Do you see them?
Eden Prairie residents who might be other than white, who eat foods different than yours, who celebrate different cultures, but who contribute to our Eden Prairie schools and community: Do you really see them?
Artist Cadex Herrera wants them seen, wants their stories known, wants their contributions recognized and acknowledged.
And, so he used those underlying themes to create his First Person Plural (We) art installation at Purgatory Creek Park: seven huge portraits of Eden Prairie residents that you see along Technology Drive as you drive west to east.
All of those who are portrayed on huge, painted sheets of plywood are immigrants with stories to tell. One of them is Juana Luna Monroy, whose portrait is at the head of the line.
Looking for a safe place
Juana is originally from Mexico, but immigrated to the Los Angeles area before deciding it was no place to raise children. “We were looking for a safe place for our kids,” she says. “We were looking to the future.”
They moved to Minnesota without visiting ahead of time, settling in Chaska, near relatives.
“We discovered Eden Prairie in 2000,” she says, after exploring its parks and getting to know its schools. “This is one of the best places we’ve found, because of good schools, no crime.”
It’s become home. First there was an apartment, then a home, then a bigger home as she and Martin Sr. watched their five children grow and then welcomed a grandson, all products of Eden Prairie schools.
She’s been active in the schools, helping tie together Eden Prairie’s Latino residents. And, the Monroys are proud of their heritage, speaking strictly Spanish at home so that a portion of their culture is preserved.
If Juana comes across as a committed contributor to the community, one of Herrera’s goals has been reached. “These are people who make all communities work,” he says about his art subjects, all immigrants. “They are not what we hear on the news that they are.”
Herrera’s Eden Prairie art is an extension of a larger portrait project that he also calls First Person Plural (We). Noting that the U.S. has more immigrants than any other country in the world, Herrera says he wants to honor these immigrants who left their homes in search of a better life.
If you look closely, you see that Herrera’s portraits are composed of hundreds of black and gray dots, not unlike you see in a photograph printed in a newspaper or magazine. He says the dots – stark against an all-white background – represent mobility and individuals forming communities. But also the dots are people of color in a white world.
The start of First Person Plural (We) was several years back, at a time when anti-immigrant rhetoric was at its highest. An immigrant himself, Herrera chose to focus not on those angry voices but the targets of hate: the immigrants.
Noting that most immigrants are either singled out for their notoriety or altogether invisible, Herrera set out to record their stories and take their portraits. What he almost universally found were nuanced backgrounds and examples of overcoming great odds.
“I wanted these folks to be seen, to be noticed,” he says, which helps explain the huge portraits and the stoic, proud looks on the subjects’ faces. “They are such an essential part – of the economy, of growth, of the educational system. And they add so much culture, color, spice, and food. And yet, people pretend they don’t exist.”
‘A welcoming community’
A White Bear Lake resident, Herrera also learned a lot about Eden Prairie in the process. And what he learned, he likes.
“It’s an incredibly welcoming community for immigrants,” he says, with many favorable comments about the school system. “There was no animosity, no hate, no ill feelings toward the community. Just a sense of feeling fortunate they were there. Lucky to have landed in this place.”
The current plan is to keep the art work in place for one year. It’s part of the city’s ongoing Rotating Art Series, with new artists brought in each year, though COVID-19 changed the schedule a bit. Herrera’s work was also tied to the annual PeopleFest, an August celebration that showcases Eden Prairie’s many cultures and communities.
Juana is thrilled about being part of the exhibit, about having her story told, but also frames it as a win for all Latinos living in Eden Prairie.
“It makes me feel so happy, proud of my community, proud of my family,” she says.
Proud and happy to be seen.