Ernesto Ybarra’s grandfather left Texas for work in a Hormel Foods plant, sacrificing the familiarity of borderlands for the snowy promise of Minnesota.
The generation of Latino migrants who went with him found community on St. Paul’s West Side. That was nearly three lifetimes ago, but Ybarra — a visual artist who splits his time between Minnesota’s capital city and Seattle — knows those stories of internal migration well.
With personal journeys in mind, Ybarra and his cousin Xilam Balam, a fellow muralist, have spent most of the past month decorating the gateway pedestrian bridge over Robert Street, south of the Mississippi River and downtown St. Paul, which Ybarra grew up able to see from his living room window.
Their elaborate new mural features a collection of community faces from all walks of life on the lower bridge walls, overseen by a migrating hummingbird bidding them safe passage from the span above.
“There’s a story that if you’re a great Aztec warrior, you come back as a hummingbird,” said Ybarra, who added Aztec water glyphs on either side of the large “West Side” lettering that decorates the bridge span.
The goal is “a celebration of people and culture, the diversity of the West Side,” said Ybarra, who decorated the faces with different pigments that blend together into a tapestry.
The mural will make its official debut during a dedication ceremony from 6 to 8 p.m. Monday in the Girl Scouts parking lot off 400 South Robert St. Remarks begin at 6:30 p.m.
The pedestrian bridge, an unofficial gateway to and from downtown, is often referred to as the Girl Scouts Bridge because it sits by the parking lot to the Girl Scouts of Minnesota and Wisconsin River Valleys. The bridge, which spans Delos Street, leads into the Torre De San Miguel Homes, a 142-unit affordable housing community laid out like a small village, where Ybarra raced his Big Wheel trike as a tot.
The mural project, which took years to coordinate given Robert Street road construction and then to fund with $50,000 in city Commercial Vitality Zone funds, was organized by the West Side Community Organization and Ward 2 City Council member Rebecca Noecker’s office. WSCO contributed an additional $5,000.
“We’ve heard from so many community members generations apart — elders and 20-somethings — ‘Monica, when I saw it I started crying,’ ” said WSCO Executive Director Monica Bravo, who was taken aback by the strong reaction.
“It really is instilling hope, and it resonates strongly with pride,” Bravo said. “It’s been really interesting and actually a little surprising.”
The mural replaces previous bridge art created some 21 years ago.
“It was pretty faded, needed some work,” Ybarra said. “We’re kind of going in a different direction. We’re going big and bold, taking up all the space, really expanding so it can be seen from down the block. When you’re driving by, you won’t have to squint.”
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