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Alumni Spotlight—Joelle Estelle Mendoza (Chicana, of Diné and Mescalero Apache descent) ’23 and ’24

May 7, 2024

Joelle Estelle Mendoza (Chicana, of Diné and Mescalero Apache descent) ’23 and ’24

As a student in the MFA in Creative Writing (MFACW) program at the Institute of American Indian Arts, Joelle Estelle Mendoza (Chicana, of Diné and Mescalero Apache descent) ’23 and ’24, also known as JEM, has been able to swiftly pursue her dreams to be a writer. Last year, JEM completed the requirements for the degree, with a focus in Fiction, but decided to continue with an additional focus in Screenwriting and will be walking in this year’s IAIA commencement. JEM, who is from East Los Angeles, joined the MFACW program in 2021. When she became sick with COVID-19 in 2020, her major regret was that she didn’t write a book despite her many other accomplishments and interests in life. JEM, who was the first in her family to go to college, previously completed grad school to become a teacher within her community, which she has done for a decade. She works as a professor in the English department at Los Angeles Pierce College and teaches English and Communications through the Los Angeles Community College District. “And I think the one thing that was very clear to me was I did want to come back to school and really do the thing that I’ve always done,” she shares. “I’m also the oldest granddaughter, and I’m a storyteller.”

“I had seen Tommy Orange give a keynote,” she says. “When his book came out, I knew that he went here. And so fast forward, I reached out to Santee Frazier (Cherokee Nation), who was the director at the time.” JEM was invited to participate in a virtual residency. When she was accepted into the MFACW program, she found a supportive and nurturing community among her mentors and cohorts. Her first residency mentor (and one of her thesis advisors) was Tommy Orange (Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma) himself, and her first-semester mentor was Kelli Jo Ford (Cherokee Nation), alongside many other skilled teachers along the way. “And it was a really powerful first semester for sure,” she says.

Since joining the program, JEM has hit the ground running with writing-related projects. She received an experimental film grant from the COUSIN collective as part of their CYCLE II applicants and a science fiction television fellowship from the nonprofit Justice for My Sister and is also working on a puppet TV show pitch, Plantcestors, which she describes as “Muppets meets The Twilight Zone.” She’s written a growing list of articles for publications—including Hyperallergic and the LA Times. “I was approached by a recommendation from an IAIA staff member to do a news article on the Grounded in Clay exhibit, and because I do ceramics as well. And so, I wrote that article, and that opened up an opportunity for me to write more articles with Hyperallergic,” she reveals. Her Hyperallergic articles include coverage of the inaugural IAIA MFA in Studio Arts graduating exhibitions last year and an exhibition by Nani Chacon (Dinè and Xicana) in Los Angeles, +Home+. These writing assignments fed into her other work. “And so by doing some of this journalism…you really get to hear people’s stories, and by hearing those stories, like for me, it was kind of divine in the ways that maybe I’d be working on a story and then I’d see this piece of work, or I’d…be asked to write something, and it was just like they were speaking to each other.” She believes that being a good listener is part of being a writer: “And so, in journalism, it was just like, ‘Oh, I know how to listen to stories to write.’ I don’t want to just know how to tell stories; I know how to listen to stories.”

JEM incorporates an interdisciplinary, holistic approach in her creative process, as evidenced by her approach to a speculative fiction novel—her take on Indigenous futurism. “I am part of different gardening collectives,” she explains. “And so, I knew that I did want to weave elements of the things that all these other Western kind of places call science fiction, and because there’s other elements of the spiritual, or there’s elements of the weird, or the dream state. And it’s like, a lot of us just know that’s just part of being Native and being brown, a person of color in this country, that it isn’t always a linear way of understanding or telling a story.” Relatedly, as part of her pottery practice, she recently created clay flutes for a 2021 form & concept juried exhibition, Hand Tools of Resilience. Envisioned as tools for a speculative future, the flutes function as a resource for grounding the body through the breath. JEM’s sculpture mycorrhizal reach was also included in the group show Xicana/o/x Time and Space at the Santa Barbara City College’s Atkinson Gallery and she has performed with ceramic instruments with the Resilience Ensemble for soundpedro 2021. JEM just participated in the first Indigenous Puppetry Institute two-day conference, preceding the IndigipopX conference in Oklahoma City, OK, and is working on making her own puppets for future performances and film.

At IAIA, she has appreciated the openness of her writing community. “But the amount of intention of play and experimentation is something that I have valued so much in this space. And in order to play, and in order to be in an experimental mode, you have to feel safe, right? You have to.… It’s an integral ingredient. And so, for me…oftentimes, school wasn’t a safe space. Academia was not a safe space. It was always like, there’s a reason why they call it discipline. I very much felt that way throughout school. But here, there was a different kind of approach where the faculty, my peers, other people—it wasn’t just like we were talking about the things that we were putting on the page. I felt like we were also, in a lot of ways, opening up our hearts to one another.” Respect for oral traditions translates to JEM creating recordings during walks for her writings or calling a friend and having them listen: “…the walking, moving the body, has to be a part of it too,” she asserts.

Not only has the program allowed JEM to delve into her writing passions, but it has also been part of a critical homecoming. While JEM strongly identifies as Chicana, there are more nuances to her family’s story. On her mother’s side, she has Mescalero Apache ancestors, and on her paternal side, she has Diné ancestors. JEM’s grandmother on her mother’s side told her about how her father made the decision to go to California after the family lost their land to become agricultural workers and that she learned to speak Spanish because she had to. “Half of her siblings ended up in [the] Bay Area, San Jose, and the other half ended up in LA. And she talked about following the food,” she reveals.

“And it felt like IAIA was really the place that I was supposed to be at this moment,” she says. “I really felt a kind of—both of my family, both sides of my family, are from New Mexico, but particularly my grandma that I was raised with was from Roy, New Mexico. And so, I got to visit the place that she was born. I got to really connect with following up on some of the family documents and history and see, you know, the church in which she was they changed her Indian name to her Catholic name.” As part of her time at IAIA and in New Mexico, JEM also expressed appreciation for being invited to Pueblo feast days and being able to connect with other Indigenous people.

According to JEM’s experiences, the MFACW program has been a place where deep, critical questions can be asked, identity can be explored, and cultures can be shared, all grounded by Indigenous-centered perspectives in immersive connection with others, where fundamental experiences as Indigenous people do not have to be explained.

Follow Joelle Estelle Mendoza’s writing on Hyperallergic.

Quotes have been edited for brevity and clarity.

If you would like to be considered for a future Alumni Spotlight, contact IAIA Communications.

Neebinnaukzhik Southall is the IAIA Communications Writer. They are a graphic designer, artist, photographer, and writer specializing in covering and promoting Native cultures, arts, and design.

Neebinnaukzhik Southall (Chippewas of Rama First Nation) ‘19

Writer, IAIA Communications