The artist who made Day of the Dead something in the United States

“We suffer all three deaths.” Ofelia Esparza, Eastern LA altarist, or altar maker, remembered his mother’s words.

“The first death is the day we give our last breath, the day we die,” Esparza said one recent evening in Boyle Heights as she and her daughters prepared for Day of the Dead. They made orange paper flowers, the flowers curled loudly and took shape in their hands. “Our second death is the day we are buried, never to be seen on the face of the earth again, which sounds very final.

“But the most final, the most feared, terrible death of all,” she said, “is to be forgotten.”

It was as if Esparza heard it once more now, this maxim repeating itself around her as she grew up. The phrases, like her traditions around Día de los Muertos, resonate across decades of construction offerings to deceased souls, at home and out in public. “And for her, it was an obligation to remember,” Esparza said of his mother, Guadalupe Salazar Aviles. “That’s why we need to keep doing this and pass it on to our children.”

Exciting and small, speaks to an elderly man’s equal command as an 89-year-old, and Esparza is one of the most revered visual folk artists in California, if not the country. She is credited with helping to expand the appreciation of Day of the Dead, an once-intimate festival with native roots that now transcends cultural boundaries and faces a growing commercialization in American popular culture.

Two women place paper maidens on a common day for the dead-altar.

Ofelia Esparza, right, places paper daisies on a community altar she made with the help of her two daughters and volunteers in Grand Park in downtown Los Angeles.

(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

For its decades spent preserving the importance of observance through practice and oral tradition, in 2018 Esparza was awarded the prestigious National Heritage Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts. She has been called a national “treasure” whose altars seem to channel the emotions of an entire community.

As Los Angeles prepares to celebrate Day of the Dead on November 1 and 2, the second under the gloomy fog of the corona pandemic, time with Esparza, as she built the city’s main public altar, results in a reminder. At its core, tradition is a beaten battle.

Forgetting, Esparza said, is what Day of the Dead fights against.

“Otherwise, it’s going to be Mexican Halloween or another holiday, another fireworks holiday – I mean, that does not mean you can not have fireworks for Day of the Dead.”

She smiled. “I’m sure they do in Mexico.”

In eastern Los Angeles, where Esparza was born in 1932, Muertos was always an inner ritual. Her mother made Offer, or altars, only three other times a year: “Holy Saturday, Our Lady of Guadalupe and Christmas, or births. “

A young girl and an elderly woman framed pictures of people.

Ofelia Esparza, right, greets volunteer Allison Salas as she helps put photographs of people who have died into frames to be placed on the community altar under construction at Grand Park in downtown Los Angeles.

(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Now, with the help of three of her nine children – Rosanna, Elena and Xavier – she raises altars everywhere. It’s a busy time. From altar to altar, schools to community centers, even in shopping malls or before local TV news teams, they build and share the essential elements of tradition.

While working, Esparza and her daughters tend to mention “Mama Lupe” or “Mama Pola”, the women in their maternal line in Mexico, who taught them what they do now: to adorn offer with flowers, candles, photos, a glass of water and the deceased’s favorite food.

Their primary project in recent years has been LA County’s Community Altar, made in Grand Park on behalf of the art institution Self-Help Graphics & Arts. The Esparza family has been making it the annual Noche de Ofrenda since 2013.

“Do it offer in itself is for me the main event, ”laughed Esparza, as he laid flowers in the afternoon before the opening day. “That’s what I’m looking forward to, and it doesn’t matter where it is – that’s what we share is the altar.”

A community Dia de los Muertos altar in the Grand Park with town hall, illuminated in blue, behind.

The Day of the Dead social altar designed and built in 2020 by Ofelia Esparza and Rosanna Esparza in Grand Park in downtown Los Angeles. It was the first year that life lost due to COVID-19 was remembered.

(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Her life as one altarist began in East Los Angeles, just a few blocks from where she lives today, near her daughters. Her family honored traditions from the Purépecha countries, now known as the state of Michoacán in Mexico; The asparagus are from Huanímaro, just across the border from Guanajuato.

One day Ofelia walked past Self-Help Graphics in East LA and stepped inside. Sister Karen Boccalero, the driven and charismatic nun who founded the center, asked her if she knew anything about Día de los Muertos.

“I said, ‘Yes, my mother …’ And she did not even let me finish,” Esparza said. “‘OKAY. You’re coming on Saturday and you need to do a workshop.’ And that was the beginning. It was 1979. “

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Workshops and ofrendas quickly became a self-help tradition. Along with budding iterations at the Galería de la Raza in San Francisco and other cultural spaces from the Chicano Movement era in the state, Day of the Dead eventually seeped past the barrio.

Now, tequila brands are selling special Day of the Dead editions, and Mattel is making a hot-selling Day of the Dead Barbie. When Pixar released an animated film inspired by tradition, the 2017 hit “Coco”, commercialization was already entrenched, with major branded stores selling calavera-like decorations and Halloween costumes.

When Disney originally tried to brand the term “Day of the Dead,” which sparked significant public backlash, Ofelia and Rosanna were among the cultural coryphaeus asked to advise on the film, which would eventually become “Coco.”

“We were greeted by the director, producer and screenwriter. And they gushed over Mama, ”Rosanna remembers. “And the first thing they said is, ‘We really hope you like the bridge.'”

It turns out that the bridge motif in the film – a shiny path of marigolds that connect the worlds of the living and the dead – was inspired by a concept that Ofelia and Rosanna often share: offer is a kind of bridge between worlds. The creators of “Coco” made the sound of footsteps on the bridge like the curl of paper marigolds and confetti now.

In the film, the main character Miguel also learns about the “three deaths”.

    IN "Coco," animated characters Abuelita and Miguel stand in front of their family altar for Dia de Muertos.

In the Disney-Pixar movie “Coco”, Family Day for the Dead offer is built with marigolds in a style similar to that used by Los Angeles altarpiece Ofelia Esparza.

(Disney / Pixar)

In Grand Park on a recent Friday, the Esparza women and a dozen volunteers were busy assembling the giant altar, covering the various levels with sheets of black cloth, and attaching a bow of marigolds to crown their craft.

Ofelia was in the midst of it, carefully directing each step as the altar took shape. She just needed a little help on someone’s elbow or arm to get up and down.

Elena at one point burned white sage to clean the room. Traditionally, a resin known as copal would be burned, “but that’s what’s growing here, so I’ll use what’s local,” she said.

She compared the smoke to a “vacuum cleaner that cleanses the cobwebs from your spiritual body. It’s just nice, and afterwards you feel a little lighter.” She smiled. “So why not? We want to be the best. We want to clean up before we say hello. ”

Mermaids, or morning glories, is a key offer element, and Esparzas and volunteers placed them in vases or arranged them with reddish-brown amaranth leaves in vivid patterns.

Framed reproductions of photographs of the deceased, brought by community members, followed. Water in glasses that souls can drink.

“My mother would say, They come from so far, they come from so long a journey, they’re going to be thirsty when they get to ours offersaid Ofelia.

A woman hands candles to her daughter to place them on an altar.

Ofelia Esparza, left, hands candles to daughter Elena Esparza as she makes a community altar in Grand Park in downtown Los Angeles on October 22nd.

(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

The next day, October 23, the square opened its lawns for the event, part of a series of outdoor public Día de los Muertos collections now dominated by SoCal, the state and the entire country. The park’s slope from the Music Center towards the City Hall was lit with marigolds and altars with different expressions and themes.

One offer, by artist Consuelo G. Flores, honors Tomás Mejía, the union organizer who was shot and killed this year while trying to protect a resident of Park La Brea, where he worked. An altar commemorates transgender people who have passed. Another is reminiscent of victims of COVID-19 in Los Angeles County, which now numbers more than 26,500.

Ty Washington went up with his young son in Dodgers gear and placed a photo of a man in a U.S. military uniform; it was his great-grandfather, named Booker T. Washington, of Shreveport, La.; He placed the image on the altar of society built by Esparzas, along with others.

Washington said his ancestor was a World War II veteran who moved to Mission Hills after serving. He said his great-grandfather raised him.

“I grew up in the northeast San Fernando Valley, so I’m very familiar with Día de los Muertos, but I wanted to take my son with me to see what altars look like,” said the 37-year-old city worker.

Two women look up at the community altar in Grand Park, Los Angeles.

Dee Dee Pine, left, and girlfriend Marcee Brunnabend, both from Yucaipa, will visit the community altar in Grand Park in downtown Los Angeles on October 27th.

(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

“I feel honored to be able to share my great-grandfather with others, not just as an Angeleno, as an African-American, and as a product of the northeastern San Fernando Valley,” Washington said.

Esparza sat on a concrete bench behind the altar wearing a radiant purple huipil-style poncho and a crown of multicolored flowers.

“I just love it,” she said.

“Everything changes, everything ends, and then it starts anew again. Like – I guess, not our lives – but the altar itself, everything on it: the flowers, the candles, paper, everything is fleeting, just like our lives, ”she said. “But it might as well be beautiful and colorful, a thriving offering, with color.

“So enjoy life, make it colorful.”

While she watched, others added images to the altar or just stood back to admire and reflect. With colors, flowers and invocations of their names, those who have suffered two of the three deaths so far marked one more year without being completely forgotten, exactly as Ofelia Esparza expects.

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