The ‘Orange is the New Black’ star opens up about her family’s immigration experience
Many of us are familiar with Diane Guerrero. Star of the hit Netflix show Orange is the New Black, as well as CW’s Jane the Virgin and CBS' new Superior Donuts, Diane Guerrero has become a well-known face in Hollywood. But, despite her fame and accolades, there is something that lots of people might not know about her: aged just 14, Guerrero’s undocumented immigrant parents were deported to Colombia, leaving her an unaccompanied minor separated from her family in a different country. This is her story.
Diane Guerrero, Photo credit: Lelund Durond Thompson
Can you tell us about the day your parents were deported? What was that experience like?
I was 14 years old and came home from school to an empty house – it felt as if all the action in the house had been stopped in a freeze frame. Dinner was on the stove and the car was outside, but the house was silent. I soon learned from a neighbor that my parents had been picked up by immigration agents. I had no idea what to do. It was the worst day of my life and I realized from then on that everything was going to be very difficult. However, my parents taught me to be resilient and resourceful, and I knew I was going to fight for my place in the world.
How did your parents end up coming to the US? Do you think their story is typical?
My mother was the one who spurred the move to the U.S., as she had relatives who had made the move. Both of my parents struggled to make a living in Colombia and truly believed that in America their hard work would be rewarded and that they could create a better life for their children. That is a very common thread of the immigrant story, not just today, but going back to the founding of our nation as immigrants who sought economic and religious freedoms.
The front and back covers of my memoir, In the Country We Love, show me holding cotton candy as a child and as an adult. Those photos symbolize the American life my parents created for me, even as their own presence in the U.S. was uncertain. They worked hard, made a lot of sacrifices for my brother and me, and made every effort to normalize my life, even as they tried to fulfill their own dreams to legalize their immigration status. Unfortunately, the harder they tried, the faster time ran out and they were sent back to Colombia.
Did you ever see it coming? What had been their journey up to that point?
My father always told me that this was a possibility in our lives, that either one of my parents or both of them might be taken away. He told me that so I would remember to be strong and to strive to succeed even if the worst were to happen.
My parents’ attempts to legalize their status was a constant source of friction between them and created a lot of anxiety for me. Finally, they thought they were on track to get their status in order, with my father regularly sending a lawyer money each month for their cases. It was all the money my parents could save. One day, my father took me with him to see the lawyer and the office was empty. The lawyer had vanished with our money and who knows how much money from others. Sadly, what happened to us happens to so many people who are desperate to regularize their status and stay with their families.
After your parents’ deportation, did you ever fear for your own safety?
Immediately after my parents were taken, I was afraid someone from the government would come and take me away too. The opposite happened: no one from any government agency at any level ever checked on my welfare. My parents had left behind a 14-year-old minor and there was no follow up with me. It was as if I didn’t exist.
It’s incredible to think of this happening to a 14-year-old. What was it like for this experience to happen to you at that age, when other teenagers might just be dealing with a first kiss or with choosing what to wear to prom?
The obvious difference was that I didn’t have my parents at my side to guide me through those important years. When my parents were taken, they had arranged for me to stay in a friend’s house, whose family includes one of my best friends. Their generosity was a blessing. I tried to maintain a normal life and didn't tell classmates what had happened to my family. So during the day I tried to be as normal as possible. But at night, I would miss my parents terribly and remember that I was no longer in my own bed and in my own home with my parents nearby.
My passion for the arts saved me. During the initial shock of my parents being taken, the principal at the Boston Arts Academy was the first person I turned to when I returned to school the next day. I was devastated, scared, and fearful I might not be able to stay at the academy, and she guided me through a very critical turning point in my life. The head of the music department was also my patron saint by nurturing my talent as a singer and creating a stable environment for me during my high school years.
Boston Arts Academy, Massachusets
Do you think that this experience ultimately shaped your decision to go into acting then?
I can’t think of a time in my life when I didn’t want to be an artist. I always liked singing and acting, perhaps as an escape from the immigration issues that troubled my family. After high school, I focused more on finding a college in Boston than in focusing on a career choice, because my parents were gone and I had limited resources. I soon realized that that was a mistake – I missed singing and acting too much. After college, I took a job and eventually returned to acting class. Eventually, I took a gamble and, with very little money in my pocket, headed for New York. It was important to me to at least try to achieve my dream, as I ultimately didn’t want to regret not trying it out. So I did everything I could to make it work because I knew that this is what I wanted to do.
Did you have any Latina role models growing up, either fellow actors or otherwise?
The first time I remember seeing myself represented in the media was when I watched America Ferrera in Real Women Have Curves. It was the first time I saw a “smart girl next door” that looked like me and had similar cultural experiences. It made me believe I did have a place in this world and in this industry.
America Ferrera - Hispanic Heritage Awards 2010 (2010)Hispanic Heritage Foundation
America Ferrera - Hispanic Heritage Awards 2010 (From the collection of Hispanic Heritage Foundation)
Earlier this summer, I was on Capitol Hill campaigning for the National American Latino Museum. The museum project serves as a great reminder of how our stories are entwined in the history of our country and in everything our nation has achieved since its founding, in the areas of health, science, business, sports, military service and the arts. Less than 2% of all National Monuments and National Historic Sites are dedicated to women or communities of color; wouldn’t it be great if we had a large exhibit dedicated to women artists like Celia Cruz, Selena, Jennifer Lopez, Gloria Estefan and Eva Longoria?! These are the women that continue to inspire me today.
Celia Cruz - Hispanic Heritage Awards 1998 (1998)Hispanic Heritage Foundation
Celia Cruz - Hispanic Heritage Awards 1998 (From the collection of Hispanic Heritage Foundation)
You’re an actor – but you’ve also become an advocate for other undocumented immigrant families like yours. Do you feel a responsibility to use your platform to draw attention to issues around immigration?
When my acting career began to take off about six years ago, I found myself being interviewed about my background and feeling afraid to share too much. For so many years, I hid the truth about my parents. But then I started seeing DREAMers standing up and demanding rights for immigrants. They came out and risked deportation to demand legislative and executive action for immigrants’ rights. I thought, “Why am I so afraid to speak up? How is my story not an American story?” Then I realized my story was and is one of the most American stories out there, and it’s not being told. I am a part of this American narrative and I decided to make myself heard and help others be heard as well.
In 2014, I wrote an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times and shared part of my story and then went on to write my memoir. My speaking out led to volunteer work with the Immigrant Legal Resource Center and Mi Familia Vota, a Latino civic engagement group, and I also helped the Obama administration with a citizenship campaign. I am very fortunate to be in a position to have my voice heard, so I’ll keep speaking out as long as attacks against our communities continue.
Diane Guerrero Advocacy
How do you think the system needs to change for immigrants, especially mixed status families like yours?
There are so many things wrong with the current immigration system, and it is clearly in need of a complete overhaul. The American people know it, the business, agriculture and other sectors of our economy know it, and so does a majority of Congress. It is not right to separate families, especially those who have been here for years, have paid taxes, have contributed to the economy and their communities.