Paola Mendoza: I was at the worst possible place one could be, the night of the election. I was at the Javits Center. The Javits Center was supposed to be the place where Hillary Clinton won, and accepted her historic nomination to be the first female president of the United States.
It was horrible place to be. But I couldn’t gather myself to leave. And I didn’t leave until well past one in the morning. I didn’t leave because leaving meant that I was going to have to accept our new reality. I was going to have to accept what we had done. That we were going to have Donald Trump as our next president of the United States of America.
When my fear and my pain was overwhelmed and it overrode my denial, I decided that I had to go home. But as a filmmaker, I knew that I needed to focus on the details. As a writer I knew that this moment in time was going to dictate some future artistic endeavor and I would have to excavate all of this pain. So I started focusing on the details. I remember walking across the hall and hearing my heels click in a mostly empty space. I remember seeing people in corners, whispering to one another, and crying to one another. I remember seeing a balloon floating in the sky. It was a red balloon. And the worst part was seeing all the people walking around with looks of nothingness in their face. Lost. Almost like zombies.
And then I walked past these two young women. They were sitting on the floor, holding onto one another. And I couldn’t just walk past them. So I turned around to sear their memory into my mind forever. And they looked so lost and so heartbroken. And they were so young. Clearly this was their first election.
And before I knew it I was walking towards them. I had no idea what I was going to say to them, but I knew that I had to say something. So I knelt down in front of them. And I said the only thing that could come to my mind. I said, “I don’t know how. And I don’t know when. But it is going to be okay. You are going to be okay.” And tears were running down their face, and tears were running down my face. And we didn’t say anything to one another, we just nodded. And I found some small form of comfort in that moment.
November 8th, 2016 the heart of this country skipped a beat. Some thought that it would never recover. Some thought it flatlined. But I’m an artist, and my job is to dig into the human heart, and I knew that we would recover. Since the election I’ve been asking myself this question, what is the heart of our nation? What is the heart of our neighbor? What is the heart of our soul? And as artists do, I continued to ask more and more questions. And I think I’ve come to one of the most important questions of all. And that is what makes a heart open? And what makes a heart close?
Today, in this country, we are suffering from a mass contraction of the heart. And I firmly believe that it is artists that can reopen the heart of America. It is our duty and our responsibility to do this. The day after the election I was terrified. I didn’t want to get out of my bed. I sat in my bedroom crying. But I remembered the young women that I had told just the night before that it was going to be okay. So I did the only thing that I could do. I got up and I got to work.
And going to work meant reaching out to my community. Going to work meant calling the artists. Going to work meant going through my entire phone from A to Z and talking to every artist I knew. It didn’t matter if you were my best friend, if you were a producer that I wanted to work with, a writer I wanted to hire, or a director that I admired. I called you. And we talked for hours, for two days.
And we asked each other questions. What was the purpose of art now that Donald Trump was our president? Did art actually matter? What could art do when people were going to be deported to their deaths?
Now, at the end of those two days I came away with more faith and more belief and more passion in art and the artistic community than ever before. Because this is when art truly matters. Art matters when we are in our darkest and most painful moments. Artists, we can be the beacon of hope. And what we have to find out, and what we have to figure out is how are we in service to this moment.
I had the great honor and the great pleasure to be in service of the Women’s March. I was the Artistic Director. I started off organizing partnerships, but my love and my passion and my faith for the artist led me to the artists.
In the third week of December, I had been working fifteen-hour days. I hadn’t seen my son very much. And I had been working seven days a week. So, that night in the third week of December I had two visitors come to my office. Our offices for the Women’s March happened to be the headquarters of Mr. Harry Belafonte. And the first visitor was my son. Yes, he deserves applause.
The first visitor was my son, Mateo Ali. I read him some books. We played on Mr. B—as we like to affectionately call him—on Mr. B’s couch. We ran around. And to our surprise, Mr. Belafonte walked into his office and he sat down with us. And I couldn’t believe that I was sitting with Mr. Belafonte and and Mateo Ali on my lap. And Mr. B talked to us about what he did for the March on Washington. He told us his lessons learned. He told us about his mistakes. And he said something to me that I will never forget. He said, “When the movement is strong, the music is strong.”
When the movement is strong, the music is strong, and our movement at the Women’s March was strong. We had a vision. We had people coming. We had support. We were in the trenches of the movement. But, we needed to focus on making our music strong. And so that’s what we did. We created an artists’ table where we had over 150 artists sign on board. Well-known artists from the visual arts world to actors to writers to directors, and they served as our surrogates and they endorsed us. And they were amazing.
But it was the everyday artist. The hundreds, the thousands, the tens of thousands of artists that were creating artwork and videos and memes and graphics, and going out to the streets. And what they did is they created art with the values and the vision of the Women’s March. And it was the only artist that brought the vision and the culture of the Women’s March to mainstream America. We were radical. And we were progressive. And yet the Women’s much was able to be at the heart and the center of the culture of the United States.
That’s what artists do. You see, Paul Robeson, the incredible, phenomenal Paul Robeson, said, “Artists are the gatekeepers of truth. We are civilization’s radical voice.” Artists, this is what we do. We create culture. We, with our voice, we uplift and we transform communities. And therefore it is imperative that we take a leadership role in this movement of resistance. We artists have the ability to tap into the human heart and show the American people what is truly there. We artists serve as a compassionate, creative contrast to what is currently playing out every day in this country. We artists create worlds from our imaginations and we make people see things that they thought were unimaginable. We artists challenge people to love when the easy thing to do is to hate.
And make no mistake, this moment that we are living in will dictate the future of this country for generations. And the resistance is fighting every single day tooth and nail to try and create and save a world that will keep my child safe, your children happy, and your great-grandchildren safe as well.
And the resistance is made up of moderates and radicals. It’s made up of Hillary bros and— I’m sorry, Bernie bros and Hillary supporters. It is made up of first-time protesters and lifetime marchers. And we in the resistance are using the things that worked in the past and we are also using the forward creative thinking of our present. The resistance is made up of the disability community, as they go and they demand their right for healthcare and they get arrested for our right to healthcare as well. The resistance is made up of the 40,000 people that marched on Boston to stand against white supremacy. The resistance is made up of the young people that are risking deportation from the only country they have ever known because they are demanding that they be looked at as human beings with the right to stay in this country regardless if they are documented or undocumented. And it is with all of those groups, and with all of us that the resistance has been able to be more successful than we ever imagined possible. We have had more wins than what we thought we could ever have had on November 8th. And we have had horrible losses as well.
But hear me out. The resistance has done all of this without its strongest tool. And that is the artists. The artists have been with us 100%. You have stood with us and you have created with us. But what I’m asking us to do is create the way that we did for the Women’s March. The tens of thousands, the hundreds of thousands of artists created every day with the values and the vision and the desires of the resistance. And making the value of the resistance, the vision of the resistance become part of mainstream American culture. Imagine what we could do with that power.
Artists, you have the power to create. And when you create, do not create art that simply reflects the times we are living in. I am asking you to create art that engages deeply in this world. I am asking for your art to be the hammer with which to shape the society that you want. And that hammer can be subtle and beautiful and revolutionary like moonlight. It can educate and illuminate like the documentary Dolores. It can shake the cultural foundations of this country like Kara Walker’s work. It can do all of that. But you have to pick up your camera and point it to the communities that are the most vulnerable and tell their stories with love and dignity and respect. Pick up your pen and teach us something.
Artists, you, we, are the light in these dark, dark times. I’m asking you to seek truth. To create. To make art that opens the heart of America. And if you do this, you will be saving this country from itself. Thank you.