'The Pain Was So Deep': OITNB Star Diane Guerrero on Her Family's Deportation

In her new memoir, "In the Country We Love," actress Diane Guerrero depicts the impact of a family torn apart by US immigration policy.

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Jul 12 2016, 6:29pm

Image by Johnny Louis

Earlier this year, Orange Is the New Black star Diane Guerrero authored a compelling portrait of her experience as a citizen child of undocumented parents who were deported to Colombia when the actress was 14. Guerrero's parents, whom she consistently refers to as mami and papi in her new memoir, In the Country We Love: My Family Divided, were two of 190,000 immigrant parents deported in 2001.

"My deportation story is part of the American story," Guerrero tells me by phone when I ask what she'd hoped to accomplish with the book's publication. "Just because our parents came here as immigrants doesn't mean we are less American, and it doesn't mean that we are less human."

Read More: Coming Out as an Undocumented Immigrant in the Age of Trump

Guerrero, who is currently reprising her role as Maritza Ramos in the new season of OITNB, chronicled her family's separation and her rise to fame in In the Country We Love, which she co-authored with Michelle Burford. Some may interpret the memoir as strictly the autobiography of a successful young actress from one of the most popular binge-worthy digital series. But it is indeed a candid reminder that citizen children of undocumented parents face the risk of being separated from their families at any given moment.

Guerrero as a child

On May 17, 2001, Guerrero's greatest fear was actualized: She found herself alone in the family home. "Where is everyone?" she remembers screaming after noticing a pair of her father's boots unlaced and unmuddied by the entrance. Her house, which would have normally been filled with the sounds of Spanish conversation and music, was instead silent and reeked of burnt plantains, abandoned by a mother who was detained while preparing her family's dinner. A neighbor who lived on the opposite end of their two-family home in Boston would confirm their detainment, telling Guerrero simply that her parents had been taken by immigration officers.

"Emotionally, you're never prepared for something like that," she says. "I knew I absolutely could not let my parents' sacrifice go to waste, and at 14 I thought, One day I will redeem them."

Emotionally, you're never prepared for something like that.

"What I prepared myself for was the possibility of them not being there when I got home, or [of] them being taken away in front of me," Guerrero continues. "My parents didn't see the need to hide [their immigration status] with me. They felt it was important to be honest with me. They saw me as a person who could make their own decisions, and they trusted me with that because, at a young age, I had this drive, and I had dreams that I wanted to accomplish."

That Thursday evening, she hid under her bed until Amelia, a family friend, responded to her calls. They packed suitcases for her parents to bring with them to Colombia before leaving for Amelia's house, where Guerrero would live for a year. While the prospect of her parents' deportation plagued most of Guerrero's childhood, she knew she had to be strong. She knew telling her parents that she would remain in America—while they were deported to the country they'd left in hopes for a better life—would be difficult. What she didn't know was that the government would overlook her existence entirely.

"After my parents were snatched away, no government official checked up on me. No one seemed to care or even notice that I was on my own," she writes in In the Country We Love.

Guerrero would come to rely on herself and on the grace of friends who housed the teen until college, where the anxiety of being separated from her family finally crescendoed. Despite her apparent resilience, Guerrero recalls feeling immensely fragile. In college, she resorted to self-mutilation and binge drinking. "I would have been dead by now," she says. "I couldn't take it. The pain was so deep. It was so deep."

Like many citizen children of deported parents, Guerrero had suffered from the impact of US immigration policies. A study by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights found that children of detained or deported parents were 2.5 times more likely to experience mental health problems in the wake of their separation. A big part of what Guerrero communicates in In the Country We Love is the fact that the emotional wellness of immigrant children is often overlooked.

"For so many years, I felt silenced," she says. "I felt like nobody heard me. Nobody heard my family. You know, [I] was just forgotten. Like I never existed."

After my parents were snatched away, no government official checked up on me. No one seemed to care or even notice that I was on my own.

While xenophobia infiltrates the rhetoric of elected officials and presidential candidates, Guerrero wants children to know that they matter and that their immigration stories are part of the American story.

"Let's stop looking at 'immigration' like such a dirty word," Guerrero says. "These Trumps will try to manipulate it and make it seem dirty and like you should be ashamed. You should not be ashamed. You should not be ashamed of your story, of who you are, of who your parents are."

When asked why she decided to write the memoir, she says, "It was just time."

"I saw the conversation brought up in the news a lot. I saw people commenting on the immigration system in this country, but no one was speaking to people like me who'd actually gone through [having] their family deported," she says. "I thought this was the right time to say something. I saw that I had a platform with Orange Is the New Black, and I figured it was a way to get involved and to be part of the movement and the conversation."

Unlike her character in OITNB, Guerrero does not lament a wasted youth. She instead credits her disrupted past as motivation to help immigrant communities and children in similar situations. She now works with the Immigration Legal Resource Center and Mi Familia Vota, both nonprofit organizations that aim to respectively advance immigrants' rights and inspire young Latinos to become politically engaged. Guerrero admits she doesn't have all the answers to comprehensive immigration reform, but she's hopeful for it.

"The country was built on immigrants, you know. We need to recognize that," Guerrero says. "Yes, my family was affected. Yes, I was affected. I don't want any more families to go through this. We can [influence reform] by understanding one another and by recognizing that immigrant communities and undocumented communities contribute a lot to this country."