Diane Guerrero, the Latina actress famous for her role as Maritza Ramos in the popular Netflix series, “Orange is the New Black,” and as Lina Santillan in “Jane the Virgin” kicked off the two-day MSC Student Conference on Latinx Affairs (SCOLA) with her recent keynote address at Texas A&M University.
“Know that you belong here,” Guerrero said to a room filled with predominantly Latino university students. “I want young people to use their voices, to understand there is so much power within them, and to know that they are not alone.”
Born in America to undocumented Colombian parents who were deported when she was age 14, Guerrero is using her platform as a successful artist to illuminate the difficulties facing other immigrants and their family members. She is an outspoken advocate for commonsense, comprehensive immigration reform.
“You don’t wake up and say, ‘I’m going to save my family and change the world,’ and I actually spent many years doubting and hating myself and my family, not understanding why I was going through this, thinking I was the only one and not wanting to share my experience,” Guerrero said. “I was shut down, and when the immigration subject came up, I wouldn’t want to talk about it, even though I had this burning desire to talk about it.”
Dr. Luis Ponjuan, Texas A&M associate professor of educational administration and human resource development and research director of the Investing in Diversity, Equity, Access and Learning (IDEAL) project, moderated the discussion with Guerrero. Ponjuan is a Cuban immigrant, naturalized U.S. citizen and first-generation college student whose research focuses on Latino male students and faculty members of color.
“When you talk about educational attainment, I don’t think a lot of people realize that, on average, over the age of 25, only 10 percent of the Latino population has a bachelor’s degree, and the Latino males [alone] are even worse,” Ponjuan said. “About 20 percent of the students at A&M are Latinos, and a lot of them are trying to find their way in their college experiences.”
Guerrero attended Regis College, an all-women Catholic college in Boston where she was reared by her parents until their deportation, and afterward, by Colombian-American friends. Growing up in a predominantly Dominican, Puerto Rican and Cuban immigrant community just outside Boston, a progressive yet segregated city, she did not have much preparation for the experience that awaited her in college.
“I experienced culture shock because I had never gone anywhere with so many white people, and I had never experienced conservative places where I had the opportunity to interact and form relationships based on our experiences,” she said. “I didn’t know how to navigate that, be myself and be O.K. with the fact that I was different, so I tried to hide a lot.”
Guerrero experienced a serious identity crisis in college. Some semesters she advocated for Brown Power and the necessity to unite and work together, and other semesters, she supported, in frustration, the notion that brown people really had no desire to work. At that time, Guerrero had not benefitted from the counseling that has since helped her to cope with the hardships she experienced.
“We don’t talk about family separation and how that affects mental health,” she said. “How do you love yourself, accept yourself and give yourself the chance to be outstanding when you cannot be honest about who you are, when you can’t be authentic?”
Guerrero encouraged the Latino students in the audience to be honest about their experiences, to approach their arguments armed with information, calmness and love, and to work hard and persevere.
“You are smart, you are doing the right thing by going to school and educating yourselves, and now it’s time to put that to good use,” she said. “Use your voices and be active. Don’t let people who assume [powerful] positions make decisions for you. You have to be active in your future and what happens to you and your family.”
The audience at the MSC Student Conference on Latinx Affairs (SCOLA) keynote address delivered by Diane Guerrero, the actress famous for her role in “Orange is the New Black.”
While immigration and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) are complicated and often unpopular topics, Guerrero asked her audience to avoid letting naysayers, misunderstandings or laziness deter them from sharing their messages. She encouraged them to express their opinions, share their experiences, write their stories, vote to put different people in decision-making positions and participate in their communities in every sense.
“People who don’t want to hear you won’t, but you never know who is listening, who you can affect … and things change that way,” Guerrero said. “What you can do now to affect change is arm yourself with knowledge, educate yourself, especially about DACA, and when you are able to empower someone with that knowledge, you will.”
Even as an actor, Guerrero has heard that she needs to “stay in her own lane.” Hollywood has a difficult time putting actors in roles when they cannot explain their color and background, she said.
“A brown woman such as myself can’t be the girl next door, but we’re no longer accepting that, and we want to change the way we see ourselves being represented,” she said. “I no longer have to play only the prisoner, the maid or the friend, I can be the main girl, too.”
Activism has opened doors for Guerrero that she never imagined might open. She never envisioned writing an autobiography, “In the Country We Love: My Family Divided,” being named White House Ambassador for Citizenship and Naturalization in 2015, acting as a correspondent for the docuseries, “America Divided,” or addressing audiences of students and other community members about her life.
“Open yourselves up to opportunities,” she said. “Don’t be closed off because, regardless of where you come from, the people who you encounter are going to teach you so many things.”
Guerrero has worked with the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, the New American Leaders Project and Mi Familia Vota, a nonpartisan Latino civic engagement organization that promotes immigration reform, citizenship and voter registration.
By sharing her story, Guerrero hopes to encourage others to use their voices in ways that they have perhaps never considered. She wants to remind them that education and knowledge are powerful, lifelong tools they can use to advance their messages and face injustices.
Media contact: Elena Watts, 979-458-8412, or firstname.lastname@example.org