Ofelia Esparza and Rosanna Esparza Ahrens are altar makers from East Los Angeles. Ofelia is a sixth generation altarista and printmaker, who was recognized by the National Endowment of the Arts as a 2018 National Heritage Fellow. She is the mother of nine children, including Rosanna, a printmaker, altar maker, and graphic artist. Ofelia and Rosanna are artist fellows with the Alliance for California Traditional Arts and earned cultural adviser credits for the Pixar film, Coco. Together, they run TONALLI Studio, a place of “creative wellness” in the neighborhood of Boyle Heights. At this year’s Tucson Meet Yourself Folklife Festival, they will build a large-scale replica of a family Día De Los Muertos Altar. Community members are invited to participate by adding photographs of their loved ones. In anticipation of their visit, BorderLore’s Kimi Eisele spoke to the altar makers to learn more about this commemorative practice.
What is an altar and what does it offer?
Ofelia: In Spanish the word for altar is ofrenda, which means offering. Altars are created as a way to honor family members and celebrate their life, to remember who they were and to keep them in the memory of the new generation. The altar is a bridge between the living and the dead, and between generations and cultures. I make altars for people that have made an impact in my life or in the lives of others. When I create an altar I am more interested in how the person being honored was loved than how they died. Were they a mother, a sister, a brother, a daughter, a cousin, a dear friend, a comadre? That is the crux of the honoring, that they meant something special to someone or to a community.
I am carrying on the tradition I learned from my mother. The altar in our home was a connection to my great grandmother, Mama Pola. I never met her but my mother’s gift of telling stories of Mama Pola brought her to life in such an intimate way—I feel her near me. My mother kept a very humble altar on a shelf with all the photographs of our family. During Día de los Muertos, she would dress it up with votive candles and flowers from our garden.
When I was a child, my mother and my aunt prepared lunch and gathered flowers, and we walked to the neighborhood cemetery with my sisters and cousins. We played, making sure never to step on the headstones. My mother would clean off the headstone of the paisanos (fellow country folks) buried there, as we did not yet have an immediate relative buried there yet. When the food was set up, she called all us kids to come over to say a prayer and have some food. This was the ofrenda. People told stories about this paisano and spoke about connection they had to my mother’s hometown and what they did. Eventually, the stories unfolded about our family and loved ones back home who had passed on. This oral tradition is what has remained in my life with my children and grandchildren. They in turn will carry this forward.
Rosanna: I’m one of my mom’s nine children. I spent most of my childhood with my Mama Lupe, my grandmother. She was an artist also, although she never called herself one. She was known for her cooking, her cake decorating, and her Nacimientos. She always had a family altar that got spruced up for Día de Los Muertos. It was a simple altar that occupied a small shelf, unlike my mom’s monumental public altars. The altars I remember the most were Nacimientos, honoring the birth of Jesus as imagined by her in a Mexican backdrop. Her Nacimientos would occupy half of our living room. She had so many pieces, artifacts, collected figurines. She also created paper flowers that resembled flowers from her hometown, such as the white flor de San Nicholas, red poinsettias, the yellow huizache blossom. This activity is the essence of the ofrenda. My feeling is that all things made by hand are sacred, and that was the ofrenda, making things by hand. My mom is the same. She is always moving, always creating. Her handmade pieces are what bring her energy into the altar. In essence you bring a part of yourself into the piece.
Can you talk a little bit about the difference or similarities between altars you make for yourselves and those that are more public?
Ofelia: Public altars have the same basic elements that I put in all my altars—pictures, candles, incense, flowers, handmade adornments, not to mention the aesthetic design and colors. The difference between my personal altars and public community altars or commissions for a specific theme or person is the amount of research I do. I want to know who I am honoring and the community they represent. I want to include as many things that tell the story. I want the viewer to recognize themselves or their community. I also want the viewer to interact, ask questions, and learn something new about this person or community.
Rosanna: We always emphasize there must be something handmade in the ofrenda. Our staple is the paper flowers, so our personal energy is represented. In “Defenders of Mother Earth,” an altar we installed at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago, my mom made a paper medallion with icons representing various organizations dedicated to protecting the environment. It represented a ceremonial shield. We also honored recent martyrs for environmental justice, protecting water, land, trees, elephants. We included many flowers and corn to represent the mythology of the Mayan creation story and new life. We also included Ojos de Dios (God’s Eyes amulets), 20 of them hanging above the ofrenda to symbolize the unnamed martyrs who gave their lives protecting the earth. When you can understand the symbology and see and feel and take it in, you walk away with something. That is the goal. We try to interpret those stories and make something that causes someone to stop and contemplate. The altar is a sacred place. Whenever you create an altar, no matter how big or small, a candle with a picture on a sidewalk or large community altar, it is sacred because of its intention.
Can anyone make an altar?
Ofelia: Yes, anyone can make an altar. That’s something I always point out. This tradition is for everyone. When I was a teacher, I was always looking for connection to other cultures. All indigenous cultures include altars for honoring ancestors. Today we are collaborating with some of those communities in Los Angeles in an event called FandangObon which includes the Japanese, African, and Mexican communities in a fusion of music, dance, and altar-making for the ancestors. These multicultural events are great opportunities for all people to interact and experience this tradition of honoring the ancestors. When children are doing this, it gives me much hope and joy.
I want to share what my mother always shared with me, which is this: We all suffer three deaths. The first death is when we give up our last breath, the body dies. The second death is when your body is buried or cremated, never to be seen on the face of the earth again. The third death is the most dreaded death of all, it is the day you are forgotten.
What are three basic things one might need to make an altar?
Rosanna: We like to include the four elements. A candle represents fire, but it could also be air or wind. We add papel picado—when you suspend it, it has movement, and that represents air. You get to define how you’re going to represent those elements.
Ofelia: My mother would always say we have to have a glass of water, because the dead are coming from so far, they’re going to be very thirsty. And of course, flowers. They don’t have to be marigolds. Those are traditional, ancient symbols, but they also have the aroma that beckons the soul or creates the ambience for the soul to be here. The butterfly is also an ancient tradition, prominent in icons for the dead. People believed that warriors who died in battle or women who died in childbirth or children who died or people who suffered a long and tragic death, came back as butterflies to visit. I often wonder if that’s the connection between the thousands of monarchs that come back during that time of year, that maybe those are all the ancestors. The traditional altar we make also has an arch of marigolds. My mother used fresh flowers from her garden, but the bulk of the decoration and altar installation used tissue paper flowers, now a tradition in our own family, and my daughter and I now teach that.
BL: You played a role in the Pixar movie Coco. Can you talk about that?
Rosanna: We were designated cultural advisors for the movie. When we went to Pixar, we met the director, screenwriter and producer. The director and his team went to Oaxaca and Michoacán and Mexico City. They had three primary cultural consultants, all Chicano—one from LA, one from San Francisco, one from Northern California. Those consultants convinced the Pixar team to welcome community artists and leaders to see and comment on their project, which was unprecedented. We were part of the LA team with Lalo Alcaraz. We had 15 in our group when we visited. We were the only altar makers. When we got there, we were greeted by the executive team. They were gushing about an interview we had done with the Smithsonian Latino Virtual Museum, in which we had talked about how the ofrenda is like a bridge that connects the dead with the living and bridges generations and cultures. The first thing they said was, “We really hope you like the bridge.” When we saw the bridge in the film, it was so beautiful! It was made with marigolds. We were so amazed. You could hear the leaves! They looked like paper marigold flower petals. When the characters were walking or running on the bridge through the paper, it sounded like our flower making. They also talked about the three deaths my mom always talks about. I had my misgivings at first because of Disney, how years before they wanted to copyright the Day of the Dead. We all wrote posts on social media and the awareness grew and grew. Lalo Alcaraz created the famous Mickey Mouse coming to steal your cultura, which we believe caused Disney to stop in their tracks and rescind the copyright petition. We won that day!
Dia de Los Muertos/ Day of the Dead episode of PBS Artbound shares history of the celebration from central Mexico to East Los Angeles, where in the 1970s Self Help Graphics and Art worked with Chicano neighbors to revive the tradition in the US.