I don’t often venture into enemy territory, but when I heard that Diane Guerrero was going to be speaking at UNC this past weekend, I knew I had to be there. Diane Guerrero is an American-born Colombian actress and activist who stars in two critically acclaimed series: Orange is the New Black and Jane the Virgin. I am unapologetically obsessed with these shows and particularly interested in how they’ve expanded representation of Latinos and other people of color on television. I can ramble for days about Hollywood’s dense and extensive diversity problem—two television shows aren’t going to fix that. But they do mark one of the first times I have been able to see people that look like me on television. I can probably count the number of Latina actresses I know of on one hand, and even when I do see an actress cast on screen, my culture is used as a plot point or comedic device. The Latinas I know are beautiful, dynamic, fascinating, and complex—so why are we rarely given the opportunity to be all these things and more on tv? Shoes like OITNB and especially Jane the Virgin celebrate often marginalized voices without confining them to a mold of what it does or does not mean to be Latina. More than that, these roles have given the actresses who portray them a platform to speak on issues that matter.
Diane was brought to UNC to give a talk on our broken immigration and the need for reform. She talked about how for a while, she didn’t talk about her past or where she came from because she didn’t think people would want to listen. But that all changed when Guerrero came out with an op-ed in the LA Times and opened up about her own family’s immigration story. Like in her article, she spoke about the constant fear of deportation, the devastation when that fear came true, and rebuilding her life after her parents and older brother were forced the leave the United States. Through her struggles, Diane developed the values that drive her to this day—resilience, resourcefulness, respect, and purposeful living. While it is easy to get sucked into the superficiality that Hollywood often breeds, Diane has used her fame as a platform to raise awareness and inspire change. She was invited to meet the President after her essay came out and is now a volunteer for an advocacy nonprofit called the Immigrant Legal Resource Center.
The value of representation goes beyond seeing more diverse faces on a television screen. It means the opportunity for stories that are often overlooked to be told, for experiences that the mainstream ignores to be lifted, and for voices that are too often silenced to be heard.