Disneyland, Death Row & Daring Latinas: The Life of A Freelance Writer

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I grew up a Navy brat, moving every few years to different cities and even lived on islands like Hawaii and Guam.

Even though Spanish was my first language, I lost that ability when we found ourselves in Hawaii when I was just four years old. In that melting pot of people and cultures, English was truly the universal language.

Giving up a language was a shame and is such a disadvantage now, but that was a sign of the times and a by-product of my dad’s profession. Identity crises followed as I grew up. Everyone assumed that with a name like Mendoza, I should speak Spanish. When I didn’t, I was often times dismissed. Riding the fence between two cultures was difficult. Being the optimist I am, I’d like to believe it made me stronger, helped me build character.

Today I practice my Spanish and though I’m not fluent and my vocabulary is limited, I am determined to make it more a part of my life.

But there were many advantages to being part of this huge Navy family. There was good that came from the experience. The top three reasons are:

  • It made me hold my roots close. At home, I knew who I was. Family was solid. Visiting grandmas and grandpas and other relatives were highlights of my young life. It was so lively and everyone spoke Spanish so quickly and hugged me so readily that I felt like I was thrown into a fast-paced movie. I loved watching my mom with her brothers and sisters. There was lots of laughter in the air, wailing rancheras on the radio, pots of coffee always percolating, and pan dulce on the table for our visits—special occasions.
  • It was good exposure to different cultures and ways of life. I think it made us count our blessings, become more tolerant and embrace the richness of diversity. My parents left the small towns they grew up in and I think this opened up the world to my brother and me.
  • It started my lifelong love of books and the written word. When we had to move and leave friends behind, the constant in my life were books and diaries. I read and wrote. I loved the library, a safe haven. I wrote my thoughts and poems in those diaries that I locked every night.

So when we returned to San Diego and I attended the same high school for three years, San Diego became my true home. I made friends whom I still see today, almost thirty years later. Ms. Melanie McPhee Silva, my tenth grade English and Speech teacher, believed in me and my talents. She was my first mentor and the first person outside my family who respected my dreams and urged me to go forward. When I saw her recently my heart just about burst.

She is the one who made me realize with all certainty, that I would pursue a writing career. I took every English class I could. Wrote for the school paper. Did internships at our community newspaper.

And then I was accepted into the University of Southern California’s Journalism program. I majored in print journalism but learned the most from the internships I had at the LA Times, the Herald Examiner, the Pasadena Star News, the Long Beach Press-Telegram. Again I found my incredible mentor, Arnold Hano. He taught magazine writing, supported my writing endeavors and believed I had a style much like DH Lawrence. Me? The statement obviously touched my heart. I have never forgotten it.

When I was selected the Outstanding Graduate in Journalism by Sigma Delta Chi (student chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) I saw with great clarity what kind of writing career I wanted.

What I learned was this: I loved writing “people” stories—profiles and features that were really “feel good” stories. I didn’t want to write hard news, cover politics and wars or so many injustices. I wanted to write about the people affected by these. I wanted to write emotion. I wanted to enlighten and educate. I truly believe that every person has a story to tell.

And so, I began a life of freelance writing. There have been definite ups and downs (no articles, no pay) but the rewards have been great. I have learned something from every single person I’ve interviewed. And learning is important to me. I don’t think anyone can ever be educated too much. Learning is a lifelong, ongoing process. I returned to school to earn a certificate in Women’s Studies and one in Copy Editing. I'm currently working on my Master's degree in Digital Journalism.

I've written about the newest rides at Disneyland, a woman who married a convicted murderer on Death Row, inspirational Latinas, lifeguard dogs, and miracle inventor of Flex-Foot, Van Phillips. I write about education, women, family, enlightenment--and many, many other topics that pique my curiosity.

I also have been absolutely blessed with the type of people I’ve met in this profession—other writers and editors and the interviewees themselves. They simply balance out those who have stood by me forever as family and friends. I don’t know what I’d do without them.

The journey has been a good one. It has led me to launch Mendoza Communications, and so I have entered the world of editing other people’s projects of the heart, which always seems to inspire me. It has led me to return to writing women’s fiction and more non-fiction; always an adventure and a challenge.

The Book of Latina Women: 150 Vidas (Lives) of Passion, Strength and Success was the project of a lifetime. I wrote short profiles on 150 remarkable Latinas, highlighting their contributions to our society in the arts, medicine, television, sports, the sciences and education. The project became more than a professional endeavor. It became a personal awakening.

I went on a speaking circuit, hoping to illuminate the incredible Latinas I researched, and give young girls and teens some new role models. I want them to see women who took their passion and made something sensational of their lives, or changed the lives of others for the better, despite obstacles and naysayers.

And I want them to believe that within us, we all have that capability and the spark to make a difference.





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Who in the World is Sylvia, Journalist?

Journalist Sylvia Mendoza talks about her love of the written word and how she escapes from the daily desk job.


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