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Cancer Fighting Latino Artist, Draws Support

Jeff Huebner

Francisco Mendoza

Francisco Mendoza, a Latino artist, says a bureaucratic error in the public school where he worked for 25 years left him without a job and without medical coverage. PHOTO: Fox News Latino

Few are as responsible for the visual appearance of the Pilsen neighborhood than artist and teacher Francisco Mendoza. Beginning in 1991, Mendoza and his students created mosaic panels of local and Mexican icons that eventually covered the façade of what’s now Cooper Dual Language Academy. Working with local youths through the National Museum of Mexican Art in the mid-90s, he transformed the entire 18th Street elevated station into an artwork. In 2000, Mendoza designed the nine large mosaic panels of Mexican and Pilsen scenes on the façade of the newly built Orozco Community Academy at 18th and Damen.


   Teaching students about Mexican history and culture and getting them involved in public-art projects “brought out the best in the children and brought out the best in me,” says Mendoza, a 2002 Golden Apple Foundation finalist and 2003 Oppy Award winner who’s taught in Pilsen schools for 25 years. “I thought there was going to be one or two students whose lives I would touch through art. It turned out to be many more.”


   “He’s clearly a keystone in the community,” says Mark Nelson, the art teacher at Stone Scholastic Academy in West Ridge and longtime friend. “He’s a shining example of what most teachers aspire to—someone closely tied to the community, to its families, and to its generations of children.” Nelson was so inspired by Mendoza’s example that he relocated to Pilsen in 1998 and opened his GringoLandia Studio. “He’s helping kids make a difference. I thought, this is a good honest way of being an artist.”


   “He even got along with all the artists in the neighborhood, which is tough since people get touchy and territorial,” comments former Mendoza student Elvia Rodriguez Ochoa, a community-based artist and activist in Pilsen. “But that didn’t bug Panchito—he just kept doing his work and making an impact.”


   “It was really beautiful, sharing with [kids] our past and culture,” reflects a weary yet upbeat “Panchito,” sitting on a makeshift bed in the living room of his Cullerton Street home. He’s talking about the numerous projects he’s led with youths over the last few decades, most recently, a mosaic wall on the history of Irving, Texas outside a museum there. “Those were beautiful times.”

   

These days, Mendoza, 52, has a lot of time for memories. In April, he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a bone marrow cancer. He went on sick leave from Orozco (a school name he’d proposed), and was covered by subs. But in early August–a few weeks after being discharged from Rush University Medical Center (where he’d discovered he had a heart condition) and during his second round of chemotherapy, and after enduring radiation treatment and double pneumonia and other cancer-related ailments–Mendoza was terminated.


   “It was a formal letter from the [Chicago] Board of Education to let me know that as of the 31st of August I would no longer be employed,” says the South Side native, flatly. “I lost everything. I lost my income. I lost my insurance…”


    He called the principal, Coralia Barraza, who he says told him: “Downtown must’ve made a mistake–there must’ve been a seniority mix-up.” (Mendoza was the longest serving art teacher at Orozco.) She gave him the name of someone to contact in the Department of Human Capital in the CPS’s Central Office, 125 S. Clark.


   Mendoza and his nephew caretaker, James Larralde, went down there. “I’m in chemo. I’m in a big brace. I’m in a wheelchair. I’m half out of it,” recalls Mendoza. He filled out some paperwork and was told they’d take care of it. “But it became like they were playing ping-pong with us.” he says. “I cried like a baby. It was like I was fighting two monsters, the cancer and the Board. I felt like little David fighting Goliath and his twin brother.”


   After a while, Mendoza focused on fighting the Goliath of his health. “If I would’ve put all my energy into fighting the Board,” he tells me, “I wouldn’t be here today.”


   There is some silver lining. He’s on COBRA insurance through early next year. He awaits a heart procedure, and then a stem cell transplant, which can induce remission. A self-described “fat man,” he’s lost 200 pounds, nearly half his former weight. “I feel a little bit stronger every day. It’s a blessing.” But without a job, he’s running out of money.

   

“He was illegally fired,” emphasizes Liz Brown, spokeswoman for the Chicago Teachers Union. “And then there’s the moral aspect. CPS is his employer. Is this how you treat tour employees? He’s worked for them for 25 years and they fire him when he’s on medical leave? And lost his benefits?”


   On June 15, the Board granted schools CEO Ron Huberman the power to fire teachers without regard to seniority or tenure, because of what it said were budget cuts. Over the summer before school started, nearly 1,300 teachers—more than 60 percent tenured—were terminated, including Mendoza. (The stated reasons were redefinition, lack of funds, program change, and enrollment drop.) The CTU filed a lawsuit, claiming the Board violated its contract with the union. In October U.S. District Judge David Coar ruled that the CPS’s firing of over 700 tenured teachers was “illegal,” and further barred it from “conducting future layoffs or ‘honorable discharges’ in a similarly unlawful manner.”


   The court also ordered the Board to negotiate recall rules. (According to Brown, 80 percent of the tenured teachers have been rehired as day-to-day subs.) The Board appealed, with arguments last heard January 7. A ruling could happen anytime.

   

Mendoza doesn’t know why he was fired, but he has some ideas. He doesn’t believe downtown made a mistake. He contends Orozco just didn’t want him anymore, and he filed a grievance weeks after he was terminated. He wants to be re-instated, with back pay and benefits. “My personal view is that everything starts at the school,” he maintains.


   For one thing, Mendoza recalls attending a school planning and policy meeting in early 2009 in which Barraza outlined budget challenges, stating plans “to phase out visual arts and bring in performing arts,” according to Mendoza. At the time, there were three art teachers; now there is only one.


   “It almost seems like I stood in the way of progress—her progress,” Mendoza asserts. “It’s like, ‘This man is sick, diagnosed with cancer. He’s of no use to me. I don’t think that means too much hope. Get him out of the way.’ That’s the feeling I get…They would’ve had to pay me out of the budget of Orozco. For the price of one teacher who’s sick, she could hire two teachers who can teach art—more music programs.”


   In a phone interview, Barraza bristles at suggestions she had anything to do with her senior art teacher’s termination. “It’s very unfortunate that Mr. Mendoza is making these claims,” she says. “If anything, I was the very first one fighting the system because he was fired.” She reiterates that the “system made a huge mistake” over his seniority but that she was unable “to make the correction.”


   Barraza goes on, “It had nothing to do with the principal, it had nothing to do with the school, it had nothing to do with the student progress, it had nothing to do with the visual arts. If anything, it had to do with the way Central Office handles things…What answer am I going to give you when I don’t know why they did it?”


   CPS spokeswoman Monique Bond can’t give any answers, either. “I can’t comment because [his grievance] is pending arbitration,” she says.

   

Mendoza readily admits he was unhealthy—a heart attack waiting to happen. Not long ago he weighed 440 pounds. He says he started slowing down—and losing weight–as early as July 2009, when a car broadsided his van at Damen and 19th. Though “sore all over,” he refused medical treatment. Over the weeks, the pain in his back and ribs grew worse. His doctor first told him that the soreness was because of the accident, and later, that he had a pinched nerve. He continued teaching, despite the debilitating pain and shed pounds. In spring 2010, Mendoza says that Barraza told him she was concerned–maybe his pain and slowness were because he was too heavy.


   On April 6, Mendoza thought he finally was having a heart attack, and he had a friend at Orozco call an ambulance that took him to Rush. A day later he found out he had multiple lesions along his spine and ribcage, places where tumors had begun breaking through from the inside of the bones to outside. The car accident turned out to be a blessing—“It must’ve knocked something loose,” he says. Mendoza didn’t get back home until July 16, and he’s only left to make hospital visits and to attend the recent opening of his exhibit at Kristoffer’s Café in Pilsen.

   

A South Chicago native, Mendoza was three years old when his father, a steelworker, died of a heart attack, and his mother nurtured his interest in art. (He was the youngest of three.) Graduating from Bowen High School, Mendoza directed several neighborhood arts projects in South Chicago before enrolling in the School of the Art Institute. He went on a study trip to Spain in 1981, and was inspired by the architectural and mosaic work of Antoni Gaudi. Starting at Cooper Elementary–later Orozco Academy and now Cooper again–in 1985, Mendoza and students soon filed the hallways with painted murals.


   “I saw a lot of me in the students,” he says. “I never told them the challenges I had growing up–I didn’t feel it was necessary. We were not rich in capital, but we were rich in culture. I think [my students] could feel that.”


   By the late 1980s, Orozco’s interior had run out of room for art, so they decided to “go outside, with art that lasted longer,” says Mendoza. In 1989, he sought out Cynthia Weiss, Chicago’s pioneer community-based mosaicist, who was working on a piece with Hector Duarte for Pilsen’s new Rudy Lozano Library, and two years later induced her to lead a workshop at Orozco. By the late 90s, there was over 2,100 square feet of mosaic tile on the school’s façade, including dozens of portraits of such figures as Carlos Cortez, Frida Kahlo, Sandra Cisneros, and Zapata. Mendoza continued the panels at the new school.


   “His encouragement is what started my interest in the arts,” notes Elvia Rodriguez Ochoa. “It meant a lot to have someone to relate to who had finished school, went on to college, and was now making a living in the arts…I know I would not be in this field if it hadn’t been for him.”


   Last fall a group of friends, colleagues, and students formed a committee that’s staging a benefit at the National Museum of Mexican Art on Sunday, Feb. 27, from 3 to 7 pm. (There is a $50 suggested donation.) “This was a community effort from day one,” points out GringoLandia’s Mark Nelson, himself a cancer survivor. “We are trying to re-empower a colleague to continue doing the great things he does to make this a better world.”


   Mendoza remains restive. “Whoever decided to fire me, it was a very calculated, cold, callous, and criminal act, and I just feel that someone should be held accountable for the wrong they did to me,” he says. “Right is right, and wrong is wrong—the truth always comes out. I have a Geronimo warrior spirit. Now the two twin monsters can’t believe I’m up, fighting. I’m going to be a thorn in their buttocks.”