Photo: Raoul Mora passed on his passion for art to many students and helped found the Mexican Heritage Center. (COURTESY PHOTO)
Raoul Mora, a Stockton artist, co-founder of the Mexican Heritage Center, and a teacher who inspired generations of inner-city students, died July 27 of cancer. He was 83.
Mora used art and cultural pride to help numerous students become career artists, some who never dreamt it possible.
“That man is solely responsible for me becoming an art teacher,” said Roger Casillas, 66. “I was an average poor Mexican kid. He saw something in me that had potential.”
Which was fitting. In the late 1950s and early ’60s, when Mora attended Edison High School, his talent was spotted and nurtured by his art teacher, August “Ben” Day.
Unbeknownst to Mora, Day submitted his pupil’s portfolio to San Francisco Art Institute. This, back when vocational counselors were apt to divert students of color to the trades. Local career Latino artists were virtually nonexistent.
Mora, who had thought to become a barber or florist, instead received a full scholarship. It changed his life.
To rewind a bit, Mora’s parents fled the 1910 Mexican Revolution. They met and married in Stockton. The father was a road worker; the mother, a homemaker.
Mora’s parents weathered the Mexican Repatriation of 1929-36, a mass deportation of Mexicans and Mexican Americans from the United States, but were so shaken that they schooled their three children in the Spanish language and Mexican culture in case they, too, were one day forced to return.
Besides this biculturalism, art ran in the family. Mora’s grandfather was a santero, a carver of religious images. His uncles, guitar-playing laborers, drew for fun.
Mora’s studies at San Francisco Art Institute deepened his understanding of Mexican and Mesoamerican history and culture. He joined the Chicano movement.
“He felt it gave him a voice,” said Linda Mora, his wife of 59 years. “Being able to say what he wanted to say about his culture, especially as it related to farmworkers, migrants, education.”
To social justice, in other words.
“He was not militant,” said longtime friend and fellow Franklin High teacher Don Knudsen. “He was extraordinarily proud to be who he was, and he shared his culture with extraordinary pride.”
His art reflected it. “I enjoy being able to create not only ‘mainstream’ art but also works that nourish the Latino taste,” Mora once wrote.
Immersing himself in a lifelong study of pre-Columbian, colonial, and Mexican folk art, Mora amassed a personal art collection that grew so large he loaned it to museums.
Obtaining a teaching credential, “Mr. Mora made a conscious decision to teach in south and east Stockton schools,” reads Mora’s 1994 induction into the Mexican American Hall of Fame, “because he knew that he could relate to the many students who lack self-confidence, financial means and the awareness of their great potential.”
Knudsen: “He never said a bad word to any kid. He would cajole them into doing things.” Catching a student doodling, Mora did not scold them but invited the doodler to art classes.
A figurative artist, Mora painted semi-abstract Delta landscapes and drew portraits with Prismacolor pencils, among other media.
“Raoul was a real craftsman,” said his fellow artist Richard Rios. “He was a master with Prisma. He would do these exquisite drawings, someone like Maya Angelou. Always figurative, images of dancers, things part of Mexican culture.”
Rios praised Mora’s “skill at the human anatomy, drawing figures with all the correct proportions. In Raoul’s work you could just see he was a schooled artist.”
At exhibitions, Mora’s mainstream works won awards, but his Latino-themed work, up through the early ’70s, was rejected. Other Latino artists experienced similar exclusion.
So Mora, Rios, and others founded Los Artistas del Valle. “Our works clearly showed some facet of Mexican culture,” Rios said.
Los Artistas, wanting their own space, followed the example of the Royal Chicano Air Force, an influential Sacramento art collective, and founded the Mexican Heritage Center in downtown Stockton.
Mora was a mainstay, said the center’s president, Gracie Madrid.
“He really had all kinds of art. But the ones that the people really liked were the social justice ones,” she said. “Whenever he would give me anything, people would really zero in on it.”
As times changed, Mora’s Latino art was accepted by galleries and acquired by private collectors. But he never stopped learning, his wife said. One way he learned was to seek out Mexican artists.
Linda Mora recalled a trip to Oaxaca, Mexico. Mora was struck by the finely wrought black-clay ceramics of a young artist named Carlomagno Pedro Martínez. Mora had to meet him.
“He asked everybody until he finally found out where he lived,” Linda said. At Martinez’ house, “We spent hours while he explained how his ideas came to him in dreams, through pictures, through reading. He did that with a lot of artists in Mexico.”
Mora also traveled in other countries, often with the Knudsens, always to museums. His slowpoke lingering for deep and thorough appreciation of artworks exasperated Knudsen.
“We’d get what we’d call the Museum Twitch,” Knudsen said, “because oh, my God, they’d take forever.”
When Mora retired he continued to teach at San Joaquin Delta College, University of the Pacific, and the Stockton Art League’s Elsie May Goodwin Gallery.
“I thought he was a great teacher,” said Jessica Fong, the League’s executive director. “He was technically proficient, but at the same time he challenged the artists to look beyond and question.”
Mora was also funny. “It was sometimes hard to get everybody to break away and get back to the lessons.”
Even when cancer gnawed at him, Mora continued to contribute art to the Mexican Heritage Center. “He was very loyal to the center, to the last,” said Gracie Madrid.
Mora belonged to the generation whose members realized they didn’t need to sacrifice Latino identity to an outdated notion of assimilation. He probably got static for that, but his art was the richer for it. So presumably are the lives of the artists and teachers he mentored, including his two children. Both are elementary school principals.
Perhaps that is why, though the Chicano movement peaked in the ’70s, Mora considered himself a Chicano till the end of his days.
Literally to the end. Less than a week before Raoul Mora died, he and Linda visited a mortuary. Mora selected his urn. A mortician, filling out paperwork, asked him his race.
“Chicano,” Mora said.
A memorial service for Raoul Mora will be held Thursday from 5 to 7 p.m. at Zapata Funeral Home, 445 N. American St., Stockton. His funeral mass will be 10 a.m. Friday, Aug. 12 at Cathedral of the Annunciation, 400 W. Rose St., Stockton.
Michael Fitzgerald’s column runs on Wednesdays. Phone (209) 687-9585. On Twitter and Instagram as Stocktonopolis. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.