Actress Diane Guerrero has become a familiar figure to many through her roles as Maritza Ramoson Orange Is the New Black and Lina on Jane the Virgin. But even her fellow cast members didn’t know that she had been on her own since age 14, when her parents were arrested and deported to Colombia.
In a memoir, In the Country We Love: My Family Divided, published Tuesday by Henry Holt and Company, the American-born 29-year-old tackles the personal side of the nation’s immigration debate.
*Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: You open your book on May 17, 2001. You were 14 years old. You came home from school. What did you find?
A: I came home from school and my parents were gone, and a neighbor came in and told me they had been taken away by Immigration. I knew what that meant, because we had lived in fear for so long that this day would come and then that fear came true. … They were here undocumented.
They overstayed their visas. They were fighting to find a path for citizenship and they kept trying and lawyers and really did — I mean, this is all they talked about, this is all we thought about every day, but to no avail.
Q: Did the Immigration service take care of you?
A: No, no one did. No one checked up. No one called. It was as if I’d never existed. I called my friend’s mother and we waited there to see what was going to happen, and nothing did. Even in school — I kept attending the same high school and we thought for sure somebody was going to come and check up, and we had this whole thing planned about what we were going to say and hopefully I could stay in school and hopefully I wouldn’t be taken away.
And we were waiting to see if any of that happened, but no one ever did. So we just decided that maybe the safest thing for me at that time, was just — if they didn’t come knocking, I shouldn’t stay anything myself, so I just kept quiet and pretended nothing had happened.
… The parent of a friend — she helped me and she took me in.
Q: How did things go for you?
A: You don’t think about all the psychological and emotional damage that happened and everything that I was suppressing and all my anger and fear and resentment and pain that started slowly creeping up. … I pretty much, I think, had PTSD because I was so, so traumatized by the whole experience.
Q: You suffered from depression; you drank a lot; you started cutting yourself.
A: I felt just really helpless and hopeless and I just felt like my life is ruined, my family’s life is ruined. I’m a very emotional person, if you can’t already tell. I didn’t know how to deal with everything, so I felt like I wasn’t worth anything anymore.
Q: You hear now from kids in similar situations. What advice do you give them?
A: As a kid I felt like I had no voice, felt like I had no options, and that’s what drove me to this really dark place. I wanted to go out there. I wanted to speak out. I wanted to use my voice but thought I couldn’t, thought that no one could relate to me. I want them to know that there are so many people that can connect to them, and could help them, and if we band together, if we work together, and become politically active, we can make some changes.
Q: There’s lots of talk about immigration in the presidential race this year. Donald Trump, the likely Republican nominee, says we should round up the 11 million people here with papers and deport them. What’s the impact when you hear that?
A: Well, I think he has a lot of people afraid and I think not just people who are undocumented, but people who are just citizens of this country, American citizens. He has them completely scared. … I don’t know how you’re going to round up 11 million people and deport them all. And I don’t see how that can be good for our economy and certainly not for families and I just don’t think it’s a good thing. Since when is it good to separate a family? …
It just puts fear in people that maybe they didn’t have before about immigrants and about people who are undocumented, and then vice versa, if you tell people, ‘We have to get these people out!’
Q: And the idea of building a wall along the southern border?
A: Believe me, a wall is not going to keep people away from their families. It’s not going to keep away people who are running away from dire situations.
Q: Your mother was deported twice and returned both times.
A: She was so desperate to get to me, to get back to me that she made that sacrifice, and she paid the ultimate price, believe me. She did. We all did. That didn’t keep her away.
Q: Voter turnout among Latinos historically has been low. Do you think that will be different this year?
A: I think that’s how I felt like in some of the neighborhoods where I grew up is that: ‘Oh, my vote doesn’t matter. No one cares about me.’ When you’ve grown up and people tell you that you’re less-than, that people tell you that your voice doesn’t matter, that you should go back to your country. I mean, people tell me to go back to my country, and I’m an American. … By me, a young person who is writing about this stuff and being unafraid, I hope, I hope will motivate people to also get involved and to say, ‘Hey, she came from the same place that I did and she is speaking out and she is unafraid and she says that her story has value, maybe mine does, too.’
Q: President Obama promised in two elections to pursue comprehensive immigration reform and didn’t deliver on it. So when Hillary Clinton says ‘I believe in comprehensive immigration reform,’ is there any feeling, ‘Yeah, we’ve heard this before?’
A: Yeah, I think that right now we need to really put people to the test. … I think it’s important to hold these candidates (in both parties) accountable to see what they’re going to do and make them talk about it, make them address the issue and not ignore and like, pivot, as I’ve learned.
Q: Before you wrote your book, did your co-workers know your story?
A: No. No. No, no, no. No one did. I confided in some people, but I really was determined to just be and not talk about it, I think until I started feeling bad again. I started feeling blue and upset because the immigration issue was what was open again.
Everyone was talking about it and yet I found myself not talking about it and not giving my input when I knew in my mind and in my heart I knew that I had so much to say because I had lived it.
Q: Fifteen years after your folks were deported, do they want to come back to the United States?
A: Oh, they want to, of course, and I want them to. I am so desperate for us to feel like a family again.