Westwood artist Santiago Jaramillo connects community and heritage


Editor's note: This Colorado Voices story was produced by DU journalism students as part of an ongoing partnership between Rocky Mountain PBS' Colorado Voices series and the University of Denver.

Taking a walk down Morrison Road in Denver’s Westwood neighborhood, you will find handfuls of skillfully painted murals celebrating the Mexican American culture of Denver’s vibrant Latinx community. Third generation Westwood resident and D3 Arts co-founder Santiago Jaramillo is responsible for many of the brightly colored murals scattered along Morrison Road.

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Jaramillo began pursuing his dream of being an artist after co-founding D3 Arts alongside fellow artist Tony Diego. D3 Arts is a non-profit organization dedicated to healing the community by encouraging individuals to explore and lean on their heritage through art. Whatever artform participants choose — screen printing, sculpture, painting — the goal is to cultivate self-acceptance and definition using art as the medium of self-discovery. 

For over 10 years, Jaramillo and Diego have been organizing various art-based outreach programs geared towards the community's youth and those recovering from substance abuse. Recently, with recidivism rates soaring, the pair has begun working to expand their reach to those leaving prisons.

Re:Vision Mercadito painted by Jaramillo. Photo by Santiago Jaramillo.


From the streets to the studio

Jaramillo, who overcame homelessness and his own struggle with addiction 14 years ago, sees his path as something that has allowed him to make amends with a community that he hurt and as a way to connect with the young people he sees walking a similar path as him.

“I do remember standing at that crossroad and being like, ‘I could turn into this guy or I could turn into this guy,’ and I choose the wrong direction,” reflects Jaramillo, citing his involvement with drugs, alcohol, and the infamous 1993 Summer of Violence.

For Jaramillo, his work with D3 is a way to give back to a community. He sees his own experience as something that has helped him to understand deeply the pain and experience of the community around him and, from this, has given him the opportunity to connect authentically and effectively help those who are struggling with the same things he did.

“I did hurt the community, and I did do some things I regret. But, now being able to say, look what art did for me...and being able to say to somebody who is at that crossroads… ‘well, we can show you this way…And even if you take that road and you do some stuff you kind of regret, that’s not the end for you,’” Jaramillo said.

Jaramillo paints his second Re:Vision mural. Photo courtesy of Santiago Jaramillo.


Returning to the Streets

Recently, Jaramillo has returned to the streets of Westwood; but this time, his intentions are vastly different. His most recent project was designing and constructing Plaza Mexica, a local gathering space owned and operated by Re:vision, a local non-profit food cooperative. 

Re:Vision works to bring fresh food into the food desert that is Westwood via a locally supplied grocery store and a backyard garden program that, collectively, makes the neighborhood home to the second largest urban garden in America. Their goal, similar to Jaramillo’s and that of D3 Arts, is to empower the community by encouraging economic and personal autonomy.
Jaramillo began working with Re:vision a few years after their opening. Since his first conversation with Re:vision founder Eric Kornacki, Jaramillo has created over four full wall murals for Re:vision.

The Plaza Mexica is a brightly painted amphitheater with yellow and red Aztec figures adorned with multicolored headdresses dancing across the walls. The paintings are largely inspired by Jaramillo’s heritage and are often brightly colored contemplations on origin, the environment, and ancestry.

Jaramillo performs in his traditional Aztec attire at a community event honoring his ancestry. Photo courtesy of Santiago Jaramillo.


“Unfortunately, our history isn’t taught to us,” Jaramillo said. “So what I thought was, I wanted to make that stand out where I grew up…[and] to be able to showcase our ancestors and our beliefs and to try to make a statement that we’re here, we're from here….And this whole idea that we’re from somewhere else is just not true.”

Jaramillo, whose four kids were his willing helpers in the design and creation of the plaza, was on a mission to inspire generations both old and young to grasp their ancestry proudly. In doing so, Jaramillo is combating the narrative that vilifies so-called illegal aliens. A narrative that is being accentuated as record numbers of Latinx-targeted hate crimes are occurring.

In the battle for himself and for the community around him, Jaramillo has spent a lot of time learning about his lineage and exploring it in his work. For a community that is primarily Mexican/Mexican American, Jaramillo hopes that his pieces will spark conversations about what it means to have ancestral roots so firmly planted into the earth of Westwood and help ground a community that is closer to their home than they think.