Regis Art Professor Tony Ortega fuses community and culture with Chicano mural painting

When Tony Ortega paints a community mural, it is not just for art’s sake. 

It does what art is supposed to do.

His art brings those of different ages, different backgrounds and different cultures together to collaborate and learn from each other. 

In essence, the art belongs to everyone and teaches everyone. 

“All the people involved in this community mural feel an ownership,” said Ortega, an associate professor and chairman in Regis College’s Fine & Performing Arts department. “That’s the value. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Regis student, or 11- or 12-years-old.”

Ortega’s latest mural took his integrative core class “Chicanismo/Chicanarte” down the road to the Catholic, dual-language Escuela de Guadalupe. The nationally recognized kindergarten through fifth-grade school, located at 660 Julian Street, has a dual-language program, teaching its students in both English and Spanish. 

The mural was set up with the help of Paul Burson, director of student development and community partnerships at the Center for Service Learning. 

With that in mind, Ortega worked with the school to come up with a vision and theme. As part of his class, students studied the context, culture, history and identity of Chicano art. They also read about and learned from local Chicano artists, muralist, santeros, story tellers, historians, and performers while visiting various murals and community art centers across Denver. 

“For us, I certainly knew who Tony Ortega was and about how rich his artwork is and how much it means inside a place like this,” said David Card, the president of Escuela de Guadalupe. “It was a great opportunity for our students. It went way beyond my expectations.” Regis students and students from Escuela de Guadalupe met and discussed the mural.

The idea, Ortega said, was telling the rich story of Chicano history. The mural — with dark under colors, dry brushing and simple designs such as pointillism — explores key ideas, symbols and points in Chicano culture. 

“The themes of the community mural were all based on culture, identity and history,” he said. ;

Over the course of two weeks, Ortega worked with both sets of students on the mural, which features a storyteller at the center, as a voice of Chicano history. A Mayan pyramid, Our Lady of Guadalupe, migrant farmer workers, students (both Regis students and Escuela students), baile folklórico dancers and Day of the Dead skeletons also emblazon the mural.

The best part, Ortega said, was the interaction between the students. He said although the younger students looked up to those at Regis, his students benefited just as much through the interactions. 

“You’d see a light bulb go on and they’d say ‘you’re learning the same stuff as me,’” Ortega said.

The program is part of Regis College’s integrated core classes. Those in the college are required to take four integrated courses outside their degree. Ortega always tries to tie in a service learning aspect to one of his classes. 

“It was a wonderful experience for our kids,” Card said. “Not only to work with Tony but with the Regis students. Most importantly it’s what the mural depicts and the meaning it has in our community. This is something that’s valued and to have it permanently in our building is quite special.” 

Explore the visual arts program at Regis University.