Diane Guerrero of Orange Is the New Black Takes on Immigration Reform
Boston native Diane Guerrero is part of one of TV’s most socially conscious programs: She plays Maritza Ramos on Orange Is the New Black, the women’s prison dramedy. The Netflix show is devoted to exploring the personal histories of its diverse cast of characters, many of whom are not the type of people, whether racially or economically, who are often seen on TV.
But Guerrero had her own piece of personal history to share: At age 14, while away for the day attending Boston Arts Academy, her parents were deported. They were undocumented, but as their citizen daughter, she was allowed to stay in the country. But no one from the government ever communicated with her about what happened. Instead, she was left on her own to figure out what to do. While her success today provides the sort of feel-good ending usually seen in a movie, the process of getting there was difficult, often heartbreaking, and one she hopes to see change. She wrote about the experience in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times in 2014, and has now released a memoir about it, In the Country We Love. We talked to her about what inspired her to start talking about her experience.
You talk in the book about how you hid the story about what happened to you for a long time. What made you decide to start putting it out there in the world?
Well, first of all, nothing was settled with me. When this happened to me, I really felt so stripped, so vulnerable, so left with broken pieces. I always knew the reason why I went to school, the reason I continued with following my dreams and having goals is that I just knew one day that I wanted to make a difference. I feel funny saying it. I’ve always been the kind of person, who—I don’t feel right. I don’t wake up in the morning feeling like everything is all great in the world. And so when I saw people going out and really exposing themselves, undocumented students, undocumented mothers and fathers, exposing themselves and being true activists for immigration reform, I said to myself, how could I not participate in something that I have personally been so affected by?
Was it really weird to go through this experience where you wrote an op-ed and it took off across the internet?
Yeah, I certainly have gone through ups and downs in accepting this whole thing, and then regretting it and waking up screaming with nightmares. I go online and put in my name and the headlines are…it was very frightening. At first you don’t know how to deal with a lot of people knowing your business, but that’s what I risked and what I sacrificed so that I could get attention on this issue that is so important. What I hope comes out of this is that people pay attention and the people who don’t understand the issue very much and don’t have any experience with anybody who’s gone through this get a little insight, but also that people in communities like the community I grew up in get inspired and maybe take note and say wow, I have a voice too.
Part of what people were so fascinated by in the original op-ed is that you’re a successful TV actress. They don’t think of you as someone who could have gone through something like this. Is that part of why you wrote this?
Even more, now that I’m part of this huge TV show that people seem to really respond to. Naturally, you get interviewed and you do press and that sort of thing and I just saw a good opportunity to use my voice in the way I really wanted to. Obviously I love being an actor and what comes with it. I love getting to play and to tell different stories and to empathize with the human experience. It’s all what I’m about. And now getting to say what I really care about and having people listen is a really effective way to use my platform. At least it’s letting me sleep at night now. I think that in the beginning when I wasn’t saying anything about who I really was—people would ask me questions about what my interests were, what my family was like, what I was like as a real person, it became harder and harder to talk about stuff without mentioning who I really was and living my truth, and my truth is that my family was separated when I was at a young age.
There is a huge issue in this country. The immigration system is dated, the visa system is dated, and we need comprehensive immigration reform now. I don’t want to see other families experience what my family did. I don’t want to see any more kids left behind to navigate through this world by themselves or thinking that they don’t matter or that they have no value.
How influential was Boston Arts Academy in helping you make it through those first few years after your parents left?
Oh, so influential. It’s a great community. Their way of teaching, the way they care about their students, I felt really protected. I was finally in a place where I was with likeminded people, people who cared about others, who cared about the arts, who liked to tell stories. I was in a safe place and they really helped me throughout those years. I didn’t talk about it much with anybody. There were only a few people that I shared my story with, but they held my story safe and they respected me and I was able to survive those years because of them.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
See Guerrero tonight at 7 p.m. at Brookline Booksmith.