was?” it writes to memory. “Many years later, my dad told me that his lowest point in this country was having to take my mom and me to the ampm for dinner. Crazy…that was the high point of my childhood.
I feel the duality of these words biting into my childhood. White onions. Pickles. The ketchup and any bit of mustard got on the beef patty. “There is so much bread,” says Agustin. He is right. “They taste exactly like when I was a kid,” he says and I nod.
After a while, the man who needed change for $100 comes back and complains, “It’s really hard to get change for a hundred dollar bill. I don’t know what’s in that line that gives me hope. I turn to Agustin and say, “I think it’s you. The one who will guide us and unite us as a community. He tries to answer but seems at a loss for words before saying, “That’s a lot of pressure.”
“It is,” I say. “But you already do. You wrote a book that a kid from our old neighborhood will read. You are her Zack Morris. Or as you wrote Ecuadorian Wonderful years.
He thinks about it with a twinkle in his eye and laughs. That’s when I realized that the magic of an ampm burger wasn’t really the quality, it was the freedom to get to make your own kind of burger. It’s being 10 years old, with mustard on your shirt or beans or ceviche or just a clean shirt, I guess, seeing the unlimited toppings bar and feeling American. Because we are.
What questions do you have about Southern California?