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At Festival de las Calaveras, Latinx Minnesotans ‘remember, reflect, and connect with our ancestors’

For three hours at CLUES, a few hundred people expressed, in a burst of artful ways, their love for their Latinx community and gone-not-gone loved ones, and about the thin lines between this world and the afterworld.

“You’ve got to come to the concert next weekend; lots of great music and dance,” said Deborah Ramos, director of Festival de las Calaveras, the 7-year-old Latinx art and music festival that kicked off the Twin Cities Dia De Los Muertos (Day of the Dead)  celebration Saturday afternoon at the Comunidades Latinas Unidas en Servicio (CLUES) event center in East St. Paul. To be sure, if Saturday’s soulful-spiritual festivities in St. Paul are any preview, another epic Day of the Dead party is in store on Nov. 2 (6 p.m.-1 a.m.), with seven bands and more performing at La Dona Cerveceria (241 Fremont Ave. N., Mpls.).

“In Minnesota, it’s not like in regions of Mexico that preserve a strong Dia De Los Muertos tradition for hundreds or thousands of years, with those celebrations including a march to the cemetery where the townspeople are buried, with candles and music and flowers and food.” said Ramos, founder and director of the nonprofit arts group Tlalnepantla Arts.

“That’s why we do this — artists and performers doing what they do in honor of Day of the Dead. Because many of us are not from Minnesota, our ancestors and relatives are not buried here, so we have to kind of reinvent ourselves here.”

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For three hours at CLUES Saturday, a few hundred people expressed, in a burst of artful ways, their love for their Latinx community and gone-not-gone loved ones, and about the thin lines between this world and the afterworld. They built ofrendas (altars) to remember parents, spouses, lovers, children, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, friends and grandparents (and familial icons including Prince, Jesus, and Elijah Cummings). They painted sugar skulls, had skulls painted on their faces, built kites, took selfies in front of gorgeous paintings and vibrant and varied Frida Kahlo art, danced, sang, recited poetry and spoken word works, ate traditional Latinx food — all in celebration of our connection with the spirit world and the power of memory, love, and loss.

MinnPost took in the family arts day of Festival de las Calaveras, in words and photos.

All photos by Jim Walsh.

Deborah Ramos, founder, organizer, and director of Festival de las Calaveras: “This celebration is in its seventh year. It originated with a community gardening project, The Zenteotl Project, in the Central neighborhood of Minneapolis. We grew organic blue corn and with those community gardening members we were unearthing our ancestral practices of growing corn and incorporating ceremonies into the life cycle of the corn. One of those ceremonies was Day of the Dead, so at the end of the corn harvest we were making an offering in the same plot where we grew and harvested the corn. So from that garden plot we expanded that to a multimedia concert in 2013, and from that concert we started to add on the family art-making activities and then it became a series of Latinx art and music events.

“We do that because we know that our artistic expression is how we communicate with each other. The Latinx community in Minnesota is extremely diverse and complex. We’re not all Mexican, and not all Latinx identify as indigenous; however the people here are coming together at a special time that allows us to remember, reflect, and connect with our ancestors, even though some people may not know exactly who they may be. You feel that energy.

“Being that many of us who are not from Minnesota, and then there are many who were born here, it’s a very multilayered experience. So the way we celebrate Day of the Dead in Minnesota is very unique and the festival is developing its own way of celebrating Day of the Day. Through our art and our artistic expression, we’re building community.”

Spoken word artists and poets read at the seventh annual Festival de las Calaveras.

Angelina and Mimi Ortiz, St. Paul. “We’re making paper flowers for part of the ofrenda,” said Mimi. “I’m here because of my family’s ancestry, especially for my children, and I learned a lot about it and I thought it was a really beautiful thing: With a person that’s passed away, it’s a way to feel like you have them if even only for a day, and it brings everybody that’s part of that family together for that reason. And as an old woman and as a grandmother, that’s what I like to see — all the relatives together.”

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The “Visualiz (Arte)” art exhibit, hanging through Dec. 13 at the CLUES art gallery, features the work of artists Gustavo Boada, Xilam Balam, Dougie Padilla, Andrea Castillo, Xavier Tavera, Constanza De La O, Monique Payan, Leiny Krumm, Gustavo Lira, Marina Castillo, Olivia Levins Holden, Xena Goldman, Marina Cristina Tayera, Javier Carrasco, Rebekah Crisanta, Ricardo Bennett, Diana Gallardo, Erika Herrera, Alex Jalapa, Carleen Cuevas Martinez, Ana Laura Juarez, Zamara Cuyun, Camila Leiva, Gabi Estrada, Ricardo Levins Morales, Cadex Herrera, Ken Rivera, Luis Fitch, Jimmy Longoria, Alonso Sierralta, and Aaron Johnson-Ortiz.

Traditional Latinx dance and break dancing were part of the celebration at the seventh annual Festival de las Calaveras.

Maricella Herrera painted skull faces for much of the day: “It’s a fun way for them to remember those who have passed, and for me, too.”

Antonio LaComb and Patricia LaComb, Eau Claire, Wisconsin. “For us, it’s like a party where we celebrate death,” said Patricia. “We’re in [the face make-up] to pretend we’re death. I’m from Mexico, and Day of the Dead is a special day in Mexico, and I just want to pass on the tradition to my kids. I want to form my traditions to remember the ones who have gone, but it’s a special day because they come to visit us, so we are supposed to be waiting for them. We prepare an altar for them and the special foods they liked — bread, soda, tamales, fried chicken. I’m thinking of my grandma and grandpa today; I feel them here [in my heart].”

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Julieta Fajardo, St. Paul: “I am not Mexican, but I have learned how beautiful this tradition is for Mexicans, and it’s very significant to remember your dear ones that have passed away and not to have a tie to Halloween. The skull is who we are, what we become, and the ofrendas, the altars, are special with the skulls and the pictures and paintings of those we’re remembering.”

Artist Tony Peralta schooled festival-goers in how to make papalotas (kites).

Making ofrendas (altars) at the at the seventh annual Festival de las Calaveras.

Ofrendas (altars) at the at the seventh annual Festival de las Calaveras.

Ofrendas (altars) at the at the seventh annual Festival de las Calaveras.

Ofrendas (altars) at the at the seventh annual Festival de las Calaveras.

At the Papel Picado kiosk, artists Yuyu Godinez and Daniela Jimenez helped festival-goers cut decorative paper patterns for the ofrendas.

Oscar Garcia, St. Paul: “I think Day of the Dead is a very good way to remember and represent passed ones and show that they’re never really gone and that they always stay with you. I’m thinking today about my grandfather who I never really got to know but I know that he’s still around.”