Cadex Herrera stands on a step ladder carefully painting the details in his mural, La Cultura Cura — Culture Heals.
He works in a backyard studio he created just steps from the above ground pool. The studio floor is plywood that’s been set down on the grass; the roof a blue tarp tied to poles that flaps in the breeze.
On a partly cloudy Monday afternoon, Herrera painted the middle portion depicting different native people representing different Latin American and Caribbean countries. Although the entire mural is sketched on the canvas, Herrera works from the bottom up, painting and filling in the details.
The mural, which stands 15 feet wide by 25 feet high, will hang near the entrance to CLUES’ St. Paul office. The mural will be officially unveiled during the organization’s annual Fiesta Latina happening on Sept. 10. The social service organization has served the state’s Latino communities for several decades.
Herrera said it’s meant to welcome people and make them feel connected to their culture.
“That’s one of the cool things about this mural, it’s intended to represent many of the Latino cultures and how we are connected through our traditions, dance and a lot of our history,” Herrera said.
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The mural is composed of three different stories — with La Niña, a young indigenous Latina wearing a shawl, at the top.
“The shawl is composed of all the Latin American countries’ flags and that visually represents all the countries,” Herrera said.
The middle of the mural features an homage to indigenous history. Herrera painted Taino, Arawak, Amazonian, Mayan, Aztec, Peruvian and Andean indigenous people all dressed in traditional clothing.
Directly below are dancers performing a variety of dances specific to Latin America. Those dances include tango, El Baile de los Viejitos, cumbia, Baile de los Venados and salsa.
He said Latinos share that love of music and he wanted to make sure to include that.
The focal point at the bottom of the mural is a jaguar.
“It represents that idea of strength and fierceness that we have but also of movement,” Herrera said.
The jaguar is known to travel thousands of miles from one end of Latin America to southern Mexico. The jaguar is surrounded by colorful flowers and fauna. Each flower is the national flower of a country.
Everything in the mural is specific to a Latin American country. Because CLUES offers services to people from all over Latin America, he wanted people to feel connected to the mural when they saw it.
“It’s something for them to grab and say, ‘Oh, look at this, my flag is not only represented but also part of my national culture,’” he said.
He began working on the mural in mid-July. And like many artists, he becomes so engrossed in his work, that he loses track of time.
“I usually start working at 10 o’clock in the morning and I don’t tear down until 1:30, 2 o’clock in the morning,” Herrera said.
The idea to have a mural that represented everyone had been in the works since before the building opened, said Ruby Lee, CLUES president and CEO.
She said they worked with different artists, but Herrera stood out.
“He just was attached to the idea. He has a huge heart and is very deep. We are very excited to work with him,” Lee said.
La Cultura Cura has been the motto for CLUES’ art program even before the program began three years ago.
Hannah Novillo Erickson, associate director of arts and culture for CLUES, says everyone can interpret what that motto means to them. CLUES is about serving all Latinos as people, she said.
“It’s (culture) the common thread through everything we do. We can find some healing in our culture and making those connections and building those relationships,” Novillo Erickson said.
The mural also captures the sense of belonging that CLUES has built over the past 40 years, she said. And it helps Latinos, regardless of their age, connect to their heritage.
“I think those flags could also be seen as an invitation for you to look deeper into your cultural roots,” Novillo Erickson said.
Looking at the mural, it’s easy to see that women play a key role in Herrera’s work. The central figures are women.
“That is my belief that women in Latino cultures are the ones that keep the families together, keep the traditions alive. They are the ones that are primarily responsible for us surviving, especially young males,” Herrera said.
And that is the reason La Niña is the focal point at the top. His initial design concept had an older woman as the focal point.
“And then after having conversations with folks at CLUES, I realized I wanted to make sure that I'm also talking about the future,” he said.
Vicki Adame covers Minnesota’s Latino communities for MPR News via Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues and communities.