On Capitol Hill, the immigration debate is a political story. But for millions of people across the country, it is something deeper. "This is not a political issue; it is a human issue," says Diane Guerrero. "Me and my parents were a family, and now we're not. We're separated."
The American-born actress, now known for her roles in Orange Is the New Black and Jane the Virgin, was 14 years old when her parents and older brother were deported to Colombia. She remembers coming home from school to find her dad's car in the driveway and dinner on the stove, but the house empty. "At first, I did break down and cry," she says. She went to visit her parents in jail, and they gave her the option to travel to Colombia with them. Guerrero felt that she had to stay here in the U.S. "I have to finish my studies, and I have to work really hard, and try to get my family back together," she thought.
Guerrero admits that she lived "in the shadows" for years. "I could have disappeared and nobody would've known anything," she says. But as her career picked up, she felt she had to speak out. In November, she wrote an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times. "I was so scared," she remembers. "I want to be viewed like a serious actress, and I'm afraid that people are just going to see me as the poor little girl whose parents were deported when she was 14." The piece sparked some criticism, but also earned strong support from families who had been through the same thing. "That made it all worth it," she says.
On why Guerrero decided to share her story
Once I started advancing in my career, I stopped wanting to hide from my reality. And it was really difficult when people would ask me where I've come from, what my roots were, and what my childhood was like without avoiding the question, or being vague, or even lying. That's how embarrassed I felt, or afraid to share my story. I didn't think that people would understand. But as I'm coming into my own, I'm feeling I don't want to hide anymore.
On why she didn't go to Colombia with her parents
That was a lot of the response from the letter — angry people — "Why didn't she just go back with her parents?" Well, it wasn't that easy. Our financial situation wasn't stable. Anybody who lives in Colombia knows that if you don't have any money — I tell you what — you don't have many options.
On people who say, "But your parents broke the law"
The fact of the matter is that my parents were here and stayed, and tried to amend their situation. And because there wasn't really a way to do things — I suppose — clearly, this is what happened.
On whether her family situation informs her work as an artist
Absolutely. I feel like you can't really be truthful as an artist and empathize with the human experience, unless you know your truth and you're not living a lie. So I'm learning through it, and it's making me a better person, and it's making me a better artist, I think.
Diane and Michel will head to Miami later this month to hear more about how immigration is shaping the American story. Michel will host an event there in partnership with member station WLRN.
Share your immigrant story with us by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
A central question in the passionate debate over immigration is how people in this country illegally should be treated. Some feel it is justified in some cases to deport them. Others see that as inhumane. This month, NPR's Michel Martin is looking at some of the stories behind the debate. She begins with an actress some of you may recognize.
MICHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Immigration is a deeply political story, but for millions of people in the U.S., immigration is also deeply personal. We're talking about people like actress Diane Guerrero. These days, she's riding high. She's featured in not one, but two hit shows, "Orange Is The New Black" and "Jane The Virgin." But at the age of 14, hers was a very different story. She was born in the U.S., but she was left in this country alone after her parents and older brother were deported to Columbia. It's a far more common scenario that many people may realize in an era when the U.S. has stepped up enforcement of immigration laws. But it's not one that many people want to talk about. So when I met Diane Guerrero, I asked her why she wanted to talk about it.
DIANE GUERRERO: Well, once I started advancing in my career, I kind of stopped wanting to hide from my reality. And it was really difficult when people would ask me, you know, where I've come from, what my roots were and what my childhood was like without avoiding the question or being vague or even lying. That's how embarrassed I felt or afraid to share my story. I didn't think that people would understand. But as I'm coming into my own, I'm feeling, you know, I don't want to hide anymore, and I think that the country is ready to talk about this issue. And I wanted to be part of that conversation.
MARTIN: You first wrote about your family situation - your parents being deported - in The LA Times back in November. When you wrote the piece and when you hit that button, you know, sending it in...
GUERRERO: Mhm. (Laughter).
MARTIN: ...How did you feel?
GUERRERO: I was so scared. I was so scared because I want to be viewed like a serious actress. And I'm afraid that people are just going to see me as the poor little girl whose parents were deported when she was 14. So I was really afraid to be looked at that way. But then when I saw the overwhelming response from other people and other families who had been through the same thing, that made it all worth it.
MARTIN: Look, I know it can't be easy to talk about, but do you mind taking us back to that day?
MARTIN: It's my understanding, you know - what happened? I mean, you came home from school, and they weren't there?
GUERRERO: Yeah. You know, it was kind of always a fear in the back of our minds but you never really actually think it will happen just because you're like, oh, everything's fine. You know, we have lawyers working on this. But I walked in, and they weren't there. My dad's car was there, and dinner was started but it wasn't finished. And then the neighbors came and told me the bad news. So that was a pretty traumatic day for me. It wasn't easy.
MARTIN: You'd mentioned earlier that you grew up with this kind of hanging over your heads.
MARTIN: You were born here.
MARTIN: You're an American citizen.
MARTIN: So you yourself were not in jeopardy. So, you know, some parents don't tell their kids the truth about their situation. When you were growing up, how was this talked about? What did they say to you?
GUERRERO: My parents have always been really honest with me. If we did face a situation, my dad always wanted me - he didn't want me to be with my los brazos cruzados, you know, my arms crossed, not knowing what to do. So he sort of prepared me for the day, and I knew exactly what to do.
MARTIN: What did you do?
GUERRERO: Well, I mean, at first, I did, you know, break down and cry and curl up into a little ball and hide under my bed. But then I got up and, you know, you had to go visit your parents in jail. And then they gave me the option, you know, what do you want to do? And I go, you know, I want to stay here. I have to finish my studies, and I have to work really hard and try to get my family back together.
And I know a lot of people say, well, why don't you just go back with your parents, you know? That was a lot of their response from the letter, you know, angry people. Why didn't she just go back with her parents? Well, it wasn't that easy. Our financial situation wasn't stable. Anybody who lives in Colombia knows that if you don't have any money, I'll tell you what, you don't have many options.
MARTIN: One thing that struck me in your piece is that you say that not a single person at any level of government took any note of me. No one checked to see if I had a place to live...
MARTIN: ...Or food to eat. And at 14, I found myself basically on my own.
MARTIN: Now it's true you also say in the piece that friends took you in and...
MARTIN: ...But what was that like? Did it strike you at the time that I could just disappear and no one would know?
GUERRERO: Oh, absolutely. I could've disappeared, and nobody would've known anything. Yet I was the American citizen, right? And they went and knew about my parents, which is funny, but I - you know, I just kept on living. I mean, I was also scared. I walked around with the fear that maybe I would be taken away, you know. But I just didn't want to rock the boat. I just kept on kind of in the shadows and - which is why I wrote the letter because I'm tired of being in the shadows.
MARTIN: You know, it's true you got a big outpouring of support from people saying that's my story, too. But you got a lot of other people who were really angry...
MARTIN: ...And saying, look, you know, your parents broke the law.
MARTIN: And you should've just gone back with them and, you know, sorry for you but...
MARTIN: ...That's the law, and they have to live with the consequences of it.
GUERRERO: The fact of the matter is that my parents were here and stayed and tried to amend their situation. And because there wasn't really a way to do things, I suppose, clearly, this is what happened. You know, and I feel like this is not a political issue. It is a human issue, and me and my parents were a family and now we're not. You know, we're separated.
MARTIN: How are your folks, by the way? I know you've been able to see them by going to Colombia.
GUERRERO: Yeah. I was just there.
MARTIN: Do they know that you're a big shot now?
GUERRERO: (Laughter) Well, yeah, well, big shot, huh? No, not - (laughter).
MARTIN: Do they know that you're a hot ticket now?
GUERRERO: A hot ticket? Oh, my God. That is such a Boston thing to say. I'm from Boston.
MARTIN: But no, they would say a hawt (ph) ticket.
GUERRERO: A hawt (ph) ticket. Right. Oh, Diane, you're such a hawt (ph) ticket.
MARTIN: A hawt (ph) ticket.
GUERRERO: That's so funny. I could have gone in any direction, and I think they're seeing that I went in the right one. And they're really proud of me.
MARTIN: Do you feel that this situation has informed your work as an actress?
GUERRERO: Absolutely. I feel like you can't really be truthful as an artist and empathize with the human experience unless you know your truth and you're not living a lie. So I'm learning through it, and it's making me a better person. And it's making me a better artist, I think.
MARTIN: Diane Guerrero is an actress on "Jane The Virgin" and the Netflix series "Orange Is The New Black." She was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York. Diane Guerrero, thanks so much for speaking with us.
GUERRERO: No, thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.