NewsLocal NewsGrand Rapids


‘Definitely a hero for me': GR artist creates ofrenda honoring her father, a Civil Rights icon

Homage to My Father: Francísco Míguel Nava Vega Lopez Tapía is on display at the Grand Rapids Public Museum
Posted at 7:32 PM, Sep 23, 2022
and last updated 2022-09-23 19:39:00-04

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — When Margaret Vega’s dad was in his final days last year, she was working on a painting called ‘Song of the Bluebird.’ She would bring it to his bedside and they’d talk about it.

Now, it’s the centerpiece of an ofrenda she created in his honor at the Grand Rapids Public Museum.

“He died, I was holding his hand. I was caring for him in the last months of his life. Definitely a hero for me, and, you know, big shoes to fill,” Margaret said during an interview with Fox 17 on Friday. “I wanted this ofrenda to show the many dimensions of a man that was bilingual and bicultural, and dealt with those difficulties, those obstacles and tried to help others.”

It’s called Borrowed Light: Homage to My Father: Francísco Míguel Nava Vega Lopez Tapía.

The ofrenda, which is an altar created for deceased loved ones during the beloved Mexican holiday Día De Los Muertos, includes over a dozen photographs, candles, fruit, flowers, military medals, and other mementos.

Margaret said it took her five months to create, digging through 30 boxes in order to put it all together.

“My favorite part probably,” Margaret said before taking a brief pause. “I don’t know, the orange trees perhaps because he always had orange trees and he loved the fragrance. He was a man that appreciated everything.”

Francísco passed away at 99 years old, but Margaret affectionately says “100. He always liked to round up.”

One of things he valued most in his long life, she said, was advocating for civil rights for Latinos.

“He fought for civil rights alongside Cesar Chavez,” Margaret said. “He worked with three or four presidents in Washington D.C., and created the first National Scholarship Association for Latino Students.”

According to his biography, which is printed on the wall near the ofrenda, he often traveled to D.C. and advised Presidents John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford, and George Bush senior on issues impacting the Latino community.

Pictures of him and the presidents, and letters from them are also a part of the exhibit.

“He was interested in bilingual education before people even knew what that was,” Margaret said. “He fought for the right to vote and for Latin American people to really have a voice.”

She said her dad was so passionate about equal rights and civil rights because he saw the absence of it everyday life. He also experienced it firsthand when he wasn’t admitted into the service in WWII because they weren’t taking Mexican Americans.

“He was a man of awareness and a very just person,” Margaret said. “He really felt that he was educated and it was his responsibility to bring these issues forward. You know, he was a fighter in a very dignified way.”

Francísco was born in San Antonio, Texas and spent time going to school in Mexico and in the U.S. He later enlisted in the U.S. Army. And according to his bio he “was promoted into an elite team as a decoder for typing for his typing speed.”

Mementos from his time in the military are sprinkled throughout the ofrenda, alongside pictures of his wife whom he was married to for 75 years.

Margaret hopes that everyone who sees the ofrenda thinks of the borrowed lights and their lives, as her father was a light to her.

“He was my mentor and my friend as well as my father,” Margaret said. “Some of his words to me were ‘make sure when you’re gone there’s a whole there that says that you were here at all.’ And, I think he lived life that way.”