Rallying around fired teacher fighting cancer
BY MITCH DUDEK Staff Reporteremail@example.com February 28, 2011 1:52AM
Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM
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.