Diane Guerrero didn’t plan on becoming an immigration advocate. When she was just 14, her family was deported to Colombia, leaving her alone in the United States to figure out her future at a young age.
“I experienced a very full childhood, so when it was taken away, it was like the wind had been knocked out of me,” Guerrero told HuffPost in an interview. “I couldn’t wait to learn how to drive. I couldn’t wait to go to prom. I couldn’t wait to sing in my senior recital and have my parents see that, and, unfortunately, that time never came.”
Now, seeing news headlines that mirror her own story of deportation and family separation, the 33-year-old actor uses her platform to demand political reform, shift the narrative on immigration and stand up for her community.
“We’ve seen so many attacks on our community, from the 700 people who were detained in Mississippi, most of them parents, to the attacks in El Paso and the children in cages that’s been happening for two years,” Guerrero said. “It’s incredible that people still are not able to see how this is wrong and how we need to change the system.”
Decades later, the “Orange Is the New Black” star is still reeling from the trauma of her family’s deportation. Since she was a young child, her parents had been candid with her about their undocumented status. Guerrero, who has birthright citizenship, lived in fear that one day she would return home to find her family gone — a fear that eventually materialized.
“The first thing that a child feels regardless of the facts is that it is their fault,” Guerrero said. “In any circumstances, whether the child stays behind or the child has to go back, it’s that — they internalize it.”
She says her path to stardom has been “pure luck” and suggests there could have been many different outcomes to her journey following the trauma of her childhood. She says the sound of the phone ringing or of sirens outside made her uneasy from a young age. The constant anxiety about her family’s fate haunted her.
“I internalized it and said, ‘What did I do? What did I do to make this happen?’” Guerrero said. “And so you live your life sort of walking on eggshells, fearing that your life is just going to implode at any minute or that you’ll ... ruin somebody else’s life.”
Guerrero uses this trauma in her work to advocate for immigrant communities, to promote awareness about the flaws in the immigration system and tell the stories of families like her own who simply wanted a better life for themselves.
“Do you really think my fight is about open borders?” Guerrero said. “Absolutely not. It’s about comprehensive immigration reform. It’s about starting a new system that is going to work because the system that is in place at the moment — it is set up to fail.”
Guerrero got her start as an actor by taking classes and auditioning for people’s music videos in their backyards. She submitted herself for “anything and everything,” eager to see just how far she could go.
“There’s times where you’re not where you want to be. It’s hard when you start seeing people that are ‘making it,’ whatever that means to you, but it’s a process,” said Guerrero, who penned a memoir, “In the Country We Love,” in 2016. “And if you respect the work and you respect yourself, then you’ll take your time.”
In 2013, she landed the role of Maritza Ramos in the hit Netflix series “Orange Is the New Black.” Maritza is an inmate at Litchfield Penitentiary who finds herself in a privately run Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facility by Season 7, which was released on the streaming service in late July.
Maritza’s story, along with those of several other inmates, depicts the heartbreaking reality for immigrants in detention facilities, and it’s not far off from Guerrero’s own story.
“I was inspired by Jenji Kohan and the creators of the show and also my incredible castmates who are also so outspoken about issues they’re passionate about,” Guerrero said. “I was very motivated to speak about my life and be a source of change in my own way.”
Most recently, she played a misfit superhero named Crazy Jane in the first season of “Doom Patrol,” a DC Universe comic show. Her character has 64 personalities and 64 superpowers to match, which has allowed her to explore the many facets of the human psyche and the importance of mental health.
Guerrero is also known for playing Lina on “Jane the Virgin,” a heartwarming, comedic telenovela about a Venezuelan-American author who is accidentally artificially inseminated and becomes pregnant.
For a long time, this country has had a problem imagining anyone other than white people have everyday normal experiences, to fantastical to the most traumatic. Diane Guerrero, actor and immigration advocate
For Guerrero, playing these wildly different roles means that she gets to break stereotypes and reflect what the world and what her community in particular actually look like.
“I played an inmate at a jail because that is a real story,” Guerrero said. “On the other hand, another real story is a young woman who wants to be a writer, who can experience artificial insemination in the weirdest way. For a long time, this country has had a problem imagining anyone other than white people have everyday normal experiences, to fantastical to the most traumatic.”
The millions of viewers who watch Guerrero take on these different roles learn about the issues that affect immigrants, whether that’s traditional Hispanic cultural values or the prison system. Guerrero said she has received feedback from friends and family who have been educated through her roles on popular television shows.
Without a strong community and a support system of family and friends who took care of her, Guerrero said, she wouldn’t be where she is today. She also credits her mother, father and brother for teaching her powerful values from their Colombian heritage.
“They showed me a world of possibilities, and that really stuck with me,” Guerrero said. “My dad would always show me to hold my head up high when I’m dancing because that is to show security and to show power and elegance.”
Guerrero said she hopes her work reaches out to children and people with similar experiences as her own and lets them know they have an entire community behind them that understands their pain.
“My community is represented in me and everything that I do,” Guerrero said. “So that’s what I love the most out of being the actor. I know little girls can look at me and see me and say, ‘Oh, I recognize that love.’”
And hopefully her acting, storytelling and advocacy will motivate others to stand up for themselves and seek help when they need it.
“The most important thing you can do for yourself is give yourself a chance,” Guerrero said. “That’s exactly what I did. … You don’t have to start out knowing all of these things or being the best. You have a place in this world.”
Nuestras Voces Unidas (Our Voices United) is a HuffPost series created to honor Hispanic Heritage Month and amplify the diverse voices within the community. Find all of our coverage here.