Paola Mendoza has spent her career telling stories—on paper, on the screen, in the streets. Most recently, the activist, artist, and co-founder of the Women’s March has co-authored Sanctuary: a powerfully-rendered young adult fiction novel that imagines a world in which America begins embedding microchips in citizens’ wrists to separate undocumented immigrants from the rest of the population.
The year is 2032 and 16-year-old Vali quickly draws us into her world, which, for all its dystopian technology, feels shockingly close to our own. In Vali’s America, undocumented immigrants live in a state of constant fear of being caught. It’s a world in which the president has a vendetta against approximately 10.5 million people (the Pew Research Center-estimated number of unauthorized immigrants in the United States as of 2017). One where Vali finds herself holding her breath, waiting for the moment her eight-year-old brother, Ernie, or her Mami will be taken away from her.
Below, Mendoza tells Well+Good why she believes reading is activism, and what she wants every reader to take away from this work of fiction.
Well+Good: Why did you decide to write Sanctuary?
Paola Mendoza: The idea for Sanctuary came to me after I helped organize the Marches Against Family Separation in 2018. That, for me personally, was a really difficult time in the sense that I was organizing marches against this horrific policy on a macro level, and then on a micro level, I was working with families who had been directly separated from their children. I was trying to do whatever I could to help those reunifications happen. Family separation was all around me, and it was a super dark time and very painful and unbelievable. And yet, when we organized the marches, hundreds of thousands of people across the country came out and marched against family separation, and we were effectively able to end the policy within about six weeks. That’s an incredible feat, given that the Trump administration specifically hates immigrants and does everything in their power to make sure that immigrants are constantly victims of some atrocity.
And so, I started to imagine what would have happened in this country if we hadn’t stopped family separation. I imagined that would have opened the floodgates for more horrible things to continue to happen and my imagination led me to the world of Sanctuary: the United States of 2032.
Why did you choose young adult fiction as the genre? Why did you want to write to that audience?
When I got the idea for Sanctuary, there weren’t too many books that had undocumented young people at the center of them. And so for me, as an artist, as a woman of color, as an immigrant, representation really matters. It affects people when they see themselves or don’t see themselves represented in books, movies, TV—all of it. So when I saw that there was a gaping hole of representation, I wanted to do my contribution to try and fill that hole. The good news is that a lot of authors have had the same idea as I did, because there’s been a lot of books released in the past four or six months about undocumented young people.
I’ve also been very inspired by young people and how active and creative they’ve been in their organizing under the Trump administration. I really believe that this country has so much healing to do from centuries of past injustices. Just within the last four years, there’s been an onslaught of so much—topped off with a f**king pandemic that no one imagined we would see in our lifetimes. So, for me, the younger generation will lead us through this very difficult process and of healing and finding restorative justice. I wanted to tell a story of a 16-year-old who eventually becomes an activist—not because she wants to become an activist, but because she has to become an activist.
I don’t think people necessarily think of the word “reading” right after they hear the word “activism.” (Although, I hope this is changing!) Why was a book the next logical step for you as an activist?
For me, it’s always about, “How do I best tell the story?” I am an artist, a storyteller. I trained as a storyteller and as a filmmaker—first as an actress, then as a director. I went into documentary filmmaking, then I went to narrative filmmaking. Then I went into organizing, and then I started using visual art in order to work at the intersection of politics and art. Because I work in so many mediums, normally, when an idea comes to me, it’s also very clear what the medium is.
I became politicized by reading, to be quite frank. Reading was not encouraged in my house, mainly because my mom had a learning disability and so she never read. It wasn’t discouraged; there just weren’t books in my house. So I came to reading very late, but the first book that I read was The House of Spirits by Isabel Allende. That book politicized me in the sense that I saw the experience behind the history of Chile at the age of 13 and I wanted to know more. A few years later, I was in the theater and I stumbled upon James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry and August Wilson, and I started to read all of these very political works. To me, reading is [activism]. Reading is very much how I became aware of the world outside of my own experience.
Throughout Sanctuary, there’s an interesting and troubling dual reality: While Ernie, Malakas, and Vali are running for their lives, it’s “life as usual” for most white people. They may feel “inconvenienced” by the country’s racist policies, but only a few people (like the character Sister Lottie) do anything to help. This feels so relevant to the year 2020.
At this moment in time, the United States is having a reckoning around race and around the most vulnerable communities. The problem becomes: We can’t live in an anti-racist society unless white people do the work. White America has to do the work. White America can’t just be bystanders, watching things unfold. That’s not how we become an anti-racist society or an anti-xenophobic society. This book is a call to action for people who are not from these vulnerable communities. Everyone has the opportunity and the responsibility to help another person who is in a more vulnerable position and it is very easy in society to ignore that. We don’t have to engage with people who are suffering or people who need help.
We can’t live in an anti-racist society unless white people do the work.
I think what this pandemic has shown us is how intertwined and interconnected we are, and what happens when we only take care of our own. One of the many reasons why I believe we are still in this pandemic eight months later and Europe is functioning in a pretty much normal society is that we decided to take care of ourselves. We decided to take care of things that had an economic benefit in the immediate future. My kids are in a pod right now in my office because Trump, his supporters, and many governors and mayors decided to take care of restaurants and bars instead of deciding how to make sure that schools open. That has a long-term effect.
What I hope is that the reader is able to reflect on themselves and say, “Okay, who am I? Am I the one who is annoyed because I have to get checked three times with my wrist? Or am I Sister Lottie: Someone who is actively engaged in trying to help. We need to decide who we want to be because it doesn’t happen by accident; it happens by individual choice. Everyone can decide to be a Sister Lottie or everyone can decide to be the person who’s just completely unaware that the world is falling apart around them.
(This question contains spoilers.) There’s a beautiful scene where Vali, Ernie, and Malakas swim from America to California through a lake. The scene felt so visceral and beautiful to me—why did you choose water as a symbol of safety?
Water means a rebirth. At that moment in time, Vali has found her sanctuary. She’s going through the birthing canal and finding sanctuary in a place that is going to accept her—but she had to become another person in order to find that sanctuary.
In the book, we also dig deep into the actual experiences of what it means to be undocumented in this country. Very often people crossing from the Southern Hemisphere into the United States have to cross a river or have to cross some body of water. That experience is the same. The reality is that Vali and Ernie are fleeing for their lives through horrific circumstances in the United States to get to California. That same parallel idea happens with people who are leaving Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and many other countries in South and Latin America. They’re fleeing for their lives, so if we can empathize with Vali as a 16-year-old and Ernie as an 8-year-old, we should also empathize with people who are coming from the south to the north because they are in those same exact dire circumstances.
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