'OITNB' star Diane Guerrero on undocumented immigrants vs. American citizens: 'We're both breathing the same air'

For 31-year-old Diane Guerrero, the last four years have been equal parts exhilarating and exhausting. The New Jersey-born, Boston-raised actor first gained notoriety on the Netflix hit Orange Is the New Black and has since gone on to land roles on the CW’s Jane the Virgin and, most recently, CBS’s Superior Donuts. But after a few years in the spotlight, Guerrero felt compelled to reveal the pain she overcame to get there — namely, the deportation of her parents when she was just 14.

It’s a traumatic experience she details in her 2016 book, In the Country We Love: My Family Divided, recounting in excruciating detail the day she came home from her performing arts high school in Boston to find that her parents, in the midst of making dinner, had been ripped from their home. After being taken into custody by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), they were sent back to Colombia, where, 17 years later, they remain.

Guerrero was lucky enough to be taken in by a friend of the family, which allowed her to continue pursuing her dream of acting. But the pain of losing her parents during those critical years stings even now. On Monday night’s episode of Superior Donuts, she relived that trauma, playing a young Colombian-American woman who is worried about her brother getting deported. Ahead of the topical episode, Yahoo Lifestyle spoke to Guerrero about her role as an activist, how she wants to be defined, and why it matters that she plays a socially conscious food truck owner on TV.


Yahoo Lifestyle: The first time you told the story of your parents being deported was in 2014, with a beautiful op-ed in the L.A. Times. Now, with this current president, immigration is a daily headline. Do you ever get overwhelmed by your role in the fight?

Diane Guerrero: It’s the work that I have chosen to do. I’m happy to do it because it’s part of my life’s work — just like being an actor. I don’t want to be defined by this, especially now. But with everything that is going on — families being separated, communities living in so much fear — it’s just so important. I don’t want to stop because it’s not right.

As an American citizen, is there one particular narrative you’re looking to change among your peers?

Well, a lot of people are very hypocritical on this issue. It seems like people don’t know their history or something — as if this country wasn’t built by immigrants; as if this country wasn’t actually stolen from the people who were originally here. And so to have this sort of “This is mine, get off my property” attitude, that’s just never been me. Even kids in the neighborhood, you know, when I would hear “Get off my property.” It always struck a chord with me.

You would actually hear people say “Get off my property”?

I would hear that! In Boston, kids would say that — “Get off my property.” And thinking about it now, I’m sure they heard their dads or moms say stuff like that. But even then, it sounded so wrong to me. Like, how can you have ownership of land in this way? We’re both here breathing the same air — how dare you say get off your property? What is that? As a kid, I was very sensitive about those things. And then having my family separated, which was basically America saying, “Get the f*** off my property.”

I don’t want to live in a world where people are treated this way. And I know it happens, and I know it’s hard to try to fix everything. But what keeps me sane is that if I can actually do my part in some way and actually help — especially kids who are going through this thing, in a very crucial time of their development. I want them to know that they are heard and that they are not alone.

It’s fantastic that you do all of this work, but I imagine that seeing deportations constantly in the news takes a toll, given what you’ve been through.

Yes, it does. I get tired. [Tears up.] I guess it’s hard when you keep talking about it and you see comments from people, the way they talk about immigration and my community. They’re still so closed off and not at all understanding that — I don’t know what the solution is. Immigration is a very difficult subject. It’s a tricky thing, but we need to start making positive changes — not a wall, not 11 million deportations, but an actual solution. Coming up with an update with the visa system, creating a path to citizenship for people who are already here who have families here. Who are working here. I guess when I see that and I’m still talking about this stuff, it gets exhausting.

Also, I’m an artist; I’m an actor first and foremost. And I don’t want people to forget that. So when I see a headline calling me “Diane Guerrero, the girl with the deported parents,” it hurts me because that doesn’t define me — it’s not who I am. I’m about so many things, not just that. And the way these publications use it is irresponsible, and violent at times, because they’re not understanding that in order for me to best be heard is to share my story or talk about me in a way that is going to be more relatable to folks. When people hear the word “deported,” they don’t want to talk about it.

Photo: Getty Images

I think one huge thing you’re doing is shattering the notion that people who are undocumented are lazy, and not trying to become citizens. Your parents were actively trying to be here legally.

Exactly. It’s not like we don’t want to be American, it’s not that we don’t want to assimilate. It’s not that we don’t care about this country. There’s simply no path for citizenship. And there’s a whole argument, “Well, you came here illegally; you should have left and done it the right way.” There is no right way. My family came here to work, just like your ancestors did. Just because my parents came over in the 1980s and yours came over on the Mayflower doesn’t make your family more deserving of being here than mine. That’s the kind of hypocrisy that I’m talking about.

One thing about Superior Donuts that I loved is that your food truck is socially conscious food. Is it important for you to portray that character on TV, and are you into that movement yourself?

Absolutely. I try to participate in that at all times. I forget about it when I’m stuffing a cheeseburger in my mouth. [Laughs.] But yeah, of course I am. Especially, a lot of underprivileged families that don’t have access to clean foods, to vegetables; all of that stuff is really expensive. It’s so important for kids in these communities to get a full, balanced meal, but a lot of times that’s a hard thing to talk about because a lot of these kids can’t. These parents can’t afford that, or don’t have the education to make these health choices. So being a woman of color on television having a truck that is all about health and healthy food is great for me. That’s the kind of woman that I want to play — a woman who is smart and has opinions and cares about what she eats. Someone who is aware of the health benefits and aware of how much better your life can be if you are feeding it with healthy food, It’s something that my community really needs. So it’s great as a woman of color to play Sofia.

 

A lot of what you advocate for is immigration reform, but you also touch on mental health issues in your book. In the aftermath of your parents’ deportation, you suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder and depression. It took a lot of work to make it through those things — and still does. 

Every day.

So for people in the midst of those battles now, what do you want them to know?

Know that you’re not alone. It doesn’t mean you’re crazy. We all have to take care of our mental health in order to get to that next step — whether it is to wake up the next day and do your work or to reach a goal in your fitness. Whatever it is, you have to be mentally stable and know yourself. If I hadn’t understood that I had mental health issues, I don’t think I would have been able to do the things that I’m doing now. So many of us run around with our heads cut off trying to understand what the hell is wrong with us. Why can’t I do my homework on time? Why can’t I be in a healthy relationship? Things like that. When you get to know yourself, you find out what’s best for you and what you deserve — that’s important. I wouldn’t be able to get to the next step if my mental health wasn’t right. It’s debilitating.

That’s an important thing to realize, that it can preclude you from achieving what you want to.

Yeah, a lot of people don’t see it clearly as “I need to fix this in order to get here.” So, if you’re not seeing your life going where you want it to be, then it’s probably because you need to further understand yourself, and take care of yourself in that way. And that’s the first thing you need to take care of, yourself. I’m still working on it; it’s a lifelong thing — it just is.

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