Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Pilsen Picasso: Remembering Francisco Mendoza

Chicago 18th Street L mural

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 the Orozco Community Academy in Pilsen. Among his many other noted 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 March 12, 2012 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 Jaimes, 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 James 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.

(Teresa Puente is a Professor of Journalism at Columbia College in Chicago. Ms. Puente also encourages Latina women to write and publish their stories in Latina Voices. The Pilsen Picasso: Remembering Francisco Mendoza first appeared on Teresa's blog Chicanisima under the title The Pilsen Picasso: Francisco Mendoza, 1958-2012 and appears here with her permission.)


  1. This was wonderful. Thank you so much for introducing me to this artist. I have to admit I'm not as knowledgable about art as I am literature, which is a shame.

    Also big thanks for visiting me over @the Infamous.


  2. Thank you for introducing me to this artist...brings to mind Rivera, of course, but has left his own distinct mark on the world of art. I enjoy the Chicago art scene and will have to find this if I get there again.