Denver-based artist Ray Espinoza, 86, is skilled in painting, drawing, sculpture, writing and singing. But his art career didn’t take off until after he left the military and used the GI bill to attend art school.
As a child, he enjoyed painting and drawing. But when he was 9, he began working alongside his migrant farmworker parents, helping harvest vegetables in the fields. “In my hometown there was nothing to do but join the Marines, go to jail or be poor,” he says.
He enlisted in the Marines at 17 during the Korean War and was sent to Japan, where he helped distribute arms and supplies throughout the region. His two older brothers and his younger brother were also Korea veterans.
During his eight years in the service, the self-identified Chicano, an American of Mexican descent, remembers encountering only a few soldiers with the same heritage as himself; he formed friendships with them that he still values today.
An illustrious career
When Espinoza left the military in May 1962, he started focusing on his artistry, calling upon his upbringing, love of art and respect for the military.
After he graduated from the old Rocky Mountain School of Art, he helped found the multi-institutional Auraria Campus, where he taught art, Southwest history and art history. His platform and influence would help him become a well-known Chicano artist throughout the Southwest.
“Some of my sculpture work is related to Indians in the Southwest. I’ve gotten a lot of Mexican portraits and studies that I’ve done,” he says. “I even wrote a manuscript about the history of Chicano music, which one day I hope to be published.”
Espinoza estimates that he has written 10 manuscripts, 2,000 songs and 10 poetry books. “That’s why my memory is active,” he says.
Throughout his career, Espinoza maintained a platform of using his art to give back to his Chicano and military communities.
In 1970, he conducted a study in hopes of improving the federal food stamp program and advocated for funds to train artists to expand awareness of Mexican culture and history. Later, in honor of the Marines, he painted and dedicated a mural in downtown Denver to the those who served and died during war.
A dream realized
Although he recorded songs in Spanish and worked with a record label in Colorado, Espinoza’s dream was to record a country music record in Nashville. That’s when he reached out to AARP’s Wish of a Lifetime.
“I have never recorded in English. The doors for Chicano artists in country music were closed. I never had an opportunity to do it, or the means,” he says.
Decades earlier, in 1980, Espinoza wrote a song about the pain of loving someone who suffers from cancer, in hopes of advancing cancer research. The song came to him after he stopped in a restaurant on his way to work and noticed a woman reach over to squeeze her partner’s hand.
“She was in obvious pain. And I thought, well, he must be in physical pain because of the way she reacted, and that gave me the idea for the song,” Espinoza says.
Cancer is something that Espinoza is far too familiar with. In addition to being a cancer survivor, he lost two adult children and his grandmother to the disease.
To make his wish a reality, Wish of a Lifetime flew Espinoza to Nashville, where he recorded his song in English and Spanish. He also toured Nashville’s Broadway and had his picture taken on stage at the Grand Ole Opry.
“I don’t know how many people stopped me on the street to thank me for my service,” he says. “I told them, ‘It’s a dirty job and someone has to do it.’ There’s a lot of grateful people out there.”
Aaron Kassraie writes about issues important to military veterans and their families for AARP. He also serves as a general assignment reporter. Kassraie previously covered U.S. foreign policy as a correspondent for the Kuwait News Agency’s Washington bureau and worked in news gathering for USA Today and Al Jazeera English.