by Diane Guerrero, 2016
When she was fourteen, Diane Guerrero returned home from school to find that her family had been deported back to Colombia. Now known for her roles in Orange is the New Black and Jane the Virgin, this is a look back into the actress’s beginnings, an examination of what it’s like to live as an immigrant in the US, and how our broken system tears families apart, leaving children like Guerrero to fend for themselves. It is a story that is of utmost importance these days, one that I believe is helped by Guerrero’s celebrity. We see her on our TVs and we feel that know her, and in reading of the trials of her parents’ deportation we are forced to recognize what is happening to well-meaning people every day. We are not able to dismiss them as “other” or turn a blind eye when it is happening right in front of our faces.
Guerrero’s parents’ story is not so different from that of many of those who come to this country. In the hopes of escaping the violence and poverty of their native Colombia, they come to the US with Diane’s older half-brother and overstay their visa, all the while hoping to become legal residents. Their desires are plain: to be able to provide for their family and raise their children in a safe environment. I found it particularly notable that Guerrero remarks that her parents consider her planned birth “their proudest accomplishment” – this is exactly the sort of thing that many of us take for granted, while looking down upon those who have been denied that privilege. In fact, what makes Guerrero’s story so powerful is the fact that it is so simple. Her parents never asked for much and were willing to take as many low-paying jobs as they could if it meant being able to pay for rent and food. They wanted what all of us want and yet we are so afraid that those who look different should one day achieve it.
It is unfortunate that Guerrero and, by extension, her ghostwriter, are not able to tell a more nuanced story. Being torn away from your family, having to visit them at detention centers, fearing that you will lose the good graces of friends who have extended their homes to you – this is all very real, very frightening stuff and the fate of US-born children is something we completely gloss over when we demand to send immigrant parents away. Alas, the book would have been greatly improved had Guerrero focused more on the trials of that sort of life. To be sure, she is bravely forthcoming about the depression and anxiety she suffered as a result of this trauma, but I found she also spends way too much time using the book as a way to detail her rise as a successful actress. I could forgive the slang-filled, immature language Guerrero often employs as simply being not for me, but shifting the focus from the pressing issue of deportation to that of acting classes and headshots lessened the overall effect of the book, rendering portions of it trite and unnecessary. I couldn’t help but compare this Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime, which speaks little of Noah’s fame and concentrates mainly on his family and the politics of South Africa. While Noah’s humor no doubt runs throughout the book, he is able to take a story about a disastrous prom date and turn it into a musing on the failings of intercultural communication. With Guerrero, we merely learn that she met her current boyfriend in a bar and that she once sold her used shoes to a guy on Craigslist when she was strapped for cash. There is little to indicate that any of that matters to the overall story.
In her final chapter, Guerrero details some harrowing truths of immigration and deportation. Many of us don’t think of the potential economic effects of the loss of unskilled labor*, or how such laborers are often horribly abused because employers know they won’t be reported to authorities, or how deportation leaves the American-born children of immigrants, at best, in foster care and, at worst, homeless and fending for themselves. “It’s not fair,” Guerrero says, regurgitating the sentiment many hold in regards to extending civil rights to those who enter the country illegally. She goes on to counter this, saying:
It also wasn’t “fair” for our ancestors to roll up and take land from the Native Americans, but I don’t hear too many folks complaining about the benefits we enjoy because they did. Neither was it fair for our forefathers to import slaves to toil in their cotton fields; plantation owners built this nation’s wealth by degrading blacks, a group once declared only three-fifths human by Congress. So-called fairness has seldom been this country’s primary compass in determining the best action to take.
I wish more of this had been strewn throughout the book so that we would be reminded of the imperativeness of immigration reform, rather than being distracted by the less-compelling tale of the actress’s rise to stardom. I don’t mean to say that becoming a successful actor is not a worthy story, but it merely serves to undermine the heart of this story. Nevertheless, Guerrero has done us all a favor by sharing her life with us. I have no doubt that she will change some readers’ views on immigration and be a comfort to those who have suffered her fate in kind and, for those reasons alone, her book is a necessary one.
*While Guerrero cites the economic dependence on low-paid labor as a reason to support immigration, this sounds perilously similar to the pro-slavery rationalization of two hundreds years ago. However, that reasoning, misguided though it may be, is something worth considering when Americans are so quick to cast immigrants “back to where they came from.” I can’t imagine anyone spouting this rhetoric also willing to cough up $12 for a pint of strawberries when we start having to pay crop pickers a living wage. Such is the nature of illogical, fear-based arguments.
[Book Riot Read Harder Challenge: read a book by an immigrant or with a central immigration narrative.]