Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is celebrated on Nov. 2. It’s the Mexican commemoration of All Souls’ Day, an occasion to remember and honor the dearly departed. And it’s become a huge tradition in Mexican-American communities.
In Los Angeles, downtown’s Grand Park is the setting for dozens of traditional altars that were built for the celebration. The Frame contributor Brian De Los Santos spoke with Ofelia Esparza, the artist who is considered to be L.A.’s foremost creator of Day of the Dead altars.
On the tradition of making altars
I’m an altar maker, which we call altarista, and an educator. One of the things I do this time of year is build ofrendas (offerings) — altars for Day of the Dead. Especially [the] public altares that I make now, it’s like an obligation.
The genesis of Day of the Dead in L.A.
This explosion of celebration in Los Angeles was started by Self-Help Graphics in 1973. You only saw the altars at home or at church, and not everyone had them. But the more rural areas that [people] came from, that’s where the tradition was very strong and continued for centuries.
Her personal connection to Day of the Dead
It’s like an obligation for the people that I reach or that I talk to. It only has one meaning, to celebrate the people who have died and to remember them — not how they died, but how they were loved. And of course that comes along with how they lived. That’s why I feel like the altars are always festive, but yet somber.
The essential elements of an altar
Cempazuchitl, the marigold, is an essential element to an altar because they create an ambience of this sacred space, [along with] candles and incense. And also you have this huge arch. My mother would say it was the gateway the opening to the soul that has come to visit, because they haven’t really died in our hearts or in our minds. And the main factor are the photographs of the people who have passed. All this is for them. And it doesn’t go away — it stays with me forever. I hope it does that with other people too.
The community connection
My vision and my purpose for any altar — and here at Grand Park, where it is so public for the city of Los Angeles — is a community altar, where I hope it invites the community to connect with it [and say], Oh, my loved ones could be included, could be part of this. So if they bring anything — whether it’s a photograph or a candle or a flower or an item that for them signifies one of their loved ones — and add it to the altar, that is the purpose.
Where to celebrate Day of the Dead in Southern California
- Grand Park and Self Help Graphics host a day-long celebration and concert on Nov. 1.
- Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights will be the site of a calavera (skeleton) fashion show, featuring "walking altars," on Nov. 1 (21 and over).
- Hollywood Forever Cemetery hosts its annual blowout, with music by Carla Morrison, La Santa Cecilia, Gaby Moreno, and Los Cenzontles.
- Plaza de la Raza in Lincoln Heights hosts its celebration on Nov. 1.
- Centro Cultural de Mexico in Santa Ana has its 12th annual Noche de Altares on Nov. 1.
- La Plaza de Cultura y Artes has a traditional family event scheduled for Nov. 2.
- Self Help Graphics in Boyle Heights hosts its 41st annual celebration on Nov. 2.
- The Bowers Museum in Santa Ana hosts a free family festival on Nov. 2.