Diane Guerrero, the daughter of undocumented immigrants, has experienced firsthand the ways in which the immigration system can tear apart and destroy families. The Orange Is the New Black actress was separated from her parents at just 14 years old. Using her experiences to inspire others to speak out against the immigration system, she has penned two books: In The Country We Love and My Family Divided: One Girl’s Journey of Home, Loss, and Hope. Guerrero discusses the trauma that came with her family’s separation and the need for immigration reform in our Summer 2019 issue.
How did you first get into acting?
I’ve always been interested in the arts. That was the thing that was always really prevalent in my life. My parents were very encouraging. I liked school, even though I wasn’t terribly good at it. I responded well to programs that mixed the arts with academics, which is why I ended up going to a performing arts high school. The school was very diverse and inclusive. We learned a lot about our nation’s history. We had a big focus on the humanities, and through that, I became very interested in social justice. I studied political science and communications in college. Through that, I realized that I really wanted to act and sing and be an entertainer. I wanted to tell stories through a social justice lens. I wanted to tell stories that moved people and also pushed conversations. That has been my trajectory, even in the work I do now. Orange Is the New Black was my first TV gig. It really opened doors for me. Of course, it was a story about the women’s prison system in this country and all the injustices that exist there. Through that, I was really inspired to share my own personal journey that involved the immigration system in this country that I thought needed some attention. I am an actor, and I am also a human being who is fighting for social justice, just like many of us are.
I wanted to tell stories through a social justice lens. I wanted to tell stories that moved people and also pushed conversations. That has been my trajectory, even in the work I do now.
You’ve been very vocal about your parents being deported and your take on immigration. Would you mind sharing with us your story family’s separation story and the impact it had on you?
Family separation, as you can imagine, is super damaging to families. My family was not spared from that. We had a very tough time dealing with the immigration system in this country. My parents worked very hard to provide for our family and to achieve citizen status in this country, which was really tough. In my memoir, I talk about how we are easily prey to an unjust system and bad lawyers. My parents didn’t have any luck with the people around them who were helping them through this journey. As a result of that failure, my parents were deported, and we were separated when I was at a very young age. I decided to stay in the country and live in the shadows. I lived with secrets, and this part of my life was not talked about and was belittled. The experience of being an immigrant in this country was heavily belittled and made me ashamed of myself. I saw much hardship because of that. I didn’t allow myself to talk about the issue or accept what had happened, which brought a lot of trauma. It manifested itself through my later years, when I had a lot of trouble. My parents struggled to keep our family together, and I struggled a lot with my mental health. It’s a struggle to survive and keep yourself sane when you have something like this happen to you at such a young age. We see it on the news every day, but my hope is that by sharing my story we can humanize these issues and people can see that those suffering are real families that contribute to this country. While I am the daughter of undocumented parents, that does not make me less American, less of a citizen, less of a human. That has been my message so that we can achieve some sort of immigration reform in this country.
How do you think a (hopefully) future administration can work to fix immigration laws so that stories like yours don’t continue to happen?
We haven’t seen anyone attempt [to fix the immigration issue]. I won’t pretend to be a politician and know every single policy, but I will say that we haven’t tried any sort of reform. Certainly, seeing the abolition of ICE would be a priority. They need to stop terrorizing families, because that emotional and mental violence is ruining our communities and creating a generation of scared people. Those people are needed to make our society better. We are not making our country better by terrorizing these folks. Fixing our visa system would also be a priority. We need new policies. We have not seen immigration reform before. We have seen it tried to be passed, but time and time again we have not seen it happen. We need an administration that puts this issue first and works very hard to decriminalize families who are just here seeking a better existence.
Orange Is The New Black was revolutionary in the way that it portrayed not only a diversity of actors but also a diversity of stories. How do you think the show changed the landscape of television?
Not only were we on a new streaming platform, Netflix, and popularized a new way of watching television, we also put more than one person of color in one scene. Before us, you would never see that! You would normally have your token actor of color in whatever scene, but you never really saw more than one. It was revolutionary in telling the real stories that occur to real women. We were living in this fantasy land where people of color did not exist. It was revolutionary enough to put more than one woman of color in the same room.
How did you relate to your character, Maritza? What was the best part about getting to play her?
I related to [Maritza] in the way that she was looking for family and love in a dark place. I liked playing a spirited woman who was also very unsure of herself. I think it was very telling of the way I was feeling at the time, a little shy, defensive, and aggressive. I got to live in that face, which was uncomfortable, of course. It was a story that was all too familiar to me, so it made me look at myself in a way and where I came from. I was honestly excited to be a part of something bigger than myself. That became self-evident to me in that the show went on.
How has activism become a part of your life?
[Activism] is in everything that I do. I have been lucky enough to work on projects where I am sharing stories that touch upon social issues that are going on. It gives me a chance to explore that and also reaffirm the belief that these stories are important to tell. I found that I can’t necessarily do one without the other. I am glad to be doing projects that resonate with who I am.
STORY ANA SANDOVAL
PHOTOS ALLEGRA MESSINA
HAIR CLAYTON HAWKINS
MAKEUP ELIE MAALOUF
MAKEUP ASSISTANT JESSICA ROMRELL
STYLIST BECKY THOMPSON at THE REX AGENCY