The Evocative Spirit Of ampm Burgers With ‘Illegally Yours’ Author Rafael Agustin
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 TV writer, the Latino Film Institute CEO, 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 some classic gas-station cheeseburgers and talk about burgers, ceviche and the idea of America in such a way that I’ll feel at times like we are in a scene from his hilarious memoir about his misadventures growing up as an undocumented teenager from Ecuador in Southern California during the 90s.
But right now, all I can think about is the mustard stain. It makes me feel like I’m a reckless boy again, which is kind of great because so does reading Illegally Yours.
Many of the stories in Agustin’s memoir floored 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 pressured to be a gangster as well as the perfect American boy.
Like the mustard stain on my shirt, reading Agustin’s book reminds me of being a kid again watching The Wonder Years — if Kevin Arnold found out he was undocumented when he was about to get his driver's license and spent the entire series trying to get other people to like him so he felt some sort of acceptance.
It also made me really hungry, hence the ampm meet up.
I like onions, pickles, ketchup, and mustard on my burger, but the mustard dispenser is a little wonky and sprays me in the chest and stomach instead. Agustin immediately gets me a napkin.
“I haven’t had one of these since I was a kid,” Agustin tells me as he grips on tight to his burger. He’s dressed in a pristine Dodger t-shirt and smiling big. “I haven’t either since I was like 10 maybe,” I tell him. “But I can still taste them. The onions and the pickles.” Agustin says he thinks he used to get them with relish. But I’m too distracted, way too eager to talk to him, to notice what he actually put in his burger.
For the past few years, Agustin has been a mentor to me, even though he isn’t much older. But in Hollywood years — since his college days when he toured with a landmark show about race to his days writing for Jane the Virgin to his time leading LFI and its Youth Cinema Project and Latino Film Festival and now a memoir — Agustin is a wise creator on a mission to uplift stories from our community.
The man is a wealth of knowledge and wisdom for any burgeoning TV writer like myself. And I often go to him for things like legal wording I see in contracts or help understanding conversations with TV executives. Usually over plates of sashimi, lomo saltado, or in this case ampm burgers, we talk about our shared mission and how hard it can be to try and get Latino stories past the gatekeepers of mainstream media.
“We got to trojan-horse it,” he says. “Get in there and 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 actual meal. For example, I was not at all surprised when reading Illegally Yours to find Agustin talking about ceviche as a way to point out how Ecuador’s contributions to culture often get forgotten. “Peru had better marketing,” he told me once at a Peruvian restaurant in Highland Park. “But the Incans invented ceviche, and Ecuador was part of the Incan Empire. So ceviche also comes from Ecuador.”
Ecuador is where the story starts for Agustin. He was being raised by two doctors there when he was brought to the United States at a young age on a tourist visa. The U.S. represented 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 make very little money and have to face a corrupt bureaucracy. For Agustin himself, the representation of the U.S. 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 was like, 'oh shit, I’m one of them,'" he animatedly points out at the ampm parking lot and I can almost see the school campus he’s remembering.
In a chapter called “Doctors With Borders,” he writes: “I liked school in Duarte. There were a lot more immigrant and Latino kids. That made me feel like I was part of a family, it made me feel safer, and it helped me start my learning process.”
This parking lot on the corner of Walnut and Los Robles isn’t Royal Oaks Elementary any more than it was Bayside High, the fictional “all-American” school Zack Morris went to. But it is quite a scene. There’s a lowrider pulling up, a church across the street where it appears service is just beginning, and a Black man with a cane who wants to know if we have change for a $100 bill.
“All I got is a dollar,” Augustin tells the man who responds matter of factly “that’ll do” before dipping around the corner toward the entrance of the ampm. I wonder if he’s just figured out a really cool way to ask for a dollar or if he’s really got the hundred.
In the 90s, the last time either Agustin or I had an ampm meal, a dollar would have gotten you two burgers plus access to what felt like an unlimited toppings bar. Pickles, relish, ketchup, mayo, and everything I as a poor Mexican American kid from the hood thought of as American food at its finest. Back then, these gas station burgers were a luxury to us.
For me, it was the ampm on the other side of the alley behind my Abuela's house in 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 an only child in the north San Gabriel Valley, Sunday trips to ampm with his mother and father were some of his favorite family memories. As he describes it in Illegally Yours, ampm was the first place he had ever had Heinz ketchup.
“Why didn’t anybody tell me how good America tasted?” he writes in the memoir. “Many years later, my dad shared with me that his lowest point in this country was having to take my mom and me to ampm for dinner. Crazy… that was the highlight of my childhood.”
I feel the duality of those words as I bite into my childhood. The white onions. The pickles. Ketchup and whatever bit of mustard made it onto the beef patty. “There’s so much bread,” Agustin points out. He’s right. “They taste exactly the same as 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 it is about that line that makes me feel hopeful. I turn to Agustin and I say, “I think you’re the one. The one that’s going to lead us and unite us as a community.” He tries to respond but seems at a loss for words before saying, “That’s a lot of pressure.”
“It is,” I say. “But you’re already doing it. You wrote a book that some kid from our old neighborhood will read. You are his Zack Morris. Or like you wrote the Ecuadorian Wonder Years.”
He thinks about this with a twinkle in his eye and laughs. It’s then that I realize that the magic of an ampm burger wasn’t really the quality, it’s the freedom of getting 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. Cuz we are.