Diane Guerrero isn’t an overnight success.
She overcame a barrage of personal setbacks, fear, and indecision before mustering the courage to follow her ambition, take classes, and work toward becoming a known actress.
About five years after leaving the Boston area — where she grew up — for New York, where an acting school workshop earned her a manager, Guerrero is in the enviable position of juggling roles in two television series.
She is in her second season as Maritza Ramos, the most attractive inmate and part of Gloria’s Latina kitchen crew, on Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black,” and she has a featured role as the lead character’s best friend on the upcoming CW series, “Jane the Virgin.”
Between thinking about acting and doing it, Guerrero did all of the jobs you would associate with starving artists. She waited tables, worked retail counters, filed papers, and was a paralegal.
Although she attended Boston Arts Academy as a music major, Guerrero chose political science as her major in college and attended a major seminar about legislation and diplomacy at American University in Washington, D.C., before giving into her urge to act.
Politics was important to Guerrero for two reasons. She said she considered becoming a television newscaster, and thought about learning something about history and geography, subjects that interested her in high school. She also wanted to be more familiar with immigration law and policy.
When she was age 14, Guerrero, now 27, saw her parents and brother deported to their native Colombia because they had entered the United States without applying for the necessary visas and documents. Guerrero was spared because she was born in New Jersey and had claim to American citizenship.
Guerrero’s parents, she said, made the difficult decision of leaving her in the U.S. so she could benefit from the opportunities the family left Colombia to seek. Guerrero lived with two Colombian families in Boston before she went to college.
Even before her family’s deportation, Guerrero said she faced tough challenges because the Roxbury section of Boston where she lived was rough, and one had to show attitude to survive. She said she is lucky she was accepted to Boston Arts Academy and that people were willing to take her into their homes while her parents were forced to remain abroad.
“My childhood in Roxbury prepared me for playing Maritza,” Guerrero said by telephone from her apartment in New York.
“‘Orange’ has not shown a backstory for Maritza, but I imagine she is in jail because she did something for love. I see her as a romantic. She was either betrayed by somebody or did illegal things, or something crazy, to help someone else. She is also worried about her baby.
“I don’t identify with her on that score. I know Maritza because I grew up in a rough neighborhood and went to rough schools. When I think of my young self, I see how someone like Maritza, who is chatty and friendly, can get into trouble. In rough neighborhoods, you have to establish respect. If you look weak or let people bully you, you’ll be picked on and worse. To survive, you have to develop an attitude and a look that says you will not tolerate any disrespect, and if someone tries something, she’d better look out.
“I could create that persona,” Guerrero said. “Also, because like Maritza, I was friendly, bigger girls would look out for me. I was protected, the same way Gloria and Flaca take care of Maritza. In situations like that, you might be insecure or sensitive, but you have to act hard core. I think I am a good actress today because of the attitude I had to display as a child. You had to be super-extra hard, or someone would get the idea they could tune you up.
“I was saved from all of that by going to Boston Arts Academy. That was the home for someone like me, a place you could be artistic, admit to doing your homework, and be a nerd of your own making. The world changed. I still had to be scrappy around the neighborhood, but in school, I could relax and explore and learn. From the time I could remember, I wanted to act, but at Boston, I became a music major.
“My high school years had other tensions. Families of friends were kind enough to allow me to live in their homes. I was never admonished, but in the back of my mind, I always felt I had to walk on egg shells. These people did not have to keep me. They could call Social Services or send me to Colombia. Of course, I knew they wouldn’t. There was love. The idea that I had to behave extra carefully never left my mind in spite of that. I could not complain or lash out as I could with my parents. I didn’t want any trouble. And I had to keep my parents’ story a secret in case someone outside my homes called Social Services. Classes, rehearsals, performances, and the wonderful humanities classes as Boston Academy kept me on track. Fear, maybe groundless fear, kept me in line, but I was aware of being contained, of containing myself.
“And I missed my family. I would go and visit them once a year, but it’s not the same, even as an adult working in two television series, as with people who can see their parents at will or can have their mother with them as they realize dreams they talked about in childhood.
“Studying political science and becoming a paralegal was partly to find ways to help my parents. I figured if I knew the law and knew policy, I may find something that would allow them to return to the United States, even as visitors. I also had stars in my eyes and wanted to be a TV news reporter. I think you have to know about more than music to do that. Whatever I did, I was never happy. Something was missing. Filing was boring. It is boring. I needed more. I had to challenge my fear. I moved to New York, took classes secretly so one would think I was putting on airs, and worked toward my goal.
“I loved performing from the first minute. I have had to play so many roles in my life and have been in so many situations, knowing a character comes naturally to me. As a person, I am as real as you can get. As an actress, I have seen enough to play anybody.”
Guerrero has not yet figured out how she is going to manage the shooting schedules of “Orange is the New Black,” which is done in New York, and “Jane the Virgin,” which is set in Miami but is recorded in Los Angeles.
“Everyone has been nice enough to allow me to do two series at once,” Guerrero said. “I am hoping the schedules do not conflict. My role on ‘Orange’ is getting bigger, especially now that Gloria is important and making all the Latina prisoners more involved in the plots.
“‘Jane’ is a great contrast to ‘Orange.’ On ‘Orange,’ we can’t wear makeup, and our costumes are tan fatigues and T-shirts. Maritza is known for being pretty in spite of that, but there is no glamor. We’re in prison. On ‘Jane,’ I get to dress like a sharp Miami girl. The clothes are stylish and sexy, and I can wear heels!”
Guerrero referred to herself and Maritza as “Chatty Kathys” and she told the story of her life and the way she achieved her goals.
“Whether you’re Maritza in prison, or Diane negotiating her way through life, you have to adapt, and you have to know that to sit still and accept is death,” Guerrero said. “It took me a while to have the courage to pursue what I wanted. Since I took the bold step to secretly take an acting class, I have been working as an actress. I don’t worry so much about the part any more. I want the work and the reputation as someone versatile and reliable. I never imagined being in two television series at once or being part of big hit like ‘Orange is the New Black.’ But it is what I dreamed, and now I go after my dreams. I tell everyone to challenge their fears. You will be no worse off if you don’t achieve all you want, and you’ll live with regret and anger, as I did when I was filing in a law office, if you don’t at least attempt to see if what you want makes you happy.”