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Actor Diane Guerrero Talks Family Separation Firsthand

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

You may recall seeing disturbing images of children crying after their parents were arrested in raids at several poultry processing plants in Mississippi. Some children whose parents were detained are still separated from their parents, that according to the Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services.

Actress Diane Guerrero knows what that's like. When she was 14 years old and living in Boston, her parents and older brother were deported to Colombia after overstaying their visas. Guerrero came home from school to an empty house. She's written about this in her adult memoir "In The Country We Love" and a new young adult book out too, it's called "My Family Divided: One Girl's Journey Of Home, Loss, And Hope." You probably know Diane Guerrero for her roles in "Orange Is The New Black" and "Jane The Virgin," and she's with us now from NPR West.

Diane Guerrero, thank you so much for talking with us about this. I know it's a painful subject.

DIANE GUERRERO: It is. It's so funny, I find myself talking about this every day because this is what my work consists of. But I still find myself tearing up and thinking about all those all those kids and all those families that have been separated and think - seeing those images of those kids in Mississippi on their first day of school and are coming home without their folks being there. It's - it brings back a lot of memories, but it's something that we should be talking about.

MARTIN: I was, you know, thinking that seeing those images in particular must have been hard for you, particularly after reading your book, your young adult book. You know, I have it with me. And there's a chapter where you describe what it was like to come home, and it's like something out of "The Twilight Zone," you know. Your mom was cooking dinner. They were just - and the house is silent. Do you mind just sharing a little bit of what that was like?

GUERRERO: Oh, it is like "The Twilight Zone." Honestly, you just - you feel like it's not really happening to you. So I was walking home from school. I went inside. My parents' cars were outside. And food was on the stove, but it wasn't done. Lights were on. My mom's sweater was on the chair, and - but they were gone. And then a neighbor came and told me that immigration services had come and taken them. And the first thing I did was just go under the bed and cry and cry and feel - you know, feeling of loss and like my parents had disappeared, like they were kidnapped or something.

And I just remember closing my eyes really, really, really tight and then opening them up again, hoping that it was a dream, hoping that it wasn't happening to me. But, of course, it was - it was very much real. And it was happening to a lot of families, I'm sure, at the time. But I had no idea. I thought I was the only one going through that, which is why I have been so outspoken with my story because I know that feeling of being alone. And it's not fun.

And the minute that you realize that there are other people who share your experience and understand what you're going through, life can move on. And you can become proactive about your own situation and hopefully help others along the way.

MARTIN: I'm glad you mentioned that because one of the things that you wrote about in the book is that because at the time this was not commonly discussed, that, in fact, in some ways, you felt like - what's the word I'm looking for? - kind of isolated even in the community in which you live. Like, there's this point in the same chapter where you talk about your parents being taken. You called one friend and said, you know, can I come over there? And she said no because even though she herself was a U.S. citizen, like you, for some reason, you know, her family thought that your mere presence would somehow put them in some jeopardy. Like, what was that about?

GUERRERO: Sure. We didn't talk about it like we do now. We weren't learning about it in school. There was this huge stigma around it. Even though a lot of people were experiencing this, there was a great shame that went along with it. And also, you know, there were mixed-status families. I don't remember people in our community talking about different organizations that were helping out. I've only seen this sort of more recently because so many - so much more people are speaking out, which is really, really helpful.

MARTIN: I do want to say that we - my colleague Ari Shapiro spoke with the assistant superintendent of the Scott County School District, where many of the parents and the kids who were affected by those ICE raids lived. And the assistant superintendent told my colleague that they were able to - they didn't have any advance warning of this either.

GUERRERO: Right.

MARTIN: But they were - he says, you know, aggressive about trying to reach some adult connected to each of these children so that none of those kids would go through what you went through, which is going home to an empty house. And the reason I mentioned that is one of the other things you write about in the book is that nobody from social services, nobody from any of these entities that a lot of people might think would have been interested in your welfare ever got in touch with you to see if you were OK.

GUERRERO: No.

MARTIN: So where did you wind up living? Like, what did you do?

GUERRERO: Well, I called a friend and her mother who is friends with my my parents. And they just took me to their house until we got word from my parents. There was really nothing else I could do but just go and sleep over there and finish - they decided to take me in, and I finished the school year with them. I went to go visit my family in prison during that time, which was really difficult. But no government official really checked up, and that that I attribute to, you know, this country's sort of lack of empathy or lack of seeing our community as American.

And, like, for me, I am an American citizen, but somehow I am looked as less than that because my parents were undocumented. It's like if I deserved whatever I should, you know, get. And that's how I sort of heard a lot of the ICE agents talking about these children that were crying for their parents in Mississippi. It's like, sorry, kid, your parent's a criminal. I don't think that that's what our country stands for. I don't think that we should stand by this.

MARTIN: And to the point that you've been kind of moving toward here is there are those who say, well, you know, if parents don't want to subject their children to this, then they shouldn't bring them here. I mean, that is kind of one of the refrains that you hear. They say that the cruelty has been inflicted by the parents for subjecting their kids to these circumstances, and if people feel that way, what would you say?

GUERRERO: I would say, what would you do if you were in that position, if you were in danger, if you needed to go somewhere else so that you and your family could survive? I would also remind people that this is a country of immigrants. People forget - they like to forget that their ancestors came here with the same dream, with the same hopes, with the same fears. And it's unfair to say that because people are coming later that they don't deserve to be here, especially people seeking asylum.

MARTIN: On Friday, there was a letter entitled "Querida Familia Latina" that was published in The New York Times and in some Spanish-language newspapers. It's been signed by more than 200 prominent figures in the Latinx community, and you were instrumental in getting it published. You're one of the sort of the top signatories. And it says, (reading) we've been smeared by political rhetoric and murdered in violent hate crimes. We've been separated from our families and have watched our children caged. We've been targeted with mass shootings and mass ICE raids meant to terrify us, squash our hope and break our spirits. But we will not be broken. We will not be silenced.

What are you trying - and you and your fellow signatories trying to do with this letter? What are you hoping this will - what effect do you hope this will have?

GUERRERO: Well, I mean, I feel like we've tried to convey this message in so many ways through art, in the way I did on "Orange Is The New Black," through the images that you see every day of children in cages, through political rhetoric of us saying, hey, there are laws in place that have set up the immigration landscape as we know it where administrations such as this one are able to take advantage and weaken due process, expand detention centers and make profit off of our bodies.

And if that doesn't get to you, now we're just writing a letter to our community and to other people maybe that maybe don't consider themselves part of our community that - to look aside from all of that, from politics and this administration and just to look inside ourselves and find our humanity. Because we have lost all empathy because we are so desensitized from all of these terrorist acts that are happening in our country from separation of families - and we've just lost that. And this is just a letter saying, hey, we love you. We are together in this. We are working hard to let our voices be heard. And you are not alone.

MARTIN: That's Diane Guerrero. Her young adult book is called "My Family Divided: One Girl's Journey Of Home, Loss, And Hope." She was kind of to join us from NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Diane Guerrero, thank you so much for speaking with us today.

GUERRERO: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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