Mama Muses with Paola Mendoza | filmmaker, activist
Whenever I talk to one of the women from the Women’s March, I am always struck by their intensity, passion, and wealth of information. They are intimidating to interview because they are whip smart and on top of that, they are a group of women leading the charge and making effective change. I think a huge part of their success is their devotion to help, their willingness to accept criticism and adjust accordingly, never hesitating to listen, and openly acknowledging those that came before them and paved the way. Sometimes their place is to speak up, sometimes it’s to listen, and that’s not lost on them. They truly are public servants, dedicating an enormous amount of energy in their respective fields. We are so honored to bring you this interview with Paola Mendoza.
Paola is from Colombia and has brought her soulful connection to immigration beautifully to life in award-winning films as a filmmaker, artist, director and author. She is also a mama, co-author of Together We Rise, a partner at Firebrand with Sarah Sophie Flicker (an agency creating content at the intersection of art and politics), and served as the Artistic Director for the Women’s March.
contributed by Kacy Byxbee, editor, Your Zen Mama
What is your most poignant memory immigrating to the United States from Colombia as a little girl?
I came here when I was 2, but the memory that most sticks out to me is something I experienced as a 7-year old. By this time, my mom had learned English and to this day, she speaks with a really thick accent. I was playing with a friend of mine and we were in front of my house and I said something along the lines of, “Oh well my mom, she's American,” and my friend turned around and said, “No, she’s not.” I was taken aback. I remember, as a little girl, being very confused by what she meant that she wasn't American. I was thinking, She is! She’s American. But my friend said, “No, she’s not. Listen to the way she speaks. She’s not American.”
I think that she was just being unfiltered, and as children, we’re all unfiltered. Where we are at this very moment, so many people are surprised and shocked by the anti-immigrant sentiment, by the misogyny, the xenophobia and the anti-Semitism that has come out while Donald Trump has been in office. The reality is that all of that has existed in the country since the inception of this country. With that little 7-year old girl from my childhood, those weren’t her sentiments, they were obviously the sentiments of the people around her, and they filtered down to her. That memory isn’t my first one here, but it is one that has stuck with me and defined what I have done as an artist, adult, and activist.
Do you feel like are more aware of, and less surprised by, the anti immigrant sentiments in the US because of your experience as an immigrant?
My work doesn't allow me to be in denial. A lot of people have the luxury and privilege to not have to think about these ideas and realities. It is something that is always at the forefront of my mind because I work, in particular, in the undocumented space. I have so many friends that are undocumented. I have friends that are dealing with ICE, renewal with their DACA’s, and with depression because of everything that’s going on in this country for undocumented immigrants, so I don't have the luxury to ignore it. It affects me directly, and as an immigrant - there’s a personal stake in there as well.
There are major challenges facing not only undocumented immigrants, but also immigrants that have legal status in the US. Can you break that down for us?
For the first time in this administration’s short-lived history, there was a decision made which basically said it is legal to hold legal, permanent residents without bail or bond. This is the first time that a legal action has directly impacted legal immigration in such a negative way. For anyone unfamiliar with the immigration system, what a green card gives you is every single right as an American citizen, except you cannot vote. That's the difference between having a green card and being a naturalized citizen. This new ruling basically says that if someone has a green card and is detained in regards to something with immigration, they do not have the right to ask for bail or a bond.
Let’s take Paul Manafort, for example. He’s a citizen being charged with a tremendous amount of felonies, and he will tell the judge he would like to post bail, and put “x” amount of money into a holding account for the government while he waits to go to trial, so he doesn’t have to sit in jail. That right is now taken away from legal permanent residents. They will have to sit in jail while they await trial for XYZ thing. That has never happened in our generation--where legal immigration is being impacted in such a negative way.
One of the reasons it is so important to fight alongside, and for, undocumented immigrants is because they have a right to exist and live in this country and because we are now seeing the rights of legal immigration being dismantled during this administration, and that is a very dangerous thing.
How did your activist work and your work with the Women's March begin?
I've been working in the immigration space for a very long time, but I'm a filmmaker - I'm a writer and director, and I've made movies around immigration and undocumented immigrants. Then, Donald Trump was elected. The organizers of the Women's March were friends of mine, so I reached out to them and told them I wanted to help any way that I could, but that I had never organized a march. I started working with them a week after the election. I was the head of partnerships and I eventually became the artistic director. As the artistic director for the Women’s March I organized all of the artists, the stage the day of, the partnerships, and all of the artwork. The art that we have come to know from the Women's March was very intentional and was chosen and curated by my team and I. It was all framed within a certain space, trying to get the story of the Women’s March and the ideals of the Women’s March across.
Where does Art fit into helping create a strong resistance movement like the Women's March?
As an artist, I think that during dark times in society where we feel hopeless or where we feel lost, the role of the artist is to illuminate a path forward, to provide a beacon of hope, and to shine a light on truth when so often in this world we are surrounded by lies. That is the role of the artist and Art. And in that, communities are built. Organizing can be a heady and policy-driven endeavor, and it is the role of the artist to actually tap into the heart of individuals and expand that heart. I firmly believe that the problem that we have in this country at this moment is that the United States is suffering from a mass contraction of the heart, and the artist is the one who can tap into that heart and expand it with love and compassion. When we’re able to expand that heart, we slowly start to shift and change our belief system and the cultural narrative that has been established in this country for such a long time. And when we start to push and change that cultural narrative is when we can get policy change.
I often talk about Will & Grace as an easy example to understand this theory of change. 25 years ago, when Will & Grace came out on TV, regular American people saw that a gay character was actually in fact human and three-dimensional, and had dignity and love. He reminded them of their uncle, their neighbor, their father, or their grandfather and they related to a gay character. That is the beginning of a narrative shift that 25 years later, with continual narrative shift, continual activism from artists and front line activists, policy change, and huge strategy, we were able to get to the place where gay marriage is legal. I think the work begins with the artist to tap into the American heart that is contracting to those that are different, to those that are the other, and to those that they don’t understand are the other. It’s essential for hearts to remain open and to do it in ways that are surprising, subtle, beautiful and inspiring.
For the Women’s March artwork, are you usually reaching out to artists or do artists usually find you? How does that work?
It works two fold. For me personally, I’m building relationships because this is the world that I come from, so a lot of these people are my friends and it is continuing to build that friendship. In the space surrounding the resistance and understanding the difficulty at times of what it means to be an artist with a political opinion, I feel for them. It’s scary, and it does come with risk of their work and their ability to work, so any artist that has a voice during these times, I respect tremendously. While I wish it were different, some artists choose not to use their voice during this time., but I understand the complexities around speaking out at this moment.
Why is it important that people who take issue with something like gun violence, actually show up to march and encourage their kids to participate in the walk-outs at their schools?
Being a citizen and living in a country that is on the precipice of drastic change, (whether you think good or bad) it is critical to engage in that change. Whether you want to stop the change, or if you want to push the change forward. For me, you must show up in order to create the world that you want. Sitting back and being unengaged and uninvolved is no longer an option. It can’t be. We’ve seen the difference. Often, before Hillary or Trump, we have seen people say, “Oh, it doesn’t matter if it’s a Democrat or a Republican, it’s the same thing. They’re the same.”
For the majority of communities, it is not the same thing to have a Democrat or Republican as President. There are certain issues where it doesn’t make a difference, I 100% understand that in a microcosm, but on a macrocosm we have to look at how immigration policy is affected, how environmental policies are affected, how foreign policies is effected, and how gun control is affected. It requires citizens to engage. It requires people who live in this country to fight for what they believe in because if you don’t, and if you are silent, then the loss that this country might encounter will be partly your responsibility.
The amount of people that have gone out to the streets and made their opinions known like we have never seen in this generation, has been so inspiring. We’ve seen other movements before Donald Trump that were protesting, particularly Black Lives Matter which has been protesting for years and have been very unjustly targeted. The media smears around Black Lives Matter weren’t able to crush the movement, and I firmly believe that the success of the Women’s March stands on the shoulders of Black Lives Matter because they have been training us for years on how to go out and protest. We’ve seen it on TV, so when we made the call to go out and protest, we had around 4 million people go out in the streets in the United States alone. March for our Lives, which happened on March 24, is a continuation of what has been happening in our generation from Black Lives Matter, and it's a culmination in the fact that now it's being led by young people, which is extraordinarily exciting.
Do you think that Donald Trump was a catalyst for how intense, active and passionate people have behaved post election? Do you think the same thing would have happened if Hillary had been elected?
No, I don’t. The reality is, White people were shook out of their comfort zone. Communities of color and the undocumented community were targeted under the Obama administration tremendously. We had more deportations under Obama than we had under George Bush. And so the undocumented community was already terrorized. Obviously, we have been terrorized even more under Donald Trump. Going back to Black Lives Matter, the Black community has been terrorized by police brutality, and by laws that were unfair to them, targeting them for decades and centuries before Donald Trump.
It wasn’t until Donald Trump was elected that White women, in particular, felt threatened. They felt threatened because of the sexual violence and harassment charges against him, they felt threatened around the Reproductive Rights, and it opened up their eyes to the reality of how vulnerable so many communities are in this country. This wouldn’t be the same if Hillary Clinton was elected because those White women and those communities would have felt safe and comfortable, the way that they felt under Obama. And the way they, in many ways, felt under George Bush. The real valid threat of Donald Trump shook them into opening their eyes and becoming conscious of other communities that had been suffering for decades.
Now, I think that Donald Trump, even for communities of color, is a whole different level for our generation. We've had monsters in the history of the United States that were in political power and presidents as well. Andrew Jackson was a fucking monster. But for our generation, this is the first time that we've had a president that has been to the level of corruption, open to White Supremacy, xenophobic, and misogynistic. It’s the worst that we have ever seen it, but by no means was I surprised that he had won.
What do you think is important for White people to understand about White privilege?
I think the great thing about where we are is that a lot of people have started to grasp the concept of White Privilege, that it is actually a thing, and that's a huge first step. I think that the most important thing about White privilege is recognizing that White people don't have to think about these issues the way that people of color do all the time. I think there’s really interesting parallels when you are talking about race and when you’re talking about sexism. As women, we all know from the time we are children, what it's like to constantly be afraid. You know you can’t walk to a parking lot by yourself, you know that you don’t walk down a dark street, you know to cover your drink in a bar. That is stuff that we are constantly aware of. I never met a woman that has been able to forget that she is a woman in this man’s world, and that sexual violence is constantly present.
It wasn’t until the conversation around #METOO and #TIMESUP that men started to realize, oh shit this is women's reality all the time: in the workplace, when they’re walking down the street, and at home in certain circumstances. Men have started to become more conscious of that and are having conversations and discussions. For White women, I think it’s an interesting and important parallel to see that men don't understand what it's like to be a woman because they don't have to think that way. They have the privilege not to be fearful of their bodies everyday. It’s the same thing for communities of color.
White women and White men don’t have to worry about walking down the street and being targeted by police because they rarely get targeted and killed by police. Black men, in particular, constantly have that thought, and are constantly navigating what it means to be a Black man in America. We can take it to a whole different level with Brown people and being an immigrant in America. I think that nuance is very hard to truly internalize. But when it’s internalized, you can begin to make the corrections around how White privilege is stirred up in places. It’s important to have these daring discussions from a place without judgment and from a place of love, trying not to be frustrated, hurt, or exhausted because we have to teach people their blind spots. Everyone has them. You don’t know what you don’t know.
What will your work with the Women's March look like for the rest of the year?
I’ve stepped away from the Women's March daily operations. I put out this book, Together We Rise, with Sarah Sophie because so often women in history are written out, and I wanted to make sure that our stories as women were not only not written out, but also told by us. I'm really proud of that book. I've been with the Women's March for the past year-and-a-half and I'm really excited to get back to my work and focus on my work in the creative resistance and see how that unfolds in the next few years.
How do you communicate these ideas and discuss activism with your 5 –year old son? Are there any books that you recommend for toddlers and young kids?
I think that you just have to talk about it. Again, I think this concept of how do I talk about it with my child because I don't want to take away their innocence? is also coming from a place of White privilege – a lot of people don’t have the luxury to not have those conversations. My 6 year old nephew is Black and Jewish and they are having conversations with him around what it means to be Black, Jewish, and interracial. And he hears the news and adults talking about Black men being killed. And he knows that he is Black so those are conversations that they have to with him. He doesn’t have the privilege to not have those conversations.
My son, Mateo, and I were just having this conversation before he went to sleep about skin color, and I was letting him lead the conversation. I’ve never been the one to tell him, this is a Black person, this is a White person, this is a Brown person. I always let him ask the questions. We were just having this discussion because my skin is darker than his, and he brought up his cousin and aunt who are Black. We also read him stories that are about Martin Luther King and segregation and the Civil Rights Movement. These are obviously books that are for children and they deal with the reality of racism very directly.
There’s a great book called “I Have a Dream,” which is Martin Luther King’s speech and the images are really beautiful. We read him that book all the time and he quoted it when we were talking about skin color and he was saying, “people with brown skin had to sit in the back of the bust and that’s not right.” There’s also a Nina Simone book called “NINA” that we read to him. It’s a really beautiful book about a girl that plays the piano and she is amazing. It talks about how her mom couldn’t watch her play the piano because she is Black, so we talk about those issues and those realities often. My point to all of this is to say that I talk about these issues with my son in an honest and upfront way that is at his level. We talk about war and refugees because there’s a book that we read called "The Journey". And he knows about immigrants. He doesn’t know what it means to be an immigrant, but he knows that his mom is an immigrant, and he knows he is not an immigrant. We don’t shy away from those things.
How do you find balance?
I don’t know if there is balance in my life. I’m busy and things suffer. I don’t work out as much as I want to, and I don't see friends as much as I want to. I see my son as much as I can and I'm really happy with my work. I’m really happy with what I'm trying to contribute to this country and those are the things that are really important to me at this moment. And I also think that being flexible is important. Maybe that won’t be important to me in 6 months. I don’t know. I’m just trying really hard to be in the moment.
This interview has been edited and condensed