Spirit of Life Award for Doña Ofelia Esparza La Mera Mera Altarista de Los Ángeles
by Iván Salí
Doña Ofelia Esparza was born and raised in East Los Angeles where she is known as an altarista for the community. Doña Ofelia lived through decades of perseverance and resilience of people to remember the lives of those that come before us through a much beloved tradition, Dia de los Muertos. It is an honor to present the Spirit of Life Award to an artist that’s dedicated all her wisdom to encourage entire communities to remember their loved ones with love and creativity. In her words, “Dia De los Muertos is a celebration of life.”
Doña Ofelia’s family has celebrated this tradition for generations, all the way to her great-grandmother, Mama Pola, or as the family likes to call her, La Mera Mera. Ofelia’s mother emigrated from Huanimaro, Mexico to the United States settling in East Los Angeles, but she “brought her land with her.” Se trajo su tierra. She was raised watching her mother prepare altars of her past relatives and nacimientos, too, altars of the birth of Jesus. These altars would take up most of the space of their living room. However, neither her mother nor grandmother ever called themselves artists even though they have been Doña Ofelia’s muses for her artistry.
Growing up in the 1930s, she recalls East LA as always being a close-knit spanish-speaking neighborhood. Her mother was known for being festive in all kinds of celebrations, but Dia de Los Muertos was her gift to the community.
“We grew up walking distance to Calvary Cemetery on Whittier Blvd. We would walk there when I was a child and although we didn’t have any direct relatives buried there it was a way for my mother to bring that tradition home because it was not really practiced publicly. We would go over to a grave site of someone they knew and she would tell me who they were. Eventually all this identification would lead to stories of my relatives and it was where I first learned about Mama Pola.” Doña Ofelia said.
The memory of Mama Pola has traveled all over the country, and her photo has even walked through a fashion show. In 2006, Doña Ofelia wore a “walking altar” for the Tropico de Nopal Gallery Art Space where she wore a traditional folkloric dress and an arched head piece featuring the image of Mama Pola.
She became a mother of nine children who’ve carried on her tradition and to this day her oldest daughter, Rosanna Esparza, stands by her side. Together, they’ve created beautiful altars that have been exhibited all over the country. In 2011, for the tenth year anniversary of the September 11 2001 attacks, a group art exhibition took place in Downtown Los Angeles, titled LA vs. War. Ofelia and Rosanna created their
“peace altar” featuring violet colors, white lilies, and a mandela center-piece of activists that devoted their lives to make peace in the world. Guests were able to interact with the altar by writing a post-it note on the walls surrounding the altar.
At 88 years old, Doña Ofelia has witnessed a lifetime of political conflict, costing the lives of millions. “The Korean War, Vietnam War...I was there marching down our neighborhood,” she said. When she was a child during World War II, the haunting images of rubble, mothers carrying their children, and soldiers overseas, gave her recurring nightmares of troops coming down her neighborhood. The altar for peace was a protest against the unnecessary violence humans live through each day.
Last year, 2019, The Los Angeles Museum of National History asked Ofelia and Rosanna to create an altar that represented the diversity of the city. Rosanna said it took about six months to finalize the project, “It made us think of all the little niches of LA, places like Little Tokyo, Little Ethiopia, and the only way we were able to do a project like this was to revisit the tradition of a nacimiento,” It was not just placing figures on the ofrenda, but also including the landscape that makes up Los Angeles.
Both Rosanna and Ofelia were expert consultants on the Pixar film, Coco where they gave their input for the film to give a more accurate depiction of how Mexican families celebrate Dia de los Muertos. They explained to the writers and producers of the film that the altar is a bridge between the living and the dead and that every soul must go through three deaths: “The first death, the day we give our last breath, the second death the day we are buried, the last day we are seen on earth, and the third, the most dreaded, is to be forgotten.” Thanks to the work of Doña Ofelia and the thousands of indigenous Mexican communities that partake in Dia de los Muertos, it is a tradition known all over the world.
Having been through so many years of noches de ofrendas, 2020 has been a year for loss to many families that unfortunately have forced loved ones to be separated in their last moments. “We need to heal from that detachment,” Rosanna said. To continue Dia de Los Muertos, they are exploring safer alternatives for the community to come together. Later this year they will present a virtual altar at Rio Hondo College in Whittier, California and are working in ways that altar making will be accessible to people at home. For more than forty years, Doña Ofelia has devoted her life to altar making and we hope to continue creating beauty with an artist of the community. The work of Doña Ofelia has inspired and will continue to inspire younger generations to honor and celebrate the lives of our ancestors.
Los Angeles Poet Society is honored to be a partner and long-time collaborator with Doña Ofelia. Before the COVID crisis, we had residence at her gallery Tonalli Studios, where we hosted open mics for poets all over L.A. to share their words, including the wise words of Doña Ofelia. She’s done so much meaningful work with the L.A. community and cannot wait to see what comes next.