PALOMA MEDINA, 11:11 SUPPLY
“I WISH WE TALKED MORE ABOUT WHAT IT FEELS LIKE TO BE AN IMMIGRANT”
Paloma Medina came to the US when she was 8 years old, undocumented at first and eager to assimilate as quickly as possible. Now the owner of 11:11 Supply, she helps people maximize their ability to live well by bringing together neuroscience and self-improvement. In our conversation, we discussed how current US immigration policy conflicts with the innate human desire to live a better life, the process of assimilating into American culture as a child, and her journey of reconnecting with her Mexican identity as an adult.
It’s an incredible story of perceptions being turned on their head and a testament to the ever-shifting and deeply personal nature of the immigrant experience across time and space. Read until the very end, I promise it’s worth it.
Carly: Where were you born?
Paloma: I was born in Guadalajara, Mexico. My mom and brother are still there. I have a huge family on both my mom and dad's side and both families are really tight. When I was two, my parents divorced and my dad was finishing his residency as a doctor and took my sister and I to Tijuana where he started his first practice. We were there until I was eight years old, in second grade, and then we emigrated with my dad and stepmom to the US, to Anaheim, California. We stayed in Southern California until I was 19.
Carly: Did your father start a medical practice in California?
Paloma: Medical licenses can't transfer over. I think you can take a test, but essentially it takes you back years. So, there might have been a way. My stepmom was also a doctor in Mexico, that's how she met my dad, but the highest she got in the US was an RN. My dad started from scratch because someone needed to be the breadwinner. He took an ROTC course to become a sign maker and sold used cars, bought junker cars and fixed them up to sell, while he was waiting for the sign making business to take off. He is kind of a hustler, he just did whatever.
We also were waiting to get our green cards. We were totally undocumented the first year. That's when it wasn't as risky as it is now.
We had to go back to Tijuana to go through the official green card process, as if we'd been living there the whole time, but we had to be in the US so that we could earn enough for the process.
Carly: What was the impetus to move to the US?
Paloma: In Mexico, both my parents were doctors and had their own practice, which should be pretty amazing as far as financial stability. But we still lived in an apartment complex where randomly throughout the week, we'd have no running water. Regularly we’d have to take buckets down, walk maybe a block and a half, fill them with water, and bring them back. Sometimes in the middle of the night and we were on the third or fourth floor. I think our parents had a lot of reasons. They both came from total poverty and I think it was hard for them to wonder who you have to become to get out of third world living. My dad sold junk cars out of our front yard in the US and was able to give us a better life than he could as a doctor in Mexico.
Carly: Wow, that's sobering.
Paloma: It's amazing that they took that risk. They took all of their savings, which was a ton and still nothing in the US. They did it with two little kids.
Carly: How much older is your sister?
Paloma: She's two years older. I think her experience of immigrating was pretty different because being ten is very different from being eight. There is a lot that happens between eight and ten.
Carly: Absolutely. So you were living in Anaheim?
Paloma: Yeah, we lived in Anaheim until I was in junior high. We moved when I started junior high. Then I left home when I was still in high school. I moved to Pasadena and worked in LA for a year or two, then moved to Seattle.
Carly: How did you get into what you're doing now?
Paloma: I think I've had 36 or 38 jobs and the thing that I always really loved was customer service. You know when you do those career coaching exercises, when you think of what job you'd enjoy doing regardless of pay, I always returned to customer service ones.
I moved to New York to go to grad school and, right out of that program, I was hired at Etsy as a leadership development trainer and program manger. I started doing coaching and leadership coaching, but I hated New York City and I missed the Northwest.
I wanted to do something else and Portland seemed like a safe place to try something a little more risky. That's when I went back to the drawing board. I've always loved retail, so I thought about how I could sell the psychology and neurology concepts that I get to teach and coach people on. And that's how 11:11 Supply was born.
Carly: How do you describe 11:11 Supply to someone?
Paloma: The short version is that it's a store that you should walk into and be inspired. One, because it's super beautiful and it makes life feels calmer, lighter, and organized. Two, as you walk around, there are these psychology tips throughout and all the tools are arranged for the problem that you're trying to solve or the goal you're trying to reach, like being more focused or organized. The end goal is that you should walk out feeling super badass and capable from the tools, beautiful office supplies, and workshops.
Carly: The workshops feel like such a natural extension of the concept. How many do hold a year?
Paloma: We do 2-3 public workshops a month in the shop. I also do about 2-3 corporate workshops per month for tech companies and small agencies. It started off as a way to market the store, but it felt like what people are hungry for and how we continue the brand.
Carly: What are examples of some of the workshops that you do?
Paloma: Last night, I did a workshop on confidence and public speaking that talked about the neuroscience of confidence verses just public speaking techniques, which I think you can find anywhere. We also do workshops on the science of goals, motivation, and focus. Another is on stress management, the two sides of hustle and achieving a lot of things, but also like taking care of yourself and your community.
Carly: It seems like people are embracing it.
Paloma: It's good timing. I think people have been hungry for self improvement for a while. I think they haven't gotten enough science about it, but we do now. We know a lot less than we think we do, but still, some science is better than no science.
Carly: Maybe this is an analogy that's really reaching, but I'm going to make it. There’s self improvement that you’re talking about and then there’s all the immigrants that are coming up, they are just wanting to live a better life too.
Paloma: Yeah. They're doing exactly what they're wired to do.
Carly: It's a human drive to become better and to improve your life, and then also provide a way for your kids to have an even better life. To keep building upward. It's so strange to try and stop people from doing that.
Paloma: And punishing that. Calling people with ambition and skills criminals, who have the drive to hike across half a continent. People who are wired for continual improvement, wired to secure a future for their DNA. It's heartbreaking, but it's also fascinating.
This morning I was reading something about the ethics, that we need to be nice to immigrants, that it's the humane thing to do. But it's way more fundamental than that. Why would we punish people who are doing the thing that makes for an amazing human, which is ambition. They are not going through short cuts. With my dad, zero short cuts. But, when you make things impossible, people get desperate.
Carly: It's so interesting that people try to disassociate themselves from immigration. Especially if you're an American, we come from ambition. From the Pilgrims to the pioneers, that's ambition. Have you ever played the Oregon Trail?
Paloma: I did. I grew up playing the Oregon Trail.
Carly: There's dysentery.
Paloma: Your ox dies.
Carly: Or cholera, or your axle breaks. But people kept going no matter what.
Paloma: You keep going, that's the point.
Carly: How interesting that we've forgotten our own history and think of people immigrating as a charity case.
Paloma: Human migration will never stop. We're going to Mars. We can't stop ourselves. It's upsetting because the psychology of it says that if you were going to hire one of these folks, what better criteria do you want than what they just went through for a goal?
These people are marathon runners. We're so inspired by people who do extreme marathons. It's totally amazing, for sure, but these folks just did three of those with a baby on their back. Those are humans worth studying.
Carly: With this project, I've wondered if I should focus on stories and images of people who are in the process of trying to immigrate right now, who are currently struggling. But I think there is something really important about showing the outcome of that struggle by focusing on people who are living in America already or who are maybe first, second, third generation. Look at what we can become. Everyone I've interviewed for this project is incredible and inspiring. There's so much that we have added to this country.
Paloma: It's interesting also to think about what futures are currently being stopped at the border. We're stopping amazing things from coming through both ways. Mostly one way. It's one directional as far as the rejection. As an immigrant myself, the thing I wish we talked more about is what it feels like to be an immigrant or a child of an immigrant.
I am lucky in that I don't have an accent, you don't have an accent, right? No matter how brown we may look or not look, that's not a crutch we have.
When we first arrived, my sister and I competed to get rid of our accent the fastest. We would quiz our friends and have them decide who had the least accent.
I knew it mattered. You had to get rid of it.
Paloma: How does an eight year old know? It would have absolutely affected our prospects although I don't remember anyone saying that. Anything that made you Mexican in Southern California, especially then and especially where we were, was a liability. No one told me that, but you could tell. All the Mexican kids that spoke only Spanish hung out by themselves and did not seem like they were going places. You were in second grade, but you kind of know who's going places. My sister and I were really ambitious. We both ended up doing very different things, but I think it's interesting that we understood power or the lack of it. In Mexico, I do not remember thinking about any of those things. I was just another kid. In fact, my dad was a doctor. I was probably okay. Yes, I was carrying pails of water up four flights, but imagine what the other kids were doing. Right? I felt really properly middle-class. We couldn't buy a lot of stuff, but we never worried about it. Then all the sudden you switch over.
My heart aches a bit for the kids either whose parents are immigrants or who live in an area where there's a really strong immigrant culture. They're often not seeing the end result. The thing that no one told me growing up is how much being Mexican could be leveraged in my future. Because in that environment, it was not good.
Carly: Your heart aches because kids that are in immigrant communities are not seeing their full potential, or what what do you mean by that?
Paloma: I don't think that. But the rhetoric right now is telling them that they're being seen as criminals or that their parents are criminals. That, by association, they're criminals. When we were growing up, we didn't have that kind of president speaking that intensely, yet I still felt that I needed to not be Mexican in order to succeed.
Carly: So how must they feel?
Paloma: Right. I think that's the name that you choose for the project is really interesting. I am Mexican, I was born in Mexico, I still visit Mexico. My mom, my brother are still in Mexico, they never left. For an immigrant, I have a pretty decent connection to Mexico and I'm still learning how to become Mexican because I had to shut all of that out. I had to reject it, or I thought I had to reject it to be successful and to be just Paloma. Here I am 40 years old and wondering how I can feel more connected to Mexico knowing that I rejected it for 20 years. I was really effective at assimilating.
Carly: You mentioned that being Mexican has had it's advantages. How so?
Paloma: There are little things, like being bilingual. In a global marketplace, it's an amazing thing to be fully bilingual. I don't have to work at it. I have to work a little bit at the Spanish to keep it, but it's not anywhere near as hard as any of my friends who had to learn it from scratch. I can mostly speak without an accent, which means a lot if I am doing work where it's not just fluency that's required.
My husband and most people I've dated have been white men from the US. The thing I've learned is just how much yearning there is for a sense of belonging through culture and ethnicity. That they'll never have. The closest they'll get is church and if you're not religious, you're left with nothing. I think now as an adult and also speaking from a psychology and evolutionary neuroscience perspective, I'm very aware what a gift it is to have a very rich, alive culture.
Carly: Your mom's still in Mexico? How often do you see her?
Paloma: Once a year right now.
Carly: What does she think of you and your life? Does she see you as more American now?
Paloma: That's a good question. There's a word for people who are Mexican who live in the US: pocho or pocha. I don't think anyone's ever called me that in my family, but they probably think of me that way. I don't know the statistics on this, but I would guess that 70-80% of Mexicans have at least one family member in the US. It could be just that they're studying or maybe they're working there for a few years, but it doesn't mean that they've become American. The way that Mexico sees Mexican-American and the way Mexico sees the US is night and day to how the US sees Mexico and how Americans see Mexicans. I think everyone in Mexico understands that you're neither here nor there, but I'm not not from there.
Carly: What does it feel like when you go back to Mexico?
Paloma: When I was in college, I did a cultural repatriation project where I went and lived three months with my mom. That helped so that now when I go back. I don't feel as confused, not as much of a stranger. No one is rejecting me in Mexico, but Mexico is also a very classist society. One thing that's interesting, there's a lot of classism, but my cousins in Mexico didn't grow up with having to differentiate themselves because of ethnophobia. I remember as a kid being like, well, at least I'm not like one of 'those' Mexicans. It sounds awful, but it was actually a very natural coping mechanism to feel some level of confidence when everyone is telling you that you are not like all other Mexicans, which are seen as criminals.
Carly: In the US, it sounds like you were accepted within a more white group of people.
Paloma: Yes. Assimilation is easy for kids. I mean it can be painful, but it's quick. Especially when you're eight years old. It's before that linguistic cut off, so you can get rid of the accent. It was like perfect timing, maybe my parents knew that. We had so much time for us to really learn the language well.
I only made Asian and white friends my first year in the US, exclusively. I think some of that was my parents guiding me, but also, you want to be friends with the kids with the cool toys, the cool backpacks, and the cool tennis shoes. And they all happened to be white. Really. You just pick up these little things. By the end of my first year, I was graduating second grade and I had white friends and a few Asian friends. Then I was moved to a gifted and talented school.
Carly: Which was probably even more white.
Paloma: Right, which was very interestingly way more white. I think the 'potential' that I probably showed was that I was really good on picking up on assimilation. That's the only thing. I'm really not particularly brilliant and I definitely wasn't in second grade. I think it's actually just that I happened to be good at assimilation.
Carly: Assimilation seemed like the goal for our parent's generation of immigrants, but with society being more culturally diverse and aware of the importance of bilingualism, you'd think that there would be more acceptance.
Paloma: Unfortunately, that's not true. As you can see with what's happening at the border. When I was little and I used to hang out at the beach in Tijuana, there was a really rusty, hardly there at all fence separating the Mexico and the US beach. Kids were always at that fence, curious why you're not supposed to cross. It's a physical manifestation of rejection.
When I go back to LA, I love it because the 'white' places, by which I mean the hip hotels and the hip bars and the hip coffee shops in Silver Lake, have a ton of racial diversity and there are a ton of Latinos there that look just like me or browner. Some of them do have accents. They might still be third generation, but they have the LA accent, you know the Chicana accent. Looking hip as hell, super sharp, incredibly fashionable.
I can feel my brain breaking a little bit because when I was little I didn't think I had any option to be cool and be super Mexican. You could be a Chola or you could be white. Choose.
It was rough when I lived in LA, it was incredibly racist and segregated. It didn't feel at all welcoming. You could hide within your community, but if you didn't feel like that was your community, and you're like I'm not really that kind of Mexican and there's like one kind of Mexican you can be. That's rough.
I do wonder if you grow up now in places like Silver Lake and LA, where there's still a really strong Latino population that hasn't been fully pushed out, I wonder if those kids maybe have a better environment. They might. Just cause there's more options in the adults that they get to see. Yeah I love LA.
Carly: I love LA too. It's interesting to think about the choices of people who are very aware of race and their heritage and what that means for their next generation.
Paloma: I know, I wonder that because I have two nephews, whose father is Turkish, second generation I think, and whose mother, my sister, is Mexican. They're technically first generation and they look it. But they won't speak Spanish to us at all. My dad, their grandpa is really adamant about speaking only in Spanish to them and I forget, I always speak English to them until my dad's around and I'm like, oh right, I forget.
Carly: Growing up, all I 'had' that was Mexican was my name and skin color. When I was around white people, I was Mexican, but around Mexicans, they absolutely did not consider me one of them.
Paloma: When I was really young and I would hear people say that I wasn't like other Mexicans, I remember not even feeling offended, I felt a little validated that my work was paying off, but I remember also feeling ashamed. I was feeling ashamed and I was also like, well at least it's working. At least I haven't been rejected. They're saying they're not rejecting me. And then later when I was in high school hearing that I would get mad, but then what's the response? I kind of knew that I didn't want to be, right? I had my own classism clearly. And you don't want to be flattened like these folks are being flattened in whatever stereotypes people are saying you're not like those stereotypes. But yeah, I never had a good response for that. I don't know that I still would.
Carly: Yeah. It's a really tough position to be in.
Paloma: It's interesting the process that people have, like you and I, each on our individual journeys to reconnect. For me it's been awkward and weird and full of digging up shame. Shame of why I rejected my heritage, all the little things I did growing up to assimilate. All the things I felt and thought, and now reconnecting to being Mexican.
There were those three months that I went back to Mexico, living there and making artwork about it, getting credit about it. Afterwards, I went back to Olympia, where I went to school. The six months following it were most intense because I was surrounded by white people who had no interest in my project. They only wanted to talk about my visit there as a vacation. That was a really intense year.
Since then, it's definitely been steadier and steadier work to become Mexican, but I don't think that the work will ever be done.
I don't imagine I'll ever go to Mexico full time for more than three months. I'm American, even though I'm pretty Mexican.
I'm excited to keep seeing you and this project develop. To hear those stories of how people reconnect. Especially because people, I think unless you're trying to reconnect, I've kind of been given the feedback that in not so many words that ... I don't know how to say it besides like just being a poser. It's about never getting to fully claim it.
Carly: It's interesting I feel like heritage and identity is almost like a relationship. You can either work on it and build something together, or it just fizzles out.
Paloma: Right. It's not a badge you just get to wear and do nothing about. Verses some people view their Mexican-ness more as a badge because if you live in Mexico you breathe it or you live in a Mexican community a very strong Mexican community and so the work surrounds you.
For the record, I don't think I've ever felt more safe to explore becoming Mexican as that I have in the Pacific Northwest. Maybe in LA. In New York, I didn't feel it. Nobody cares who you are there, nobody wants to hear about it, no one cares. There is nothing interesting about you unless you're from money or a cool project or your a cool artist or something. In Mexico, they don't understand, they're like, you've made it. You're in the US, you're earning dollars. Why are you navel gazing?
I know that there is a lot of talk about how white Portland is, but it's also where I've gotten to meet more of the folks like you. When I do decide to show that side of me, no one rejects me. So I want to show love for Portland. It's also so much less white than it used to be, but I feel like it's not white in a bad way, it just is. There is a freedom because of how liberal it is, but also because people are just open to anybody being anything. Not entirely, but that's the dream of Portland.
There is a lot to learn and there is a lot that Portland can do in that direction, but at the shop we have a poster right now that says "Shop local. Shop POC. Shop Proud." Or something like that. I would have not put that poster up in upstate New York in the brick and mortar I owned because I was pretty sure it would have gotten vandalized.
Diversity isn't the thing that humans need, we need to feel that other people are curious about all the weird things that we are and that, when we show it to them, they're not going to reject us for it.
Portland's really good at that. It still says some dumb shit, but there are other places where it's much more rough to be an immigrant.
I think the less people that say Portland is so white and the more people say how might we keep welcoming all the weird, race being part of it, even religion being part of it, politics being part of it, all the weird. All the ways humans have their own thing going on, I think that's the much more interesting because it's a question and it's inviting and it doesn't say what we are or aren't.
This interview has been edited and condensed. Published on January 21.