The idea of Los Angeles as a melting pot never sat well with Ofelia Esparza. Born in East L.A. in the 1930s, the renowned artist and master altar maker came of age during the sunny postwar nationalism of the 1950s, with its attendant lurch toward assimilation.
“Where am I? Am I gray? Am I flowing? I didn’t feel like I was included,” Esparza recalls. “I kept my culture because my mother came from her country but brought her tierra with her: the food, the traditions, celebrations. … I’m still American, but I’m part of this beautiful culture.”
Esparza’s mother taught her to make ofrendas, or altars, for Día de Los Muertos — a craft she has expanded and elevated in the decades since, passing on the tradition to her own nine children, who often contribute to her larger projects.
The impulse toward preservation (of differences) and celebration (of shared experiences) guided Esparza and her daughter, graphic artist Rosanna Ahrens, as they wove their way through 300 archival photos and across the city’s imperceptible borders to create Altar to el Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles, a permanent installation in the revamped “Becoming Los Angeles” exhibition at the Natural History Museum of L.A. County that reopened on June 1. In it they unearth forgotten heroes and sunken histories, both documenting and reimagining a shared legacy.
“I look at it as a village. So it’s bringing it all down to this little village. If we could really see L.A. as a village, what could we do?” Ahrens muses days before “Becoming Los Angeles” was to open. “I just hope people can walk away with that vision.”
A village, Esparza elaborates, is interactive. “You need each other,” she says. “Interactions sustain you. I feel really passionate and joyful, even emotional, because it just brought out so many things our city needs to see,” she notes of the research and exploration that went into making the altar. “Especially with the divisions, coming from government, we really need to see the personal, the insightful, the cultural connections that we have.”
Tucked into a lush garden of faux flowers and plants, the altar’s miniatures come to life in a dynamic layer cake of L.A. culture — from Thai Town to Tongva Indians, Leimert Park to the L.A. River. Viewing it is affecting in a way that eludes us as commuters, residents and tourists. Seeing the bigger picture, monuments reduced to Lilliputian persuasion, together and all at once, evokes a sense of both profound belonging and of sensuous multiplicity.
Your mind will catch fire with recognition. Gypsy Rose, the immortal lowrider, is there. Actress Anna Mae Wong gets a rhinestone frame; Roy Choi’s is more utilitarian. WWII veterans of various ethnicities, politicians, community leaders, activists, religious monuments, Armenian folk dolls, Ethiopian coffee pots, the Watts Towers, and Self-Help Graphics, where Esparza began her trajectory as an altarista in the 1980s. Music and pop culture references add a silent soundtrack, too, with Red Hot Chili Peppers, Los Lobos, The Blasters, Quetzal, Santa Cecilia — as well as icons of the golden age of jazz on Central Avenue.
The artists visited monuments, antique shops and festivals to get a feel for the tone, the colors and the range of “optics” to which Esparza is finely attuned. They typically use organic materials, but this time everything needed to survive a lifetime in a museum case. The result could be kitschy — plastic flowers and painted miniatures under glass — if not for the energetic symmetry, masterful execution and thoughtful focus on Angelenos who have challenged oppression and transformed society.
“It really wasn’t, ‘That’s my favorite person.’ It just made sense,” Ahrens says of the selection process. “It had to feel right and feel balanced.”
“And of course the imagery,” Esparza adds. “We learned a lot about the history of Los Angeles and some parts I didn’t know. There was a huge array of photos to pick from — we set them up in our studio on the wall, started arranging by communities. Some things overlapped, especially activists or people who are prominent in Los Angeles.”
As a medium, altars bring together living and dead, bridging generations, cultures and cities, Esparza explains. “It’s a celebration of life. That’s what altars do — they remember and celebrate life. And this one, it’s going forward. The river represents the future because we need to remember the things we have lost but especially bring back the natural resources. … It gives us hope for the future.”
Their L.A. River is a woven tapestry of blues running lengthwise along the bottom of the first tier, surrounded by plants and river birds. At one end a doll-sized shopping cart filled with plastic bags is parked in front of the Skid Row City Limits mural.
“We didn’t want to forget that this is something that we all exist together here in this pueblo or village of Los Angeles. Along with all the cultural communities, they’re part of our community as well,” Esparza says.
Details like the L.A. River Cats — many painted by their friend Leo Limon over storm drains for decades — are reminders of the city’s idiosyncrasies. “I remember when I was a kid and my dad was driving up the 5 Freeway, I’d be like, where’s the cats?” Rosanna recalls. “And they were there. And he still does it.”
“The Meeting of Styles,” a mural painted along the walls of the L.A. River that was buffed 10 days after it was produced, is resurrected. “All these graffiti artists came out to paint. And I happened to go and my husband and I saw that piece. … It lasted 10 days and it was so beautiful,” Ahrens says. “Now it’s here for a long, long time,” Esparza muses.
“One thing that was striking to me was the similarity of struggles in different communities — [that they were] very similar to ours, the Chicano community. Especially in the beginning, in the early part, not only the turn of the century but into the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s,” Esparza adds.
They go back further, with a remembrance of Modesta Avila, the young woman jailed in San Quentin after hanging a clothesline to protest construction of the Santa Fe Railroad through her property in the late 19th century. “She was a hero,” Ahrens says.
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On the back side of the altar, they had planned a black-and-white collage of “all the activism,” the “historical moments that pushed L.A. forward,” but were at the time of this interview still contemplating whether to include present-day movements — Black Lives Matter, DACA, March for Our Lives, LGBT rights, #MeToo and the Resist movement. “There are so many great energies,” Ahrens says. Asked how the undertaking differed from past projects, she laughs. “It’s like building an ark.”
“Becoming Los Angeles” is a permanent NHM exhibition. NHM is in Exposition Park, 900 Exposition Ave., near the USC campus. Open daily, 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m.; $7-$15.