Immigrant Heritage Month: Associate professor’s journey through art

Hector Dionicio Mendoza

Hector Dionicio Mendoza works on one of his large-scale layered multi-media paintings in his CSUMB studio. | Photo by Brent Dundore-Arias

May 30, 2024

By Mark Muckenfuss 

When he was 9, maybe 10, Hector Dionicio Mendoza spent many of his days selling Chiclet gum on the streets of Uruapau in Michoacan, Mexico. On a good day, he said, he could make a dollar.

“That was a lot,” he recalled. “I would try to save it so I could buy some really nice paper and some pencils.”

Even at a young age, Mendoza was dedicated to his art. It paid off. 

The Cal State Monterey Bay associate professor has been enjoying significant success in recent months, with a major show in Los Angeles and the purchase of his piece, “Familia Universal” by the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento. He will have a booth at this year’s Armory Show in New York and his work has been shown throughout the United States, Europe, Japan and Mexico.

Sitting in his campus studio, surrounded by giant sculpted heads, torsos and appendages, he recalled his 14 years at CSUMB and the journey that brought him here. As an immigrant, his story is particularly notable with the arrival of Immigrant Heritage Month in June.  

Mendoza was 12 when his family arrived in King City. He knew no English and struggled in junior high and high school. It took him two to three years before he felt comfortable with the new language that surrounded him.

“The only classes I was good at were art and math,” he said. “I found I really liked the arts and I had a great mentor, Mr. Edward Ballard.”

Ballard often sent Mendoza to the principal’s office for speaking Spanish in class. But he also guided him toward graphic arts and helped him get a job in the field. 

After high school, Mendoza attended Cal Poly San Luis Obispo on a soccer scholarship. But he struggled academically and left after a short stint. 

“I had saved enough money to go to Mexico for a year,” he said. “I went back home to Michoacan. I bought some canvases and paints and I painted for a full year. I came back and had my first show.”

He also went back to school, first attending San Jose City College before transferring to California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland. He spent his final undergraduate year studying in Zurich, Switzerland. 

“That opened up a whole bunch of doors for me,” he said. 

He followed up on that experience by earning a master’s degree at Yale. He still shakes his head at the incongruity.

“So this guy from Mexico, who used to sell Chiclets on the street, can go to Yale for a master’s,” he said with a laugh.

He settled in Oakland and began working full time as an artist. Mendoza, whose focus is often on the Latine community, tends to work on a large scale both in painting and two-dimensional multi-media pieces, as well as sculpture. He frequently utilizes organic elements and the works often have a fragile quality.

“I love the illusion of ephemerality, things that look like they’re going to fall apart, but they’re really well-constructed,” he said. 

One recent sculpture is of an armless figure hunched forward. Its head is on the floor on the other side of the room, connected with an impossibly thin stretched thread of neck.

Mendoza said he never planned on teaching. The thought did not appeal to him. But he was friends with Angelica Muro, associate professor and chair of the Visual and Public Arts department. She asked him to fill in for a faculty member who was on leave.

“I came down for one semester and 14 years later, I’m still here,” he said. “What kept me here was the students. I saw myself in them.”

It took some time, but he said he also feels integrated into the community. 

“A major component of my work is this community,” he said.

A big part of that community is agricultural workers such as his father, who picked grapes, and his mother who worked in a tomato production plant in King City. 

“People that work in the fields are confronted by things that are important for all of us,” he said. “These students I have, many of them come from that background. They have so many responsibilities. Most of them have a job and are trying to help out their families and their siblings. It’s something I care about. I want to create opportunities for students. 

“A friend recently offered me a job in New York,” he added. “I said, ‘No, I like it here.’ I’m happy to be here and I think there is so much work to be done.”