For his fellow exiled Nicaraguans, Cristobal Mendoza was a tireless voice for a community that often lacked representation in Washington.
He organized bus trips to the nation’s capital, hunger strikes and rallies. He founded the nonprofit Comite de Nicaraguenses Pobres en el Exilio (CONIPOE) — or Nicaraguan Committee in Exile. He also realized creativity could get attention from politicians who had seen it all.
So one day, in the late 1990s, when he was fighting for passage of the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act (NACARA) that would end the threat of deportation for hundreds of thousands of Central Americans, Mendoza brought about 100 exiled children with him to petition Congress.
Next, he brought a bunch of dogs with him to Washington, D.C. The cute canines wore a message banner wrapped around their little bodies: “I was born here but my owner wasn’t.”
His nephew, freelance writer Rodolfo Roman, who was with his uncle when he died at 71 from cancer Sunday at his Miami home, laughs at the memory. “One of the funniest moments I remember is the way he led these protests,” he said.
What’s that they say about kids and animals?
Fifteen years later, in 2012, Mendoza, along with former Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, who brokered the deal, and Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen were honored in Miami by El Yambo, a Nicaraguan restaurant, and community paper La Estrella de Nicaragua for their efforts in getting the law signed.
“The law helped many families to unite in Miami,” Mendoza said in 2012. In 1979, he fled from the leftist regime of the Sandinistas to a new home in Miami near the old Orange Bowl.
Mendoza, born in Managua on Jan. 9, 1944, had been the general secretary of the Association Liberal Somoza under former Nicaraguan President Anastasio Somoza.
After arriving in Miami, Mendoza formed and ran CONIPOE, an organization dedicated to helping exiles in search of legal status in the United States.
In 1988, Mendoza created the private refugee center, Amor y Esperanza, to aid fellow Nicaraguans. By December of that year the overburdened shelter had to close when more than 500 Nicaraguan exiles were transferred to the old Bobby Maduro Miami Stadium. “People only have so much space, and they are tired,” Mendoza said in a January 1989 Miami Herald article.
In the summer of 1997, before the passage of NACARA, he led a hunger strike in front of the Krome Service Processing Center. “How will Nicaraguans who lack a work permit make a living? We want a permanent solution, not a temporary one,” Mendoza urged from his tent outside the detention center.
Though successful with the NACARA approval, Mendoza still represented Central American exiles. “He led all of these causes because he really believed that these immigrants from Central America can one day be free from all the political turmoil and come to the States and make lives,” Roman said. “He wasn’t a rich man. He was very poor. So much of his personal life was tough but he was dedicated to others.”
To his last breath Sunday morning, he wasn’t done. “I stood next to him on Saturday. He couldn’t talk much and I was reading him some articles,” Roman said. “I said, ‘Is the fight over?’ and he raised his hand. ‘No, the fight continues.’”
Ros-Lehtinen shared a message with Roman on Sunday: “He was a marvelous person. Cristobal Mendoza, me, his wife and my parents worked together in the community for the Nicaraguans, Salvadorians, Guatemala and those who were refugees and immigrants without proper documentation. Cristobal collected food, clothes and he gave the little that he had to help those in need.”
Mendoza is survived by his daughters Veronica Santiago and Coni Mendoza; sons Daniel, Cristobal II and Francisco; his brother Julio and sisters Thelma and Francisca Mendoza, Ruth del Socaro and Gloria Kattengell; and partner Angela Campos. Burial will be at 10 a.m. Tuesday at Memorial Plan Flagler Memorial Park, 5301 W. Flagler St., Miami. Vior Funeral Home handled arrangements.
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