Deborah Ramos: The Community Grower

Deborah Ramos

Deborah Ramos Colin Michael Simmons

City Pages' People Issue celebrates people making Minnesota a better place.

Dance, live music, visual art, food, crafts, a family art-making afternoon—over the last seven years, the Festival de las Calaveras has grown into a multi-day, multidisciplinary celebration of Latinx culture. It spans venues across the Twin Cities and genres from hip-hop to traditional Aztec dance. Some years, it’s featured nearly 250 different artists..

And it all grew out of a corn plot in Minneapolis’s Central neighborhood.

The festival starts with Deborah Ramos, a Minneapolis-based visual artist who had been traveling to and from Mexico to learn about traditional planting methods. Talking about corn in the U.S. is different than it is in Mexico. “Some would say, ‘Corn is as significant as my own life,’” Ramos explains. “It really goes a little deeper than corn flakes.”

“As a visual artist, I was kind of feeling the importance of incorporating that newfound information into my work,” she continues. So in 2009, Ramos founded the Zenteotl Project—an arm of the nonprofit Tlalnepantla Arts, which she also runs—to engage the community in planting corn. She worked at a public school at the time, and those families—many of them Mexican, Ecuadorian, and Native American—became the first to participate in the new urban agriculture initiative.

Discovering traditional gardening and farming methods, getting back to earth, helped Ramos and the other gardeners feel more rooted, quite literally, in their cultures. An idea emerged: What if they held a concert to create awareness around their community gardening work?

The Zenteotl Project already brought artistry to the garden with traditional dance and sculpture. And they also held an offering—an ofrenda—on the plot. This, Ramos explains, is the basis of Dia de los Muertos: an offering acknowledging ancestors and departed loved ones. The concert was “a way of us extending that offering, which has its origins in corn.”

The organization held the first Festival de las Calaveras celebrating the Day of the Dead in 2013—a four-hour, one-night production at the Parkway Theater. Ramos says the outpouring of emotion at that first concert was overwhelming: “We couldn’t just not do it again.” So they’ve done it annually since, bringing out a group of people as diverse culturally as it is generationally. There are events big and small: Last year, there was a big concert at La Doña Cerveceria, and there was also a family art day at CLUES in St. Paul.

“Sometimes it’s not like something spectacular is happening, and at the same time, it is,” Ramos says. “It’s just people coming together to form community in a particular space.”

For Ramos, it’s important to come here as artists—and as artists with unique backgrounds, from traditional to contemporary, spoken word to hip-hop. “All these juxtapositions are very intentional,” she says, so that it’s as open as possible to as many members of Latinx and not-Latinx communities, without falling into externally imposed stereotypes.

“But everybody knows that they’re invited, and they know what the festival is about,” Ramos continues. “And that energy is channeled toward the goal and the purpose. It has a kind of a quantum physics aspect to it, in which we’re garnering our energy, galvanizing our energy, and sending it beyond. Doing that through the arts is really powerful.” 

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