When Rafael Agustín was a first-year student at the UCLA School of Theater Film and Television, it rapidly became clear that, as an immigrant from Ecuador, he would have to carve his own path to success. As an aspiring filmmaker, he recognized that not many of his fellow students or Hollywood creators looked like him or shared his background.
“That’s why I became a writer,” he said. “I realized, ‘Oh, I have to write myself into existence to have a shot.’”
Agustín graduated from UCLA in 2004 and went on to write for “Jane the Virgin,” which ran on the CW network from 2014 to 2019.
He’s currently working on his memoir, “Illegally Yours,” set to be released in the summer of 2022 by Grand Central Publishing and is developing three TV shows — one with Endemol Shine and two with CBS Studios. The former TV show is an adaptation of an Isabel Allende novel.
But his writing work is just part of what keeps Agustín busy. In April 2021, he became the chief executive officer of the Latino Film Institute, which was co-founded in the late 1990s by actor Edward James Olmos.
Agustín’s connection with the institute began when he was still a UCLA student and he joined the group as a volunteer.
“I got hooked,” he said. “It was so great to be able to see him lead the charge of trying to change Hollywood for the better. Every summer, even after I graduated, I would always find a way to give back.”
Agustín served as festival manager for the organization’s annual film festival. And he helped launch its Youth Cinema Project, which operates in about a dozen schools across California. Professionals from the institute mentor fourth graders from underrepresented communities, teaching them about every part of the filmmaking process.
Based on his success in those roles, Olmos invited him to become the institute’s new executive director. The offer came right around the time Agustín began working on “Jane the Virgin,” and he wasn’t convinced he could handle both jobs simultaneously. But his experience with the Youth Cinema Project convinced him to try.
“I saw these 9- and 10-year-olds doing work I didn’t get to do until I got to UCLA,” he said, “I almost started to cry because I thought, ‘Wow, where would my career be if I started that early?’”
Given his background, Agustín felt a connection to the young filmmakers. And watching them make their own film projects, he knew they were getting an opportunity that might otherwise only be available to children from wealthier communities.
“So, I decided to do both jobs,” he said. “I was like, ‘All right, I’m going to be a TV writer by day and executive director of a nonprofit by night.’”
Making the economic argument
Under Agustín’s leadership, one of the Latino Film Institute’s initiatives has been helping to fund a high-profile project at UCLA: the Hollywood Diversity Report, which tracks gender and racial diversity in acting, directing and producing jobs and how that diversity correlates with box office revenue, TV ratings and social media engagement.
The relationship between the institute and UCLA deepened further in March, when UCLA’s Ana-Christina Ramón, a co-author of the report, was named the first-ever Latino Film Institute Scholar. And Agustín helped connect the report’s authors with California lawmaker Assemblywoman Wendy Carillo who ensured that funding for the ongoing research was included in the 2021-22 state budget.
“What I love about the Hollywood Diversity Report is it doesn’t make the moral argument,” Agustín said. “It makes the economic argument about Hollywood leaving money on the table by not investing in stories from underrepresented communities. In the time since the report began, we now have ‘Coco,’ ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ and ‘Black Panther’ to show what can happen when those movies get made.”
Data in the Hollywood Diversity Report has demonstrated time and again that American audiences want to consume films and TV programs created by and starring people of color and women. But the industry has been slow to create those opportunities, and in particular for Latino performers and creators.
“Change can start today,” said Ramón, who also is the director of research and civic engagement in the UCLA Division of Social Sciences. “It takes a strategic approach from top to bottom at the studio, network or production company. However, to make true progress, you cannot just simply cast more Latinx actors in supporting roles or as one-dimensional, generic or stereotypical characters.”
According to the most recent Hollywood Diversity Report, Latino actors, writers and directors make up no more than 7% of any single job title the researchers tracked, despite making up 20% of the U.S. population, nearly 40% of California and almost 50% of Los Angeles. That should send a message to Hollywood, Ramón said.
“You need to hire more Latinx executives who can develop and have the power to greenlight shows,” she said. “You have to invest in Latinx content creators who have the freedom to write more stories about the U.S. Latinx experience. There are so many stories yet to be told that are as universally relatable as they are authentic and specific. They just need Hollywood to make the investment and commit to distributing them with the same budgets they have historically given to white men.”
An authentic voice
For his part, Agustín remains grateful for the investment that Jennie Snyder Urman, the creator of “Jane the Virgin,” made in him.
Agustín has seen firsthand how a writer’s voice and background can translate into the scenes viewers ultimately see on screen. In “Jane,” for example, a scene showing characters using Vicks Vaporub for a series of ailments was inspired by Agustín’s own experience. As was a storyline involving Jane’s grandmother dating again after a being widowed.
Agustín admitted he could occasionally feel like an imposter working alongside writers with years of experience on previous hit shows. But he learned that he had qualifications they couldn’t match.
“It finally occurred to me that I could out-pitch them when it came to authentic stories about immigration, growing up with Catholic guilt or all of the stories about my abuela,” he said. “And when I started getting pitches on the board, I was like, ‘I’m in this room for a reason.’
“My secret power was the authenticity I brought to the room, and once I tapped into that, I thought, ‘Now I have a voice. Now I’m contributing.’”