As the daughter of an immigrant mother who fled from the Dominican Republic as a child, Zoe Saldana knows all too well about the lives of people are leaving their home countries hoping for a safer, fresh start in America.
“My grandmother landed in New York in 1961 with my mother after running away form a dictatorship in the Dominican Republic,” she says in the latest issue of PEOPLE. “She felt invited by America, that America was giving her all the tools because they wanted her to win.”
That’s why, when the number of people held in detention centers at the U.S.-Mexico border skyrocketed last year as children were being separated from their parents, Saldana felt a need to step in.
The Guardians of the Galaxy star, 41, visited the border with the nonprofit This is About Humanity, meeting many of the families that were being detained there.
For much more on PEOPLE’s Women Changing the World 2019, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.
“The migrants are teachers, engineers, nurses,” says Saldana, a mom of three young sons, who brought supplies to like diapers and hygiene products, plus books and toys to the families.
“You sit down with 12-year-olds who left with the 8-year-old siblings, running away from sexual or domestic abuse,” she says. “We have to understand the human side of all of this.”
Saldana also founded the media site Bese, hoping to promote positive stories about Latinos, after finding herself discouraged by the negative stereotypes she often sees in their portrayals.
“As Latinos, we are often overlooked or mischaracterized,” she says. “I think it’s important that we tell our own stories.”