Mendoza fights for immigrants’ rights on, off screen

Paola Mendoza knows how to fight. As a young teen in poor, suburban Los Angeles during the 90s when gang violence was widespread, Mendoza fell in with a rough crowd. It took her mother sending her back her war-torn home country, Colombia, to save her from the violent path she was on. Today, Mendoza continues to fight, but it is for a cause greater than herself: immigrants’ rights. Instead of fists and knives, her weapons are films and words.

On Sept. 8, Mendoza’s film “Entre Nos” premiered this year’s Community Conversations series, “People on the Move.” Mendoza not only co-wrote, co-directed and co-produced the movie but also starred in it, playing the role of her mother.

Though “Entre Nos” took place in New York City, the film was largely autobiographic in that it depicted her family’s struggle for survival as new immigrants in America. Through the film, Mendoza reveals the harsh realities of life for poor immigrants with little to no resources in the states.

After her father left them when she was two years old, her family – which consisted of Mendoza herself, her mother and her old brother – became homeless and had to live on the street, digging through trash to collect cans for money and sleeping on pieces of cardboard outside.

Mendoza came to Maryville College to speak on immigrants’ issues and her film on Sept. 13 in the Ronald and Lynda Nutt Theatre. Aware of the controversy currently surrounding immigration, she admitted that it “is a hot topic.”

“Immigration is what the future of America depends on,” Mendoza said.

Mendoza spoke passionately about the issue and explained why she made “Entre Nos.”

“I wanted to humanize the face of immigrants,” Mendoza said, going on to explain that she wanted to make the issue personal. “I believe in the power of person-to-person contact.” Mendoza said that by sharing stories with each other, people find that they are not as different as they may believe and that is how progress can be made.

Since making “Entre Nos,” Mendoza has spent five years traveling the world discussing immigration with people, sharing her own story in an attempt to sway opinions and challenge ideas.

Mendoza described immigration as a process with four stages: abandonment, sacrifice, assimilation and hope.

Mendoza conceded that abandonment “might seem like a very strong word, but I think that’s what they do.” She said immigrants must abandon everything they know in order to come to America – their country, family, friends, neighbors, everything. Her father took it one step further when he abandoned them in America.

“We lost our family,” Mendoza said of his leaving them. “We lost our provider and we lost our security.”

Mendoza said she was haunted by the “whys” her entire life and that making “Entre Nos” enabled her to put her ghosts to rest.

The film was also a tribute to her mother, whom Mendoza described as “not only a hero, but an unsung hero.” This admiration led to the second phase, sacrifice. Before coming to America, Mendoza’s mother had wanted to be an architect. She never got the chance to realize that dream once she found herself homeless and in her 20s with two children.

“She dreamt bigger than herself, and she sacrificed her own dreams,” Mendoza said, adding that it took her until her 20s when she saw another homeless immigrant collecting cans with a young child to realize how “incredible” her mother was. “The story that I had held on to my entire life that I thought was my own, I realized is a universal story,” Mendoza said.

The third phase, assimilation  was the one she seemed to struggle the most with.  Mendoza split assimilation into two categories: that of the parent and that of the child. The immigrant parent is focused on finding work and achieving financial stability, while the immigrant child is torn between two cultures. According to Mendoza, those two worlds came “crashing together” when she was an adolescent.

By the time she was 14, Mendoza said she was involved with fighting, guns, car theft, breaking and entering, talking back to teachers, older men, and drugs. She constantly fought her mother and admitted that she was out of control. Her mother decided to send her back to their extended family in Colombia, a country torn by civil war and overrun with drug lords. This chaotic environment is where Mendoza said she found the fourth phase: hope.

She found this in Colombia because she found family. “I found a community that believed in me,” said Mendoza. She described her American school, situated in a working poor neighborhood, as one that “expected [her] to fail, expected [her] to go to jail, expected [her] to fight,” but in Colombia, her school demanded excellence, so she fulfilled their expectations.

Mendoza returned to America for her senior year of high school because she realized that there was opportunity for a future here that did not exist in Colombia. She took a theater class as an elective because she thought it would be easy, but she fell in love with it and determined that that was what she wanted to do with her life.

Despite initial misgivings from her mother, Mendoza has directed and produced multiple films (with another currently in the works in Miami) and won four awards for “Entre Nos.”

When she is not working on movies, Mendoza continues her fight off-screen, lobbying for immigrant and human rights around the world.

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