By: Daisy K. Espinoza
“Everything that I do, every day, is in gratitude for my mothers’ sacrifice.”
During my conversation with Paola Mendoza, it only took a few minutes to realize where her superpower lies – that driving force that fuels and inspires us in our work, where we go for motivation when we feel defeated and the defining factor that shapes us. For Paola, this superpower is love.
One of her earliest memories was a demonstration of love. “[My mother] decided to take us to a movie, but she couldn’t afford three tickets, so she paid for me and my brother. She watched us go into the theater. That is the epitome of a mother’s sacrifice and of a mother’s role – to do whatever possible to give your children joy and to give them happiness,” says Paola. At only three years old, Paola came to the U.S. from Colombia alongside her mother and her brother, to be reunited with a father that left to work one day and never came back.
She saw how her mother, driven by the love for her children, did whatever she could to survive. “We didn’t speak English. We basically had $200 dollars in our pocket and nothing else. I saw my mom go from being afraid, to being able to have her first job at a fast food restaurant, to attending community college to learn English. She laid the foundation for her American dream, our American dream.”
This dream was clouded during Paola’s youth. During her early education, she was put on the path of the school to prison pipeline. “For no real reason, beyond my name, I was placed in self-contained classrooms with just Brown and Black kids. I had behavioral issues because I didn’t have healthy outlets. These outbreaks were trivial, but for a woman of color, trivial outbreaks led to serious consequences. I got lucky because I had an extraordinary teacher, Mr. Atwood. He fought to get me out of those classes and I finished 7th grade with the remainder of the student population,” Paola recounts.
After that pivotal moment in time, Paola went on to live her American dream, through which she seeks to bring this American dream to others. She is a film director, activist, author and co-founder of the Women’s March. “There is a power behind telling stories. We can actually change people and we can change hearts. When we truly listen to each other’s stories, that’s how we create community. That’s how we create equity,” affirms Paola. Her award-winning films have premiered in film festivals world-wide, where she focuses on telling the story of women and children affected by poverty and immigration.
In addition to filmmaking, Paola has also been the creative director for campaigns fighting for immigration reform, criminal justice reform, incarcerated mothers and women’s rights. She is also the co-author of “Together We Rise”, a New York Times best selling book that chronicles the rise of the Women’s March movement.
Since the 2016 presidential election, Paola’s focus has turned to activism. This past summer she became a powerful, creative voice against family separations at the border. She took it upon herself to bring the stories of these children to the forefront. “I wanted to bombard the American public with emotional art that would spark activism. The policy was so horrific and cruel, that what I needed to do was uplift these stories and give people access to them.” That is how the “I Am a Child” campaign was born – a photo series which drew inspiration from the 1968 photo “I Am a Man”. “Exactly 50 years later, children were fighting for their civil rights, fighting to be seen as human beings.” Paola considers the work that she did to combat the child separation policy to be some of the most effective work she has ever done. Within six weeks, she was able to play a major role in placing the issue front and center in the media leading to changes in the policy (although the Trump Administration has repeatedly failed to comply with their own changes, and federal court-ordered changes).
Paola uses two powerful tools to keep herself motivated within these difficult fights – history and love. “While this moment in time has been painful, we must look to the past. We see that people have survived and won in very dark circumstances. We must look to past strategies and how other resistance and opposition movements have won back their dignity and rights. This summer was a dark time in regards to family separation. The Kavanaugh hearings were also painful. We were made to feel dispensable. That we can be thrown to the side. What has kept my power is love. When I feel alone or enraged, I have to tap into love and in this case it is love for immigrants. Love for that idea that my mother came to this country, willing to sacrifice her dreams for those of her children. Tapping into that power is holy.”
Now a mother herself, Paola also taps into the love she has for her own son. She fights for him and to make this world a better place for he and his friends. As a woman that was raised in Los Angeles and lives in New York, she also taps into the love she has for her country. “It was when Donald Trump was elected, that I was able to express my love for my country because I felt that it was slipping through my fingers. What keeps me going in the darkest of moments is the power and the revolutionary idea of love.”
This is the same love that she witnessed and learned from her mother. “She had to navigate through a world she knew nothing about,” says Paola, but what provided clarity amidst this uncertainty was love. A strong, resilient and infallible love that was evident that day her mother bought only two movie tickets. Walking into that movie theater, holding her brother’s hand, never did a young Paola imagine that one day she would be making films, and much less did her mother, Liliana, realize those simple sacrifices would inspire her daughter for a lifetime.