The artist who made Day of the Dead in the US

“We all suffer three deaths.” Ofelia Esparza, the East LA altarist or altar maker, remembered what her mother had said.

“The first death is the day we take our last breath, the day we die,” Esparza said recently in Boyle Heights as she and her daughters prepared for the day of the dead. They made orange paper flowers, the blossoms rippling loudly and taking shape in their hands. “Our second death is the day we are buried never to see on earth again, which sounds very final.

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

It was as if Esparza was hearing it again now, this maxim repeated itself around her as she grew up. The sentences, like their traditions around the Día de los Muertos, echo through decades of building sacrifices for deceased souls at home and in public. “And it was a duty for her to remember it,” Esparza said of her mother, Guadalupe Salazar Aviles. “That’s why we have to keep doing this and pass it on to our children.”

A sprightly and small character who speaks to the same command of an elder at the age of 89, Esparza is one of the most revered folk visual artists in California, if not the country. She is credited with helping to increase the appreciation of the Day of the Dead, a once intimate celebration with indigenous roots that now transcends cultural boundaries and faces growing commodification in American popular culture.

Ofelia Esparza, right, places paper marigolds on a communal altar that she built with the help of her two daughters and volunteers in Grand Park in downtown Los Angeles.

(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

In 2018, Esparza was awarded the prestigious National Heritage Fellowship of the National Endowment for the Arts for her decades of preservation of the importance of observance through practice and oral tradition. It has been called a national “treasure”, the altars of which seem to channel the emotions of an entire community.

As Los Angeles prepares for the Day of the Dead on November 1st and 2nd, the second in the gloomy fog of the coronavirus pandemic, the time Esparza spent building the city’s main public altar leads to a memory. At its core, tradition is an open battle.

Forgetting, said Esparza, is fighting Day of the Dead.

“Otherwise it’ll be Mexican Halloween or some other holiday, another fireworks holiday – I mean, that doesn’t mean you can’t have fireworks for the Day of the Dead.”

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

In East Los Angeles, where Esparza was born in 1932, muertos has always been an internal ritual. Her mother made offrendas or altars only three times a year: “Holy Saturday, Our Lady of Guadalupe and Christmas or Nacimientos”.

A young girl and an older woman frame photos of people.

Ofelia Esparza, right, greets volunteer Allison Salas as she helps frame photos of the deceased that will be placed on the community altar under construction in Grand Park, downtown Los Angeles.

(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

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

At work, Esparza and her daughters like to mention “Mama Lupe” or “Mama Pola”, the women in their maternal line in Mexico who taught them what to do today: the ofrenda with flowers, candles, photos, a glass to them decorate water and favorite foods of the deceased.

Her main project in recent years has been the LA County Community Altar, which was produced for the art institution Self-Help Graphics & Arts in Grand Park. The Esparza family has been making it the annual Noche de Ofrenda since 2013.

“Making the ofrenda myself is the most important event for me,” Esparza chuckled as he laid flowers on the afternoon before the opening day. “That’s what I’m looking forward to, and no matter where it is – that’s what we share, is the altar.”

An altar of the parish of Dia de los Muertos in the Grand Park, behind it the blue illuminated town hall.

The Congregational Altar for the Day of the Dead designed and built by Ofelia Esparza and Rosanna Esparza in Grand Park in downtown Los Angeles in 2020. It was the first year of remembering lives lost to COVID-19.

(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

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

One day Ofelia passed Self-Help Graphics in East LA and stepped inside. Sister Karen Boccalero, the committed 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 didn’t even let me finish, ‘Esparza said.”‘ OK. You come on Saturday and do a workshop. ‘ And that was the beginning. That was 1979. “

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The workshops and ofendas soon 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 in the state, Day of the Dead eventually seeped past the barrio.

Now tequila labels are selling special Day of the Dead editions and Mattel is making a hot-selling Day of the Dead Barbie. By the time Pixar released a tradition-inspired animated film, the commercialization of the 2017 hit “Coco” was firmly entrenched, with major brand stores selling Calavera-like decorations and Halloween costumes.

When Disney initially attempted to use the phrase “Day of the Dead” as a trademark, which sparked significant public backlash, Ofelia and Rosanna were among the cultural luminaries asked to advise on the film that would eventually become “Coco” should.

“We were greeted by the director, the producer and the scriptwriter. And they raved about mom, ”remembers Rosanna. “And the first thing they said was, ‘We really hope you like the bridge.'”

It turns out that the bridge motif in the film – a glowing path of marigold petals connecting the worlds of the living and the dead – was inspired by a concept that Ofelia and Rosanna often share: the ofrenda is a kind of bridge between the worlds. The makers of “Coco” now took steps on the bridge like the crackling of paper marigolds and Papel Picado.

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


In the Disney-Pixar film “Coco” the day of the dead ofrenda of the family is built with marigolds in a style that is similar to that of the altar maker Ofelia Esparza from Los Angeles.

(Disney / Pixar)

One Friday in Grand Park, the Esparza women and a dozen or so volunteers were busy assembling the huge altar, covering the various levels with black cloths, and placing an arch of marigolds to top off their work.

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

Elena once burned white sage to clean the room. Traditionally, a resin known as copal would be burned, “but this is growing, so I’ll be using local resin,” she said.

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

Marigolds, or cempasúchiles, are an important element of Renda, and the esparzas and volunteers placed them in vases or arranged them into vibrant patterns with maroon amaranth flowers.

This was followed by framed reproductions of photographs of the deceased brought by parishioners. Water in glasses for drinking for the souls.

“My mother would say, Vienen de tan lejos, you have come from such a long journey, you will be thirsty when you come to our ofrenda,” said Ofelia.

A woman hands her daughter candles to put on an altar.

Ofelia Esparza (left) hands out candles to daughter Elena Esparza as she builds a communal altar at Grand Park in downtown Los Angeles on October 22nd.

(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

The next day, October 23, the space opened its lawns for the event, which was part of a series of Día de los Muertos public outdoor gatherings that now dot SoCal, the state, and the whole country. Marigolds and altars with different expressions and themes lit up the arch of the park that fell from the music center to the town hall.

An ofrenda by the artist Consuelo G. Flores honors Tomás Mejía, the union organizer who was shot this year while trying to protect a resident of La Brea Park, where he worked. An altar commemorates transgender people who have passed away. Another remembers the casualties of COVID-19 in Los Angeles County, who now number more than 26,500.

Ty Washington came up to him with his young son in Dodgers outfit and placed a photo of a man in a US soldier’s uniform; it was his great-grandfather named Booker T. Washington of Shreveport, La. He placed the photo on the community altar built by the Esparzas and joined 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 northeastern San Fernando Valley, so I know the Día de los Muertos very well, but I wanted to bring my son to see what altars look like,” said the 37-year-old city worker.

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

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

(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

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

Esparza was sitting on a concrete bench behind the altar, wearing a bright purple huipil-style poncho and a crown of brightly colored flowers.

“I just love it,” she said.

“Everything changes, todo se acaba, and then it starts all over again. Just like – I guess not our life – but the altar itself, everything on it: the flowers, the candles, the papule, everything is perishable, just like our life, ”she said. “But it could just as easily be beautiful and colorful, una ofrenda florida, con color.

“So enjoy life, make it colorful.”

As she watched, others added photos to the altar or simply stepped back to admire and ponder. With colors, flowers and evocations of names, those who initially suffered two of the three deaths mark another year without being completely forgotten, as Ofelia Esparza expects.

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