VEGUITA — He steps on toes and is a self-described trouble maker. At an undisclosed age, with a claim of being just 16, Leo Mendoza is a lot of things.
While he has technically only held two jobs in his life — a hair dresser for 16 years, then a farmer — Mendoza has been something of a mover and shaker in northern Socorro County for most of his life.
Born and raised in the Las Nutrias-Veguita community, Mendoza lives in the house that was once the community’s one-room school house.
Julia M. Dendinger | News-Bulletin photo
One of Leo Mendoza’s first community projects in Veguita was to clean up the M.E. Sanchez Hall. Now well into his retirement, Mendoza still visits the property to make sure it’s kept tidy.
The window of the kitchen used to be the door to the school, and now looks out across the fields west of N.M. 304, where the house he was born in used to stand.
Mendoza’s mother was a teacher at the old La Joya school, so it’s no surprise he was a driving force in bringing a new school to the rural community and holding the line to make sure promises were kept.
Many in the area are familiar with La Promesa Elementary school. It shares a road with the Northern Socorro Senior Citizen Center and the Veguita Healthcare Clinic, two other local facilities tied to Mendoza.
Throughout his life, Mendoza has made connections and moved in political circles, befriending people such as former Sen. Joe Fidel and former New Mexico governor and first lady, Bruce and Alice King. While he moved in those circles, he never reached for elected office, instead choosing to stay in his community and fight for it.
One of the first project he took on was the general upkeep of the M.E. Sanchez Hall, located north of his home. It was used as a senior center, general meeting space, for wakes, community meals and other gatherings.
“It’s been used forever for everything,” Mendoza said.
The building eventually became unusable but the community still had a need, so Mendoza approached the New Mexico Boys and Girls Ranch, which has been a part of the community since the 1940s, to ask if the organization would be willing to donate land for a new senior center.
The answer was yes, so Mendoza and Socorro County officials began making requests for capital outlay from the New Mexico Legislature. The money was secured and the project completed.
Julia M. Dendinger | News-Bulletin photo
Leo Mendoza’s Veguita home, at right, is adorned with photos and awards he has earned over the decades for his tireless work for his community.
Julia M. Dendinger | News-Bulletin photo
Standing with his New Mexico Distinguished Public Service Award, Veguita resident Leo Mendoza is framed by the gold shovels he’s accumulated from ground-breaking ceremonies in the community over the years.
Much of what Mendoza has accomplished stems from his desire to make his community better and to give residents what they want and need.
While a member of the New Mexico Hair Dressers Association, Mendoza suggested the organization put on a statewide fundraising drive to benefit the New Mexico Boys and Girls Ranch. The idea was a hit and Mendoza was asked to join board of directors for The Ranches, where he served for 42 years.
During his time on the board, Mendoza has convinced the organization to donate nearly 40 acres to the Veguita community, Socorro County and Belen Consolidated Schools for the school, health clinic, senior center and fire station.
With the senior center completed, Mendoza began working on bringing the long-awaited school to his community.
With the help of Bryan O’Conner and Andy Romero, two local men who knew construction and numbers, respectively, Mendoza began doing the research.
“My mother used to tell me, when the La Joya school system folded, there was a contract between the Belen school district, the state school board,” Mendoza said. “They made an agreement that if they consolidated, the first bond issue that passed we would get an elementary school here.”
Three decades after the consolidation, there was still no school in Veguita.
“By the grace of God, I knew the secretary of the La Joya superintendent,” he said with a chuckle. “One day, I asked her, ‘Do you know where the minutes of that school board meeting are?’”
She did indeed. They were in a garage in Los Chavez. After searching through numerous boxes of old records, Mendoza found the original agreement, promising the school.
With five copies in hand, Mendoza, O’conner and Romero went to a Belen Board of Education meeting.
“They were surprised we still wanted them to build the school,” he recalls.
After a lot of wrangling and arguing, the board promised once again to build the school. It would be the top priority on the next bond issue put out to the voters. But when Mendoza saw the saw the brochures for the election, the school was listed as the third priority.
Mendoza knew what he had to do and it broke his heart.
In 2012, Leo Mendoza, far right, received the governor’s New Mexico Distinguished Public Service Award. He is pictured here with former Gov. Susana Martinez, second from right, and his two daughters, Naomi Cordova and Cassandra Gliss, left.
The late Gov. Bruce King, left, is pictured with Veguita resident and local “trouble maker” Leo Mendoza during one of King’s last visits to the New Mexico Boys and Girls Ranch, located south of Belen. Mendoza was a board member for the organization for 42 years.
“We had to defeat it. We had to vote it down,” he said. “I had to go to all these folks and tell them to vote against it. I hated to do that.”
The bond was defeated by only three votes.
The next morning, an angry superintendent called Mendoza and he stuck to his convictions — put the school at No. 1 and the community would support the bond. The board moved the school back to the top of the list and put it out to vote the following year. It passed and then the real work began.
“It’s almost always trying to get money for the kids,” Mendoza said. “We didn’t miss a board meeting at least for three, four years.”
Mendoza remembers racial slurs and literal gavels were thrown, and the three men were escorted out of a meeting at least once. During the planning for the school, he made sure the community and teachers were involved in the design of the building.
“We saw what the architect was doing and it was going to be a square. So we said, ‘We’re gonna design the school, not you guys,’” he said. “I got the teachers and all kinds of different people for a building committee and designed the school. Every building, represents something from around the community.”
The year the school finally opened, in 2001, Mendoza was named a Valencia County News-Bulletin Unsung Hero.
He says the year it opened was appropriate because the BCS district was under the leadership of Superintendent Marie Garcia-Shaffner. Her great-great-grandfather, Anastacio Garcia, ran the first school in Veguita out of his home pantry.
In 2012, Mendoza was recognized by New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez with the New Mexico Distinguished Public Service Award.
Prior to that, in 2006, Mendoza was recognized for his work on behalf of the citizens of northern Socorro County with the Socorro County Options Preventions and Education’s Eagle award.
He also helped fund raise for a land survey of Las Nutrias Catholic Church to correct the boundaries and for a metal pipe fence around the property, and now gets up before sunrise to keep the church cemetery in order.
In 2019, after 18 years of planning and waiting, the Veguita Healthcare Clinic became a reality.
The small clinic sits between two other manifestations of dreams and promises — the Veguita Senior Center and La Promesa Elementary. Just to the south, on the same 40-acre piece of land, is the local fire station.
The ribbon-cutting ceremony for the clinic marks it as the penultimate project for that piece of property donated to the community by the New Mexico Boys Ranch, Inc. nearly 40 years ago.
The fifth and final part of that long-standing master plan is a playground for local children.
Mendoza’s name and his signature hat often are the first thing that comes to mind when projects in norther Socorro County are talked about, but he’s the first to tell you he didn’t do it alone.
He was advised and influenced by some very smart teachers, he points out, and had the ear of people like the late Sen. Joe Fidel, who may or may not have stolen jaw breakers with his father in Silver City in his youth.
“And we had the community behind the projects,” he said. “When I started working on the clinic, I would say, ‘This is what my community wants. This is what they need.’”
When asked why he put in the years of work, decades of perseverance and stepping on toes to get things like the school done, Mendoza’s answer is simple.
“We needed the school. The Boys Ranch needed the school. They made a promise.”
Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.