At 28 years old, filmmaker Dora Peña already has a Ph.D. in life experience.
That’s what she relied on when she jumped back into the director’s chair to film her first feature, The Dreamhealer, the story of a young girl with a metaphysical power to heal insomniacs. Ironic, since it doesn’t seem like Peña sleeps much.
Married for 12 years and with three boys between the ages of two and 12, Peña has beaten the odds and refused to become another teen-pregnancy statistic. It’s been an exciting — albeit exasperating — road.
Born in Los Angeles, Peña and her family moved to Texas in 1986. With six children in a family that was struggling financially, Peña, the third youngest, quickly realized that her upbringing was unique compared to her friends.
“It wasn’t your average childhood,” Peña said. “Both my parents worked, so we had a lot of independence. When I was 11, I would take the bus and go to work. I learned to be self-sufficient.”
Peña’s parents came to the states from Navojoa Sonora and Monterrey, Mexico, to start a new life for their family. She said her father, who was a reporter and promising novelist, would write theatrical plays for the entire family to perform in their home.
“Writing is in my blood,” said Peña, who finished her first draft of Dreamhealer in 2003. “But as I got older, I really loved acting. I grew up on Mexican cinema like Pedro Infante, María Félix, Cantinflas, and India María. I told myself, when I turned 15, I would move to Hollywood to do my own thing.”
Returning to California, however, would have to wait — Peña learned she was pregnant at the age of 14.
“I wasn’t like every 14-year-old,” Peña said. “I matured very quickly. I had to because there was a lot of stuff going on in the family like fighting and frustration for not having money. There were times when I would cry a lot. But when the baby was born, he brought a lot of peace and love into the house.”
Peña also turned to writing to comfort her through the changes she would have to make betweeen her first pregnancy as a freshman in high school to her second one four years later.
“Anytime I would get really depressed I would write,” Peña said. “I would write through the eyes of different people. A lot of young writers haven’t lived through as much as I have. I can identify with certain roles … and attribute that to my life experiences.”
Peña attended San Antonio College, where she directed her first film, a short called Crazy Life, and earned her associate’s degree in Radio, Television and Film. She went on to work as a programming assistant for the local Fox TV affiliate. Although filmmaking was still in the back of her mind, family was always the priority.
“Then I started feeling stuck and in a rut working 9 to 5,” Peña said. “I felt trapped and couldn’t use my creativity.”
In 2006, Peña decided to leave Fox and devote her time to film. After wrapping Dreamhealer this past August, Peña says her dreams to be part of the entertainment industry are still the same as those of the little girl who once performed one-acts with her brothers and sisters in her family’s living room.
“If you have ambition and a strong support system, then you have nothing to hold you back,” Peña said. “And hopefully people will be inspired by your work.” •
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