The seed planter of Washington School By Jeff Kelly LowensteinPhotos by Josh Hawkins Ruben Mendoza shares his enthusiasm for gardening with students at the Evanston school.
Hola! Que pasa?" the solidly built man asks a boy with oversized glasses. "Why are you so happy?"
The youngster, who appears to be in second grade, beams an electric smile and nods wordlessly. He walks down the empty corridor to his classroom, an extra bounce in his step. Ruben Mendoza, head custodian at Evanston's Washington Elementary School, watches the boy depart, then turns to his next task--setting up tables for the school's book fair.
But a teacher wants something first. "Ruben, I need two extra garbage cans for [the event] tonight," she says.
"You have to give me a whole turkey before I do anything," he teases, a smile creasing his thick black mustache.
Since 1995, Ruben Mendoza has brought his tireless work ethic, unfailingly positive demeanor and ceaseless service to the school his four daughters have attended over the past 15 years. An integral member of the school staff, Mendoza embodies the kind of fully-lived life that the school holds as a goal for its first generation Hispanic students. In so doing, he has "made a difference in the lives of hundreds and hundreds of our students," says Washington School Principal Judith Yturriago.
Evanston calls to Mendoza Mendoza's path to Evanston began more than 60 years ago with his father, Jesus.
During World War II, Jesus Mendoza moved from Huatzindeo in the Mexican state of Guanajuato to Evanston to work at a seat factory. He was one of 300,000 braceros--Mexicans admitted to the United States to fill labor shortages created when American men went off to fight the war. When the war ended, so did the job. Jesus returned to Mexico to start a family with his wife, Micaela.
Ruben was born in 1957, one of 15 children, three of whom died. The 12 children who survived slept "in sacks of corn because we didn't have enough money," Ruben recalls. Ruben stopped attending school after fourth grade to help his father on the family farm.
After years of tending cows, he yearned for something different.
Although his father disparaged Evanston, telling his children that is was a dangerous place to live, Mendoza dreamed of the day he would leave his sleepy Mexican home for the Illinois town where many braceros had remained. In early 1979, armed with his considerable will, he set off for Tijuana to cross the border to America. He neither spoke nor read a word of English.
Adversity in America Crossing the border illegally meant multiple detentions at the border and took more than 100 days, but the undeterred Mendoza arrived in April.
Mendoza, who later was granted amnesty as an illegal immigrant and allowed to stay legally in the country, held a lofty view of America before he arrived. "[You have] clouds in your head--money, women, cars, beers, parties," he says.
The reality proved to be more difficult. He struggled to find work before getting a job in a restaurant. He also met Veronica Villegas, a Mexican native who grew up in the United States. They married in 1981 and started a family that ultimately would include four daughters, Mary, now 20, Katherine, 16, Veronica, 12, and Melissa, 8.
They were born four years apart to ensure each had the attention she needed.
"I remembered how my mother was, and wanted to make sure to give enough attention," he says. "At least we don't feel guilty that we didn't give [the children] attention when they needed it."
In 1992, his daughter Veronica, then 2, was hospitalized for six weeks due to a hip disorder that required six surgeries to repair.
Mendoza worked 2½ jobs for more than five years to pay his daughter's medical bills. While working as a pizza deliveryman, he met a custodian at Washington School who arranged for Mendoza to start working at Evanston elementary schools.
In 1995, he was hired full time at Washington, the school his daughters attended. The age of the school's children--"We can still shake them up [if they misbehave]," he chuckles--and its large number of Spanish-speaking families appealed to him. Three years later, his supervisor was ready to retire.
A Head Custodian is Born The decision was easy, according to Judith Yturriago.
"The first choice was always Mr. Mendoza," says Yturriago, who has been Washington's principal since 1997. She received dozens of unsolicited letters from parents and teachers urging her to hire Mendoza as head custodian.
Each week Mendoza works 60 hours, many of them unpaid, to make sure that the building is immaculate and well run. "The day of the silent auction two of his other workers didn't show up," says Jennifer G. Moran, the event's coordinator, citing a typical example of Mendoza's dedication. "So he worked from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. to make sure that the day went well." Mendoza moved tables and played basketball with the children attending the auction. He returned the next day, a Saturday, to clean up.
Mendoza's contributions to the school go far beyond building maintenance, says Carla LaRochelle, a fourth grade teacher at Washington who taught one of Mendoza's daughters.
LaRochelle once asked Mendoza to interpret for her during a parent-teacher conference with a Spanish-speaking parent when none of the school's paid interpreters was available. "If I didn't know, I would have thought he was a teacher," she says. "I was so grateful and he was so professional."
She praises his interactions with the school's more than 500 children, smiling as she recalls Mendoza singing salsa music during Spanish Heritage Month: "Kids just love it. It doesn't matter what nationality. He has adopted us personally."
Yturriago praised Mendoza's annual Halloween costumes, saying he has been a "hippie, Zorro, a pirate.... I'm waiting for Spiderman."
Then there are the flowers.
While Mendoza's contract stipulates that his building responsibilities end six feet from its borders, for the past five or six years, he has planted thousands of flowers for the school. The daffodils, black-eyed Susans and chrysanthemums bloom from spring to the end of fall. He has built one area of grass and hosta into a peace symbol and shaped another plot of land to resemble a film projector reel. "I just use my imagination," he says about his designs.
The school's PTA gives him $200 for the plants each year, but Mendoza pays for the majority of the flowers with his own money.
This spring, Keep Evanston Beautiful named Mendoza the first recipient of the Walter Lucansky Environmental Stewardship Award. "His name came up almost simultaneously [with creating the award]," says Tracy Hubbard, the organization's executive coordinator. "It was, like, ‘There is this wonderful man at Washington School.' We were absolutely thrilled that he accepted." Mendoza says he tried to spend the $100 award on the school, but Yturriago insisted he spend the money on himself.
"I like to make the school better," he says. "It makes people enjoy where they live, and it makes the kids like and respect where they go to school."
Although Jennifer Moran calls him the "Patron saint of Washington School," Ruben Mendoza holds a more modest assessment of his abilities, simply hoping that at the end of his life people recognize that: "My life was kind of short. At least I did enough to leave behind some good seeds."
Jeff Kelly Lowenstein is the father of one daughter and a graduate student at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.