Diane Guerrero was left on her own to finish high school in the U.S. at 14 when her parents were deported back to Colombia. Although she made a career in acting, her passions lie with activism, and in summoning the courage to tell her own story she discovered her ability to facilitate social change in her community.
Guerrero, an actress and immigration reform activist, emphasized the importance of activism within her career and encouraged students to share their own stories during Tuesday’s University Leadership Series (ULS) moderated by public health graduate student Gabriela Cruz.
“When you stand in your truth, you are undeniable,” Guerrero said. “Nobody can tell you that your story didn’t happen.”
The majority of the conversation focused not on Guerrero’s career as an actress, but rather her time spent advocating for social reform on immigrant rights and policies. Guerrero said a lot of the endeavors she advocates for, like the abolition of deportation processes, are driven by her experience of watching her parents get deported.
“We can love this country and also address the oppressive systems that it upholds,” she said. “We can love this country and acknowledge that this country has had terrible laws that affect our families.”
Her journey in activism began in 2014, when she shared her story for the first time in an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times. Guerrero said she grappled with the decision to divulge the story of her parents’ deportation because she did not know if it would make any real difference, and feared the backlash she knew it would receive.
“It seemed like things were not going to get better for families experiencing or having to be involved in the immigration system,” Guerrero said. “It didn’t seem like the rhetoric was getting any better and so I chose to share my story because that was what was important to me.”
After the article was published, many people expressed outrage because they did not feel Guerrero’s parents deserved to reside in the U.S. in the first place. She anticipated the backlash, but decided to tell her story anyway.
“It really came down to my core values,” Guerrero said. “I was forced to quarrel with myself because I was living my life in the shadows before I talked about my truth, who I was, who my parents were and what my lived experience was.”
In the same way that she was compelled to share her op-ed, she decided to publish a novel describing her experiences with deportation. In Guerrero’s book, “In the Country We Love,” she outlines her struggle with her parents’ deportation and details her experience living with friends and getting into Regis College.
In one section she detailed her sudden development of liberal opinions about the significance of wealth distribution, and the importance of revolution and pacifism during her college years.
“I was a total communist,” Guerrero said.
To highlight the drastic changes in opinion and mindset she went through in college, Guerrero described a poster in her dorm that featured the face of Argentine Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara placed next to another poster that featured Muppet icon Miss Piggy. This juxtaposition was a comedic way of showing how rapidly she changed, as she turned from a fan of children’s television like “The Muppets” to Marxist idealists like Guevara.
Now, Guerrero’s opinions and goals revolve around advocating for the abolition of many systems which she feels no longer serve society.
“Get rid of these institutions that are solely working for white supremacy,” she said. “Get rid of these antiquated systems that don’t work for all people.
“Abolition is certainly where I’m headed, thinking about immigration reform, abolishing [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] and even [the Department of] Homeland Security, that whole thing needs to go.”
Cruz asked what organizations, individuals or media Guerrero listens to in her efforts to stay informed and active in current abolition and reform movements.
“I’m just following Black people. I’m following Black women,” she said. “I’m following Black Lives Matter in Los Angeles, where I’m from, and learning everything that I can do for the community that I live in right now.”
Alongside her community, Guerrero proposed a bill in Los Angeles County to ensure that 10% of the county’s unrestricted, locally generated revenues would go to communities in the county in need of resources as well as funding alternatives to incarceration.
“I am interested in what I can do locally to help my community and I’m just following folks who I truly believe in, who are doing this work,” she said.
Another aspect of Guerrero’s activism journey mentioned in the discussion was her selection of television roles. Guerrero starred as Maritza Ramos from 2013 to 2019 in “Orange is the New Black,” and said that deciding whether or not to take the role was difficult because she did not want to misrepresent people of Latinx heritage.
“I didn’t want to continue perpetuating this stereotype that we are all criminals, maids or gangster’s girlfriends,” she said.
Guerrero eventually took the role because she did not feel that the show would glorify prison. Her goal was to accurately portray the harshness of life within prison walls.
She said she wants more television shows to represent the reality of the prison industrial complex and the way it affects society instead of relying on an idealized concept of law and order.
“Let’s tell more stories about how care and healing restore our communities, not imprisonment, criminalization or demonization, and absolutely divest from stories about cops,” she said.
In discussing her time spent advocating for social justice, Guerrero emphasized the importance of believing in one’s own abilities.
“Trust yourself and your experience and know that that’s enough,” she said. “Just know that your vulnerability really is your superpower and your honesty is really your superpower, so as long as you stay with that then things will fall in line.”
At the end of the hour, Guerrero took time to tell the virtual audience how important it is to be in control of their own lives.
“Remember to follow your own narrative and that you have the power to tell your own story and make it go wherever you want,” she said. “Just believe that you can change things, because we are seeing that we can.”