Ofelia Esparza by Gil Ortiz. Tropico de Nopal fashion show 2006. Copyright Gil Ortiz/Tropico de Nopal.

The photograph on Ofelia’s head piece is that of her mother’s great grandmother, Mama Pola, and Ofelia’s baby brother.

In 2001 for Day of the Dead at Self Help Graphics, Ofelia recreated a prison cell in a corner of the gallery. She intended the entire installation to represent “grief for the living dead”–those who are in jail, their loved ones, and others around the world who lead lives that are unfulfilled, tragic, or lack freedom. At the foot of the bed she assembled a small traditional ofrenda made from materials that would be available to prisoners: papel picado made from newspapers, paper flowers of toilet paper, small offerings of pictures and flowers. Thus she celebrated a universal human condition in a truly traditional Mexican manner.Alliance for California Traditional Arts.

To celebrate Ofelia Esparza’s first solo exhibit, I asked the artist to answer a few questions knowing that what Ofelia truly deserves is to be the subject of a documentary or a book about her life and the lives of her ancestors for whom she builds altars year after year not with grief but with a deep love and admiration for the blessings her ancestors received and the hardships they lived through and conquered, if not within their time, at least within hers.


Ofelia Esparza’s peace altar for the LA VS. WAR art show, April 2008.

Smiling Spider: Who are the artists who have influenced you the most?

Ofelia Esparza: There are many artists I have come to admire and from whom I draw inspiration today. But there are three who have been in my sights since I was a child. The first one has been my mother from my earliest recollections. She never called herself an artist, she didn’t learn her art in school, but her resourceful, creative spirit, her imagination sparked my own beginnings in my life and love for creativity and art.  Thus, I have been greatly influenced by the Mexican folk art that I have been surrounded by for most of my life.  During my childhood, folk art, brought back from my mother’s visits to Mexico every year, mirrored my mother’s own style of bright colors and handmade decorations for her home altars and our celebrations.  Perhaps this is why- as a very young girl, when I discovered Diego Rivera (from postal cards my mother sent me on her trips) I was drawn to his images of people who resembled me or those in my life around me, and by the familiarity I found in Rivera’s images of people engaged in activities I recognized.

Later, by the time I was in junior high school, I discovered Charles White in his book of portraits called “Images of Dignity”. I was always drawing things around me, but especially faces of people- mostly my own. White’s graphite drawings of ordinary people in his life, was an inspiration to me to keep drawing and striving for likenesses in my images. As I got older I began to understand why White called his portraits images of dignity– something I recognized in people around me–they  had not written a book nor held any degrees, but many commanded respect through their hard work, and carried themselves in dignity despite their humble possessions or limited resources. Charles Whites’s influence has held me to this day.


Charles White, “Spiritual.”

Ofelia Eparza: In more recent years I have been enthralled by Helen Frankenthaler‘s free, flowing colors in her abstracts. And most recently, although I resisted really looking  into her work and her life ( I suppose I was put off by the excessive, blatant use of her images- which I think is demeaning of her work), Frida Kahlo has become one of my most admired artists. I believe I see something of my mother’s spirit in her. There are several contemporary artists, mostly young-  who join in inspiring me,  reminding me that art has no boundariess and that I can go on as long as I want to.


Ofelia Espara’s altar to commemorate Sister Karen Bocalero, founder of Self-Help Graphics.

The Smiling Spider: How do you renew your art as an altar maker when you get commissions year after year?

Ofelia Esparza: My past work, and the thought that I want to explore different ways of presenting the concept of remembering loved ones, is what drives me to an idea for the next project. I also have to include the ideas that come up in the brainstorming sessions with my son Xavier ( who will most likely build the frame or the foundation for my altar) and now with my daughters Rosanna and Denise who have been working closely with me these past couple of years. The first consideration, of course, addresses who is being commemorated, or if there is a theme to be considered, how will this best be correlated? Well ahead of the final configuration of the altar is the research gathered on the intended dedicated or the theme of the piece and/or the event and any writing that this will entail.

Smiling Spider: Can you share with us the process involved.

Ofelia Esparza: I have to configure the space and any restrictions or constraints of space and regulations of the venue. Collecting materials, artifacts, or memorabilia, and determining colors of fabrics, walls, etc, all come into play in order to begin construction. Usually, there are purchases of materials and supplies to be made for each altar. This is quite an involved endeavor, but when the altar is finally finished; when I and all who have worked on the installation stop to contemplate our creation, we  experience a strong feeling of accomplishment and admiration for the work and our coming together in a true community effort.  I always feel somewhat sad to have to take it down when it is time to do so. I want to linger and contemplate – not only the work but especially the person or the people honored here. In the process, I know that we made a connection with those who are no longer here. It is also nostalgic for me to know that this work will never be here again- will never be duplicated- it is an ephemeral piece.  But then,  I know there will be another altar- a different one next time. I look forward to the work, but it is the process that stays and will be added, not only to my resources from previous work, but to the long list of remembrances of those whom I have honored throughout my many years as an altarista.


Ofelia Esparza with daughters Rosanna and Elena in front of the altar commissioned by the Museum of Chicago, Day of the Dead 2005.