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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.

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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.

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Charles White, “Spiritual.”

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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.

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Self Help Graphics, a nationally recognized center for Latino arts that develops and nurtures artists in printmaking in East Los Angeles, has had a long tradition of involving the community in its Day of the Dead celebrations. Unfortunately, this might be the last event of its kind. See excerpt below from a recent LA Times article. If you have to miss this weekend’s events, you can catch the upcoming long-month altar exhibit “A Call to Witness: All is Not Forgotten” from November 2nd through the29th.

SELF-HELP GRAPHICS GETS READY FOR DAY OF THE DEAD by Agustin Gurza (excerpts)

“When last we left our embattled arts activists at Self Help Graphics, they were on the verge of eviction from their longtime headquarters in East L.A. Even some true believers were ready to count out the struggling community-based institution that has been a beacon for Chicano art for almost four decades…

The agency’s ultimate location remains in doubt but not its mission. This week, Self Help seemed as vital as ever as volunteers prepared for the folk holiday it helped popularize in Southern California 35 years ago with its first All Souls Day festival. Appropriately, it’s still finding meaning in a Mexican ritual that celebrates death as a transition, not an ending…

Signs of life abounded at its landmark location on César Chávez Avenue. Baroquely festooned altars were being installed in the gallery. Those big papier-mâché heads were waiting to be painted for the procession. And a new generation of volunteers rallied to carry on the work, led by newly installed board President Stephen Saiz, a Disney executive who sports cool sunglasses and Apache hoops in his ears.

“There’s really a sense of community and family with what’s going on at Self Help,” says Saiz. “People want to see the agency flourish.”

In the Day of the Dead tradition, people create altars to departed loved ones, with photos and meaningful objects, even their favorite food. The idea is that the living can still commune with the dead. This year, four families from the community have been invited to join veteran artist Alma Lopez and others creating altars/installations for the month long exhibition, curated by Reina Prado and titled “A Call to Witness: All Is Not Forgotten.”

Organizers expect the event to rival those from the ’70s, fueled by the possibility that this may be the last at this location. The festivities begin at 7 p.m. Nov. 1, with the creation of the community altar led by artist Ofelia Esparza. The following day, the procession will feature kids with painted faces, mariachis performing favorite songs of the dead and people carrying “altars on a stick.” LA Times

Click here for a full schedule of this weekend’s events at Self Help Grahics, click here for the full L.A. Times Article and click here to read my LA Taco interview with East LA artist Rosanna Esparaza, daughter of altar maker Ofelia Esparza, and learn more about her family’s long-time involvement with Day of the Dead preparations. This year Rosanna shared that her family’s “altar is dedicated to all the businesses that were established in East L.A.  during the time my mother was growing up. Many business owners were Russian, Jewish, German and French.  They spoke spanish to their Mexican patrons and extended credit to them.  Very interesting neighborhood.”

Well, let’s check it out!

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Pre-Zan days for Rosanna Esparza of East LA.
(This interview was originally published on www.lataco.com on March 17, 2008.)

I first met artist Rosanna Esparza Ahrens in early November of 2007 at the El Gallo Cafe when East LA was preparing for Dias de los Muertos. Rosanna is Sticky Rick’s Artistic Director, a business created by her husband Rick Ahrens to connect the world’s stickiest artists and provide them with their sticker printing needs. Rosanna and I met again recently at her home in her native East Los Angeles. This interview is the result of these two encounters.

TACO: By mistake I just went to meet you across the street at the El Gallo Bakery, but as soon as I entered the bakery I realized this was no mistake, I was totally swooned over by the sweet aroma and the welcome of a very unlikely character who tempted me to bite into, not an apple, but a voluptuous piece of bread. There was something blatantly erotic in that act. It was as if Death was challenging me to bite into flesh i.e. live fully! I’ve heard people say Dias de los Muertos is for people obssessed with death but this character seemed awfully alive to me… and definitely naughty!

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Rosanna Esparza Ahrens: I hear this too. But death is not something you can avoid, it’s all around us. Look, the El Gallo Cafe where we are sitting right now is an old mortuary! (Laughs)

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Blue Calavera by RoZANna.

TACO: There is a puzzling prevalence of skull imagery everywhere in LA, in fashion, bumper stickers, advertisement etc. but most of it is aggressive and charged. Your skulls are so incredibly peaceful. You come from a family of artists whose body of work spring mostly from the Day of the Dead tradition. Tell us about this early influence.

REA: My grandmother made her roots here from Mexico, she never called herself an artist but she truly was one. Her art was cooking and cake-making, she was the go to person for wedding cakes, any kind of cakes. She also drew. She made all these paper decorations, flowers, garlands for her Nativity installations at home. My grandmother made four altars a year, one for was for Sabado de Gloria, the Saturday before Easter and this one was always white representing the Resurrection; one for Dia de los Muertos, the other one was for Our Lady of Guadalupe which is December 12, and the fourth altar was for her Nacimiento or the Nativity installation. Except for the Nacimiento, my grandmother’s altars were not big, they were just little niches up on the wall or on a table but their presence was always felt. On the other hand the nativity scene was a monumental altar which filled the whole living room, with everything to scale from Jesus, Mary and Joseph to dinosaurs and alligators. (laughs!)

My grandma collected figurines, they’ve been in the family for more than 70 years, some were imported from Italy, they’re beautiful. She also had little pieces from Mexico. My grandma would make the nativity scene look like it took place in Mexico. It never looked like Bethlehem, I mean they weren’t Hebrews, they were Mexicans! (laughs) My grandfather would build terraced platforms and lots of little villages. My mom, Ofelia, started painting backdrops on big canvas that looked like the night sky cityscape of Mexico City or Guadalajara.

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Artist Ofelia Esparza in front of the altar she designed for the 2007 Pico House’s art exhibit: “Sacred memory: honoring the dead across cultures.” Ofelia told me the altar wasn’t truly completed until you lit the candles. But the fire regulations of the ancient Pico House prevented her from lighting them.

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