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Diane Guerrero, in the studio to record the audio version of her memoir.

Family divided

Diane Guerrero’s immigration nightmare: “I’m not an expert, but I’m using what I have”

May 13, 2016

From an early age, American actress Diane Guerrero has had a fearful relationship with the word “deported.”

“With every ring of my family’s doorbell, with every police car passing on the street, a horrifying possibility hung in the air,” reads the opening to her new memoir, In the Country We Love: My Family Divided. “My parents might one day be sent back to Colombia.”

While recording an audio version of the book at a studio in New York City in April, a poised 29-year-old Guerrero told Women in the World how that worry became her family’s truth.

The only natural-born United States citizen in her family, Guerrero was also the best English speaker and remembers interpreting bills for her father, Hector, and her mother, Maria, as they worked to maintain life under the radar in Boston after immigrating from Colombia. Her childhood was marked as much by day trips to the beach as her fear of police officers or being pulled over. Both of her parents actively sought citizenship and followed recommendations from community networks of other undocumented people, investing thousands of dollars in legal processes that ultimately proved to be scams. Forced to remain silent on their reality, the family internalized the constant fear and trauma for years.

In May 2001, Guerrero returned from the audition-only performing arts high school she attended to find the front door to her house unlocked and open. Both of her parents were gone, taken separately by immigration officers to gender-specific detention centers. She was alone.

No government official ever came to check on the 14-year-old, who says she “simply fell through the bureaucratic cracks.”

Before they were kicked out of the country, Guerrero saw her mother and father in visitation rooms, wearing handcuffs like the ones the award-winning actress has donned in her role as Maritza in Netflix’s Orange is the New Black. She lived with friends until college but kept her parents’ status from even her closest friends for fear of being judged. After the deportation, feelings of abandonment led to self-isolation. She didn’t speak to her mother or father for seven years. By her early twenties, she was hospitalized for self-mutilation, floating through depression and suicide attempts.

“You have to sit in your s***, because if you don’t, you’re going to implode. A lot of times that’s what happened to me,” she said. By 2014, when Guerrero hit primetime as the bubbly BFF character in The CW’s Jane The Virgin, she was driven to go public and write an op-ed for The Los Angeles Times about her relationship to deportation. “I saw so many people and they had all this courage. Here I am, I’m a citizen of this country, and I went through something very personal with the immigration system, and I’m not saying anything. I felt selfish. I felt like I was hiding.”

“I just couldn’t breathe anymore,” Guerrero said, expressively gesturing her hands as she described her ongoing transition toward activism. “How can I not?”

In The Country We Love begs the reader to consider the mental health of undocumented people, of which there are 11 million living in the United States. Among Guerrero’s memories of the embarrassment and frustration of scam lawyers are her parent’s struggles to understand the temperament of her teenage older brother, Eric, who then had undiagnosed depression. “My brother had a different dad, and [he had] his issues with feeling undocumented, feeling like his options were limited growing up in the States, and then friction that he and my dad had. It’s not just people jumping over the border and then working in the fields.”

Guerrero corrects herself quickly: “Yes, that’s some of it. We have different stories.”

With therapy and “a great relationship,” storylines have also contributed to the improvement of her wellbeing as of late: projects that keep the rising star busy are popular examples of how diverse television can and should be done. A lead character in the dynamic Hispanic family on Jane The Virgin struggles with complications from living without documentation in the United States, a true-to-life plot line on the often-outrageous comedy that struck a chord with viewers for bringing the story of a immigrant – a grandmother, no less – to primetime.

Guerrero told her story to executive producer Jennie Snyder Urman while auditioning for her role as Jane’s best friend Lina. “It felt like a gut punch,” Synder Urman said. “It was really at that point the reason we were so determined to spend time on that storyline for our show.”

When asked about the personal meaning of that Jane the Virgin plotline, Guerrero paused thoughtfully. “I knew that I was working for people that I could trust.”

She hopes the memoir will reach young people who feel alone as they come of age, especially women. Growing up, she “only wanted to be ‘normal’” – white, rich, with American-born parents. “The hilarious thing is, I had no idea what white people did or didn’t do — or, for that matter, how anyone lived behind closed doors,” she writes. Such insecurities are on the out as the actress finds her footing: Reconnected with her parents, who still live outside of the United States, she credits her experience penning the book with co-author Michelle Burford as an aid in her self-expression. Guerrero now works to help undocumented people connect to trustworthy resources with Immigrant Legal Resource Center and with Mi Familia Vota, she’s on the ground encouraging young people of color to vote.

“I don’t have a PhD. I don’t know everything. I’m not a policymaker, I’m not an expert, but I’m using what I have. I’m learning,” she said. “You can do that too.”

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