As I walk into The Center on Colfax, the lobby explodes into vibrant color with their Dia de los Muertos display. Bright, orange marigolds are nestled on the various altars, known as ofrendas, with the papel picado fluttering gently whenever the door opens. Traditional sugar skulls, the calavera catrina, are scattered around the images and food offerings that line each ofrenda. In a continuation of celebration and remembrance of the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riot, the Stonewall 50 Ofrenda Exhibition honors late, LGBTQ icons, the Trans Day of Remembrance, community members, and those who have passed away from HIV/AIDS.
Visitors are immediately drawn to the room’s centerpiece: the Stonewall 50 Ofrenda, draped in rainbow cloth and adorned with rows and rows of images, text descriptions, and same-gender couple skeleton figurines. Closer inspection and investigation reveals the images to be personalized retablos, or devotional paintings using iconography derived from Catholic church art.
Traditionally, these retablos are used to depict holy images, Christ, or the Virgin Mary, and The Center uses this concept to honor 50 LGBTQ icons as “secular saints.” Each retablo is completely unique to the icon it commemorates, visually describing their story.
I was able to speak to the CEO of The Center, Rex Fuller, and the director of elderly services, Reynaldo Mireles, who were the creators of this exhibition five years ago. Fuller said, “There were definitely some names we knew we needed to put up there … Harvey Milk, Freddie Mercury, Marsha P. Johnson, etc. But, we also wanted to include individuals whose names might not be immediately known but made a significant impact for LGBTQ rights.” Fuller and Mireles made significant efforts to ensure cultural, gender, and professional diversity to offer a well-rounded history of LGBTQ champions.
There are three surrounding ofrendas with their own assembly of flowers, candles, and photographs. The ofrenda immediately to the right commemorates members of the Denver community who have passed away, and the ofrenda to the left specifically honors those community members who have passed away from HIV/AIDS. Mireles explained to me that this was not necessarily a grieving process, but a celebration of life and a coming together of family. “We created this for our community, to bring them together and share stories of their loved ones. Even though they are gone, this is how we can keep them with us.”
Another ofrenda faces the Stonewall 50 as if to say, don’t forget about me. This altar is dedicated to the Trans Day of Remembrance and those who have died in the past year due to anti-trans violence. When asked if creating this exhibition was an emotional process, Mireles and Fuller both contend that it was more of a celebration.
“With the exception of the Trans Day of Remembrance ofrenda,” Fuller explained. “That was the only part that felt exceptionally heavy, because we have these trans women, mostly trans women of color, that have died from violence.”
“This is something we can avoid and prevent,” Mireles said about this Dia de los Muertos. “That’s what makes this one, and the HIV/AIDS ofrenda, feel heavier. We can do something about it.”
In addition to the exhibition, Mireles and Fuller also put on a community event for Día de los Muertos that involved music, food, crafts, and joy. This family-friendly event celebrated both the LGBTQ and Latinx communities while also celebrating the lives of their loved ones who had passed. I asked if Fuller and Mireles planned to continue the event and exhibition into the future.
“It keeps getting bigger every year,” Mireles said. “The first year, we had 20 people. This year, we had close to 200. We hope it keeps getting bigger and becomes a tradition the community looks forward to.”
*Photos by Stu Osborne