Ernesto Ybarra grew up exploring the bridge near his family’s apartment on the West Side of St. Paul while riding on his tricycle. Now a muralist, Ybarra has joined Xilam Balam to revamp a mural that has covered the bridge for over two decades.
The West Side’s Gateway Pedestrian Bridge runs along Delos Street, where it crosses the bustling Robert Street in St. Paul. The completed mural will be unveiled 6–8 p.m. September 14, at an event hosted by the West Side Community Organization, which commissioned the mural.
For the past few days, Ybarra and Balam have been completing the final touches on the mural, which features brightly colored faces, the words “West Side” in bold lettering, and motifs drawn from the immigrant communities of the West Side.
Currently based in Seattle, Ybarra returned to his hometown of St. Paul to complete the mural. He said he’s been inspired by the lack of rules concerning color in Mexican art.
Balam is a visual artist, ceramicist, and musician and works in a variety of mediums. Balam said his Chicano identity lies at the center of all his art forms. Balam is also a part of the local hip-hop group, Los Nativos.
Ybarra and Balam have worked together before. In fact, they grew up together: The two are cousins. Their approaches to art, however, are different: Balam works meticulously while Ybarra jumps around the mural. But Ybarra said there’s no one else he would want to work with on the mural.
With the unveiling looming, Ybarra and Balam offer a tour of their almost-finished creation. “I think the mural already has accomplished a resurgence of the West Side pride, not that there was any pride lacking in this community,” Ybarra said. “That’s why we wanted to make it so big.”
“I’ve explored every inch of this bridge with my youthful ignorance. This is home to me,” Ybarra said. “When this project came up, it fit me like a glove. I know this bridge, I know the community, I know the West Side.”
“That’s why we did the ‘West Side’ so big,” said Balam, who outlined the title by hand. “You could see it from a half a mile that way down Robert Street and immediately as you turn the corner here coming from downtown.”
“I just wanted the kids from this community to come and see color, and see someone who is pigmented like them,” Ybarra said. “I use color as not only the color, but as a thing that connects us.”
The portraits aren’t based on real people, but passerbys often joke with Ybarra, saying ‘Hey, why didn’t you put me on the wall?’
Ybarra and Balam used outdoor exterior paint, brushes, rollers, and even their hands to paint the mural. “No sprayers,” Ybarra said. “We wanted to keep it real traditional.”
With just a few days left, the mural is still coming to life. “You see how everybody’s zombie-like? We’re going to give them pupils and eye color,” Ybarra said. “It’s one of the last details I do as an artist. Some people do them first; I do them last. It wakes them up. Once the eye is complete, it’s like all the details are there.”
This won’t be the first mural on the Gateway Pedestrian Bridge. “A lot of people like the color, a lot of people like the new style of the bridge,” Balam said. “It’s really different from what was here, because it was painted before. It had a mural on it that was done 23 years ago that we covered,” Balam said. “A lot of people like the new style of the bridge,” Balam said. “It’s looking a lot brighter, a lot better than it was before.”
Balam doesn’t live on the West Side, but he grew up visiting his family and hanging out with the West Side’s thriving Latino community. “That’s my experience and my magnetism to the West Side, having a history of Latinx immigrants,’ Balam said. His grandparents first immigrated to Texas from Mexico. They then moved to Minnesota to work as farmers. Balam’s family has been here ever since.
“A lot of families that are marginalized and underrepresented live here. That was us growing up. I remember not knowing all that until I was way older,” Ybarra said. “West Side, if nothing, is incredibly diverse, from its origins, and especially now. It’s changing, but this West Side Latino community has always remained, where generations have stayed here, and they’ve raised their families here.”
“It will all kind of tie in together,” Ybarra said about the mural in its entirety—from the bridge to the pedestrian side rails. “The whole, as a people, says more than just an individual. That’s what the mural is about.”
Hibah Ansari and Jaida Grey Eagle are corps members with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.