Diane Guerrero is best known as prison inmate Maritza Ramos in the acclaimed Netflix series “Orange Is the New Black.” Or as Lina in the CW series “Jane the Virgin,” set in Miami.
But Guerrero plays another, arguably more important role nowadays: celebrity immigration-reform spokesperson.
And for good reason. In 2001, when she was 14 years old, Guerrero came home from school one day to find her parents had disappeared. Her mother and father were undocumented immigrants from Colombia – and that day they had been deported.
Guerrero had U.S. citizenship because she was born here. So she had to forge a life alone in this country – and so far she’s done a pretty good job of it. Aside from her successful TV acting career, Guerrero just published (with Michelle Burford) a memoir, “In the Country We Love: My Family Divided.” It chronicles her odyssey from an immigrants’ kid in Boston to an immigrants’ advocate who met with President Obama at the White House.
WLRN’s Tim Padgett sat down with Guerrero during her recent book-tour stop in South Florida to discuss her memoir, America’s immigration dysfunction – and what defines a Miami Latina.
Your book describes the underground existence of the undocumented. How did your family have to live in the shadows?
The main thing was just to be quiet and reserved and not rock the boat – playing by the rules, which I know sounds ironic. I just knew I couldn’t go out there and talk about the grownup conversations I was hearing.
I remember one time having a conversation with my friends, who were also Colombian, and we were talking about, “Oh, do your parents have papers?” It was funny because I didn’t understand what “papers” meant. And then my parents finally revealed to me the truth.
How old were you?
Around 7. So that just caused a lot of anxiety, a lot of confusion, a lot of guilt, because I knew I was an American citizen and my parents weren’t.
You've said your "family unit died" the day your parents were deported. You also point out 70,000 parents of U.S.-born children were deported in 2013. But the government left you on your own when it happened. How did you cope?
At the time I was going to the Boston Arts Academy high school. The arts was something I could use to cope. The friends that I had grown up with were there for me. So I held on to the idea that I’d somehow go to college, make my own way.
You also write that for a while you were especially angry at your mother because she had made herself “a big target for deportation.” How?
I think she was antsy about wanting to change her status, and maybe she was opening way too many doors. She consulted different lawyers, and different lawyers gave her different advice and she just made a lot of mistakes.
My mother tried to help a lot of undocumented people who would come – and I mention in my book I felt sometimes our house was like the Underground Railroad for immigrants. A lot of those people ended up becoming residents of this country and eventually citizens, and I would get so upset because they were able to achieve this – yet we didn’t.
“In the Country We Love” grew out of the viral response to a Los Angeles Times op-ed you wrote on immigration in 2014. Coincidentally, days later President Obama halted the deportation of millions of undocumented immigrants – and you got to talk to him at the White House. What did he tell you and what did you tell him?
Initially, I think I just started crying. And I think that was my way of showing him just how desperate a lot of people were feeling and a lot of families were feeling.
We just had a discussion of some of the ways we can get the reform program out there. So I think that was just my first step in saying, “Hey, I have this story to tell, I can connect to the immigrant community and I’m here to do whatever I need to do for this process.”
But did you also have any mixed feelings given that some had called Obama the Deporter-in-Chief?
Right. No, I didn’t have any mixed feelings. I mean, I didn’t like that there had been so many deportations. But I know that at least he has made an attempt with some sort of reform.
Immigration is playing a central role in this election cycle. How do you interpret the success of Donald Trump and his anti-immigration agenda?
I think he’s just using fear. But I refuse to believe that the majority of the people in this country feel the way he does. And the point of my book and why I’m doing what I’m doing is to motivate the immigrant communities to become active.
So which character do you enjoy more, Maritza or Lina?
I like both of them. Maritza brings out my street sense and Lina is my Miami Latina side – very feminine, very sweet and colorful. That’s why we get so annoyed when Hollywood and the media try to portray Latinas as just one type.