~ Alter from Teocintlis Dia de los Muertos celebration ~
I love Dia de los Muertos. The beautiful art work, the food and of course the unity of family and friends remembering loved ones. It’s a celebration of life because your not really dead until people forget about you. As long as family and friends honor their loved ones, they’ll never be gone. Doña Junta knows exactly what I’m talking about because she built one of her own and it looks awesome. Whether it’s personal or communal,big or small as long as your heart is in it it’ll be a wondrous sight to behold. Ofelia Esparza and her family have been gaining recognition since 1980 for their beautiful alters at Self Help Graphics and all over the world. I never really knew the full meaning behind the celebration until I saw her give a presentation at ELAC last year. The following is excerpts edited together from the story I wrote for the school paper last year.
~ A preview from Self Help ~
“An altar is a healing experience. It’s a unique way of celebrating the dead and not how they died, but how they lived,” she said. “From my experience, most people see altars as sacred pieces,” said Esparza. “It’s not a Mexican Halloween just because you see skeletons and skulls. The meaning of an altar is to honor our loved ones and to remember them in a loving way.” Esparza grew up in East L.A. and attributes her passion for her art and altars to her mother. “I was greatly influenced by my mother and the people I grew up around when I was a child. My mother had this tradition of making home altars and I became involved in helping her,” said Esparza. During those years her mother gave her advice as to why she celebrated “Dia De Los Muertos,” and why she built altars. Esparza says that it is the essence of why she does her work. Esparza said that in life we all go through three stages of death: the day we die, the day we are buried and the day we are forgotten.The worst death a person could go through is dying and not being remembered for who they were and how they lived.
She contributes this to the reason as to why she has continued to build her altars, so she will never forget her family, mother and ancestors. As a child, Esparza recalls her mother making altars at home and at the their local cemetery with marigold flowers, candles and various pictures of her grandparents and great grandparents. She said that these three elements, the marigold flowers, candles and personal items, are vital elements needed for any altar. “I got to know my [ancestors] even though I never met them and through the altars they became a part of my life,” said Esparza. Over the years, Esparza has had help from her own children in building altars. Her sons and daughters help in the construction of the altars, building frames and tables to decorating the altar with flowers, pictures and various decorations. Even though Esparza has been creating altars for a number of years, she didn’t start to get recognition until she started working with Self Help Graphics in 1980.
At SHG, she began working with founder Sister Karen Bocalerro and other local artists. Since then she has been involved with SHG’s annual celebration of “Dia De Los Muertos,” and has created altars dedicated to immigrants who died in September 11, soldiers who have died in the Iraqi war and altars for incarcerated and dead prisoners. “SHG opened up many doors for me and as a result I was able to travel to many places and continue making altars,” says Esparza. She has traveled to Chicago to build an altar for the Mexican American Museum and even to Scotland. In Scotland, she visited a community that through the help of her altar, they mourned the death of children who died in a bombing. Even though people never heard or knew anything about altars and “Dia De Los Muertos,” they embraced and accepted her contribution.