Ofelia Esparza  by Gilbert Ortiz.

Ofelia Esparza is an altarista: an altar maker. Since she retired from teaching in L.A.’s public schools and raising 9 children with her late husband, Ofelia Esparza has been commissioned to do altars for museums as far as Scotland and as close to home as Chicago and San Francisco. But each November, it’s in her hometown of East L.A. that this diminutive woman gathers around her children and her community to build gigantic altars for the Day of the Dead celebrations. Don’t think Ofelia is not busy the rest of the year, since I’ve met her she’s been designing altars for a Frida Kahlo retrospective, the massive LA vs. WAR art show downtown, the Crewest gallery’s FALLEN exhibit to commemorate the lives of graffiti artists who died in the making of their art, and that’s just a few examples. Oh, and should I mention you may have seen her in one of Huell Howser’s most viewed CALIFORNIA GOLD episodes about the tradition of Nacimientos (nativity scenes.)

“Bienvenidos/Welcome”, 2007.

One of Ofelia’s most gripping and powerful work is a prison cell she recreated in 2001 at the Self-Help Graphics art gallery as an altar for “the living dead”, a picture of which is featured in her first solo exhibit which runs through December 13th in the Boathouse Gallery at Plaza de la Raza. The show also includes more altar pictures, her vivid print work and one Day of the Dead altar solidly planted in the ground, its many branches covered with figurines, offerings and the serene portraits of the departed eager for us to come and greet them.

I don’t believe photographs of her altars do justice to Ofelia’s art. Unfortunately, like the Tibetan Buddhist sand mandalas who “after having served its purpose of generating healing by transmitting positive energies to the environment and those who view it, and asking deities for blessings,” Ofelia’s altars are dismantled at the end of each event never to be seen again.

Having had the pleasure to sit with Ofelia and listen to her action-packed family stories in her multicolored home alive with objects and pictures that danced and whispered in our ears, it’s Ofelia herself who should be on display to share her family history spanning the Mexican Revolution and the move to America.

“Veladora” , 2007.

Before it gets dismantled never to be seen again, you can bathe in the light and warmth of Ofelia’s tribute to the loved ones who have come before her. I saw the show during Plaza de la Raza’s Day of the Dead celebrations. My camera captured the contrast between the altar in the afternoon light and in the evening with its christmas lights on. The many candles representing the souls of the deceased which adorn the altar cannot be lit because of fire regulations.

Ofelia Espara’s altar. Day of the Dead exhibit. Plaza de la Raza, 2008.

Next to Ofelia’s solo show is an art exhibit by students of Plaza’s art education programs. I contacted Plaza to find out the names of the talented artists of the work I photographed  (see below) but I haven’t heard back from them yet.




Through December 13 at Plaza de la Raza, 3540 N. Mission Road, Los Angeles, CA 90031. For gallery hours please call 323-223-2475.