The Pilsen Picasso: Francisco Mendoza, 1958-2012
March 17, 2012

Francisco Mendoza, 53, an artist and a teacher, left his mark in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. Every day thousands walk by his murals at the 18th Street Pink Line “L” stop. His mosaic murals grace Orozco Community Academy in Pilsen. Among his many other works is a mural at the YMCA in South Chicago, the neighborhood where he grew up.

“He is a legend,” said Carlos Tortolero, president and founder of the National Museum of Mexican Art. “He was an artist and an arts educator.” Mendoza died on Monday from complications resulting from multiple myeloma.

On Friday, the museum hosted a wake for Mendoza that drew hundreds and hundred of people, including many of the students he had in the 25 years he worked as a teacher at then Cooper Upper Grade Center now called Orozco Elementary.

After he was diagnosed with cancer, Mendoza lost his teaching job in 2010 due a bureaucratic error over seniority. The community came together and raised more than $40,000 to help defray his medical bills, Tortolero said.

He was a Golden Apple finalist in 2003 and also won an OPPY award in 2003 for excellence in teaching. “He always got the students interested in art,” said Diana Jaimes, 19, who had Mendoza as a teacher in the 6th and 8th grades. Students often assisted him in painting his murals and many of his former students are now artists or teachers.

Jaimes remembered meeting him when she was just a first grader and how he made the students laugh. “Everyone in the school would call him Tio Pancho,” said Jim, who also wants to become a teacher. She is studying early childhood education at DePaul University.

Some of Mendoza’s childhood friends recalled his sense of humor and how he connected with people. “He was always funny. He called me The Benito,” said Benito Herrera, who grew up with Mendoza in South Chicago. “He made you feel important.”

Mendoza, of Mexican heritage, was born in Blue Island, and moved to the Pilsen neighborhood in 1985. The year before he graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts and a certificate in art education.

Mendoza came from a family of artists and musicians, said his nephew Jim Larralde. He looked up to his older brother, Vincent, also a muralist in Chicago.

Mendoza was inspired by the the great muralists of Mexico, including Diego Rivera, who he bore a resemblance to in grand stature. The school Mendoza worked for was fittingly named for another great muralist Jose Clemente Orozco. “He wanted to do (his art) with a Mexican influence,” Larralde said.

As a young artist, Mendoza found inspiration on a trip he took to Europe as a college student. Larralde said he didn’t have enough money to take that trip so he asked local doctors and businessmen to donate and raised several thousand dollars.

He traveled to Spain where he saw the master works by Picasso, Miro and Gaudi. He even painted inside El Prado museum and was reportedly kicked out for spilling paint on the floor, his nephew said. He also went to France and Portugal. “He fulfilled a dream,” Larralde said. “That trip shaped who he was.” After returning to Chicago, he repaid his trip sponsors with donations of the artwork he made while traveling. Mendoza wanted to bridge cultures with his artwork. “To me, he is the Pilsen Picasso,” Larralde said.

Mendoza is survived by his brother, Vicent Mendoza; a sister, Juanita Mendoza; four nephews and a niece. Services were held Saturday morning.

Francisco G. Mendoza 06/05/1958 – 03/12/2012
Alumni Relations Department – MY SAIC Newsletter
School of the Art Institute of Chicago – March 26, 2012

On March 12, 2012, Francisco Mendoza, artist, teacher, friend and SAIC fellow Alumni left our world to the second half of his journey as described by the ancient ones. His time here was bountiful yet short, joyful and industrious. I met Francisco 25 years ago where he was working in the Chicago neighborhood of Pilsen. His influences reached across national and international boundaries.

His roots began on the southside of Chicago heavily influenced by the mural works of his brother Vicente Mendoza and Ray Patlan. He graduated from SAIC in 1984 and began teaching and producing public art projects in the neighborhood of Pilsen. The most prominent sites in Pilsen are his venetian glass mosaics on the Cooper School on 18th Place west of Ashland Ave., the Ashland Ave., & 18th Street El station, and the facade of Orozco Academy on the corner of 18th and Damen Ave. He was an avid printmaker and painter who was frequently kidded by his elder artists as ‘Little Diego (Rivera).’ His influences guided thousands of children and young adults who pursued and/or simply developed a love of the arts because of his ambassadorship.

Francisco’s humor and love for his Pilsen people earned him the unofficial title of the ‘Mayor of Pilsen.’ I consider myself fortunate to have been one of his friends and neighbor. Our last collaboration was a video that included an interview with him and testimonies of friends and colleagues celebrating the ways Francisco brought joy into their lives. We screened it at the National Museum of Mexican Art for a fundraiser for him and aired it on Chicago Cable Access. This video gave him the energy, love, and confirmation of a life well lived, and closure for his final year with us, as he took on bone cancer, a quadruple bypass, multiple tumor removals, a stem cell treatment, radiation and chemotherapy. He was upbeat, positive, and fought like a champ and to the last day where even as pneumonia overtook him, he drifted off into an eternal sleep at peace. I hope you enjoy Francisco’s personal journey and testimony from someone who gave so much of himself to so many.

–Mark Nelson (BFA 1986)

Rallying Around Fired Teacher Fighting Cancer
Staff Reporter/ February 28, 2011

Francisco Mendoza wants two things: to beat cancer and to get his job back as a Chicago Public Schools art teacher in Pilsen.

Mendoza, a painter, muralist and pillar of Pilsen’s art community, tried not to cry Sunday night as hundreds of friends showed up to support him at an art auction fund-raiser — yards from Orozco Elementary, where he once worked.

“I’ve got to stay strong,” said Mendoza, smiling beneath a black cowboy hat, seated in a wheelchair. “I feel like if I cry — everyone here will start crying.”

Mendoza went on sick leave after he was diagnosed last April with multiple myeloma, a form of bone marrow cancer. He spent five months at Rush University Medical Center undergoing chemotherapy, and survived a close call with a lung infection, before returning home to find a termination letter.

“He read it and just broke down crying. He put in 25 years as an art teacher, and that was the thanks he got,” said James Larralde, Mendoza’s nephew.

Mendoza said he, like hundreds of other teachers, was fired due to budget problems. But he claims it was a mistake. Teachers with less tenure kept their jobs, he says.

“The Board of Education said the principal mixed it up — and the principal says the mix up was downtown. It’s like ping-pong,” said Mendoza.

A spokesman for CPS would not comment Sunday evening.

Now, Mendoza relies on COBRA medical insurance. And with no income, he’s draining his savings.

But friends and strangers showed up to lend a helping hand at the National Museum of Mexican Art — with the goal of raising $50,000. The auction contained 150 art works, including some from Mendoza. It was unclear how much money was raised.

And though Mendoza has shed nearly 200 pounds from his former 400-pound frame, doctors say he is improving, and his smile and famous sense of humor were unmistakable.

“He was always making us laugh,” said Erica Martinez, a former student. “He’d do funny impressions of the gym teacher — or he’d make fun of himself and say, ‘I jumped in the pool this morning and all the water came out.’

“He made art fun, and he helped young men stay off the street in the summer,” said Martinez.

So many people know him that his mere presence on Pilsen street corner “could cause a traffic jam,” said former student Nancy Villafranca-Guzman.

“He’s a sort of larger-than-life guy,” said Ted Oppenheimer, a philanthropist and former CPS teacher whose foundation awarded Mendoza an “Oppy” teaching award. “It was an easy choice.”

Well-known Mendoza murals can be found in Pilsen at his former school, a church, and a Pink Line L stop.

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