Honoring Altaristas Doña Ofelia Esparza and Rosanna Esparza
By: Madison Parsley
Doña Ofelia Esparza and her daughter Rosanna Ezparza were honored with the Los Angeles Poets Society’s Spirit of Life Award during the first virtual Tonalli Thursday Open Mic last week. A nationally recognized Altarista born and raised in East Los Angeles, Doña Ofelia has been serving her community with her ofrendas for Dia de los Muertos and honoring her community members who have passed. She has also created a gallery space named Tonalli Studios, “un lugar de salud y creatividad” or “a place of creative wellness” that features local artists from the East side. Before the global pandemic LAPS hosted Tonalli Thursdays, a monthly open mic held at the gallery for poets all over L.A. to share their words.
“I wanted to acknowledge Doña Ofelia for all the work she’s done for Los Angeles, the community and beyond. She’s a national legend and just a legacy to our community,” said Jessica Wilson, Founder and Executive Director of LAPS.
Doña Ofelia’s witnessed the tradition of altar making through her mother and grandmother preparing altars, something that has been passed down for generations. Through the years she has created altars honoring the 10th anniversary of the September 11 2001 attacks, a “walking altar” for the Tropico de Nopal Gallery Art Space honoring her great grandmother Mama Pola, or as her family calls her, La Mera La Mera, and a Día de los Muertos ofrenda featured in the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian to honor her indigenous ancestry.
“I’m so honored and I love the work you are doing because the spoken word is so important in our culture. It’s something we need especially to hear the voices of creative people because they tell the truth, they tell the truth so beautifully and so simply.” said Doña Ofelia “We all need to hear from that truth to learn from it and move forward. I’m very honored and thank you so much.”
The Spirit of Life award is given annually to honor a lifetime of creation from an elder that has been a driving force in the community for the arts and has inspired a whole new generation of artists with their passion. Now she has passed down the tradition to her children with her oldest daughter Rosanna by her side, she says she couldn’t continue her work without her.
“It is quite an honor and I’m glad that Rosanna is here next to me because what I accept today and in the last several years Rosanna shares in whatever recognition I have because she’s not only been my right hand but we collaborate together and she’s an artist,” she said “I can’t speak about my work without Rosanna.”
Many regulars of Tonalli Thursday open mics were in attendance, happy to see one another and share their words or music in honor of Doña Ofelia. Poet Karo Ska is one of many artists that has been inspired by Doña Ofelia and Rosanna, she even had the opportunity to do a reading of her first chapbook “gathering grandmothers’ bones” at the Tonalli Studio.
“Dona Ofelia brings wisdom and experience of generations into Tonalli Studio. Every time she shares one of her stories, I feel the breath of history. Spaces are made by the people who put their energies into it. The Tonalli Studio Open Mic, whether virtually or physically, always lifts my spirits.” said Ska. “I was blessed to have a reading of my book, "gathering grandmothers' bones" there before the COVID closures. I look forward to the virtual open mics, and hope Doña Ofelia and her daughter, Rosanna continue to honor us with their presence.”
Due to unfortunate circumstances the gallery may be moving but Rosanna assures that Tonalli studios is not going away. Doña Ofelia expressed her hopes that the tradition of ofrendas continues to grow for the r
ight reasons but she knows her creations and legacy is in the right hands.
“A wonderful thing for me is when I can no longer do this I have a whole team behind me, Rosanna is of course an altar maker. Even my great grandchildren, the young children are doing altars because they're learning how important it is for our family,” she said. “I hope that this tradition continues throughout the generations, it is catching over the world, my only hope is that they keep the significance and not be appropriated for other reasons but for honoring and celebrati
ng the lives of our loved ones.”
You can read about Doña Ofelia Esparaza’s life on the Los Angeles Poets Society blog here.