It’s How You Get Up That Counts: A Q&A With OITNB Actress Diane Guerrero

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Culture & Conversation Human Rights

It’s How You Get Up That Counts: A Q&A With OITNB Actress Diane Guerrero

Tina Vasquez

In a recent interview with Rewire, the actress discussed her new book and her decision to come forward about her mixed-status family. "Since sharing my story, I have met many people who have thanked me because they also realize they are not alone," Guerrero said. "We are a community that supports one another. And now, more than ever, we have to stick together."

Actress Diane Guerrero could have never anticipated that one day, the world would know her most closely guarded secret: She was the lone American citizen in her mixed-status family and her brother and parents were deported to Colombia when she was just 14 years old, leaving her to navigate adolescence and young adulthood alone in the United States.

In a November 2014 op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, the Orange Is the New Black and Jane the Virgin actress decided to share her story. She has since written a book about her family’s experience, In the Country We Love: My Family Divided, for which she is currently touring the country. The book discusses how the U.S. immigration system separates mixed-status families and leaves citizen children on their own in a society that dehumanizes and criminalizes migrants. In the Country We Love details how Guerrero’s parents tried to adjust their citizenship status for years, giving thousands of dollars to a fraudulent lawyer who eventually disappeared. Guerrero also gives readers an intimate look at how she was personally affected by being separated from her family.

The then-14-year-old was forced to rely on different family friends for housing after her parents’ deportation. As she explains in her book, the federal agency that deported her family never inquired as to her whereabouts; a social worker never appeared to ask where she would live or how she would eat. As a college student, Guerrero suffered from alcoholism and would often cut herself.

Eventually, by sharing her story, the actress became an advocate on behalf of “rights for all of us,” as she said to Rewire. She wrote her book, she continued, because it’s one she wished she could have read growing up. “Stories like mine are being silenced by those who don’t want us here and by people like me who have been afraid of politicians. But I realized I have to speak up because when politicians debate immigration, they rarely take into account the real impact of deportation policies on families that are separated, particularly the children,” Guerrero added.

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As we enter a new age under Republican President-elect Donald Trump, more families and more kids will face the consequences of another anti-immigrant administration, and Guerrero is committed to fighting back, using her celebrity status to raise awareness and working with organizations like Mi Familia Vota around the issues of immigration reform, workers’ rights, and voter rights. Recently, the actress answered some questions via email about her memoir, her concerns after the recent election, and her decision to come forward as the daughter of undocumented immigrants. Below is a transcript of our conversation.

Rewire: After not even discussing your story with your friends for so long, what compelled you to share it for the first time in the Los Angeles Times?

Diane Guerrero: I had hidden the truth about my family for many years, and that caused me great stress and emotional turmoil. 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 because I had always hidden the truth about my parents. Then, I started seeing DREAMers standing up and demanding rights for immigrants: the same DREAMers whose futures are now threatened. They came out and risked deportation—and in many cases, so did their parents—to demand legislative and executive action at the federal level for immigrants’ rights.

I thought: Why am I so afraid to speak up? Am I a citizen or am I not? Why am I constantly apologizing for who I am, for the color of my skin? How is my story not an American story? I decided that I had to speak up, especially as the movement for immigrants’ rights was growing, and I hoped that by sharing my story I might be able to help children who are now in the situation I was in when I was 14.

Rewire: The night before your piece was published in the Los Angeles Times, what were you feeling about going public with your story? Did you have any concerns or fears?

DG: I was nervous when I went through the editing process, but honestly, I didn’t think it would have much of an impact. I thought: I’ll write it, it will get a little attention, and it will go away. I really wasn’t prepared for the overwhelming response—most of it very positive—when it was published.

Rewire: What did you learn about yourself while writing your book, In the Country We Love?

DG: In reviewing my life in detail, I saw how my upbringing—living with my parents and then without them—taught me to survive and strive for my goals. I learned to be resourceful while being mostly on my own and trying to navigate my way through high school and into a college. Talk about knowing how to make a dollar out of 15 cents!

I also realized that I am not alone. There are millions of children who were and are in my same situation. I just didn’t know it. Since sharing my story, I have met many people who have thanked me because they also realize they are not alone. We are a community that supports one another. And now, more than ever, we have to stick together.

Sharing my story also taught me the importance of using my voice and my platform to advocate on behalf of rights for all of us. I wrote a book I wished I could have read when I was a child. I write in my book about how my relationship with my parents took a roller coaster ride. At one point, I blamed my mother and didn’t understand why we had to make so many sacrifices. But I came to realize that they wanted better lives for themselves and their children, and they tried to [change] their status but kept hitting roadblocks. Our family unit died the day they were taken away from our house. We all suffered.

Rewire: The first half of your book, before you share how your parents were taken by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), there is a low-level anxiety on every page because of the understanding that at any moment, your family could be ripped away from you. Talk to me about the ways this affects a child, and what would have been helpful to you during this time that may be helpful to children who currently find themselves in this situation.

DG: As I wrote in the book, there is this constant level of fear that one day, there will be a knock at the door, or that my parents would be stopped in the car while driving somewhere. And even though my father tried to prepare me to be strong whenever that day came, the shock stings you into numbness. In my time, there were not any real support groups that offered step-by-step instruction on what to do if a family member is detained. I hid in terror at first, unable to figure out what to do or whom to call. Now, groups offer “know your rights” training, websites on where to get legal help, and phone numbers for social service agencies that can provide guidance.

Rewire: One of the most shocking things to learn was that after your parents were taken, no government officials ever checked in with you regarding your well-being, where you would live, etc. Now that you have written this book, have you heard from other people who had similar experiences with ICE?

DG: Absolutely. I am constantly hearing from young people who say they also had to stay with a friend, and in some cases, had to stay on the streets. It’s unfortunate that there is such a lack of regard, especially by conservative politicians, for citizen children of undocumented immigrants.

Rewire: Your story—and so many stories like yours—illustrate the negative ways in which the U.S. immigration system can affect families. In your opinion, how can the system be fixed to better serve mixed-status families in particular?

DG: First, we need common-sense immigration reform. Pure and simple. You can promise to build a wall on the southern border, but that’s not going to stop immigrants from flying into the United States or coming through Canada with legal visas and then overstaying. And they do it because there are not enough immigration visas. The system is out of date and cannot meet economic and family needs. And no, there is no “back of the line” to enter legally; it doesn’t exist unless you can wait as long as 20 years, depending on your country of origin. A wall also will wall in people who are already here and waiting for the chance to [adjust] their status, even if it means passing background checks and paying back taxes and fines. No one is talking about amnesty; that’s a cheap political point used by politicians who want to reduce the number of immigrants in the United States without regard for all of the economic contributions of immigrants.

Rewire: This election has been brutal in terms of hate speech geared toward people of color and immigrants in particular. Have you found this disheartening, or does it motivate you to fight back?

DG: Both. Donald Trump “normalized” racism and hate crimes and now, it is going to be hard to bottle up the hate he unleashed. It is very sad and very troubling, especially for kids from communities of color who are being bullied at school and on the streets. There have been hundreds of incidents recorded by the Southern Poverty Law Center since the election. So we have to fight back.

And let’s set the record straight: The election night polling undersampled Latinos and got it wrong by stating that Trump got more Latino support than Mitt Romney four years ago. Wrong. Trump got only 18 percent of the Latino vote, which is the lowest [level on record]. So we have to remind the politicians that we vote and our vote is only going to grow. We do this by mobilizing; sharing our stories; educating our children and communities about our history and the current political climate; and continuing citizenship and voter registration drives. We cannot be apathetic. We have to wage a passionate fight for equality and justice. Let’s turn this hate into love; let’s turn the lack of understanding about immigrants into enlightenment about who we are and how we contribute to the country we love. Remember, it does not matter how you fall, but how you get up.

Rewire: Tell me about the work you’ve been doing with organizations like Mi Familia Vota. Why is this important to you?

DG: I have worked with several groups like Mi Familia Vota that work on Latino civic engagement and immigrants’ rights advocacy. It’s important to me because I don’t want one more family to go through what I went through. As we fight for legal and civil rights, we remind those who are already citizens that an attack against immigrants is an attack against us all, because we all have immigrant pasts. So we work together and on behalf of each other. Those who can vote do so for those who can’t and give voice to our community so that we can be heard by the power brokers.

Rewire: How are you feeling post-election about our new president?

DG: I’m probably still in a little bit of a shock, but I also am ready to roll up my sleeves and rebuild after this crazy political earthquake. Let’s not ever forget that Trump campaigned by speaking in ugly and derogatory terms against Mexicans, immigrants, women, Muslims, African Americans, and even military generals. This election put all the cards on the table, and we now have confirmation that a large part of our country is racist and so very fearful of our ever-growing diversity. As I said, we need to work to build understanding while we defend our right to be part of this American story. In the meantime, we have to keep uniting our community. More than ever we must believe that we are intersectional beings and that we are in this shit storm together. This will enable us to mobilize and truly work for one another.

Rewire: News recently broke that In the Country We Love may be turned into a TV show, which would be groundbreaking for kids in mixed-status families who’ve never seen their realities reflected in media. What does this mean to you?

DG: This is a wonderful opportunity to bring real stories about real people to life. Our society is greatly influenced by entertainment. My goal was to reflect what our country is going through at this moment. It will be a chance to educate people about the immigration system and put to rest many misconceptions about undocumented people living in America. It will also be an opportunity to comment on the American justice system and how it works well for some but not all.

Rewire: Do you have any regrets associated with sharing your story?

DG: No, it has brought me closer to who I am and my truth. I now feel as if I am an active member of society. I want to help a community that often feels marginalized and unheard. I believe in our community and in our potential to achieve great things, including social justice. This is why I regret nothing.

Rewire: Hundreds of thousands of parents have been deported during the last eight years. As someone who has been hurt by the immigration system in the same way, what advice would you give the children of the deported about how to operate in the world when your parents have been taken?

DG: The advice that I would share would be to prepare as much as possible. Although it is difficult, now is the time to work 100 percent harder than before, given the political climate. Know that you are valuable and that you too belong here. More than ever must you be politically active and know your rights. This is a chance for you to make a difference.

This interview has been edited lightly for length.