BY KARINA BLODNIEKS
EDITOR’S NOTE: The ideas expressed in this feature belong to the subject. They do not necessarily reflect that of the author, the Lariat staff, Cooper City High School, or the School Board of Broward County.
Natalie Mendoza sounds something like a character from a young adult novel. She’s bold, passionate, and champions a message that resounds nearly universally.
But Mendoza isn’t a fictional character from John Green’s latest book, and unlike the female figures so often found in mainstream media, she’s not concerned with love or her image. Instead, the Cooper City High School Senior is simply trying to readjust her focus.
“For someone who comes off as the typical angsty teenage girl, I’m really not,” Mendoza said. “I feel like I have a lot of clarity to me.”
Mendoza has spent the last few years photographing everything she could find, from trees to Trump protests to tea time. She finds a sense of belonging behind the camera, capturing her version of the world to make sense of the obscure.
“My art is my mode of expression,” Mendoza said. “It’s my voice.”
This voice hasn’t always come easily, however. Like many adolescent girls, Mendoza spent a long time trying to figure out how exactly to speak in a world where so many can simply speak louder.
“Growing up, I was always so conflicted with the fact that because I was a girl, I couldn’t do the same things as boys,” Mendoza said. “It was always very well-known. So the fact that I have a voice and that I can use it is something I’ve always taken advantage of.”
Despite the pressures pushing against her, Mendoza has always kept her head high above water when it comes to stereotypes and false perceptions. From a young age, Mendoza has taken on her role as an activist.
In fact, her older sister Alyssa Mendoza said that she’s been challenging convention for as long as she can remember.
“I believe that growing up with Natalie taught my whole family about ourselves,” Alyssa Mendoza said.
Now, however, Mendoza believes her voice is more imperative than ever, as she tries to stay vigilant regarding the president-elect. On November 9th, she came to school dressed in all-black, with “not my President” sharpied onto her arms and face.
What many may see as an unnecessary act of liberal faithlessness, Mendoza sees as purposeful action aimed at upholding her beliefs.
“I love being a woman, and I love Hillary Clinton,” Mendoza said. “I love the fact that I can scream it from the top of my lungs. I love the fact that it makes me just feel like this strong human, that I can embrace what being a woman is.”
According to Mendoza, one of the best photography experiences she’s had was taking pictures at an anti-Trump protest in Bayfront, Miami. She travelled down with her best friend, Nicole Tjin a Djie, to contribute her footprint to the march of hundreds of women who felt the same emblazoned sense of betrayal.
Following suit with her political beliefs, her art seems to take to the motif of teenage power. Mendoza believes that every moment of adolescence is its own unique image.
She loves photographing people, light, and color. She loves the fact that each photo she captures is simply an imprint of her life, left behind in art.
“There are things universal about the human experience, too, like the first time you pick a flower and someone tells you it’s a weed, or the first time you ride your bike, or watch your siblings fall in love,” Mendoza said. “I can take pictures of that and have my personal perception of it.”
In likeness to her empowered idea of adolescence, Mendoza takes great pride in the connections she’s made to the people she loves. In particular, Mendoza refers to her relationship to Tjin a Djie as a moment of insight into her own psyche.
“When you meet someone that you can just learn from without having to feel guarded, it teaches you a lot about yourself,” Mendoza said.
Tjin a Djie reciprocates, expanding on the idea of Mendoza’s emboldened activism.
“She gets me out of my comfort zone,” Tjin a Djie said. “And not just in terms of us going places together, but she challenges me to think differently.”
And indeed, Mendoza prides herself on the contrast between her thoughts and the mainstream.
“I love myself,” Mendoza said. “I love the fact that I don’t care, and the fact that I don’t have to prove myself. I love that I can be who I am, and if other people like it or get it, that’s cool, but if they don’t, that’s cool, too.”
As far as the future is concerned, Mendoza is as unsure as most graduating seniors, but she believes her self-reliance will take her where she needs to go.
“I’m sure I’ll fail a lot and stumble across the way, but I don’t think that it’ll be this A,B,C cut path that people have done,” Mendoza said.
Her future, just like her photography, is something that is highly experimental. Regardless of where she goes, Mendoza is sure she will leave her impact on the world.
As for now, however, Mendoza has a single message she’d like to share with the world.
“I think young people, especially after Trump being elected, are having a hard time seeing how much power we all have as strong young women,” Mendoza said. “Always fight back and stand up for what you believe in, because if you don’t, no one else will.”