Artist Flor Soto works on the first-ever Altar de Muertos at the State Capitol building in St. Paul on Sunday, October 30. Credit: Tim Evans | MPR News

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It’s a Friday night at the Pillsbury United Communities’ Waite House in Minneapolis. Artist Monica Vega is standing over a small table showing other Latinos how to make traditional cempasuchil flowers out of paper.

While she walks through the steps, all eyes are on her hands as she molds the bright orange paper into a beautiful flower. 

This year, for Día de los Muertos, there will be an “Altar de Muertos,” or ofrenda, at the Minnesota State Capitol for the first time. It will include the cempasuchil flowers Vega and community members are making, mixed in with real, locally grown flowers.

Día de los Muertos is when loved ones who have passed away come back to visit and celebrate with the living. Many Latinos create ofrendas in their homes or community centers that include food and drinks, photos of loved ones, papel picado—a decorative paper with intricate cutout designs—and incense.

It also includes the cempasuchil flowers—which are traditionally known as the flower of the dead—whose musky scent helps guide the souls back home. 

Artists Monica Vega and Flor Soto are designing the ofrenda, which will represent the cultural traditions of Mexican and Latinx communities in Minnesota.

Lead artist Monica Vega gives instructions to volunteers while working on the first-ever Altar de Muertos at the State Capitol building in St. Paul, Minnesota, on Sunday, October 30. Credit: Tim Evans | MPR News

Organizers hope it will create a space to remember those who lost their lives in recent years from COVID-19, police brutality and gun violence. They’ll also be remembering immigrants who lost their lives at the U.S.-Mexico border. 

For Vega, creating ofrendas is a tradition close to her heart. When she was a young teenager, her father passed away and she created her first altar to keep his memory alive.

“The Day of the Dead celebration has been in my family since I can remember. My mom lost a baby and Dad, in a way to keep remembering that baby decided to do an altar at home every single year to remember that baby. When he passed away I really needed a way for myself to heal. It was really hard at that age, losing your dad,” Vega said. “We created the altars at home, but once I got married and had my kids I said, ‘You know what? I should continue my tradition so in that way I let my kids know about Grandpa.’”

Now, creating ofrendas has become Vega’s craft.

The altar at the State Capitol is just one of many she’s designed at homes, community centers, and cultural organizations across Minnesota. For Vega, it’s important to her to research and learn more about the history so she can pass it onto the next generation of Latinos in Minnesota.

She recognizes that creating the first “Altar de Muertos” at the State Capitol is a big responsibility for her community, she said.

First of its kind at any Minnesota government building

The idea for the ofrenda came from Carmen Maya Johnson-Ortiz. She runs (Neo) Muralismos de Mexico, a Minnesota-based Mexican and Latinx community arts organization, with her brother Aaron Johnson-Ortiz.

Johnson-Ortiz remembers asking her brother if there had ever been an altar at the Capitol before. When they realized there had never been one at any Minnesota government organization, they knew it was time to organize one for their community. 

“I’m Mexican-American, so I can go back and forth. But I know a lot of people that move here and they, you know, are not able to go back to their country, and they miss all the things that, you know, remind them of their family, of their town, of their tradition,” Johnson-Ortiz reflected. “I think it’s important that we do them here, so that we can feel like we are part of this community and not just in a different land where our traditions don’t matter.”

Carmen Maya and Aaron Johnson-Ortiz pitched the idea to the Minnesota Council on Latino Affairs. Katya Zepeda is the council’s Legislative and Policy Director of Education and coordinated the work from the artists and organizers with the Capitol.

Frida Solano Vega, daughter of lead artist Monica Vega, helps her mother set up the first-ever Altar de Muertos at the State Capitol building. Credit: Tim Evans | MPR News

Zepeda says she hopes having an ofrenda at the Capitol shows the value in tradition, brings healing to the pain members of the community have been experiencing, and creates a visible space for them to come together. 

“We’ve had loss of jobs, we’ve had loss of lives, we’ve dealt with police brutality in our community as well, many lives lost at the border.” Zepeda said. “ All of that just starts to bottle up and to have a spot where you could just remember and feel like, okay, you’re not alone.”

While the “Altar de Muertos” is not related to the upcoming election season, Zepeda says she  hopes it serves as an important reminder for elected officials to recognize Minnesota’s Latino community. 

“Our issues are still going to be there. So it’s a reminder, I think, for our politicians, our legislation, and our community to remember that we are here, a big part of Minnesota, of the history and that our issues need to be taken into consideration as we build Minnesota up,” Zepeda said.

‘You made it from your heart’

Back at the workshop, the pile of cempasuchil flowers grows as artist Monica Vega sits around a table with other Latinos.

As the night goes on, community members trade stories on family history, cultural traditions, and community happenings. Seeing other Latinos make the cempasuchil flowers brings Vega joy. She hopes visitors will come out to see the “Altar de Muertos,” and she encourages other Latinos to explore the tradition in their own way.

“Sometimes we don’t have enough money to buy everything. If you have one picture, if you have one glass of water, if you have any kind of bread—it doesn’t really need to be Day of the Dead special bread—if you have only fruit. Whatever you have, that’s the way you start it,” Vega said. “Just please don’t think if you don’t follow those rules, your family members won’t come to visit you because that’s a lie. They will definitely come to visit you because you made it from your heart.”

The “Altar de Muertos” at the Minnesota State Capitol will be unveiled Tuesday, November 1, and will available for public viewing until November 12. Visitors are encouraged to bring photos of loved ones to honor.

Skeleton figurines line the top of the first-ever Altar de Muertos at the State Capitol building. Credit: Tim Evans | MPR News
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CONTRIBUTING REPORTER Simone Cazares is a 2019 news reporting and writing intern at MPR News.