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Latino School Custodian’s Devotion, Work Gets Well-Deserved Recognition

Photo of Enrique Mendez.
Photo of Enrique Mendez. Enrique Mendez

NAME: Enrique Méndez

HERITAGE: Mexican

HOMETOWN: Born in San Luis Potosí, Mexico, now in Dallas, Texas

OCCUPATION/TITLE: Head custodian, J.L. Long Middle School, Dallas, Texas

Enrique Méndez is one of 10 men and women named as finalists in the 2016 Janitor of the Year contest. He was selected from nearly 630 nominees from across the country who were put forward by their schools for the Cintas Corporation’s annual contest highlighting staff who work behind the scenes to create a clean, positive and healthy learning environment for students.

"These 10 janitors do much more than clean their schools," stated Jillian Bauer, marketing manager at Cintas, an Ohio-based company specializing in uniforms and other products. "They work weekends, set up for dances, encourage students to learn, provide school supplies and much more. Their selfless acts have a profound impact on children, teachers, faculty and the community.”

Méndez is not a man of many words – he likes to do his job, do it well and not spend a lot of time basking in glory.

But his school’s administration noted in their nomination that he has been working with a limited custodial staff for the past year without complaint, often working 12-hour days and even some weekends in order to keep the school in top shape for the 1,350 students and staff. One teacher remarked: “One of my most vivid memories of Mr. Méndez is seeing him through the window of my office while he was helping a teacher cleaning the windshield of her car under heavy snow.”

We spoke to the beloved janitor about his work and his life.

You take your job very seriously, going well above and beyond the call of duty. According to the nomination materials the school administration submitted on your behalf, last year there was an ice storm that shut the city down for several days and you spent several nights away from your family to maintain the heat in the building to keep pipes from breaking. You also took care of the science department’s numerous live animals including two guinea pigs, a turtle, four aquariums, and even watered the staff’s personal plants.

All those things are true, I stayed here three nights feeding the fish and plants and when the students and the teachers came back and saw that everything was fine — that no animals were dead — they gave me hugs and I felt very proud that they are happy with the job I do. I like doing my job and I feel good that they appreciate me.

You also see yourself as something of a role model for the students, right?

Well, I think of it this way: I was not the best student in school and I would annoy the teacher and get sent out into the hallway when I was a kid. Now I will see the kids sitting in the hallway and know they’re in trouble so I’ll go to them and tell them, “Hey, you have to behave yourself!” because today I know that the teachers weren’t at fault and that they were trying to teach us.

So, I give the advice, especially if the kid in the hallway is Mexican – and they often are, it seems – I will tell them, “Look, you have to behave and you have to do well for yourself… you can’t be out here.” Because though I like my work and I’m proud of the work I do, I want these kids to do so much more and I will tell them straight: “Do you want to be like me?”

What was your reaction when the school administration told you that not only had they nominated you for Janitor of the Year, but that you’d made it to the top 10 finalists for the honor?

I was really surprised and I also didn’t really think it was true. I started understanding it was real when people started to interview me for the TV and the newspapers. One day there were three or four reporters wanting to talk to me and I’ve been very grateful for the support, so we’ll see what happens.

What did your family think?

They were very happy. They are very proud of me and my sons and daughter and my wife put it on the Facebook!

Tell us a little about when you were in school.

I am the youngest of nine kids and my family lived in a tiny area just outside of San Luis Potosí, Mexico, farming. We would harvest corn, beans, pumpkin and nopales.

I only went to school until I was in the 5th grade and let me tell you: my teachers were ready to be rid of me! I wasn’t super great at school and back then there was only primary school, they were just in the beginning stages of offering high school and few people were going to go on to do that.

Photo of J.L. Long Middle School.
Photo of J.L. Long Middle School, which nationally recognized school custodian Enrique Méndez keeps in tip-top shape, even staying there away from his family for a weekend during an ice storm to keep animals and plants alive and pipes from bursting. J.L. Long Middle School

What kind of work did you do once you left school?

I worked in a bakery making the bread and also in fireworks – I worked at a place that made pyrotechnics. At home I was always cleaning, mopping, sweeping… my mother made us work and those were my jobs, so I guess that’s why I like cleaning.

What brought you to the United States?

Like all Mexicans, we came here to find something better because in our little town it was getting very difficult. We weren’t exactly going hungry – there was, at least, always frijoles and nopales to eat — but it was getting worse and worse, especially when it stopped raining and the drought just drove my brothers north to find work.

When you finally came to the U.S., what was it like for you?

I went first to Chicago and it was terrible! The weather, it was in April and it was so cold. I was there through May and I never once found work so I made it back south to meet up with some cousins and I landed painting work, and then at a window factory.

How long have you been at J.L. Long Middle School?

I’ve been here four years and I like it very much. I’m inside and my job is secure which is so important for my wife and my sons and daughter.

The voting is open until Friday April 15th and there has been a huge outpouring from the school, the parent-teacher association, the students and the community. If you win the school gets $5,000 in products and services from Cintas and Rubbermaid Commercial Products. Plus, you’ll win $5,000 in cash. Any ideas what you’ll do with the money if you win?

I will have to treat my wife and my kids to something, take them out to celebrate. But whether I win or lose I will be the same and I will work hard just the same.

I feel very good about my work, I like having the school principals happy and I feel very good that the kids and the teachers are happy with the work I do. To me, it’s like my second home here and I like going down the hallway and people saying “Hi” to me.

I want for everyone to come here and, for instance, go to the bathrooms and find them clean. I want for them to be comfortable in the building because I work for them, for the kids – and if the kids are happy, I am happy.

Esther J. Cepeda is a Chicago-based journalist and a nationally syndicated columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.

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