Growing up on the South Side of Chicago without any sort of U.S. citizenship, Ruben Mendive said he started developing his identity as a writer while he was sitting in front of the TV, devouring "every show that came out after 1999" because his mom wanted to keep an eye on him.
"If I'd been surrounded by a bunch of poetry books, I would've become a poet," Mendive said. "But because I watched a lot of TV, that's how my brain got wired. In high school, I started writing outlines and season arcs and fake shows, just from watching TV and learning the patterns."
When Mendive started college, he thought he had to "give up playing pretend" until he connected with people majoring in film who inspired him to pursue a career in television writing.
"I was young enough and dumb enough to believe I could do it, which is good," Mendive said. "But it was definitely a rude awakening when I moved to LA eight years ago and realized there's not really a place for me here. I'm always looking for queer immigrant writers from the South Side of Chicago and I've yet to find any. It feels like, 'where is everybody?'"
Still, Mendive carved space for himself by working on a variety of projects, including producing a podcast that highlights Latinx writers and putting on a short play in a yearly series called "Brown and Out" through CASA 0101, a theater in one of LA's Latinx neighborhoods.
"I write about personal politics in various situations, from family friends to workplace scenarios, to explore how so many decisions we make have to do with policies," Mendive said. "I try to put joy into it too, because the struggle is real and we're all in it, but we still like to have fun. Basically, I'm trying to put joy out into the world while increasing visibility for people like me and people I grew up with."
This year, Mendive was chosen, alongside eight other writers, to participate in a mentorship program facilitated by Hillman Grad Productions. The development and production companywhich has projects at multiple major streaming companies and released the movie "Queen & Slim" in 2019was founded by out producer/actor Chicago native Lena Waithe and Rishi Rajani to provide a platform for marginalized storytellers.
"They want to pry the door open for other people," Mendive said. "The program is a crash course on what the film industry is and how it functions, both writing-wise and socially. What I love most about the program is that they understand creativity and writing doesn't translate or mean anything unless it's personal."
During the free, eight-month program, Mendive and the other writers are developing their scripts with help from industry professionals in order to present finished drafts to production companies by the end of the course in the fall.
"Doing all of this stuff on your own, it could take years," Mendive said. "It's just nice to have deadlines, it's nice to have people care about your writing and have someone to bounce things off of."
Mendive said he's most passionate about capturing the ways politics impact the lives of immigrants and queer people in his scripts due to his experiences growing up undocumented and witnessing how a political status affected every part of his life.
"I knew I was undocumented before I knew I was queer, it was just a fact stated in our lives and a political identity," Mendive said. "People don't realize when you're undocumented and an immigrant in this country, the government just drops you. Undocumented immigrants don't get COVID relief, unemployment, any of that stuff. My family and I have always closely watched every presidential election, every governor's race because those things mattered to us."
Through his storytelling, Mendive hopes to broaden people's perspectives by portraying queer, immigrant narratives that are actually realistic and go deeper than stereotypes.
The short play Mendive wrote and produced for "Brown and Out V" in 2019 explored the experience of a couple with mixed immigration status. One partner in has legal residency and the other doesn't want to become a citizen due to mixed feelings about the U.S., so the play portrays the nuanced discussion that ensues.
"Part of my work is to educate people because the lack of knowledge surrounding immigration is astounding," Mendive said. "I want to put you in a living room with this couple who you may know, so you can see this is what they're fighting about. It's not about the dishes, it's not about an affair. It's literally dealing with questions like, 'how else can I protect you in this country that's out to get you?' while the other person is like, 'I'm so over all of it.'"
Mendive said he found a home at CASA 0101 amongst other Latinx playwrights who inspired him, so his podcast, "LA LISTA: A Latinx Writers Podcast," was born out of the desire to give back to them.
"I was meeting people who would be writing major productions if they had different circumstances," Mendive said. "I told people, I want to interview you, just to get your name out there, so that people can hear your story, what you write, and we can get you a job."
"It's hard to be an immigrant and the only reason we survived was dumb luck, privilege, and the small kindnesses people showed us," Mendive said. "We still talk about those people, how they treated us when we didn't have anything, and so that's where it comes from. Whatever you have, you can offer up a piece for someone else to take."
For more information about Mendive's podcast, visit lalistapodcast.com .
To learn more about Hillman Grad Productions' Mentorship Lab, visit www.hillmangrad.com/mentorship-labs .