'Let’s not forget we are here': Capitol display for Día de los Muertos empowers visitors 

A beautifully decorated altar
Artists unveiled an altar in observance of Día de los Muertos for the very first time at the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul on Tuesday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Josefa Gaona-Pacheco’s parents passed away when she was a child. She says Día de los Muertos has always been a special way to remember them. 

“I'm so happy that it finally has been recognized. Now I feel like there is a link between my homes. I was born in Mexico but have been in Minnesota for so many years,” Gaona-Pacheco said. “When I heard that there would be an altar at the Capitol, I knew I had to be there.”

A woman wearing a flower crown with monarchs stands in front of an altar
Josefa Gaona-Pacheco was one of the few dozen visitors in attendance for the unveiling of the Día de los Muertos altar at the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul on Tuesday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Gaona-Pecheco of Eagan, Minn. was one of a few dozen visitors to the Minnesota State Capitol Tuesday for the unveiling of an altar or ofrenda, for Día de los Muertos — a celebration which marks the day when loved ones who’ve passed away come back to visit with the living.

Organizers say this display marks the first time the Capitol has hosted this recognition of the holiday celebrated throughout Mexico and parts of Latin America. 

As a cultural family advocate, Gaona-Pacheco often creates altars of her own in the schools she works in, but says she always thought she needed to ask for permission. Seeing the Altar de Muertos at the Capitol gave her confidence in representing her cultural traditions at school.

A man holds a framed photo at a podium
Aaron Johnson-Ortiz holds up a framed photo of his brother, Gabriel Johnson-Ortiz, who passed away in 2015, during a press conference at the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul on Tuesday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Aaron Johnson-Ortiz is one of the organizers of the ofrenda and runs (Neo) Muralismos de Mexico — a Minnesota-based Mexican and Latinx community arts organization — with his sister Carmen Maya Johnson-Ortiz.

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He said it’s important to raise awareness about the challenges Latinos face in Minnesota and in the United States. The ofrenda at the Capitol is a way for Johnson-Ortiz to honor the legacy of their brother Gabriel Dominic Johnson-Ortiz, who spent many years advocating for immigrant and worker rights in Minnesota. 

“For me it’s important to be here along with MCLA and the artists to say that we’re here and still fighting. ‘Zapata Vive, la lucha sigue’ (They say Zapata lives, the struggle continues)," Johnson-Ortiz said, citing Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, who fought for the poor. "For me that means that the dead keep living as long as we continue fighting."

Framed photos, flowers, and other offerings decorate an altar
Offerings are left on an altar in observance of Día de los Muertos at the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul on Tuesday. The holiday marks when the veil separating the living and the dead is the thinnest.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Isabell Beasley of Duluth also drove down to St. Paul to see the ofrenda. Originally from Houston, Texas, Beasley says the Altar de Muertos reminded her of her family and traditions practiced at home. 

“Since moving to Minnesota I haven’t seen or been exposed to much of my culture back home. It’s really nice to see that visibility and appreciation for a part of me and the greater community in Minnesota.” she said.

For Beasley, the small details make a big impact. Her favorites are the bottles of Jarritos soda displayed on the altar.

“You see Piña, you see Mandarindo — those are some of my favorite drinks that my family would have displayed on the altar and I resonate with that.” Beasley said.

A woman stands next to an offrenda
Isabell Beasley drove from Duluth to view the altar at the Capitol. Originally from Texas, she said the small details were her favorite.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Artist Flor Soto loved seeing visitors like Beasley and Gaona-Pacheco come out to see the ofrenda and she hopes it will serve as a safe space for other members of the Latino community to come together.

“I am an artist of making altars for the dead. This is a great way of screaming that we are here at the Capitol. That we are Latinos at the Capitol. Let’s not forget we are here,” Soto said. “The altar of the dead is not something to be sad about. It is that we are here alive and that we are here honoring them.”

The altar at the Minnesota State Capitol will be available for public viewing until Nov. 12.

A decorative skeleton stands in front of a candlelit altar
Artists unveiled an altar in observance of Día de los Muertos at the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul on Tuesday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News
North Star Journey was made possible in part with funds from the Legacy Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.