Smoke from a mesquite fire wafted in through the car windows, and a train blew its horn.
Driving through the Old Pascua neighborhood, Andy Mendoza paused and checked himself — the smell and the sound carried powerful memories, which can be dangerous. But these memories were safe, clean ones.
Mendoza, 42, grew up in Old Pascua, fathered his first child there at 17, drank his first alcohol, took his first heroin and stayed in the area to avoid getting “dope sick” from withdrawal. Now sober for eight years, he tries not to let his memory romanticize that past and draw him back.
“Smells, places, times of year — they are reminders,” he said.
Fortunately, every day brings Mendoza reminders of an even more powerful present. He’s married now to the woman who bore his first child when she was 15, and he’s working for Pima County Juvenile Court, helping men with substance abuse problems who want to get back into their kids’ lives after Child Protective Services has intervened.
“I love my job because every day I see 2,001 reasons not to go back there,” he said.
In short, Mendoza is using his troubled past to help men like him. It’s important work because boys do better if their fathers are involved in their lives. And men like Mendoza can connect to addicts in ways your average social worker cannot.
“He has so much more credibility with the clients,” said Anne Chamberlin, the program manager for Family Drug Court who helped hire Mendoza in January 2012. “When they see him and his tattoos, they’re like, ‘I can talk to this guy.’”
That credibility was hard-earned. Mendoza grew up with an alcoholic and abusive father, one of many men in the neighborhood who struggled with addiction. Both Andy and his wife, Naomi, recall Old Pascua in the 1970s and 1980s as riddled with alcoholism and heroin use.
The neighborhood came to be as a sort of place apart within Tucson, said resident Guillermo Quiroga, who runs a museum of Yaqui culture in the neighborhood. Yaquis fleeing attacks by the Mexican military in southern Sonora settled in Arizona and camped along the Santa Cruz, he said. In the 1920s, they moved onto plots southwest of Oracle and Grant roads, building the settlement that became Old Pascua.
Over time it became almost a free zone within the city, where for many years police didn’t interfere with bootlegging, prostitution and drug-dealing, Quiroga said. While the neighborhood was ingrained with Yaqui culture, at the time the Mendozas grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, it also was overlaid with trouble.
“It was very bad in my childhood,” Naomi said Friday at their west-side home.
Naomi grew up without her father, but with a devotedly Christian mother and some male relatives who were stable.
Andy grew up with a father who taught him how not to be a man.
“My dad was a hard man,” Andy remembered when we met at the nearby Checkerboard Cafe on Thursday. “There was no other way to do it but his way.”
At age 10, Mendoza remembers, he tried to protect his sister from their dad, who then beat him with a belt buckle. That’s when the kids ran away and moved in with a grandmother who lived nearby. At age 11, he smoked his first pot.
When Andy was 17 and Naomi was 15, they had their first child, daughter Kristine. Son Matthew came along two years later.
“I had to stay home, grow up and be a mother,” Naomi said. “My childhood ended there.”
Andy was diving deeper into the drug culture, selling crack so he could buy heroin. He sold out of motel rooms on Miracle Mile, made calls from the pay phone outside Lim Bong Liquors, dealt in a neighborhood bar. From 1991 until 2004, he was in and out of jail.
Naomi, insistent that she wanted Matthew and Christine to have a father, would take the kids to see him at the jail. He would write them, promising things would improve when he got out.
“He’d be OK for a week or two, then he’d be back where we started. There were many times when I had to pick up the pieces for my kids,” Naomi said.
“My son didn’t mind going on the drug runs because he got to be with his dad,” Naomi said. “Despite the addiction, despite the fighting, I wanted him around because he was the dad.”
Finally, in 1998, Naomi broke off the relationship, deciding it was too troubled, and Andy was free to lead a dope fiend’s life. He camped out behind an AM/PM for most of two years. That ruined his taste for camping forever, he joked. He got a felony conviction for theft and spent time in prison.
But glimmers of hope started to appear 10 years ago. Andy went through a rehab program in 2003 and came out clean in 2004. Naomi did not plan to have him back, but he started becoming part of the kids’ lives again, and he finally moved back in. She got pregnant with Karicia, their third child, who’s now 10.
Then, after 30 days at home, Andy drifted back into drugs.
On Aug. 12, 2005, he made two calls from the pay phone: One to his dealer, and another to his sister. When they both arrived, he chose to go with his sister, and asked her to take him to detox.
The Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, Arizona’s Medicaid program, paid for him to enter the program, then covered residential rehab at Compass Healthcare’s Vida Serena.
A year later, he had stopped the cycle.
In 2006, the Mendozas had their fourth child, Andres, and by 2008, Andy had been well long enough that Naomi trusted it. After all those years in and out of each other’s lives, they got married.
Only when he got sober did Andy start learning how to really be a dad, he said. He coaches softball now, cares for the kids. It was too late for his first round of kids, who naturally resent him for his absence, but the second round only know him as a sober dad. And now there is a third round — 2-year-old Jacob and 1-year-old Ariana, whom they took in as foster children, then adopted.
Chamberlin learned of Mendoza and his story while he was going through the process of those adoptions.
The court wanted to hire Mendoza, who had trained as a “recovery support specialist,” but couldn’t with his felony record. So Mendoza went back to court, and the judge converted the previous conviction to a misdemeanor.
Now he’s helping people like Roger Arrington, who came out of the Family Drug Court program earlier this year. Arrington told me Friday it was clear Mendoza had lived through the problems Arrington was encountering — not just the addiction, but the social-service bureaucracy and the family frustrations.
“He didn’t pry or judge or ridicule. He simply said, ‘That happened yesterday, today’s a new day, and we’re going to start clean,’” Arrington said.
Ultimately, he was reunited with this children.
So now, not only has Mendoza broken the cycle of addiction and fatherlessness in his own family, he’s helping others do it as well.
And he and Naomi both hope people stop accepting the fatherless, addicted families they grew up with as normal.