Paola Mendoza Takes Her Immigrant Experience From the Screen to the Page

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Imagine you are an immigrant, new to the U.S., have two kids and end up in New York without a job and barely speak the language. It’s not an easy path. Paola Mendoza lived this experience when she came to the U.S. as a kid with her mom. She took her mother’s story and made it into a tender, uplifting movie about the immigrant experience. The film, Entre Nos, that Mendoza co-wrote, co-directed, and starred in played film festivals back in 2009.

In Entre Nos Mariana (Paola Mendoza) has followed her husband to New York after living on her own in Colombia for years. Together with her two young children, Gabriel (Sebastian Villada Lopez), 10, and Andrea (Laura Montana Cortez), 6, the family reunites in Queens. Things seem to be going well, Mariana makes empanadas and they celebrate. Not long after his family arrives, Antonio gets restless. He breaks the news that he got a new job in Miami and is moving. He says they can come meet him when he is settled. Days pass and Mariana begins to run out of money. She leaves him messages but he doesn’t call back. It becomes clear that Antonio is gone for good and Mariana is left to care for her kids, alone.

Paola Mendoza, in her performance as Mariana, portrays desperation, hope, and strength that are palpable on screen. It’s no surprise that Mendoza’s performance is relatable, sympathetic, and thoughtful. The film tells her life story and the role of Mariana is based on her own mother.

Soon after Entre Nos hit theaters Mendoza was approached to write a book. The result is “The Ones Who Don’t Stay” about a young family who flees war-torn Colombia in the seventies and tries to make a home in Los Angeles. We caught up with Paula Mendoza right after her book launch. Here is what she had to say about turning her movie into a novel and honoring the women in her family by sharing their story.

First let’s talk about your film. What motivated you to write your family’s story and turn it into a screenplay for Entre Nos?

I wanted to thank my mother for all her sacrifices and the only way I was able to do that was share her story. I wanted to shine a light on all the unsung heroes that are our mothers.

Entre Nos is based on your family’s struggle to make it in New York. Can you talk about your early years in the United States as a newcomer. What were the toughest things you had to overcome? Any happy memories?

The hardest thing for me was not having family around. It was just my mother, my brother and I and I remember being jealous of my friends that had cousins and aunts and grandparents. I wanted family with me so bad but that is the cross that immigrants must bear.

As for a happy moment… I remember my brother and I played baseball. We made our own championship games with the kids from the neighborhood. Each team had a couple of players. My brother and I played on the same team and we were the team to beat. We maintained our winning streak for months. It was wonderful to win!

Your movie Entre Nos garnered critical acclaim and played various film festivals several years ago. What was the motivation to turn that story into a novel?

I was lucky to have Penguin Books watch the movie and ask me if I wanted to write a novel. I never imagined I would write a book. I never had even dreamed of such a thing but when the opportunity presented itself I could not say no. It took me three years to write the book and I’m very excited to share it with the world!

What was the experience of writing your first book like?

Writing the book was the hardest artistic endeavor I have ever embarked on. The hardest part was being alone with my thoughts and my computer for years and years. I had many tricks to stay disciplined.  I needed to stay focused in order to finish the book. I had many days where I wanted to give up because of how hard it was but in the end I always thought about my mom and my grandmother and how they deserved to have their story of strength, love and inspiration told to the world. I wanted to celebrate them and writing my novel was my way of shining a light on them.

Your book “The Ones Who Don’t Stay” was released in Spanish a few months ago and now the English-language version is available in bookstores. Which language was the book written in originally?

I wrote the book in English and then had the book translated into Spanish. I was very involved in the translation as I wanted to make sure nothing was lost in translation.

Writing in Spanish is something I am not comfortable with. I normally write everything in English and then translate it into Spanish. I speak and dream in Spanish but writing in Spanish is something I have yet to conquer.

You recently had a really successful book launch in New York hosted by Soledad O’Brien. What was your favorite part of the event?

I had my book launch at Rush Gallery in NYC. Soledad O’Brien and I had a conversation about my book and immigration reform. We talked about the power of art to push and change policy. We also discussed how we as immigrants need to be active in pushing Congress for immigration reform. The most memorable moment was seeing all my amazing friends come and support such an important night. I loved laughing with them, I loved sharing my hard work with them.