“The scariest death of all is to be forgotten”: the artist who made the day of the dead important

“We all suffer three deaths.” Ofelia Esparza, East LA altarist, or the maker of altars, remembered her mother’s words.

“The first death is the day we take 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 wrinkled loudly and formed in their hands. “Our second death is the day we are buried that we will never see her again on the face of the earth, which sounds very definitive.

“But the most definitive, the most horrible, the most horrible death of all,” she said, “must be forgotten.”

As if Esparza was hearing this again now, this maxim was repeated around her as she grew up. The sentences, like its traditions around the Día de los Muertos, resonate through decades of building offerings for dead souls, at home and in public. “And it was an obligation for her to remember,” Esparza said of her mother Guadalupe Salazar Aviles. “So we need to keep doing this and pass this on to our children.”

Lively and small-bodied, speaking at the age of 89 with an even command of elders, Esparza is one of the most respected visual folk artists in California, if not the country. She is credited with helping to spread respect for the Day of the Dead, a once intimate celebration of indigenous roots that now exceeds cultural boundaries and faces growing commodification in popular US culture.

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

(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

For her decades spent in preserving the significance of the rite by practice and oral tradition, Esparza in 2018 was received a prestigious award National Heritage Scholarship of the National Foundation for the Arts. They called it a national “treasure,” whose altars seem to direct the emotions of the entire community.

While Los Angeles prepares to celebrate Day of the Dead on Nov. 1 and 2, the second floor dark fog the coronavirus pandemic is a time spent with Esparza when she built the city’s main public altar, as a reminder. At its core, tradition is a struggle.

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

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

She smiled. “I’m sure they’re doing it in Mexico.”

In East Los Angeles, where Esparza was born in 1932, Muertos has always been an inner ritual. Her mom did offers, or altars, only three more times a year: “Holy Saturday, Our Lady of Guadalupe and Christmas, or. nations. ”

A young girl and an older woman put photos of people in frames.

Ofelia Esparza, right, greets volunteer Allison Salas as she helps place photos of deceased people in frames they place on the altar of a community under construction in Grand Park in downtown Los Angeles.

(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Now, with the help of three of his nine children – Rosanne, Elena and Xavier – he is setting up altars everywhere. This is a busy time. From altar to altar, school to community centers, even in shopping malls or in front of local television news crews, they build and share essential elements of tradition.

During the work, Esparza and her daughters often mention “Mama Lupe” or “Mama Pola,” maternal women in Mexico who taught them what they are doing now: decorating offer with flowers, candles, photographs, a glass of water and the deceased’s favorite food.

Their primary project in recent years has become the altar of the LA County community, made in Grand Park on behalf of the Self-Help Graphics & Arts. The Esparza family was creates since 2013 for annually Night of Offering.

“Performing offer it’s the main event in itself, ”Esparza smiled as she laid flowers the afternoon before the opening day. “I’m looking forward to it and it doesn’t matter where it is – it’s what we share, it’s an altar.”

The altar of the community of Dia de los Muertos in Grand Park with the blue-lit town hall behind it.

The Day of the Dead community altar, designed and built in 2020 by Ofelia Esparza and Rosanna Esparza in Grand Park in downtown Los Angeles. This was the first year they remembered the lives lost by COVID-19.

(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Her life as altarist started in East Los Angeles, just a few blocks from where he lives today, close to his daughters. Her family respected the traditions of the Purépecha lands known today as the state of Michoacán in Mexico; Esparzas are from Huanímar, just across the state border in Guanajuato.

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

“I said,‘ Yeah, my mom … ’And she didn’t let me finish at all,” Esparza said. “‘OK. You come on Saturday and you’re going to do a workshop.’ And that was the beginning. That was in 1979. “

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Workshops and offers soon became a tradition of Self-Help. Together with budding repetitions in the Gallery de la Raza in San Francisco and other cultural venues from the Chicano period in the country, the Day of the Dead eventually seeped past the barium.

now tequila labels sell special editions of Day of the Dead and Mattel makes a hot-selling Barbie Day of the Dead. When Pixar released an animated film inspired by tradition, it was a 2017 hit »Coco, ”Commercialization was already ingrained, as big-brand stores sold similarly to calavera decorations and Halloween costumes.

When Disney initially wanted to mark the phrase “Day of the Dead,” which sparked considerable public response, Ofelia and Rosanna were among the cultural luminaries asked for advice on the film, which would eventually become “Coco”.

“We were greeted by the director, producer and screenwriter. And they vomited on their mother, ”Rosanna recalls. “The first thing they said was, ‘We really hope you like the bridge.'”

The motif of the bridge in the film – the glittering path of marigold petals connecting the world of the living and the dead – turned out to be inspired by a concept that Ofelia and Rosanna often share: offer is a kind of bridge between worlds. The creators of “Coco” emitted the sound of footsteps on the bridge, such as the tingling of paper marigolds and pickled paper now.

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

    V "Coco," the animated characters Abuelita and Miguel stand in front of their family altar behind Dia de Muertos.

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

(Disney / Pixar)

In Grand Park on a recent Friday, Esparza women and a dozen volunteers assembled a giant altar, covered various levels with a black cloth and attached a marigold bow to crown their handiwork.

Ofelia was at the center of the action, carefully guiding every step as the altar formed. She needed only a little help on her elbow or arm to get up and down.

At one point, Elena burned white sage to clean the room. Traditionally, we would burn the resin known as bathing, “but that’s what grows here, so I’ll use what’s local,” she said.

She likened smoke to a “syringe that cleanses cobwebs from your spiritual body. It’s just beautiful and then you feel a little easier. ” She smiled. “So why not? We want to be the best. We want to clean up before we say goodbye. “

Marigolds, or cempasúchiles, are the key offer element, and Esparza and volunteers placed them in vases or arranged them with brown amaranth petals in vibrant patterns.

This was followed by framed reproductions of photographs of the deceased brought by community members. Water in the drinking glasses of the soul.

“My mom would say, Get out of here, they come from such a long journey, they will be thirsty when they come to ours offerSaid Ofelia.

The woman hands the candles to her daughter to place on the altar.

Ofelia Esparza, left, hands out candles to her daughter Elena Esparza while making a community altar in 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 an event that is part of the crowd of Día de los Muertos outdoor public gatherings that now sow SoCal, the state, and the entire country. The sweep of the park along the slope from the Music Center towards the City Hall was illuminated with marigolds and altars of various expressions and themes.

one offer, artist Consuelo G. Flores, praise Tomás Mejía, a union organizer who was shot dead this year while trying to protect a resident of La Brea Park where he worked. The altar is reminiscent of transgender people passing by. Another remembers the victims of COVID-19 in Los Angeles County, of whom there are now many more than 26,500 th most common

Ty Washington stepped in with his young son in Dodgers gear and posted a photo of a man in the uniform of an American soldier; it was his great-grandfather, named Booker T. Washington, of Shreveport, La. He placed the photo on the altar of the community built by Esparza and joined the others.

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

“I grew up in the northeastern San Fernando Valley, so I know the Día de los Muertos well, but I wanted to bring my son to see what the altars look like,” the 37-year-old city worker said.

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

Dee Dee Pine, left, and friend Marcee Brunnabend, both from Yucaipe, visit the community altar at Grand Park in downtown Los Angeles on Oct. 27.

(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

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

Esparza sat on a concrete bench behind the altar, dressed in a brilliant purple huipil-style poncho and a crown of multicolored flowers.

“I just adore him,” she said.

“Everything changes, everything is acaba, and then it starts all over again. Like – supposedly not our life – but the altar itself, everything on it: flowers, candles, paper“Everything is fleeting, just like our lives,” she said. “But it can also be beautiful and colorful, a florida offer, with color.

“So enjoy life, let it be colorful.”

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

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