Netflix’s Orange is the New Black (OITNB) has never shied away from tackling some of the most difficult, relevant and human stories, and its seventh and final season is no exception. A continuation from season six, the issues of immigration and immigrant detention overpower the last episodes of the show.
Cast members arrived at the Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center Thursday evening for the premiere of the highly anticipated season and applauded the groundbreaking show’s efforts to humanize detainees and connect audiences to what’s going on in the age of Donald Trump.
“It’s pretty right on,” Colombian actress Karina Arroyave, who plays a new prisoner named Carla, tells Remezcla on the red carpet. “I love that about the show. It goes right to what’s really happening. It’s one of my favorite things working on this role and the show was that it was dealing with something so current and so heartbreaking. It was really special to honor the undocumented immigrants through these stories.”
When we last saw the women of Litchfield Penitentiary, Blanca Flores (portrayed by Laura Gómez) was one of several inmates who were supposed to be released. But as she and Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) were placed in separate lines, Blanca could tell something was amiss. She wound up being shuffled onto a bus that would take her to an immigrant detention center, while Piper’s line led directly to the outside world, to freedom. It was a heartbreaking moment that showed how her immigration status made her vulnerable, even after having served her time.
We knew going into season seven that Blanca’s storyline would take us into a detention center (one of the last clips that Netflix released showed a glimpse of it), yet we didn’t know how the show would handle such a delicate topic. But based on the casts’ reactions on Thursday night, it appears this plot made an impression on them.
For Jackie Cruz, who plays the beloved Marisol “Flaca” Gonzales, the show inspired her to become an activist. “I’m going out to protest on Sunday,” she says, “so check me out on Instagram, and I’ll be talking all about that.”
“I think more will follow our example and tackle big political issues.”
Tamara Torres, a Puerto Rican and Cuban actress who portrays the weeping woman, believes this storyline will have a lasting impact on other shows. “From the very beginning [OITNB] has affected [issues] because there are prisoners that are immigrants,” she says. “It goes from the very start of the show. It’s very important because a lot of people are not aware, people are not watching the news [as much] or they are not conscious of what’s going on.”
Since the start of the show, OITNB has also humanized prisoners. Instead of painting them as merely bad or focusing on the reason for their sentence, we were able to see them as whole people. We learned about their hopes, dreams, and motivations.
“I think one of the show’s biggest takeaways is that [prisoners] are real people like [OITNB] characters,” Daniella De Jesús, who portrays inmate Zirconia, says. “I think more will follow our example and tackle big political issues.”
This season’s immigration storyline comes at a time when detention centers have increasingly been in the news. From the inhumane conditions to the unfair treatment of immigrants, outlets have given us a look into how these facilities hurt a marginalized community.
For Melinna Bobadilla, who plays Santos and is a Chicana actress and activist, immigration is currently the most pressing issue in the United States, and it’s important for every part of media to shine a spotlight on what’s happening.
“These are the kind of stories that are urgent to tell,” she says. “It reminds us that immigrants are still othered, still dehumanized. Media can shape [the] socio and political landscape, and as [a] Latinx actress, I see this is as an honor, but also a solemn responsibility.”
But perhaps nobody feels this is their duty more than Gomez, who portrays an undocumented immigrant. She was inspired to create “Immigrant Stories by Laura Gomez” on Instagram. Every Wednesday, she profiles immigrants and highlights their journeys and impact on our society through the social media platform.
While she’s doing her part in her own time, her character has also made a difference. Gomez has received many positive responses from fans.
“Sometimes, through fictional characters, people respond to certain stories,” she says. “The way Jenji [Kohan] and our writers has woven this story into our prison story, I think is honest, its flawless, non-tactical, and reflectional. It is meant for the viewer to see things in a different light.”
Adding to that, Susan Heyward, who plays corrections officer Tamika Ward at Litchfield, says the creators were “brilliant” to weave in the immigration storyline.
“The most important thing is that it is a human issue,” Heyward says. “It’s not about laws or rules or ideas of criminality, but about people and people wanting a better life for themselves. And to one group of people with privileges and one other group of people who they don’t believe [deserve] the same privileges. So getting back to humanity and staying with the humanity was really amazing to watch.”
The time on the show has inspired many of the actors to use their platform to do good, and it’s no different for the series creators. On Thursday night, the creative team behind OITNB launched The Poussey Washington Fund, an initiative named after the memorable character played by Emmy Award-winning actress Samira Wiley. The Fund will support eight pre-existing non-profit advocacy groups who focus on criminal justice reform, protect immigrant rights, end mass incarceration and support women who have been caught up in the criminal justice system.