Master Altar Maker Ofelia Esparza Explains the Significance of Día de Los Muertos

Master Altar Maker Ofelia Esparza Explains the Significance of Día de Los Muertos
Altar by Ofelia Esparza. Photo courtesy of MOLAA.

The day after Halloween, when the costumes are packed away, a different celebration begins — one in which death is discussed in a much different tone. Día de Los Muertos is a cultural celebration that pays homage to loved ones who have passed away. It includes a tradition of altar-making that spans generations.

The Museum of  Latin American Art recently kicked off a celebration of Día de Los Muertos traditions called “Poderosas Para Siempre.” On Oct. 22 the museum hosted an event featuring altar viewing, face painting, an artisan marketplace and more.

The museum also opened submissions to artists for an exhibition related to the same theme on view until next month. The criteria: Submit work or altars related to women (real or fictional), communities of women or themes related to women.

“Following last year's focus on one Latina icon (Selena), this year's theme allowed for more women to be honored,” Edward Hayes, MOLAA's curator of exhibitions, says via email. “From Mother Teresa to contemporary Los Angeles altar maker Ofelia Esparza to groups of women (past and present) who are remembered for causes they lived for and the impact they have had on others' lives ... not just in the arts or entertainment spheres but in other realms of culture such as health, social justice and spirituality.”

As Hayes explains, the open call for entries “exposed [the museum] to new images and stories from Long Beach and Los Angeles artists.” The museum then created a committee composed of the many departments within the museum, from education to curatorial.

Some altars in the show are highly personal. Paulina Lily LaBare created an altar for her mother, Guillermina LaBare, using objects relating to her life and heritage. Others reference larger themes, such as pop culture. “Purple Women,” by Mary-Margaret Balash, honors the women involved in the making of Prince’s “Purple Rain” (both the movie and the song).

But not all of the pieces are related to just the loss of humans. Christina Ramos honors her dog, Molly, in “La muerte de mi perrito" (The Death of My Dog). It features her daughter, Rosanna Esparza Ahrens, and Molly, who posed for the painting just a short time before the dog was killed in an accident.

The show also features the work of Ofelia Esparza, an important figure in the history of L.A. exhibitions related to Día de Los Muertos. She boasts a rich history of altar making closely tied to the city; she created her first altar in L.A. around 1988 at Self Help Graphics in Boyle Heights.

“It is very important for me to continue creating my altars here in Los Angeles as I have been doing for more than 35 years,” Esparza said via email. “It is here in East Los Angeles/Boyle Heights that the public celebrations were initiated around 1973 by Sister Karen Boccalero and two other Chicano artists. Their vision was to bring the community together to create art around a culturally based celebration and to give the community a voice and a presence during the Chicano political activism fomented by the civil rights movement all around the nation.”

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For Esparza, the process of building an ofrenda (or altar) is also a family matter. Her children have helped her with creating the intricate altars over the years. Her son, Xavier, helps build the foundation and handles technical issues. Rosanna takes Esparza’s initial sketch and turns it into a digital drawing. For the altar currently on view at MOLAA, her daughter Elena helped with a lot of the construction, along with friends “who volunteer making the tissue paper flowers.”

In order to create the altar, Esparza gets background information on the person (or people) she will honor. She often cites her mother as a huge influence in the way that she honors her cultural history and pays visual tributes to people. Through workshops and lectures, she continues to pass down this knowledge.

“Remembering our loved ones in this Day of the Dead celebration is a universal concept that many cultures follow,” Esparza says. “My hope is that it is known for celebrating the life of someone who is remembered, honored, loved. I want to convey that I want to honor someone, and how they were loved and remembered, not how they died. For me my loved ones will not suffer the most dreaded death of all — that is: to be forgotten.”

MOLAA’s Día de Los Muertos exhibition is on view through Dec. 2. 628 Alamitos Ave., Long Beach. molaa.org.


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