Spotlight On: Paola Mendoza

[su_spotlightheader who=”Paola Mendoza” what=”Writer, Filmmaker, Actress” where=”New York, NY”]When you meet Paola Mendoza, the first thing you’ll notice is the palpable fire and determination in her eyes. This accomplished filmmaker and writer has made it her mission to deal with social ills through art. A true auteur, Paola’s voice is raw and unconcealed in her films, (Autumn’s Eyes, Entre Nos), and her debut novel, (Los que no se quedan – The Ones Who don’t Stay), where she explores the immigrant experience and the stories of the disenfranchised with empathy and honesty. Her affinity for these stories stems from her own quest for the American Dream and her dedication to these causes is revealed in her own humanitarian efforts: volunteering at refugee camps, working with #WelcomeUS, and recently exposing the on-going Honduras Crisis, where she raised her voice in social media and contributed elbow grease volunteering at the refugee camps for immigrant children here on our own soil. I had a chance to talk with this inspiring woman about her childhood with a single mother, the importance of having female allies rather than enemies, motherhood, and the rewards of striking up a conversation with your neighborhood dope dealer.[/su_spotlightheader]

Paola Mendoza

Your childhood has played a large role in the the stories that you tell, from your feature directorial debut, Entre Nos, to the novel that you wrote, Los que no se quedan (The Ones Who don’t Stay). Tell us about your journey here to the US.
My journey to the US was an easy one in comparison to the kids that are coming to the USA today via murderous trains, unforgiving desserts and run ins with gun trotting Americans that insist that these thousands of kids (that are really refugees) are here to steal their jobs. If you’re worried that a ten year old kid is gonna take your job, I think you need to do a bit of soul searching about what you can offer to this country… I digress… back to my journey. I came with my mom and brother to be reunited with my father who had come to the US a few months before us. As life would have it, my father abandoned us a few months after our arrival. He left my mom with two kids, ages 3 and 7, in country where we didn’t have family, money, a job or spoke English. Needless to say his abandonment became a defining moment in my life and thirty years later, through my art, I am still exploring what it means to be a fatherless child and healing from those wounds. My art is what has allowed me to grow beyond the all consuming anger that almost destroyed me in my teenage years and live in peace and acceptance.

Paola Mendoza - Photo by Topaz Adizes
Photo by: Topaz Adizes

You say your teenage years were filled with anger, but your mom was instrumental in turning your life around. Could you tell us about those years and your mom’s role in your transformation?
I had a lot of anger because of my fathers abandonment and I didn’t have any healthy outlets for that anger. School was a joke, therapy was financially out of the question, so I turned to the only thing I felt I had… the streets. I started gang banging at the age of twelve. Initially, my mom didn’t know what was happening because she was an immigrant and working full time, so she was just unaware. It took her about two years to realize that I was going to end up dead or in jail. My mother is a strong woman and she found the strength to send me back to Colombia for two years.[quote_right]It took her about two years to realize that I was going to end up dead or in jail.[/quote_right] She didn’t ask me, she just told me, and then I was gone two days later. It was traumatic at first but ended up being what changed my life around. When I came back from Colombia I was a changed young woman. I was no longer interested in the street life and instead was focused on school and getting to college. I literally would not be here today if it wasn’t for my mom risking so much by sending me back to Colombia. I am so grateful to her and my time in Colombia. Colombia holds some of the best memories of my life!

How did your stay in Colombia change you?
Colombia centered me. Colombia surrounded me in love. Colombia gave me hope. Colombia gave me dreams. Colombia forced me to find who I was amongst its wars and riches. Colombia opened my eyes to a world that was beyond myself. It gave me a purpose; it gave me my foundation and it gave me family. I am forever indebted to my country because when I was lost it gave me the tools to find myself.

Being an immigrant gives you a distinct perspective on what it means to be American. How has that experience affected your work?
[quote_left]We can not fix our problems as a country or as a world unless we can talk to one another, unless we can relate to one another. My work strives to create this dialogue.[/quote_left]I see myself as a bridge into and out of many worlds. In the afternoon I can hangout on the corner with the dope dealer from the block and talk about the purpose of life and at night I can go to a state dinner and chat it up with a Congresswoman about what needs to be done in order to protect our reproductive rights. I’m only saying this because I’ve realized that this is a unique gift. I am very comfortable in worlds that don’t normally interact with one another. So my job as an artist is to make those worlds interact. We can not fix our problems as a country or as a world unless we can talk to one another, unless we can relate to one another. My work strives to create this dialogue.

What do you think are the challenges in telling truthful stories of minorities–women, marginalized racial and social groups, the disenfranchised? Is it difficult to get these stories produced?
[quote_right]I am in a position of privilege to be an artist and with that privilege comes the responsibility of telling the stories of people who have been ignored for far too long.[/quote_right]I think telling a truthful story is difficult, even if it’s about a straight, white male. Truth is what we are always striving for and rarely do we achieve it. I’m an indie film maker… which translates to doing the impossible everyday! Are the stories I am telling difficult to make? Yep! But I am up for the challenge. Why? Because people have told me their stories, they have trusted me with their secrets, their pain and their dreams and I simply will not accept no for an answer. I believe their stories are just as important as everyone elses. I am in a position of privilege to be an artist and with that privileged comes the responsibility of telling the stories of people who have been ignored for far too long.

Paola Mendoza interview on Move LifeStyle photo by Topaz Adizes
Photo by: Topaz Adizes

Often people stay on the sidelines and prefer not to get involved in strangers’ lives. What made you want to tell the stories of people whose voices aren’t as loud as yours or don’t have the privileges that allow them to have their voices heard?
We were invisible growing up. I didn’t see myself reflected in movies, books, TV shows or magazines. It was as if my community simply did not exist. I come from the unsung heroes of America. I come from the people that blend into the walls of America. But I see those heroes, those people that aren’t seen are the bravest people I know. They love deep. They dream beyond today. They give themselves to their children and to the hope that tomorrow is better than today. Knowing that, I have to tell their stories. Their stories are in my blood, in my bones, in my everyday breath.

You have made a point to travel: around the US, to India, Cuba, Colombia and Africa. Why is this important to you? How did these journeys shape you?

Paola Mendoza on Location
Paola on location

Traveling around the world has been the best gift I have given myself. I can’t imagine dying without seeing how other people live, eat, drink, dance and love. I think the most important lesson I have learned from traveling is that I can always friendship in every corner of the world.

You are one of the founding members of Film Fatales, created by filmmaker Leah Meyerhoff, that serves as a support group for women in a cutthroat field, film making. Often women fight each other, especially in fields where they are underrepresented and forced to compete with one another for limited opportunities. Why did you join Film Fatales? Why do groups like this matter?

I became part of Film Fatales for selfish reasons. I wanted a community. I wanted a place where I could be vulnerable and learn from people that are better than me. I wanted to be able to help others achieve their dreams and Film Fatales is just that. We intrinsically know that together we are stronger. Together we can push for the radical change the film industry needs. I love my sister in art and I am a better artist because of them.

Congratulations on your first child! How do you balance motherhood with your work? What, if anything, has changed?
Thank you!!! I am not sure how I balance it…I always feel like the scales are WAY off!!!! I honestly could not do what I do with out the support of my incredible partner Michael Skolnik. He is 100% as involved as I am with our son and without that, something would have to suffer. So we communicate a lot about our schedules, we plan ahead as much as we can and when things change last minute we roll with the punches.

Paola Mendoza with her son Matteo

The thing that has changed the most is my independence. I really don’t have independence because I have a baby and a family that depends on me. Before Mateo’s birth my independence was THE most important thing. I needed to be able to leave on a moments notice; I needed to feel like nothing held me down. If I had to go to a refugee camp for a month, I could do it without a second thought, now that does not exist. Or better said it exists in a different form. [Michael and I] are a team and together we can make anything happen, it’s just a matter of timing and planning. So will I leave to Kenya for a month tomorrow, no but I don’t want to now either. Will I travel to the border of the US to work on the humanitarian crisis, YES absolutely! Michael will take care of Mateo while I am gone. So instead of a month I leave for seven days and still get the story!

What does a typical day look like for you?
I am woken up by my son at 6am. He drinks his bottle in our bed until about 6:30. His father takes him until about 8am. I get up and get him ready for daycare and drop him off by 9 am. I work from 9:00-4pm. I’m normally writing, taking meetings, writing or on good days, on set. By 4pm Mateo is picked up and we go and play at the park until about 5ish. Eat, bath time and then daddy comes home. I get another break for about an hour where I catch up on e-mails and then at 7:30 the baby is asleep. Michael and I have some wine, talk about the politics of the day and then just chill until about 11pm. It’s a pretty great life… I am lucky to have it.

Paola Mendoza Michael Skolnik Move LifeStyle

I’m sure it helps to have a supportive partner. Can you imagine doing it alone?
Not a all. Single moms and single dads are HEROES! I am in awe of them.

What values do you want your son to grow up with? Do they differ from the ones that you were taught?
The most important value I want to instill in Mateo is compassion. If he is compassionate he will be able to make this world a better place. My mom filled me with love. She is the embodiment of love. So I would say Mateo and I would be cut from the same cloth.

What do you consider to be your hardest won or most treasured life lesson?
Forgiveness is hard but essential. It took me almost 25 years to forgive my father… I could not have done it sooner, I simply wasn’t ready, but when I decided to do it, the painful and difficult work was the best thing I could have done for myself.

What are you most enjoying learning about yourself lately?
I’m really looking at my leadership style. Embracing what works and looking at how I can improve it.

Do you have any advice for women following in your footsteps?
Embrace the unknown.
Find a partner that loves you for who you are.
Don’t be afraid to make bad art.
Don’t let fear be your guide.
Get off your phone!
Being uncomfortable is a great thing.
Surround yourself with positive people.
Give more then you get.

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