LOS ANGELES – One afternoon upon returning from school, Diane Guerrero found her home empty. The TV actress was only 14 when she was left completely alone after her parents were detained and deported to their native Colombia.
The depression, anxiety and emotional instability that followed are some of the personal struggles the 29-year-old actress reveals in her new memoir, "In the Country We Love: My Family Divided." She also discusses her later development as an actress and working on the popular Netflix series "Orange Is the New Black" and The CW's "Jane The Virgin."
In essence, the 257-pages book, just released by Henry Holt and Co., illustrates one of the heartbreaks of today's immigration crisis: U.S.-born children who are left alone when their parents are deported. About 4.1 million American children have at least one parent who lives in the U.S. illegally, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
"We have a lot of comments on the news, we have a lot of rhetoric over what an immigrant is and what a deportee is, but you don't hear any real stories. I don't think we ever had the chance to really tell our side," said Guerrero, responding in a recent interview to why she wrote the book.
"I am here, a citizen of this country and I'm saying, 'Hey, the system failed me. I am a good citizen. I contribute to this country and here I am sharing my story. What are you going to do now?'" she added.
Guerrero's older brother was also deported, but she decided to stay behind with friends because of her firm belief that America offered many more opportunities than Colombia.
"My parents were clear from the beginning (about the possibility of deportation). That was a topic of every day, so I was very well aware and my father did a good job of preparing me if the inevitable happened," said the actress. "I wanted to follow my dreams and finish what my parents started when they came here for better opportunities. It was a difficult decision and I don't know if, in hindsight, I would have changed it."
At one point, Guerrero was so depressed over the absence of her parents, mounting debt and other problems, that she tried to take her own life.
"Once I got to college, that anxiety and pain and confusion kind of came forth. ... Everything that I did or tried to do was harder than normal because I didn't have my parents and their support," said the actress. "I went through many stages. I went through depression, which is something that we don't often talk about when we look at undocumented communities and deported families."
Her love for the arts started in high school, at the Boston Arts Academy. She later attended Regis College and studied to be a paralegal until she decided to sign up with a Boston casting agency and finally pursue her dream.
"There's light at the end of the tunnel," said Guerrero. "I know that things are scary and we may have a lot of fears, but what we can do now is educate ourselves, we can educate others, we can join this movement, we can understand that our stories are valuable, that we are important and that ... like it or not, we make up the fabric of this country and we have to fight to be part of it because we are part of it, regardless of how many people are telling us that we don't belong."
Guerrero first told her story in November 2014 in an article in the Los Angeles Times. She was inspired by so-called "dreamers," who publicly acknowledge they grew up in the U.S. without documentation but who are fully assimilated and feel very much like Americans.
Reaction to the article was immediate. A few days later, she met President Barack Obama at an event in Las Vegas where he expounded on his just-announced executive order offering dreamers a pathway to documentation.
Guerrero's work in "Orange Is the New Black" and "Jane the Virgin" has yielded success and popularity that she is now using to promote citizenship and voter registration among immigrants, in collaboration with organizations like Immigrant Legal Resource Center and Mi Familia Vota.
The actress says writing "In the Country We Love" has been a cathartic experience for her.
"After coming out with the book and my story, I feel a lot better, a little clearer about who I am and I don't feel like I'm lying to other people and, most important, I don't feel like I'm lying to myself," said Guerrero.
"I want immigration reform to come into fruition and I want it to be comprehensive and I want it to have a path to citizenship and I want to be involved politically every day," she added. "I'm doing that and I'm feeling better because before, I was just kind of floating, you know, I wasn't being a political being and I didn't know where my responsibilities lied in my community and now I've found that."
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