‘Sanctuary,’ Paola Mendoza and Abby Sher’s Urgent Warning Call

Sanctuary BeLatina Latinx
Sanctuary cover. Photo courtesy of Penguin Random House.

From the first lines of Sanctuary one is immersed in a story where each character is an inhabitable body inhabitable by our memories, by our instincts, by our fear and our courage.

After the first ten pages, it is impossible to stop. The vivid descriptions of each image be it beautiful, touching, or abominably chilling make us feel a distressing premonition.

It’s not until the authors start revealing small details that we realize that we are up to our necks in a post-apocalyptic reality where our worst nightmares come true, in the best The Man in the High Castle style.

Something like 2020, reloaded.

Sanctuary (Penguin Random House) tells the story of a family of Colombian immigrants who have managed to make a life for themselves in Vermont in 2032. The deportation forces round up their mother and the eldest daughter, Vali, and her brother must flee to California. 

The authors, Paola Mendoza and Abby Sher join personal experience and a brilliant narrative in what they have described as “an urgent call” to the American nation.

When talking about immigration is an urgency

Many may recognize Paola Mendoza as an actress, filmmaker, and activist organizer, having been part of the Women’s March seed in early 2017.

However, Paola, first and foremost, is an immigrant.

She is an immigrant from Colombia who landed in Los Angeles at age three.  Mendoza knows first-hand what it means to grow up in a country where being an immigrant is a stigma; she knows about parental absence, street violence, and what a young Latina can accomplish in the United States when given the opportunity. 

A graduate of UCLA with an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College, Mendoza is now one of the country’s most recognized activists.

But her work for more than a decade with undocumented immigrant families and her commitment to ending the Trump Administration’s family separation policy has given her a new reason to turn to creativity in the search for social change.

Together with Abby Sher, writer and performer, known for her published titles Kissing Snowflakes (Point, 2007), Amen, Amen, Amen: Memoir of a Girl Who Couldn’t Stop Praying (Among Other Things) (2010), and Breaking Free: True Stories of Girls Who Escaped Modern Slavery (2014), Mendoza brings together her personal experience and professional career in a literary piece as brilliant as it is chilling.

“I’ve been working in immigration for over a decade, mostly since 2016, at the intersection of art,” she tells me in a phone conversation. “I’ve been focusing on telling the stories of undocumented immigrants, and I have been networking with organizations to introduce policies.”

Mendoza was focused on her work as an artist and activist until Donald Trump became president, which marked a turning point in her career as an activist because, as she knew from the beginning, attacks against the immigrant community would be the epicenter of many of the new government’s administrative policies.

“To be frank, and you know this, Obama was not necessarily the best with regard to undocumented immigrants in the country,” Mendoza says. “He passed an important piece of legislation, actually an executive order, for DACA, but he also deported 2 million undocumented immigrants from this country. And he tried very hard to pass the Dream Act, but he failed. So, it was a mixed package with Obama, but it was nothing in comparison to what we imagined it would be with Trump and what we saw with Trump.”

That’s when she began organizing, from the Women’s March to her return to work with immigrant families. It was the Trump Administration’s so-called “zero-tolerance policy” that would lead her to roll up her sleeves and get to work on another level of engagement.

“As a mother of a young boy at that time he was four or five I was completely horrified and heartbroken. As an artist, I knew something needed to get done, and I knew we needed to stop this. So, I had the pressure to help organize the march across the country to end family separation with Families Belong Together. At that same moment, I was also working with individual families who have been separated from their children and try to get them back together.”

The march “Keep Families Together” brought together hundreds of thousands of people across the country and helped put enough pressure on the government to end the separation of thousands of immigrant families, just six weeks after the measure was announced.

“That was a huge thing. It was very inspiring to know that so many people had come out for immigration when previous to that, for people in the United States […] immigration was not an issue that was very passion-raging for non-immigrants. It didn’t drive passion; it didn’t make people enraged. Even though there was so much injustice and unfairness going on, it was family separation that exploded the top of people’s feelings.”

It was then that Mendoza wondered what would happen in the country if the policy of family separation had never stopped.

“I imagined the deepest, darkest, scariest world, and I had this very futuristic, painful dark idea, and I also asked myself, you know, ‘what is the answer to this dark world?”

The answer was Vali, the central character in her book, an undocumented 16-year-old girl whose journey, as the author describes, “is essentially to become a freedom fighter, not because she wants to, but because she has to.”

“Vali is the answer to what a dystopian, futuristic, totalitarian regime might look like. She’s the one who can stop it, and she’s an architect who believes she can stop it,” Mendoza explains.

Paola Mendoza BeLatina Latinx
Paola Mendoza. Photo: Shayan Asgharnia.

A close-to-reality dystopian universe

The history of literature has accustomed us to imagine dystopian realities for many years if not decades into the future. But for Mendoza and Sher, the Trump administration has accelerated our experience to such an extent that the wildest thing is now a palpable reality.

“At the beginning, we were actually hoping the story would happen further in the future, but honestly, Trump has done so many horrible, unthinkable things, that whenever I stepped back and thought ‘I think this is too cruel,’ or whenever an idea sounded too far-fetched, then [Trump] would literally do the exact thing,” Sher says. “I mean, the worst scenarios and sore scenes in our book are really drifted from the headlines in so many ways. At a certain point, I think we couldn’t go too far into the future because of the urgency that we had to do something about this situation now.”

The information blackout, censorship, constant propaganda, and palpable fear in Vali’s family at even the thought of the Deportation Forces are, unfortunately, only one step beyond what the United States is experiencing right now.

“We created this world by the seed that had already been planted into this world out of the Trump administration. It was genuinely, seeing what his policies are with regards to immigration and then playing them out to the worst degree,” Mendoza says.

For both of them, the best example is the first chapter of the book, where Customs and Border Patrol is on the wall between The United States and Mexico, arresting and shooting American citizens, something that, until just weeks ago, it was simply unfathomable.

“Just three weeks ago in Portland, we started seeing that exact same thing happening – federal troops going into the city in the United States: the mayor didn’t want them there, the governor didn’t want them there; they were arresting [protestors] and shooting tear gas and rubber bullets at citizens,” Mendoza explains.

“Those are the things that we imagined, and in this case, it started to come true after we wrote them, which is scary.”

A desperate warning call

The temporal experience for both authors was almost metaphysical. Every word put to paper was a testimony and an omen. The not-so-distant universe that Vali and her brother lived in while searching for freedom is a scenario that could easily become true.

“We wanted to place the story in a time that was realistic; that was a possibility that if Donald Trump – and this is my personal belief – if Donald Trump wins the second term, the American experiment is over as we know it,” Mendoza sentences. 

“In many ways, the American experiment has failed a certain group of people, time and time again,” she adds. “Black people, women, immigrants… But if Trump is elected in 2020, I firmly believe that the idea of the United States of America has completely failed.”

“For me personally, and I’m sure for Abby as well, [the story] is enough in the future where it could happen in our lifetime, and it’s a warning call. It’s a stake in the ground that says, ‘if you all don’t protect our country, this is what it would look like, this is where we will be,’ and it’s about all of us to make sure that that doesn’t happen.”

In the book, as described by its authors, the idea of the United States has ceased to exist. Although it remains a concept, or “theory,” once California separates from the union and becomes its own country, the rupture territorial and ideological is taken for granted.

In this new geopolitical reality, the notion of immigration takes on another color in Sanctuary’s narrative.

“We’ve heard this journey many times, from the south to the north, from our countries in the south trying to cross the border to North America. And what we wanted to do is to reflect how this journey is happening now, from the East Coast to the west coast, inside the United States,” Mendoza explains.

With her critical sharpness, the author says that the notion of migration is not new and it has laid the foundations of America and human history. But more importantly, it continues to happen today, on a different scale, but always driven by the same feeling: the need for security and refuge.

“It doesn’t really matter if it’s north to south, east to west, but it’s happening, and people, any person in his right mind, if they’re living in a place that isn’t safe, they will go to the place of safety especially if you have children,” she explains. “So that, for me, is what is the symbolism, how we wanted to shake into people. We won’t think that the United States is safe. It might be safe for some people, and that’s white people, and that safety for white people and the rest of us is very fragile. And when we are no longer safe, that’s when people move to find safety.”

Abby Sher BeLatina Latinx
Abby Sher. Photo: Lee Seidenberg.

On the importance of art in times of crisis

In addition to the U.S. political climate, the authors and the entire country have had to deal with the particular circumstances surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite having been able to overcome the obstacles and succeed in publishing her book, Mendoza recognizes the privilege and urgency of saving art in crisis times.

“The fundamental essentialness of art is often forgotten, and I think that this pandemic has shown us that it is art that has allowed us to get through the darkest stages, as emotionally intact as possible,” she says.

“Supporting artists that are struggling right now is critically important because, at least in the U.S., one-third of all working artists have lost their jobs. So, imagine the amount of art that will no longer be created because artists are unable to feed their families and themselves by creating their art. That, for me, is heartbreaking; it’s a tragedy of huge proportions.”

“That’s my political statement: this book matters, art matters, political representation matters.”