Obituary: Raoul Emilio Cervantes Jr.

Father, deeply beloved friend, committed arts supporter, generous soul

“I lost a friend yesterday. He loved in ways I have yet to learn. Thank you, Raoul. You will be missed, and never forgotten.”- Aruna Ekanayake

A resident of Claremont for over 20 years, Raoul Emilio Cervantes Jr. died unexpectedly on Friday morning, November 12, of heart complications.

Raoul was born at Inter-Community Hospital in Covina to Raoul and Rebecca Cervantes. As if eager to get on with the process of life, he entered the world prematurely on October 8, 1960.

His biography needs to begin where his life ended.

“He had several ‘lives,’ the sum total of which were reflected in his years in Claremont,” his family shared. “Raoul’s family is greatly comforted by the outpouring of love from so many people, who within hours of his death, generously and unabashedly shared their sorrow and love for him on social media, the following are just a few statements that touched our hearts (and that we can share, with permission). Clearly, he was deeply loved within his special slice of Claremont”:

“Raoul left many waves that will continue to wash over those who knew him, memories of him will resonate for at least a generation.”

“A kind, chivalrous knight has left us. [He was] a unifier of bruised souls called to throw his broad wing around those in pain and teach us how to keep our heads up and hearts open.”
As a child he displayed an unusual precociousness, learning to read at an early age, he was inquisitive and studious. His parents settled in Bassett, California, labeled “Kidsville USA.”

They enrolled him and later his sister, Yvonne, at St. Louis of France Elementary School. The disciplined regimen and curriculum of Catholic school suited the studious and circumspect youngster. It was his paternal grandmother, Theresa Cervantes, who inspired his gift for cooking. Theresa’s skills and recipes are a legacy passed on within entire Cervantes family.

As a young adult he shed his reticence and solitary ways and threw himself into the business of getting on with life. His parents encouraged his sense of adventure by sending him on a trip to Europe, which included a visit in El Salvador as well as a trip to Boston and the East Coast. All were part of the curriculum at the all-male college-preparatory, Don Bosco Technical Institute in Rosemead, where he majored in building technology and graduated high school with an AA degree.

Before transferring to UCLA to study art history, he attended Cal State Fullerton, where he enrolled in exhibition design classes under the tutelage of the legendary Dextra Frankle.
It was at this time that a life-altering tragedy interrupted his trajectory. A fellow student at CSUF invited him to an art opening in downtown LA one evening. When they took off that night in his refurbished VW there was a light drizzle and as he was transitioning from one freeway to another, the car skidded out of control. He sustained injuries but the passenger side of the car came to rest at the center divider.

“There are no self-help books written for this particular form of human trauma; it lives in the body, in palpable form,” his family said.

He soldiered on, and his gallery experience led to a job at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, where he helped with installations and at the Simon home, as they routinely rotated the art in their private residence.

He came of age in the late 1970s and early 1980s, a period of radical politics, campus unrest and social protest. All these political currents were fodder for the musical themes of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Neil Young, T. Bone Burnett, John Coltrane and Los Lobos. All these influences shaped his worldview and he came to understood the political imperative for action that propelled his early activism.

Following in the footsteps of his paternal grandfather, Emiliano, and his father, Raoul Sr., he became an apprentice bricklayer and stonemason. When civil war ravaged the Central American country of El Salvador, he joined a group of architects, journalists and friends and went there to build houses. These experiences served him well; When he returned, Los Angeles was in the aftermath of the Northridge earthquake and was undergoing a restoration renaissance. He landed a job with Restoration Arts construction company and in quick order became a construction supervisor, working on numerous celebrity homes before moving on to the restoration of some of LA’s most iconic buildings.

His sister, just three years younger, also moved to Los Angeles, along with her then boyfriend, Ron Coleman, to pursue an interest in fashion design at Los Angeles Trade Technical College. As luck would have it, the couple landed an apartment directly adjacent to him and his roommates on 4th Street in Pico-Union. It wasn’t long before this talented and spirited group attracted equally likeminded and talented friends — writers, videographers, artists, musicians and social justice advocates. Their parties and gatherings were memorable.

He married his first wife, Nancy Smyth, in 1988, and they moved to Pasadena, where he continued in construction as an independent contractor while Nancy pursued a law degree at USC with a focus on law in the public interest.

When they separated in 1999, he moved to San Francisco, where he married Laura Crespo. With the planned arrival of their first child, the couple came back to Southern California and settled in Claremont, where his parents lived. By the time he came to Claremont, he was working for the city of Los Angeles as a deputy building inspector specializing in reinforced concrete.

Throughout his life he nurtured his artistic soul. His knowledge of construction and the visual arts allowed him to dabble in assemblage art, which merged his love for the discarded or broken object. He was especially fond of Joseph Cornell’s work and collected oddly beautiful, textured, and worn three-dimensional elements, creating interesting and sometimes humorous works of art. He was also a true tireless fan of live music, and took advantage of the myriad opportunities Claremont offered to connect with music and musicians within the community.

But his greatest treasures were his children, as anyone who knew him would readily confirm. Leo, now 20, is a Spanish studies major in his junior year at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon. His daughter, Sofia, who turned 18 last September, graduated from Los Angeles County High School of Arts with a focus in fine art. She joined her brother as an incoming freshman at Lewis and Clark this year.

At the time of his death, he was planning to travel to Portland during winter break to be with his children, as Leo will soon be leaving for a semester of study in Granada, Spain.

He was part of a large extended family, with deep roots in California and many generations deep in New Mexico. He loved and valued his grandparents, his many aunts, uncles and cousins. Beyond family, he embraced a community and they returned the love. His was quick to lend a helping hand and ready to help anyone in need. He loved to gather his friends and cook for them, all loving traits that endeared him to many.

He was preceded in death by his paternal grandfather, Emiliano (Placencia) Cervantes and grandmother, Theresa (Chabolla) Cervantes; as well as his maternal grandfather, Carlos (Montoya) Padilla.

He is survived by his son, Leo Amador, and daughter, Sofia Angelina; father, Raoul, and mother, Rebecca (Padilla); his maternal grandmother, Lola (Medina) Witko (age 99); sister Yvonne (Cervantes) Coleman, brother-in-law Ronald Coleman, nephew Mateo and niece Harper; and his aunt, Cynthia (Cervantes) McGuire, uncle, Thomas McGuire, and nephew Max McGuire. All reside in Claremont, as does his ex-wife, Laura Crespo.

A celebration of life is in the planning stages.



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