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At 14, Orange Is the New Black actress Diane Guerrero found herself alone and on her own when her parents were seized from their Boston home and deported back to Colombia in 2000. The now-29-year-old actress recounts that pivotal moment and her life after in her riveting new memoir In the Country We Love: My Divided Family (Henry Holt, May 3). In the harrowing and heart-wrenching tale, Guerrero tells how she came home one day and found her family gone — dinner was still on the stove. Her parents had been taken into custody by immigration agents and were soon deported to Colombia. Guerrero writes about how immigration agents were indifferent to the idea that they had left a young child on her own and how she moved in with friends, finished high school and even made it to college. But alongside this story of resilience and success, Guerrero charts the personal cost of her parent’s deportation and the psychological toll — depression, cutting, thoughts of suicide. She also makes a case for immigration reform, following a 2014 Los Angeles Times op-ed were she first revealed her family’s story. Guerrero talked with The Hollywood Reporter about the book, how she coped with the deportation and the one thing she’d change about American immigration policy.
The only thing about your title that I might have changed is the subtitle – I would’ve added ‘My Life Divided.’
Yeah, that’s a great idea, maybe for paperback.
You were left, basically, alone to take care of yourself at the age of 14. What was that like at first?
My whole journey has been going through these stages of grief. I describe the day as sort of my family unit dying. I know that sounds drastic but that’s really what it felt like. You’re left really kind of hopeless and not knowing what your next move is and not being able to see your parents and them really having no control over what happens to me or to them. So, you know, I think I kind of just walked around, zombie-like for a little bit. I would be with people who love me and people who were supportive of me, so during the day I tried to be as normal as possible. But at night, I would, it would all come back and I would remember that I wasn’t with my folks and they were sleeping elsewhere, and I was not in my bed, and I was sleeping in someone else’s bed.
How about the practical aspects of your living situation?
After I had my moments of freak-outs and me being upset over the fact that my parents were gone, I had to gear up at the same time and think about what my next moves were. My father always told me that this was a possibility in our lives, that we were, you know, in danger of this happening to us, so I just had it very clear in my mind that I wanted to succeed in whatever I did even though I didn’t have many resources. I was going to look for different ways that I would help myself. If I couldn’t go to the best school, I looked at the interests that I had, I looked at what I was good at, and I went and applied for an art school. I found a school that was supportive that could offer a lot to me. So second was just keeping that hope alive. Believing anything that I wanted to do, if I worked hard enough, that I could achieve it. There were many times that I fell down and felt like, I don’t know, ‘This is a lie. Everything my parents told me was a lie. If I work hard enough it doesn’t matter; everything bad is going to happen.’ I think that as I put that into practice I saw small feats and small successes in my life, and so I said, ‘You know what? I’m going to keep on trying and I’m not just doing this for myself but for my family.’ I sort of felt like I needed to redeem our story. Something good had to come out of it or else I was going to freaking lose it.
What were some small successes along the way?
Well, personally, discovering my love for the arts and how much it helped me cope with my parents, with my family separation.
You were lucky you had people who took you in, but it still must have been a very uncertain experience. You’re essentially a guest in somebody’s home — what was that like?
I felt very loved and very protected, but you know, at the end of the day, it’s not your house, it’s not your home, it’s not your family, so I sort of was on pins and needles for my stay. Also, the way I grew up, if I behaved poorly or didn’t represent my family well, that was looked down upon. I always wanted to, to the smallest detail, make my parents proud. When I lived with these families, I made sure that I didn’t bother them, and I wanted to be as quiet as a mouse so they wouldn’t even notice I was there. Later, they let me know how much I meant to them and of course they mean a lot to me, so it worked out.
There’s a lot of revealing stuff in the book about you and your family, personal stuff about your struggles with depression and cutting. Did you hesitate at all about including that?
Oh, absolutely. I didn’t want to talk about any of that. I was like, “No, actually, this book is about the immigration system, about the family and about that. There’s no need to talk about myself.” However, as I started writing, it became harder and harder to not talk about my mental health and what the separation did to my emotional and mental stability. As I was learning more about other families who had been separated and also learning about my family and knowing what was going on in my family and what kind of damage was done it became impossible not to talk about it. I thought it was very important to also talk about that sort of damage that happens when a family is separated in this way and the anxiety that we felt in this country and how desperately my parents tried to become documented, to have a place in this country we love. That’s why I chose that title, because there’s a lot of misconception out there that undocumented people and undocumented families don’t love this country and just don’t care about having the proper documentation, which is simply not true. I know that for a fact because I lived it and I saw how much my parents strived for that.
You lived such a normal life on the surface — graduating high school, attending college, even spending a semester abroad — and yet of course your life was anything but normal. Your parents had been deported, you lived with friends, you barely had the money to go to college. What was it like being a college student at that moment?
I so desperately wanted that normal life. I so desperately wanted to fit in. There was a trajectory, and obviously, our society tells us, that you go to high school, you graduate, and then you go to college, and from there, you get an internship, you get a job, and some people study abroad, and there are so many things you see that you desperately want to be a part of. I’m an American, and I want all these [things]. It is all part of that American dream, that fantasy, so I was going to be a normal American at all costs. I was really trying to do that; however, of course, I would get caught up in the societal differences between me and some of my college friends, and obviously it was hard. Sometimes I couldn’t make it to class because I didn’t have enough money to pay for my classes, so I had to juggle. I was just trying to strive for that. I think if I knew then what I know how, I would have been like, “Hey, Diane, it’s OK to take your time, it’s OK to know that you don’t learn like everybody else.” Maybe you need to go for something different. Maybe you need to pace yourself, but I wanted everything so fast because the stakes were so high.
Immigration, as you know, is a big topic of discussion during the presidential campaign. What do you think when you hear Donald Trump talk or hear anti-immigrant rhetoric?
At first I was like really annoyed by it, but now I think it’s silly. For me, any type of intolerance or any type of negative rhetoric like that, to me, it doesn’t even deserve comment. The important thing is, and I think that we’ve seen that, is that we’re just going to see a rise of people getting involved and getting off their butts and really getting politically involved, involved in their communities and going out to vote. It’s important that we vote because this is how we can bring about change and bring about reform, and, honestly, I don’t see Donald Trump, anything that he’s saying to be effective or comprehensive. Instead of really uniting our country — we are the United States of America — he is dividing us. I think that more than ever, we need a person who is going to unite us, so we’ll see what happens. I think people want immigration reform. I think people want to see a path for citizenship. I don’t think we as a country want to discuss this in the way we do. I don’t think we want to separate families, I don’t think that’s part of our values.
Do you think it helps when people like you tell their stories so it’s not just the stories of undocumented people, but children left behind and families who are broken up. Do you think that makes a difference in the way people think about immigration?
I hope so. I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t trying. This is me trying to humanize this issue because it’s not just a political issue, it’s a human issue. I want to bring to light the families involved because it’s so damaging to our country, it’s so damaging to families to do this to our communities and the kids who are left behind. The kids who are left behind are American citizens — like it or not, they are part of this country. If we leave them and we’re not caring for them and we don’t care what happens to their families, and they just stay in this cycle of poverty and disillusionment and fear, then we’re not doing anything for our country. I hope it motivates people to not only look at immigration as an important issue but also see in themselves that they can do more with their lives than the cards that they have been given. This book needs to get to those little small communities with people who don’t believe in themselves and people who don’t think that their voice matters. I want to reach the little girls just like me when I was 14, who thought her world was over.
If you were president for the day and could make one change in immigration policy, what’s the one thing you would do?
I would update the visa system, and I would have members in Congress who care about this issue and who want to make changes now and not people who are going to insult us and not people who are going to ignore us. Those are some of the moves I would make. I’m not a policy expert of course, but I think that from the knowledge that I do have, I would say that the visa system needs updating and then we can go from there.
Is there anything else you want to say about the book?
It’s just a story about a girl. Look at it like that, in the simplest terms. There are real families behind this issue, and I don’t think we should be living in a world where some groups think they’re better than others and some are marginalized and some are thought as less than them. That’s it.
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