This is a guest article from Aaron Johnson-Ortiz, Director of Arts & Cultural Engagement at CLUES.
Every 1st and 2nd of November, many Latinos celebrate Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead), a time when we honor our loved ones who have passed on to the next life. It is a time to come together as families and as a community, and to collectively remember our loved ones, celebrate their lives, and heal. During this time, we celebrate the lives of those who have passed on, and offer our living friends and family love and support.
In a year as tumultuous and difficult as 2020, we need to commemorate Día de Muertos now more than ever. At CLUES, we honor this tradition.
Guest artist Flor Soto has created an Altar de Muertos (Days of the Dead Altar) in our art gallery at CLUES’ headquarters in Saint Paul, which will remain up for the entire month of November. Visitors are welcome to add a photo of a loved one to the altar, a prayer, or a meaningful object. The altar is part of Flor Soto’s solo art exhibition “Piñatera”, which presents her intricate papier-mâché sculptures, creative paper flower installations, and unique piñata creations.
An immigrant from Mazatlán, Mexico, Flor is a talented artisan based in Austin, Minnesota, who specializes in traditional Mexican paper folk arts. Due to COVID, gallery visits are by appointment only. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule an appointment to visit the altar and art exhibit.
“I am honored to be able do create this altar, and that CLUES has given me the opportunity to express my creativity and my feelings,” said Flor. “Sometimes it is difficult to express difficult emotions, but there is no better way to do so than through a beautiful Altar de Muertos.”
The purpose of this altar, according to Flor is for the public “to learn about this important Mexican tradition, and for us to remember nuestros muertitos (our dearly departed). I also want to share the story of those who have suffered unjust deaths, so that we may remember and honor them, and work to change unjust systems.”
“Lastly,” she added, “through this altar we show that death comes for the young and the old alike, and for that reason we must celebrate our lives, and be grateful for what we have in the present moment.”
The altar includes images, newspaper clippings, and other paraphernalia reminding us of the many stresses that these difficult times have brought: a CDC report showing the vast toll of COVID (“[t]he largest percentage increases [in 2020 deaths] were seen among adults aged 25–44 years and among the Latino community”); photos from the 23 people killed in El Paso last year at the hands of a right-wing terrorist who saw the Latino community as the enemy; drawings from immigrant Latina women who suffered medical abuse under federal custody, preventing them from bearing children; names of immigrant children who have died at detention centers.
These names, photos, drawings, and articles remind us of the irreplaceable value of the lives we have lost, and of the anti-Latino xenophobia and structural inequities that we must overcome as a society.
The altar is also a space for personal mourning and remembrance. Flor included photos of family members and friends who have passed on, as well as cultural icons like famed Mexican accordionist Celso Piña, who passed away last year.
We also included photos of Jose Humberto Rivera, our esteemed colleague at CLUES who worked in our Austin office, and who left this world in February of this year. We miss Jose greatly, and we celebrate his life and carry on his work.
Personally, I added a photo of my late brother, Gabriel Johnson-Ortiz, who passed away in 2015 after a long battle with brain cancer.
Throughout November, we invite community members to participate in the community altar and leave a photo, a written message, or a small ofrenda (offering) at the altar.
In addition to our altar in St Paul, we also created one at our Minneapolis office. CLUES staff member Teresa Diaz Barcenas led a team of friends and volunteers to create this altar.
Another Minneapolis altar with CLUES’ influence is at Midtown Global Market. Marina Castillo, a graduate of CLUES’ Latino Muralism Apprenticeship program, created an altar installation with a large mural backdrop of monarch butterfly wings. This portable mural was created by Marina through our muralism program, and we are honored to see it be part of her installation. The mural itself serves as a perfect metaphor – like monarch butterflies, our artist apprentices are spreading their wings and pollinating the community with their creativity, beauty, and healing powers.
“This mural began through the CLUES apprenticeship program,” explained Marina, “I wanted to create an interactive mural for families and community to gather and have fun with. In every inch of this butterfly I was thinking of my people and my ancestors. I included symbols from my indigenous culture in the wings. At the center, there is a heart in the shape of a cactus, which represents the harsh journey of migrants crossing the border, and the many lives lost in the desert.”
What is unique about Marina’s mural installation is her combination of the ancient Mexican folk tradition of altar creation with the modern Mexican tradition of muralism. Through Marina’s altar, we experience the ancient roots of our culture, and their growth and evolution through time.
And while COVID-19 has made it difficult to host public events, that hasn’t stopped CLUES from engaging families at home. Through our Manualidades arts and crafts program, Flor Soto also taught an altar-making virtual workshop over the past two weeks for Latino immigrant families stuck at home.
“The Manualidades program has given me the opportunity to express myself, and to relearn the cultural traditions I experienced growing up,” said Araceli Vázques, one of the program participants, “I am very excited to share this tradition with my two daughters, pass this on to future generations, and at the same time pay my respect to my ancestors and loved ones who have passed on.”
In this difficult year for our community, we need to commemorate Días de Muertos now more than ever. CLUES’ motto for our arts and cultural engagement work is “La Cultura Cura” (culture heals), and we are proud of the deep work of healing, resiliency, and empowerment that our artists, artisans, and cultural workers are doing throughout the community.
Please join us on Thursday, November 19 at 4:00 pm on CLUES Facebook page, for a live talk in Spanish with the artist Flor Soto and a virtual tour of the exhibition dedicated to Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead.) More information at http://bit.ly/CLUESFacebookLiveDiadeMuertos
These activities are made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board and the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund. CLUES also receives support for our Arts & Cultural Engagement work from the Bush Foundation, the Knight Foundation, the St Paul & Minnesota Foundation, the Mardag Foundation, the Minnesota Humanities Center.