Utah college helps Chicano artists preserve their culture through murals, music and more

Overcoming barriers, these entrepreneurial Latinx students look to make art accessible and give back to their communities.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Beto Conejo paints a mural in collaboration with Deyvi Herrera on the side of a Salt Lake City building on Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2022.

Beto Conejo’s art features an amalgamation of cultures.

The bright colors and Indigenous symbols he paints on walls in Salt Lake City are an interpretation of his life. They include the sentiment of not truly belonging somewhere and wanting to enter unexpected spaces.

A self-taught muralist, Conejo paints what he knows — his Mexican roots, growing up in South Salt Lake and struggling with street violence. Through his art, he aims to offer a holistic vision of Chicano people like him.

“When people know me, they understand that that’s my background,” he said. “Once they see a piece of my art, whether it’s negative or positive, they get to see another piece of me.”

The art industry is a space he did not expect to access, Conejo said. But now, he is making a business plan to sell his artwork on his own terms.

Through Salt Lake Community College’s Everyday Entrepreneur program, Conejo is studying what it takes to found a media company and a studio to be able to elevate his culture. It’s not so much about making money, he said, but about doing significant work, and connecting with others.

During his coursework, he shaped his brand, Lords of the Night, with the hope of mixing different types of street art, such as murals, clothes, even skateboards.

Living in Utah, Conejo has been aware of the lack of access working people of color have to the outdoors. So he plans to expand his collection to include outdoor apparel for Latinx and Indigenous populations.

For him, this is a way to reclaim these populations’ narrative about their connection with nature, which has lost strength over time.

“Culture gets sold back to us cheap, and culture gets sold back to us through someone that’s not from it,” he said. “So we want to do it in a way that’s going to protect, preserve and explore both nature and culture at the same time.”

Overcoming stigma

Coursework collaboration helps students shape their ideas and overcome barriers their businesses may face, said Jon Beutler, director of The Mill entrepreneurship center at SLCC’s Miller Campus in Sandy.

“It allows people from different backgrounds to work together and learn from each other and share ideas and thoughts,” Beutler said. “We had street artists from West Valley in the same room with a poet laureate with a Ph.D. in literature. And so, the conversations were more fun and vibrant.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Beto Conejo paints a mural in collaboration with Deyvi Herrera on the side of a Salt Lake City building on Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2022.

The program gathers people from all over the world, and helps them conceptualize and launch different types of small businesses. One goal is to overcome the additional obstacles that people of color often face. In the case of some street artists, that could mean working harder to build trust.

“There’s a stigma with street art, people associated with tagging gangs, that sort of thing,” Beutler said. “But it’s not that; it’s just another form of art.”

And like any other art, it takes hard work to create, promote and sell.

Rapper finds his voice and vision

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Daniel Morante, right, prepares to record a vocal track in the recording studio at Salt Lake Community College on Friday, Aug. 26, 2022. At left is Jesus Zavala.

Daniel Morante, a rapper and an audio engineering student at SLCC, knows all about laboring to improve his craft.

He took his initial hip-hop songwriting and rudimentary recordings to the next level when he was 17 and started riding the train from West Valley City to Salt Lake City to get to Spy Hop, a media learning center, where he learned audio fundamentals.

“I knew I was going to have to find a way to record the music that I was trying to create,” Morante said. “... Soon enough, I learned it was more complicated than I thought.”

Songs about socioeconomic issues and community concerns from Salt Lake County’s west side emerged from that effort.

“I don’t have to look outward when creating,” Morante said. “Everything I like to create is there in my area. I kind of like to create what represents me.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Daniel Morante records a track in the recording studio at Salt Lake Community College on Friday, Aug. 26, 2022.

He wants to continue recording music, but he also hopes to expand the network of artists in West Valley City.

While in the SLCC program, he formed West Valley Community, a brand meant to connect people from his area to resources to create art. His goal: Expose the working classes to fresh ways of thinking through audio engineering, music and community involvement.

“We provide everyday people for a sense of identity,” Morante said. “... I want to motivate my next generation that hasn’t developed or retained our culture.”

With his West Valley Community, Morante seeks to encourage young people to go to places that are available to them to expand their creativity.

“I hope that the brand becomes an icon for the youth and people in the community,” he said, “so when someone like me, a younger Chicano, looks at it, feels represented and feels like that it’s a positive message when they see it. Something that encourages them and that they want to be recognized with.”

Alixel Cabrera is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of communities on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.