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News Story: "OITNB" Actress Diane Guerrero

Diane Guerrero was 14 when her parents were deported.

Now, it’s her mission to share her story and affect change in immigration reform.

Guerrero, a 30-year-old actress best known for her roles in popular television shows “Orange is the New Black” and “Jane the Virgin,” spoke to a crowd of about 500 students about her new book, “In the Country We Love: My Family Divided,” at the Rion Ballroom on Monday.

Guerrero, joined on stage by UF journalism professor Mike Foley, said she will never forget the day her parents were taken by immigration officers. She came home after school to an empty house – the lights were on and dinner was started, but her parents were not there.

Neighbors broke the news to her.

Guerrero said she dropped to her knees and cried.

She said it felt like her “heart fell out of her body.” She compared the feeling to when your heart drops after a fast roller coaster takes a dip.

For years, Guerrero said she hid the truth about her family from others – and herself.

“My friends would ask me, ‘What do your parents do?’” Guerrero said. “Sometimes I’d say they were in the CIA. But other times, I’d say that my family died. That takes a toll on you. How can you make a change in your life if you aren’t honest about who you are?”

Guerrero said the weight from her family’s situation became too heavy in the months before she arrived in New York to pursue acting. She said she struggled with alcoholism, depression and suicidal thoughts.

“I was in the darkest place I’ve ever been,” Guerrero said. “I was so depressed but I didn’t know how to release those feelings and pressures building inside me. I had this dream where I was going to make it and throw my hat in the air like Mary Tyler Moore. But it wasn’t happening.”

Guerrero said she was ready to “throw in the towel” on acting before her audition for “Orange is the New Black,” a Netflix comedy-drama web series that portrays the daily lives and activities of inmates in a women’s federal prison. Guerrero was cast.

Guerrero said that filming some scenes for the show brought up “little reminders” of her past experiences.

“It’s so ironic that I would act in a show about prison when I saw my parents in prison years earlier for not having their paperwork,” Guerrero said. “I had to balance those two things and not get eaten up by it. Sometimes it was hard to get into a scene because I couldn’t come to terms with myself and that I’ve been through this same situation.”

Guerrero said she used the platform given to her by the show to write an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times to share the story of her parents’ deportation and immigration issues.

She said that she did not expect anyone to read about it or care – but then she was invited to the White House by President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama.

Guerrero said that her life as an activist began after writing that article.

“My dad is very shy,” Guerrero said, “and at first he was like, ‘We get that you’re trying to be an activist and use your voice, but do you really have to talk about how we were arrested to millions of people?’”

Guerrero’s response was, “Dad, I gotta do it big.”

Since then, Guerrero wrote a book about her experiences, volunteered with organizations to advocate for immigrants’ rights, and encouraged young people to register to vote.

She said that each act takes her one step closer to finding a solution for thousands of families – and her own.

“When my parents were taken, it was all we talked about,” Guerrero said. “They kept saying how much they loved this country, how they fought to stay and how much they wanted to come back. That’s why I named my book ‘In The Country We Love.’ I want to bring my family back to the country I love.”

Some students said they were emotional after hearing Guerrero’s story.

Sarah Persad, a 19-year-old biology sophomore, said she relates to Guerrero on a personal level. Both of their families have been affected by immigration issues.

“I heard how Diane’s family was deported and it made me cry,” Persad said. “And I’m not really a crier. My family has immigration issues too. My mom came from Guyana when she was 18, got married right away but her family had to stay behind because they couldn’t come into the country. So I really relate to Diane and her story.”

Others said they felt inspired.

Diana Rodas, a 19-year-old zoology sophomore, said she saw the event on Facebook and immediately clicked “going.” Rodas said she feels inspired that Guerrero is using her celebrity status to bring immigration issues to the fore.

“There aren’t a lot of Hispanic Americans in popular television shows like ‘Orange is the New Black,’” Rodas said. “Diane is one of the first I’ve seen to use her platform to bring important issues to light.”

Guerrero had some parting words for people in the crowd.

“See what and where your place is in this world,” Guerrero said. “See that my issues are your issues and that your issues are mine. Care about something. Reach out. Fix it. There’s a lot of fixing to do.”

Elle Beecher