Diane Guerrero is an actor on the television shows Orange Is the New Black and Jane the Virgin, among others. Her 2016 memoir for adults, In the Country We Love, tells her story of growing up in the wake of her undocumented parents’ deportation to Colombia. Guerrero went on to become an advocate for immigration reform, and was named an Ambassador for Citizenship and Naturalization by the Obama administration. This summer, she brings her memoir to a younger audience in My Family Divided. We spoke with Guerrero about sharing her story with young readers, and the intersections of her work as an actor and activist.
Your memoir for adults, In the Country We Love, describes your forced separation from your family after they were deported. What led you to adapt your story for a younger readership?
This is an issue that affects the entire family, and that means children most of all. This was an issue that was always discussed in our home, a fear that we had. And that fear didn’t just start when it happened, when my parents were separated from me when I was 14, but when I was a kid. It would’ve been really helpful to have had resources and stories like my own when I was growing up—and that’s why it was so important for me to adapt the book for young readers.
The new book is the same story, but it has a few more footnotes. It also has a synopsis at the beginning of every chapter. Really, the book is written in a very young voice. I already know young students who have read the [adult] book and teachers who have used the book in their classes. Now it will be easier for middle schoolers to read the story on their own.
Given the current political climate and debate surrounding immigration reform, what do you hope readers will take away from My Family Divided?
It’s a real story. And I hope that they can have a clearer understanding about what family separation is and what it does to a family unit—especially what it does to children emotionally and mentally. I want to present the immigrant community in more of a real light. I want to humanize the story and give readers a little more knowledge of what the immigration system is in this country, and how difficult it is for families to obtain citizenship, the obstacles that one family could have in the path to citizenship. Ultimately, the book shows that there is no path to citizenship, and there is a great need for reform.
In a climate where we as a community are called animals, rapists, and murderers, I want to show that we are not the negative rhetoric that is being spread by the current administration. These are real families, working hard and trying to live their lives. Entire families and communities are affected, and ultimately this affects the entire U.S.
You also have a career as an activist and an actor. Do you find that these two areas of your work go hand in hand?
Absolutely. My job as an actor is to be visible and to tell stories. I know I have a platform and a responsibility. I am representing my community, in a sense, especially given the fact that there are not as many Latino actors out there. I consider it as a way to represent a group that is underrepresented and often misrepresented. I’ve taken it upon myself to be out there fighting to represent my community in the best light possible. I hope to continue to portray characters with interesting stories, who are fighters and go-getters, who overcome challenges and are essentially superheroes in their community. That’s the kind of message I want to send out. I’m also telling stories about the American experience; brown, black, white, we’re all living that.
I work with two groups in particular. The first is Mi Familia Vota, a civic organization that tries to get as many people registered to vote as possible. We spread the word to our communities—especially ones that have been afraid to vote—expressing how important voting is for our futures. The second organization, Immigrant Legal Resource Center, encourages people with questions about the immigration process to be educated and well-informed. We work to provide them with information, because that knowledge will transfer to other people in their family and in their community.
Is it true that there are talks of adapting your memoir for the screen?
Yes, at the moment I’m working on adapting it to the silver screen, as well as for a TV series. It hasn’t been picked up yet; I’m trying different avenues as we speak.
I’m also working on producing a series with Julissa Arce, the author of My (Underground) American Dream, that documents the life of people who have been deported. It’s basically the aftermath of deportation. That’s something we don’t ever know about; we don’t hear from them and it’s as if they never existed.
I’m also hoping to adapt my story into a children’s book, and later a children’s series. That’s something I’m really passionate about and want to see come to fruition. Meanwhile, I’m excited to reach more schools and for kids to be able to identify with stories similar to theirs. Even kids who haven’t had firsthand experience with the immigration system, I want them to know how families are affected and what kind of system is in place.
My Family Divided: One Girl’s Journey of Home, Loss, and Hope by Diane Guerrero with Erica Moroz. Henry Holt, July 17 ISBN 978-1-250-13486-8