Ofelia Esparza

Chicana altarista (Day of the Dead altar maker)
Headshot of a woman.

Courtesy of Craft in America, photo by Mark Markley


Ofelia Esparza is a Mexican-American altar maker, or Chicana altarista, whose work is informed by a deep spiritual belief in the traditional process, which pays homage and evokes memory of people, events, or places through multilevel structures embellished with photos, traditional foods, flowers, and handmade and found adornments. For nearly 40 years, Esparza has shared her knowledge and art about el Día de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) with people in schools, museums, community centers, prisons, and parks throughout the Los Angeles region and beyond.

Esparza was born in 1932 in East Los Angeles, where she has lived her whole life. The cultural practice of altar making in Chicano communities extends from devotional home altars for Catholic saints to the spiritual activities around el Día de los Muertos, which come from Mexico. Day of the Dead is an indigenous tradition that occurs on All Souls Day, where families build altars to remember ancestors and deceased loved ones. Mexican traditions such as altar making were shared within Esparza’s own family, specifically by her mother and great-grandmother, and she in turn passed them along to her own nine children, who continue to develop their own talents within the custom of altar making.

Esparza went back to school in her early 40s to become a teacher and taught elementary school for 30 years. She infused her curriculum with Mexican art and culture, teaching folklórico dance to the students and staff, introducing cultural practices and celebrations such as the Day of the Dead, and conducting multicultural training for district teachers.

In 1979, Esparza created one of the first large-scale public altars in the U.S. at Los Angeles’s Self Help Graphics. She has also created a large body of work in printmaking and visual arts, informing her altar-making process, from designing and painting the structure that supports the assembled items to making paper flowers and other adornments.

Esparza’s altars—which range from personal ofrendas, or offerings, to assemblages that address larger issues facing the Chicano community—have been exhibited widely, including at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Japanese American National Museum, the National Museum of Mexican Art, and internationally at the first Day of the Dead exhibit in Glasgow, Scotland. In 2018, she installed a monumental permanent altar in the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History.

She has received many recognitions, including the Art Legend Award from Watts 3rd World Art Festival, Pueblo de Los Angeles People’s Choice Awards, and grants from the Alliance for California Traditional Arts and the California Arts Council. Recently she worked as a cultural consultant on the film Coco.

She is currently an artist fellow with the Alliance for California Traditional Art, giving altar-making workshops in the Building Healthy Communities Boyle Heights initiative and at the State Correctional Institution for Women.

By Amy Kitchener and Russell Rodríguez, Alliance for California Traditional Arts

An altar made with flowers against a wall.

Ofelia Esparza's Altar in the Borders and Neighbors exhibition curated by Craft in America. Courtesy of Craft in America, photo by Madison Metro

A large flower altar in an outdoor setting at night.

2016 Dia de los Muertos Community Altar at Grand Park designed by Ofelia Esparza. Courtesy of Craft in America, photo by Denise Kang


Ofelia Esparza

Music composed and performed by Jorge F. Hernández.

*Music Up*

Ofelia Esparza: My mother said, “We humans all experience three deaths.” The first death, is the day that we give our last breath, the day that we die. And the second death is the day that we are buried, never to be seen on the face of the Earth again. And the third, but the most dreaded death of all, is to be forgotten.

Jo Reed: Honoring the dead is at the heart of 2018 National Heritage Fellow Ofelia Esparza’s practice as a chicana altarista or altar-maker. And this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed. Ofelia creates altars that pay homage and evoke memories of events, places or deceased loved ones and are often most identified as a way to mark The Day of the Dead or el Día de Los Muertos. Ofelia’s altars are colorful, intricate, multilevel structures embellished with photos, traditional foods, flowers, (real and paper) as well as handmade and found ornaments that evoke ancestors and deceased relatives. Ofelia learned the practice of altar-making from her mother and great grandmother and she in turn passed it along to her own nine children who have developed their talents and dedication to this tradition. And she also shares this tradition beyond her family— giving presentations about Day of The Dead to people in schools, museums, community centers, prisons, and parks throughout the Los Angeles area. In 1979, Ofelia Esparza created one of the first large-scale public altars in the United States at Los Angeles’s Self Help Graphics. And now her altars, which range from small personal ofrendas, or offerings, to large-scale commemorations have been exhibited widely in museums across the country. I spoke with Ofelia Esparza and her daughter and fellow altarista Rosanna Ahrens recently. They were recorded at a community center, so you’ll hear doors opening and closing and the other occasional background noise. I began by asking Ofelia to tell me more about The Day of the Dead or Día de Los Muertos

Ofelia Esparza: Día de los Muertos is a very ancient tradition and it's rooted in the indigenous people of Mexico, since the 1500’s when the Spanish came into Mexico, it was observed as part of the Catholic calendar, the Catholic Church. And so, the tradition has melded into one practice on November 1 and 2, All Saint’s Day and on All Soul’s Day, but many of the ancient traditions are still part of it. And I think that’s why it’s such a unique way of celebrating the day of the dead.

Jo Reed: Well, tell me the way you celebrate Day of the Dead.

Ofelia Esparza: The way it's celebrated I feel or the way I learned from my mother and now what I'm doing is very colorful, an expression of not only reverence and respect in honoring, but also festive because we celebrate the life of our loved ones who have passed, of our ancestors. And of course, it also takes on a wider meaning here in the U.S. because it is a living tradition as more people participate, you see some differences. But for me the essence of it is to honor and remember our dead and keep their memory alive. And I have carried this on, it was not just a devotion but it was more of an obligation for us to remember our family and of course it all stems from my own learning from my mother. And today, Rosanna, my daughter, and my children help me make altars for different people that we love or people who have made a mark in my life or in the life of others.

Jo Reed: You grew up in East Los Angeles, what do you remember about the Day of the Dead from your childhood, tell me about the altars that your mother would make?

Ofelia Esparza: I also was born in East Los Angeles in 1932, as a child, my mother came to this country but she brought her homeland, her homeland traditions, her food, all her customs, and so I grew up with these traditions. She practiced in a very humble, quiet way, she actually did several altars throughout the year. But for Day of the Dead, we always had a small altar at home like many homes that I knew where you have photographs and maybe a candle but for Days of the Dead, she would dress it up with her flowers from her garden. But the things that I remember most is going to the cemetery. My mother and my aunt, two aunts would pack up a lunch and take things in bags and my cousins and I we would walk to the cemetery. I don't believe we had any very close relatives buried there and so the person of the gravesite we were at was someone that was related in some way to someone in our family or from my mother's hometown. They would put out a spread of food and they had brought flowers from their garden and just very humbly decorated around the gravestone and then as we ate, she would talk about who was there, how they were related to my grandfather or her great grandmother or someone in her family but at the same time, they would describe all the way that they lived, the food they ate and anecdotes about when she was a child. And so these stories were the ones that stayed with me and were so important. My mother painted these images, and so those were my most vivid memories I have of celebrating Day of the Dead.

Jo Reed: And would you help her at home Ofelia with the altars that she created?

Ofelia Esparza: As a very young child, I didn't, I would just observe and my mother would talk about her mother, her grandmother, and her great grandmother who raised her and then her relatives. That's how I knew about my family and that's the important part that I talk about when I speak to people of how observing and making an altar is a process, it's a bridge between the living and the dead but it's also a bridge with generations and then beyond it bridges now cultures and even countries today.

Jo Reed: Rosanna, I assume you grew up with altars, altars that your mother created?

Rosanna Ahrens: Well, there's nine kids and I'm number five so I'm the first girl and as a young baby, I ended up being part of my grandmother's household and yeah, there was little shrines or altars for different occasions but the big, big celebrations was during Christmas time as we celebrate the birth of Jesus, the nativity. And the nativity is the nacimiento. It wasn't just the scene of the stable and Mary and Joseph and the baby, it was the shepherds and then beyond into the villages and swans and lakes, so it had all these little vignettes. It just went on and on. If you imagine having a living room and you just take half of it and make that into an altar installation, that’s what my grandmother did. That was the massive piece that she would do. As children, that was really awesome. It was magnificent for a small child and my mom also was painting the backdrop as well so it had like the cityscape like a Mexican Bethlehem, you know.

Jo Reed: I can see how that would just inflame your imagination and curiosity.

Ofelia Esparza: Well that's how it actually worked for me because the big altar was the nacimiento and so in the early years just like my children, I was awed by all the pieces and all the things. And then eventually, I would help. Because it was such a big endeavor, my dad and my oldest brother they helped with setting up the foundation. And as I grew, I always participated in some way and, like Rosanna said, I would paint the backdrop. And the later on by the time I got married, I was taking on more of the work, but it was always my mother's nacimiento. And that’s a big influence on the altars that I make, including the Day of the Dead. It has many things. I like it colorful and it's joyful, there's a lot to see. But I think that they tell stories, they tell stories about whoever the altar is dedicated to and that is the style and the way that I envision an altar with many items to tell the story of the person or people being honored, but it's also a sacred space because we're talking about honoring the dead and that's a very special place that I think calls for introspection, contemplation and also much reverence.

Jo Reed: But not fear.

Ofelia Esparza: Oh no, never fear.

Jo Reed: I know there are flowers hundreds of flowers, both real and paper flowers, but what are some of the other things you place on the alter?

Ofelia Esparza: Well the main things are the photographs, that's the focal points, and in a home altar, there's always some religious icons, I always have Our Lady of Guadalupe that's just from my own tradition and my own devotion. But the other things are candles, I use copal, a natural resin incense that goes back to many generations. The four natural elements are represented, wind, fire, earth and water. The papel picado, that's the little flags that are cut up into banners, those represent wind, they flutter with any slight breeze and they're decorative, it's very traditional. We usually make our own but artisans are doing this for people to buy for their altars. And then of course food and then I like to have many mementos and I like to have organic material like plants. We make things, my daughters and I make things to have this ambiance of color and reverence. It's a big endeavor, but it's a very joyful one for me.

Jo Reed: Ofelia, it’s an artistic endeavor as well isn’t it?

Ofelia Esparza: I'm an artist, a visual artist and so it has become not only an endeavor of tradition and reverence but it's also an art form. And it's always been an art form, my mother did all these beautiful things, she never called herself an artist but she greatly influenced me in my creativity and so it's just a wonderful endeavor for any artist. I've done many altars by myself but for many years it's always someone who is helping me like I helped my mother and it's my children. I feel so fulfilled that my children are carrying on this tradition.

Jo Reed: Now tell me Ofelia, when did you move from making family altars, altars in homes, to moving them out into the community?

Ofelia Esparza: Well it was my connection to Self Help Graphics in my own neighborhood. Self Help Graphics is the art organization that began the public community celebrations of Día de los Muertos, they began as I understand in 1973. Sister Karen Boccalero was one of the cofounders with two other artists, Mexican artists. Later, she moved into my neighborhood and that's where I got involved as an artist there. Sister Karen wanted to create a community event that would bring the community together. It was a wonderful thing because she asked me, "Do you know something about Day of the Dead?" I said, "Yes.” "Okay, you come on Saturdays and we'll do these workshops all the month of October to prepare for this public celebration in the community.” And that's when I began participating in public altars. And of course, those were community altars that several people participated in, I was one of the artists. Then as the years went by, in 1988 I was invited to do an altar outside in an art gallery. And then after that, my participation grew and my children became a part of that with me.

Jo Reed: I wanted to ask both of you because I've seen pictures of your altars and they're so intricate with multiple layers of images and textures and colors, how do you plan these, do you plan these out ahead of time, do you wait and just look at the space, I'm just so curious how you go about just beginning this?

Rosanna Ahrens: I could give you an example, we did one in 2009 called, the show was called "Journey from Mictlan," which is the Land of the Dead and we did an altar dedicated to my grandparents, my mom's mom and my papa. And they loved to travel, they traveled throughout Mexico and every year they'd make a trip out to their hometown or out to the big archeological sites, so what we did is we wanted to create an altar that talked about that, about their travels, it had steamer trunks and their little bureau and a closet and it had photos of them at these different archeological sites and their hometown, and the postcards with the notes to home. So it had their clothes and just a moment in time where they're getting ready to visit us for Day of the Dead. So, you have to sit down and who are we honoring, what do we want to capture, what is the story that we're trying to tell. And most of the time they're traditional, layered with a piece of furniture in the middle, and an arch and there's different photographs and maybe their glasses or whatever it is that they were into. And it’s just decorated with lots of flowers, we make paper flowers. It takes a lot of time to create these paper flowers, so a lot of that energy that we use to cut and fold and pull out these flowers is really thinking about the ofrenda, which is the altar, we're thinking about them, we're talking about their story, so this whole vibration, this love vibration is in these flowers, it's in the ofrenda and I just feel like the whole thing is just vibrating, this energy of honor and love and reverence, and like my mom said it's always remembering, they live in our heart. And going back to what my mom was talking about, the altar bridges generations so like for my son or my nieces and nephews that never met Mama Lupe, my mom's mom, or never met Papa. Here there are in front of this altar and they're experiencing the oral tradition of telling the story of them and this memory is carried forward through the generations.

Jo Reed: That's lovely. I'm assuming you're already working on paper flowers for the upcoming Day of the Dead.

Ofelia Esparza: Oh yes, yes. We have friends who have asked us, "Can we help you?" "Well yes.” Whoever can come in because we make hundreds of flowers. We have four projects right now and we use many flowers for them. We learn to plan way ahead.

Jo Reed: But in planning the altar, I guess I am wondering if you make a sketch first or make a mock up?

Ofelia Esparza: In the days when I first started doing my own altars, I started out as making just community altars at Self Help Graphics and then eventually they started inviting artists to make for Day of the Dead and to invite them to do a personal altar, so of course I was doing that. And for a few years I was doing the community altar with the help of my son and my daughter and my own personal altars. And my son would say, "Mom, why don't you draw me a picture then I can understand what you really want?" Because I would say, "Okay, move it this way," or, "Add this." That was early on and so I just started making a schematic and then I started doing dimensions and now Rosanna does…

Rosanna Ahrens: I do a digital rendering of them, sometimes to submit for venues that are asking for my mom to do an installation, so we give them a visual rendering of what we're aiming for.

Jo Reed: Yeah, that would make sense, they're so intricate. You know, you have seen, I mean certainly you, Ofelia, but also you Rosanna, I'm sure just this growing awareness and reclaiming of Day of the Dead. And you've actually played a major role in that reclamation for the community, for the Chicano community in Los Angeles.

Rosanna Ahrens: Yeah, I feel like Día de los Muertos is reclaiming our identity, this is our celebration, it's just so powerful. It’s like Self Help Graphics is the epicenter of Día de los Muertos in the United States, that's where it started in 1973 and it's exploded from there into the rest of the U.S. and I'm just so proud of it. It has been commodified, but for my mom and for myself and for our community, we feel this obligation to be grounded into the traditional ofrenda and the traditional significance of it is the essence of never forgetting your roots, never forgetting your family, and having them live in the hearts of the coming generations.

Jo Reed: And I'm sure especially for you Ofelia, when you were growing up in LA, that the wider culture really discouraged you having any public demonstration of Mexican traditions, I mean I'm sure you were even discouraged from speaking Spanish.

Ofelia Esparza: Oh that is for sure, when I was a child, that was in the thirties, one of the stories I tell because it's vivid. I loved school and I loved learning and I was a good student, I think it was a second or third grade memory where the teacher would pick someone from our classroom and they wore this badge and the badge said "Safety Committee." So we'd go to recess, we'd be in the swings or we'd be running, I remember in the swings singing Mexican songs in Spanish with an open heart, just enjoying the swinging and singing. The bell would ring and the child who was appointed the Safety Committee leader had a little notepad and he or she would hand it to the teacher and then the teacher would start reading names and we knew what that was about. So, as she called our names we had to go up front and we had to put our palm out and she'd slap our hand with a ruler and say, "You're not supposed to speak Spanish," and I would say, "Even in the playground?" What a thing to be negated. I was bilingual by the time I went to school. You learn English and you want to learn it, but just to be negated your mother’s and your own language that you grew up with just does something to you. I became a school teacher, an elementary school teacher, and I taught a bilingual classroom. And I always wanted to validate that two languages, I would say, is an enhancement, it’s an intellectual activity.

Jo Reed: Yeah, it makes the brain very supple, but having gone through that, it much be so much more gratifying to see this cultural reclamation that you've been a part of really having taken root.

Ofelia Esparza: It is, it's wonderful. What I do today besides building altars, is also to talk about the significance of Día de los Muertos, just like every other tradition that you want to preserve, you have to work at it by just example, by talking about it and of course doing altars is a visual expression that people can remember and emulate. And many people are making altars today and it really pleases me. And I really love to speak to students, I do a lot of speaking at universities where I'm asked to make presentations. I am not an expert on all Day of the Death and altar making because they vary. If you go into Mexico, it's very diverse not only in its traditions but in its food, in its music, in its dress. So, I've taken all this information and as an artist I can take from these but I'd never leave the essence, the significance that we're celebrating a life of our loved ones and that we want to remember them, as long as one of us remembers, they are still in our hearts. It's also a very healing endeavor to do an altar, to make flowers, to prepare for it, it's like a meditation in a way and the culmination of this is you have this beautiful remembrance that visual and it's spiritual and it stays with you. And one of the wonderful things, a very heartening thing is when someone will come and say, "You know, I made my first altar, I saw yours and I wanted to honor my mother," or, "Someone in my family." It's a universal thing that we share with the world to honor our loved ones and to carry on this legacy and for me the legacy is what a legacy to be loved and cherished even after death, wow.

Jo Reed: Ofelia, you also served as cultural consultant for the movie Coco. Tell me about that experience.

Ofelia Esparza: It was a wonderful experience, I was really honored. Rosanna and I were part of it, she could tell you more about it. It is important and the movie I felt was so well done, they did their homework, but Rosanna can tell you more about that.

Rosanna Ahrens: Yeah, our title was “advisor,” “cultural advisors,” so we were part of an advisory board. So the story was pretty much intact when we got involved. When we went up to Pixar, it was a big group, it was probably about I'd say about 20 people that were part of that advisory board, we went up in two different teams and it was a good experience. It was great to meet the directors and they really did a lot of homework. They really wanted to get it right, they were going for authenticity. So I feel like they blazed a trail.

Jo Reed: I think that's great. And good, good for them for listening and good for you for telling them. Another trail that you blazed that I really am so fascinated by and Ofelia went to Glasgow, Scotland, it was some 20 years ago as part of an artist exchange and you created the first Day of the Dead altar there.

Ofelia Esparza: Yes, and it was through Self Help Graphics. Two artists from the U.K. came to Self Help Graphics as an exchange. And they came during Day of the Dead and they loved it, they said, "We'd like to do this in our city of Glasgow, Scotland." And so they sent me and Margaret Sosa who is a master artist, and Yolanda Gonzales, one of the resident artists from Self Help. We made a presentation and then to prepare to make the altar I engaged some students who came to help and to make artifacts for the altar, they were design students from the university there. And I had them make candle holders and picture frames. I always have textile, so I bought tartans because it was for them, it was their altar. And so, it was a wonderful experience, they treated us royally and I believe they really embraced our tradition. It was one of the marked experiences of my work throughout the years, so that was a wonderful experience.

Jo Reed: Let me ask you, Ofelia, you've received an honorary degree from your alma mater, you've been exhibited in many museums, you're the subject of a “Crafts in America” segment and now you are a 2018 NEA National Heritage Fellow. Can you tell me what this award means to you and also what you think it means for the tradition of marking the Day of the Dead in Los Angeles?

Ofelia Esparza: Wow, I'm so honored, I still have moments to digest this, this is a big honor and I feel so humbled because it's just a wonderful thing. I think of my mother, so for me it's honoring me, my family and my community, of course, my mother and my ancestors because like I said, it was so important for me to carry on this devotion, this tradition. The example that everyone can do this to remember and pass it on to the next generation, that is the part that I think I'm so honored to be recognized for doing altar sets and things that I've done. But of course, I'm part of a community that's been so involved in the cultural elements of our community and it's important to preserve it because it gets lost easily. For me this honor is so big, it's so important and I would like I said share it with the community because here I am from East LA, a woman who with nine children, my mother's humble beginnings and mine too, of course, and it's all be done in my community and I feel so proud, I love it. And I also always credit Self Help Graphics for beginning this public celebration that has now grown all over the U.S. but I think the part that celebrates our lives and those of our ancestors is what I think touches many hearts and many people and I hope that it continues that way. I'm just so proud and I'm so thankful.

Rosanna Ahrens: Speaking for the community, it's been nothing but gushing praise and honoring for my mom. There's a couple of people that genuflect which is really hilarious but…

Ofelia Esparza: Young people.

Rosanna Ahrens: But to them, my mom is a beautiful treasure and I'm just grateful, I'm grateful to the NEA because I feel she deserves it and the community feels the same way and it's just awesome.

Jo Reed: And it is so richly deserved. Thank you both and I can’t wait to meet you when you’re in Washington.

Rosanna Ahrens: Gracias Jo.

Ofelia Esparza: Thank you so much. God bless you.

Jo Reed: Thank you.

*Music Up*

Jo Reed: That was Rosanna Ahrens and her mother, 2018 National Heritage Fellow, altarista Ofelia Esparza. You can hear more from Ofelia and see some of her beautiful altars at the National Heritage Fellowship Concert which takes place Friday, September 28, 2018, at 8:00 p.m. at Shakespeare Theatre’s Harman Hall, in Washington, DC. It is free and open to the public. You can get information about it arts.gov and if you can’t make it to Washington, we are streaming the concert live at arts.gov. You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. You can subscribe to Art Works where ever you get your podcasts. So please do and leave us a rating on Apple— it helps people to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.


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