Renato Olmedo-González with Nadia Rea Morale’s Zacuanpapalotls

Renato Olmedo-González, the new director and curator at Mestizo Institute of Culture and Arts, remembers life in Jalisco growing up with centuries of culture and public art. “I grew up with Mexican culture everywhere around me. It shaped me as a child,” says the lanky and serious University of Utah graduate.

“I’ve always loved and appreciated artists—but I’m not an artist. I really don’t like to do things with my hands,” Olmedo-González says seriously.

Still, Mexico’s tremendous cultural heritage, nor even art in general, ever made much of an impression on him until he immigrated to Utah with his mother. As a student at Taylorsville High School—not exactly a center for Latino cultural scholarship—Olmedo-González needed to fill his class schedule and reluctantly took an elective in art history.

“I fell in love with art,” Olmedo-González recalls. “And I immediately found myself attracted to Mexican art. You learn about yourself through art. I learned my history.”

The high school’s superficial art-history course, which spent a day on muralists (Diego Rivera!) and a only few minutes on surrealist Frida Kahlo, spun Olmedo-González’s head around and left him hungry. He graduated from the U of U in spring 2014 with degrees in Latin American Studies and Art History. 

As a university student, Olmedo-González connected with the city’s vibrant Latino art community through helping on the Artes de Mexico en Utah’s ¡Viva Frida! exhibit. Some of Utah’s leading Latino artists, including curator, contemporary artist and DJ Jorge Rojas, mentored him. “I’ve learned so much from Jorge; fortunately, he’ll be continuing to mentor me at Mestizo,” Olmedo-González says. “I plan on growing with this opportunity.”

Olmedo-González, aware of his inexperience, is throwing energy into leading the Institute’s gallery. “Mestizo is very important to this community. My goal is to make Mestizo even more respected.”

Many of Utah’s immigrants were forced here by economic necessity, he explains. As the parents work long hours and the children enter American schools, they lose touch with their culture. “Soon the kids have no clue who they are. Pancho Villa, Zapata? They have no idea. But they yearn for Mexico,” he says. “They aren’t accepted here, yet they don’t know anything about where they’ve come from.”

Olmedo-González’s first curation project opened earlier this spring with two mixed media installations, Pentz’s Ithaka 12 and Rea Morales’ Zacuanpapalotls. Both installations explore cultural migration, memory and transformation—through the Monarch butterfly that migrates between United States and Mexico, a trip that takes place over three to four generations. 

“Mestizo’s a space not just for art but for discussion of social justice and inclusion,” Olmedo-González says. “It represents a community that is under-represented.” And by that, he doesn’t just mean the Latino community. Mestizo explores through art the beauty and challenges of all marginalized cultures, including gay.

“Art makes you want to get up and change things,” Olmedo-González says. “It can start a conversation that people don’t want to have, but when they are forced to have it—it’s good.”

Coffee, Tea or Culture

Mestizo Institute of Culture and Arts began in 2003 to enrich and celebrate Utah’s many cultures. Since then it has injected vibrancy into Salt Lake’s art scene. Despite its awe-inspiring name, MICA is one of the state’s least-intimidating art galleries; its space on 631 West North Temple is shared with its namesake coffeehouse. Yet, the institute has set a Quixotic goal to connect Salt Lake’s dominant culture and its emerging immigrant communities. Its related programs include Mestizo Arts & Activism Collective, a leadership program for Westside youth in collaboration with University Neighborhood Partners and NeighborWorks Salt Lake. 631 W. North Temple, 801-596-0500, mestizoarts.org

Back>>>Read other stories in our May/June 2014 issue.