In 2001, Diane Guerrero was 14 and living in Boston with her family when she came home from school to terrible news: Earlier that day, her parents had been detained by immigration officers. Eventually, they were deported to Colombia.
“When you’re the child of undocumented immigrants, you learn to keep your mouth shut,” Guerrero writes in her new book, “In the Country We Love.” But in 2014, the actress (“Orange Is the New Black,” “Jane the Virgin”) broke her silence, writing an article for the Los Angeles Times about her experience. The response was enormous and even prompted an invitation to meet President Obama. Since then, Guerrero, who was born in the United States, has become an activist for immigration rights and an ambassador for citizenship and naturalization for the White House.
In her book, she writes frankly and affectingly about how she made her way on her own; she also shares fond memories of her family’s life together in America: “Papi sticking his head out of the screen door simply to check on me and my friends. Mami stirring her stew while humming and swiveling her hips to the rhythm of cumbia or the sounds of her novelas.. . .My wonder years.”
In an email interview, she discussed her childhood, her book and why she decided to speak out.
What motivated you to go public with your family’s experience?
I decided to come forth with my story for the millions of undocumented people in this country — for the mothers, fathers and children separated from their families by deportation. Currently, we have an immigration system in need of repair. I hope those [people] this book reaches come together and take action and become part of the immigration reform movement. To rise and say, “We are not afraid,” to become politically active and to show our political power in the polls when electing officials who represent our communities, officials who are going to fight for a path for citizenship, people who are going to be bold and fight for justice.
How did your parents’ immigration status affect your life as a child?
I learned at a very young age that my parents were undocumented. My parents have always been very honest with me. This created a lot of anxiety for me growing up.
Tell us about the day your parents were taken.
It was the worst day of my life. I realized from then on that life was going to be very difficult. However, my parents taught me to be resilient and resourceful; therefore, I knew I was going to fight for my place in the world.
How did you get through the next years: Who helped you? How did you pay for college?
I was very lucky and had a strong circle of family friends. They looked after me while I finished school. I worked while in high school and college so that I could pay for school. I also had loans.
When was the last time you saw your parents — and what was that like?
This past Christmas. It was great. We did many things together. When we get together, we try to do what we normally would have if we still lived together. We made sure we did family outings like art shopping, monuments and sight-seeing, dinners. My dad even took me to a water park! We go to church, and we even have days were I can just sit around and say nothing. My parents are very proud of me, and we enjoy each other’s company.
How are you helping them come back to the United States?
At the moment, my lawyers and I are revisiting my family’s case and seeing what can be done. My biggest wish and hope is to one day have them come back to the country we love.
What message do you hope people will take away from your book?
There are real families behind this issue, and there are huge consequences in separating families. The damage is far too great to ignore. We are real human beings, and our stories are of value. I want people to realize there is great potential in our communities and great benefits for our country to creating a path for citizenship. Long gone are the days when we should be simply “grateful” and continue to let others humiliate us and silence our plight. We need to be bold and unashamed of our story. We are people who contribute to this country and deserve a chance to do that legally.
I hope my book gives encouragement to a child out there who thinks that because of their situation they don’t matter. I want them to know that they do matter and that they can reach for the stars. I want them to know that there is a lot of work to be done, and they have the power for change.
By Diane Guerrero with Michelle Burford
Henry Holt. 257 pp. $26