Alberto Mendoza, Ph. D.

(1957-2017)



"Smiling Alberto"- personal remembrances


I do not know if anybody ever saw Alberto without a broad smile. When he was with us at CIBNOR, in La Paz, Mexico he was constantly beaming. Seeing him simply so happy made your day. I cannot recall when I first met Alberto. Something inside tells me that it was in the late 1990s at a conference in Central Mexico, but my memory cannot recall the event. The next time I really met him for a couple of days was in 2002, when he invited me to give a seminar at his new institute, the Center of Genomic Biotechnology, a remote outpost of the National Polytechnic Institute, literally on the border with Texas in a city I never heard of, Reynosa. "How can I reach you?" I asked Alberto over the phone, Skype and WhatsApp were not conceived at that time.

"We have an airport and a commuter airliner that also lands in La Paz. It will take you, cheaply, all the way. It is easy", so said Alberto. I never flew commuter airlines for long distances in Mexico and it sounded plain and simple. This commuter airline, then called "AeroLitoral" flew a 18-seater propeller-driven Metro, cigar-type micro-airliner, no service aboard, and the passenger stuffed all the cookies and peanuts one can eat at each stop---and it stopped in quite a few places, the air bus for rural north Mexico. At 6 AM, I boarded the plane with stops at Loreto and Guerrero Negro in Baja California, then to Hermosillo in Sonora, then to Cd. Juarez and Chihuahua, where it broke down for a few hours. After being fixed, it continued to Monterey and from there it was supposed to end up in Reynosa. As I was the only idiot who bought the full-flight ticket from La Paz to Reynosa, the twenty-something captain, sporting a back-side-front baseball cap declaring "Top-Gun" in blazing orange letters, told me in the Chihuahua airport that they will not reach Reynosa today. It was getting late for them and they will leave me in the Monterey airport instead. "The company will take care of you", they promised. I believed in nothing they said. I called Alberto by coin phone to share the news and he immediately told me that a driver will pick me up at the Monterey airport, regardless the hour. In the wee hours, I arrived to Reynosa to the Hotel Royal Garden, if my memory does not betrays me, there was nothing "royal" in it. Next morning, Alberto came to pick me up, smiling as if he won the lottery that same morning. When I told him about my flying adventure, he smiled and immediately forgot it. First he wished to give me a tour of Reynosa. Reynosa of 2002 was very different from Reynosa of today. It was a sleepy, agricultural center for all the ranches around, with a lagoon serving as a dumping area in its center and nothing to see for a first-timer in Reynosa.

"What is there to see in Reynosa?", I asked. "The best to see are the shopping malls in McAllen, Texas, on the other side of the Rio Grande. Also, on the border, there are many fancy medical clinics catering to health bargain seekers from across the border," said Alberto. "The most important thing about Reynosa that it is a safe place to work and raised a family and far from the politics of central Mexico." With these words, Alberto drove his huge "Crown Victoria" dinosaur-sized car across the US border to fill the tank. "Cheaper there," he said. Nobody asked for any documentation for double crossing at the international border if you just go to fill your tank. This was 2002. We went to his new institute. It was a brand-new institute, a single building, quite crowded, that for some reasons unknown to me, the Polytechnique University installed at walking distance from the Mexican-US border. It did not have a Director General at the time and a Professor from Monterey used to come to serve as director on the weekends! Alberto served as a sort of unofficial director during weekday, practically collecting enemies, and having no real executive power. "Why did you move here?" I later inquired politely in a restaurant. "You came from the center of science in Mexico" I insisted. "I could not get a position there and here the skies are the limits and it is also quite and nice to live," replied Alberto. I understood the point. I did the same thing at CIBNOR in La Paz. I gave my seminar, ate again the typical gigantic steak and fries and refused to take AeroLitoral's adventure ride back home. Alberto smiled again and in few minutes, arranged a trip back via Mexico City that took only 4 hours with the mother airline of AeroLitoral, AeroMexico.

I have been again in Reynosa in 2004 and things started changing there. Alberto flourished as a scientist, but Reynosa degraded to a drug-dealers fighting ground. Nobody from the outside wishes to visit again and I declined more invitations to give talks. I saw more than enough wars in my lifetime and this was not my war. Yet, I remained in constant contact with Alberto on small projects, sending him students who were not afraid to go to Reynosa to learn some molecular techniques. They were from Sonora but concealed their origins while there. We used his help in solving difficult questions in molecular biology, his field, that the referees of our paper questioned. Meanwhile, Alberto got promoted to the General Director of his institute, a thankless administrative job in Mexico that is hard for me to associate with the smiling, easy-going Alberto. He finished his administrative term, and as Reynosa became a hostile place to live, unless you can bunker yourself at home at sunset and ignore the dead bodies collected each morning from the drug wars, Alberto decided to take a sabbatical year with us at CIBNOR in La Paz, a calm place in Mexico in 2011.

He did not fly to Baja California. Instead he drove his French Peugeot car all the way to La Paz with his family and immediately fell in love with the city and our research group. He was out of stress, out of his hard job, with no specific things to do except whatever he wished to do at that moment. The smile never left his face. He decided to teach our group basic molecular biology and he did it with such elegance and efficiency that even the most hard-core anti-molecular work guys came to listen. In his free time from his course, he immersed himself in helping our graduate students in day-to-day experiments and annotated the sequencing of his "most efficient Azospirllum ever", and published papers with us. As our beach volleyball team (Los Microbiotos) was quite a shame technically, he became our coach, as well. Not that his coaching made a difference, but we were in good mood especially after the games in the tacos outlets of the city. He had a great time in his sabbatical year, but he was a man with a mission. To find a safer place for his family when Reynosa degraded to one of the most dangerous cities in Mexico, I suggested he have a fresh start as a scientist in southern Mexico in a branch that his university was planning in Campeche or in his university branch in La Paz. He tried hard to make it happen, but never revealed why he did not move there. My understanding of internal politics at his university is zero. In this mission, Alberto did not succeed. Probably the financial compensations of his university in Reynosa could not be ignored. Yet, his love for us and our city was in his guts. He used to talk to me frequently by Skype, asking for all kinds of advice or just to talk. He sent his graduate students to us to learn our molecular techniques and even come to La Paz for holidays. His last plan with us was to spend a sabbatical year at the Bashan Institute of Science in Alabama. We waited for him to complete his paperwork to make this final. For me, he was and will ever be "smiling Alberto".

Yoav Bashan
The Bashan Institute of Science, USA
Environmental Microbiology Group, CIBNOR, Mexico.