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Diane Guerrero talks immigration, identity

Actor, social activist discusses childhood, struggles with immigration system

Salomon Center erupted into overwhelming applause as Diane Guerrero stepped on stage. The acclaimed actress and activist addressed the audience in a talk sponsored by the Brown Lecture Board Tuesday evening, delivering a speech that elicited a palpable sense of excited emotion from the crowd.

“It was so hard for me to boil down, into just a few words, why I was so incredibly lucky to have Diane with us tonight,” said Daniella Balarezo ’18, as she introduced Guerrero to the audience.

“For starters … we love seeing her as Maritza in Orange is the New Black or as Lina in Jane the Virgin. Diane’s work reminds us of how beautiful it is to see ourselves represented on screen,” Balarezo said. But Guerrero’s contribution to society extends far beyond “adding desperately needed melanin in Hollywood,” she added.

The U.S.-born child of immigrant parents who were deported to Colombia when she was only 14 years old, Guerrero has become a vocal activist. Her memoir, “In the Country We Love,” retells the story of Guerrero’s childhood and her family’s struggles with being undocumented.

“It takes a brave soul not only to follow (one’s) dreams of being an actress, but (to break) into a whitewashed industry and then, political and painful as it may be, … (to share one’s) story,” Balarezo said. “True to her last name, which means ‘warrior’ in Spanish,” Guerrero has been successful in doing exactly that, she added.

Though punctuated with wit and humor, Guerrero’s speech addressed profound issues. “Today, I want to have a conversation about the importance of telling our stories, about bringing awareness to Latinx history” and the importance of voting and participating, Guerrero said as she launched into a powerful account of her personal struggles with the immigration system.

Guerrero described how her parents tried to become U.S. citizens and how they were scammed and then deported in the process. “This experience was so damaging for my family and so traumatizing that later on I experienced a lot of hardship,” Guerrero said, referring to the range of mental health issues she faced.

“My story is just one of millions, and (it) shows the need to update our immigration system,” Guerrero said. “We’re fighting to keep our families together. We’re fighting to preserve our American lives. We’re fighting to be treated with respect and dignity. We have to speak up. … We have to do everything in our power to stop the injustices going on around us, even though they seem so hard to stop.”

Evoking raw emotion, Guerrero reflected on how, for a long time, she was ashamed of her background and her story. “But after I started talking about my experiences, writing about my experiences and letting a little bit of that shame go, I started feeling happy that this was the way that my life went because I wouldn’t be who I am today (otherwise),” she said. “My experiences don’t define me, but they certainly have shaped who I am,” she added.

Guerrero discussed her desire to be both an actor and an agent of social change, and how she has always felt as though she needed to pick one of the two. “It wasn’t until later that I realized that the best way for me to help my community was for me to follow my dreams and my desire to be an actor,” she said. Guerrero added that she sees her role in the entertainment industry as a way of telling the stories of those who are underrepresented and being a voice for those who go unheard.

Guerrero’s talk was followed by a moderated discussion led by Balarezo and questions from audience members. Guerrero addressed questions regarding the challenges she continues to face as a woman of color and as an immigrant, and the ways in which she breaks stereotypes.

“Societal constructs mean nothing,” Guerrero said. “You have to acknowledge that you matter. … It’s (your) duty to knock the walls (of societal constructs) down. It’s (your) duty to rip those ceilings apart.”

When asked by a student to describe her dreams for Latina women, Guerrero responded that she “wants to see (Latina women) writing more. I just want to see more stories written by women for women,” Guerrero said, adding that “every story is unique … and deserves to be told.”

“I’m also the girl next door,” Guerrero finished, with a flourish and a laugh. “There’s a lot of girls next door, so let’s start telling those stories,” she said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Daniella Balarezo's name. An earlier version of this story also stated that Diane Guerrero played Selena in Jane the Virgin. In fact, Guerrero played Lina in Jane the Virgin. The Herald regrets the errors. 

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