Confronting her past
At 14, the “Orange Is the New Black” actress found herself alone in Boston after her parents were deported to Colombia. She hid her troubled history for years. Now, Diane Guerrero wants immigration reform.
iane Guerrero knew there was something wrong. The apartment was too quiet. In the kitchen her mother’s coffee cup sat half full on the table. There was a pot of uncooked rice on the stove, and sliced plantains were piled on a plate. A meal on pause. “Where is everyone?’’ screamed the Boston Arts Academy freshman. “Mami, Papi — I’m home!”
A neighbor appeared and told her that immigration officials had taken her family from their home near Egleston Square. Alone and petrified, the 14-year-old closed the blinds, turned off the lights, and hid under a bed. She called the mother of one of her best friends, who said they’d be right over. Before she left that night with her friend’s family, she watched as other neighbors swarmed into the apartment to steal food from her family’s refrigerator.
On a recent morning, about 15 years after that day in May, Guerrero pulled up to her old high school, returning for the first time since graduation in 2004. She had been invited back to tell the students the story of her life.
Today she is a successful 29-year-old actress, known for her starring roles on “Orange Is the New Black” and “Jane the Virgin.” In recent years she has also begun to recount her family’s saga publicly and become an immigration-reform activist. In a life of confronting barriers, coming to terms with being left alone after the deportation of her parents has perhaps been the hardest to overcome.
As she walked into a classroom at the Fenway school one day last month, about 80 raucous theater students began to applaud. Her eyes welled up.
“If I didn’t make it out [to the school] sooner,” Guerrero begins apologetically, “it’s because this school means so much to me. And I felt I wasn’t ready. . . . I want to be worthy of this school.”
Boston Arts was the first place Guerrero went on the day after the raid. She recounted the story of her family’s arrest to Linda Nathan, the academy’s founding headmaster, who assured her she would be allowed to stay in school. It became an oasis of familiarity, her old life now gone.
Born in New Jersey, Guerrero was the sole US citizen in her family. Her parents and much older half-brother had emigrated from Colombia in 1981 and moved to Boston in 1987, when Guerrero was a toddler. Her parents worked various, and usually multiple, jobs.
Growing up, she was her father’s translator of important legal documents in English. Her mother called her “hormiguita de bulevar,” “little ant of the boulevard.” She’d always carried more than her weight, her parents’ hopes and her own.
She has memories of riding her purple bike around Jamaica Pond, going on special trips to Nantasket Beach with her father to ride the carousel, or playing in the splash fountain at Christian Science Plaza. Sledding during the seemingly nonstop snow of 1996. Her wonder years.
She also recalls watching as her parents tried for years to get documents for legal residence only to be swindled out of thousands by con artists who took advantage of their fear of being found out.
The family hid in plain sight, she recalls now, moving year after year to escape notice or when rent got too high. As a girl, she played a game called La Migra, slang for US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. It was tag except the children who played federal agents chased undocumented immigrants — who were safe if they made it to home base, the American border. She lived in Hyde Park, Jamaica Plain, Roslindale, and Roxbury all before the age of 15, she said.
he day after her talk at Boston Arts Academy, Guerrero and one of her best friends since childhood, Stephanie Bolivar, 30, drove by the house where her life changed.
“Slow down. Keep going. Keep going,” Guerrero said. “It’s that house right there.”
From the passenger seat, she stared. Then fidgeted before briefly glancing away.
“The same Virgen Maria,” Guerrero said of the statue in the lawn.
With her nose turning red, Guerrero put on a thick pair of sunglasses to hide her eyes. Her hands worked a black tube of Chanel lipstick. The cap clicked on and off. Off and on.
As neighbors walked outside the property, Guerrero worried they might see her. From the back seat, Bolivar tried to distract her by reminiscing about Guerrero’s dad’s cooking.
fter their deportation, Guerrero’s relationship with her parents fractured. In the days and weeks after their detainment, Guerrero spoke with them regularly by phone and occasionally in person. Her mother wanted her to return to Colombia with the family. But Guerrero chose to stay in the United States and complete her education.
To finish high school, Guerrero remained with the friend she stayed with on that first night for two years and Bolivar for the last — she said federal authorities offered her no help. She went on to study political science and communications at Regis College. She struggled with depression, anxiety, and cutting.
Eventually, she moved to New York City to start her acting career. Auditions and rejections became regular features of her life. On the brink of giving up, she landed a part in “Orange Is the New Black’’ as Maritza, a cat-eyed jailbird. Then “Jane the Virgin,’’ on which she plays Lina, a doting best friend.
By then, contact with her parents had become more infrequent. She had grown apart from them. In later years she also would come to realize that she harbored anger toward her mother and father, who eventually divorced. At one point she went without speaking to them for nearly a decade.
She distanced herself from her past, hiding her background from those around her.
“I’d go on interviews and people would ask me different questions about my upbringing and different questions about my parents, and I found myself lying,” Guerrero said. “It felt like I was going to implode if I didn’t say something.”
Finally she decided it was time for a change. Guerrero wrote about her experiences in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times two years ago. She began volunteering with the Immigrant Legal Resource Center and Mi Familia Vota. In 2015, she was named a White House ambassador for citizenship and naturalization. Going public led to a book deal, and her memoir, “In the Country We Love: My Family Divided,” was released May 3.
She also now talks to her parents almost every day.
“I think they still see me as their little girl,” Guerrero said. “But that’s also a problem right, like being stuck in time. I think they’re seeing me a little clearer for who I am . . . [my mother] reminds me every day that she loves me.”
fter hearing her story, the students at Boston Arts marveled at her accomplishments.
“Was there a specific situation in your life where you felt like you didn’t want to go on?” one girl asked.
“Yes,” Guerrero said. “I went through many times of not wanting to go on, of wanting to end it because it was too hard.”
“I think you’re very strong,” another student said in a quiet voice. “My mom and stepdad are illegal. So every day I do fear that they’re going to get taken from me.”
It was a familiar fear. Diane Guerrero had lived it.
Video by Alex Lancial, Globe Staff