How the Women Who Brought Día de Los Muertos to L.A. Carry on the Tradition

How to create an altar–and why it matters–from Ofelia Esparza and Consuelo Flores

It’s not a day of mourning, but rather celebration and remembrance. Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead (celebrated on November 1 and 2), is about inviting the souls of the dead back to the world of the living through the placement of altares de muertos or ofrendas.


The History of Day of the Dead in Los Angeles

Day of the Dead wasn’t really adopted in Los Angeles until the 1970s. Altaristas (altar-makers) Ofelia Esparza and Consuelo Flores, were instrumental in helping this tradition establish new roots in the city.

“Before [the 1970s], there were probably other Day of the Dead celebrations but they were never done in public,” Flores said. “Or on a public scale.”

Self Help Graphics founder Sister Karen Boccalero introduced the celebration in 1972. Back then, Self Help Graphics & Art and Galería de la Raza in San Francisco, were the only organizations in the U.S. staging public celebrations.

By 1979, Esparza was working with Self Help Graphics and building community altars for them for Day of the Dead. Around the same time, Flores would meet Sister Karen and ask her about the history of Day of the Dead and what it meant to her, and participate in her first celebration of Day of the Dead in the U.S.

Self Help Graphics played an integral role in the holiday’s revival in California and, at 45 years and counting, it is now the longest running annual Day of the Dead celebration.

For nearly 40 years, too, Chicana altarista Ofelia Esparza has shared her knowledge and art about Day of the Dead with not only Self Help Graphics but people in schools, museums, community centers, prisons and parks throughout the Los Angeles region. It’s more than a tradition to her. “It’s an obligation,” recipient of a 2018 NEA National Heritage Fellowship (considered the nation’s highest honor in folk and traditional arts) says. It’s become a part of the fabric of her life to remember and honor her ancestors.

“We all suffer three deaths,” Esparza recalls her mother telling her. “The first death is the day we give our last breath or the day that we die. The second death is the day that we’re buried, never to be seen on the face of the Earth again. The third, most dreaded death of all, is to be forgotten.”

Through her altars, Esparza believes she’s also capable of bridging cultures and even countries as more people are becoming aware of this tradition.

“The ofrenda bridges the living and the dead, it brings them together by bridging generations and that of course, [is relevant] to my life,” Esparza says.

But with awareness comes appropriation and commercialization. A celebration sacred to many, becomes an excuse to drink and slap on skull paint to others. Now you can go anywhere and see that Day of the Dead, as Consuelo Flores puts it, has “hit the zeitgeist.” From Day of the Dead lottery tickets, to bars, brands, and many other companies giving it the American holiday treatment, and even treating it as “Mexican Halloween.”

The beauty of the celebration of your ancestors is the “fluid nature of it,” Flores says. “The thing that I’m resistant to is the commercialization of it, the thing that I do not like is the appropriation of it.”

Hollywood Forever cemetery holds a Día de los Muertos celebration, which Flores is critical of, particularly since they charge $25 per person to enter.

“To me, that’s bullshit,” Flores says. “It’s like charging to go to your own family’s funeral.”

Flores isn’t the only one critical of the way others come to perceive the holiday. Esparza, who also served as a cultural consultant for Pixar’s Coco  had felt apprehensive about having her name attached to the project. “But it was very rewarding that the people who had been working on that project wanted to be authentic, they really wanted to get it right,” Esparza said.

Altars and Ofrendas as Social Commentary and Political Resistance

Altars for Day of the Dead have also taken new meanings over the years. Beyond celebrating your loved ones or paying homage to your ancestors, altars are also being used as social commentary and political resistance during our current, dark and grotesque, political climate.

In partnership with Self-Help Graphics & Art and Lore Media & Art, Grand Park celebrates the traditions of Día de los Muertos and presents 50 altars and art installations created by local artists and community groups that reflect the theme “Looking to the Past to Build the Future.”

At Grand Park’s Día de los Muertos celebration, you’ll find an altar for many causes dear to Angelenos, as well as for individuals. You can find Consuelo Flores’ altar honoring her late mother and father, an altar from South Central Farm honoring people of color who have fought for environmental justice, an altar for Cesar Rodriguez, a 23-year-old who was struck by the MTA Blue Line last year and killed (due to an altercation with a police officer for not paying the bus fare that resulted in Rodriguez being pushed onto the train tracks), and you can also find Ofelia Esparza’s Community Altar where you can add photographs of any person you want to honor on Day of the Dead.

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Altar by Las Fotos Project (@lasfotosproject), entitled “Migrant Mamas.” On view at Grand Park in DTLA.

Photo by Pamela Avila

Other altars at Grand Park this year express themes of police brutality and youth incarceration (an altar by Youth Justice Coalition, for example). There is an altar for women’s reproductive health, women who have lost the battle to breast cancer, and another touching on the topic of miscarriages. And there are altars dedicated to immigration. Las Fotos Project’s altar honored migrant mothers; WOC art collective Ni Santas built an altar dedicated to children who have lost their lives crossing the border.

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Altar by Pacific Oaks College (@pacificoakscollege on Instagram). On view at Grand Park in DTLA.

Photo by Pamela Avila

Rebecca Rojas, Dean of Pacific Oaks College, was on site at Grand Park on October 27, building an altar dedicated to migrant families, immigrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, and intergenerational trauma pictured above.

“This altar is about immigration trauma, about the loss, about the refugees and migrants that die during their journey,” Rojas said. “It’s calling attention to the importance of not just immigration, but also the trauma that comes with it.”

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Altar on view at Grand Park in DTLA.

Photo by Pamela Avila

For altarista Ofelia Esparza, Day of the Dead is a tradition that brings people together. It bridges two worlds and “it becomes a community endeavor, it generates conversation and understanding or a wanting of understanding.” For her, the creation of an altar becomes an art form as the spiritual marries the traditional and the ritualistic.

The act of creating an altar or ofrenda for a loved one, for larger groups of people, or in remembrance of others who have long been forgotten, can be a transformative and cathartic experience for the altar-maker. Now, altars and ofrendas have gone beyond the traditional, becoming a medium that can express much more than the personal connection one may have with the deceased.

“The basic symbolism of this tradition is a very healing and a wonderful validation of our humanity, of our family circles,” Ofelia Esparza says. “That’s important today more than ever.”

How Ofelia Esparza and Consuelo Flores Create Día de los Muertos Altars

From the research and contemplation on the deceased you want to pay homage to for Day of the Dead with your altar or ofrenda, to setting your purpose for it, to the symbolic meaning and special placements of your offerings on an altar, and to show the medium has gone from the personal to the political, this is what goes into each step of the altar-making process according to Ofelia Esparza and Consuelo Flores:

1. Research

“For any altar that you do, you want to know a little bit about who you’re honoring,” altar-maker Ofelia Esparza says. And if you don’t know the person you want to honor intimately, then this is the part of altar-making where you can get to know your deceased a lot better. You can reach out to people who knew them, or you can “read about them, or just learn from what they left behind and make your own conclusions,” Esparza adds. “An ofrenda calls for contemplation, but sometimes it calls for questions.”

“When I do it for someone else, I collect something that they want to lend me or I do my own research. But you don’t have to do all that, it could even be something spontaneous,” Esparza says. 

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Altar by Xochitl Palomera (@de.colores.facepainting on Instagram). On view at Grand Park in DTLA.

Photo by Pamela Avila

And to anyone who hasn’t built an altar for a loved one who has died, or for anyone else they may want to honor and invite back to the land of the living, altar-maker Consuelo Flores recommends starting small. “Get a small box and put in that box exactly what [they] meant to you,” she says. “Go at your own pace, and at your own level.”

An offering of love, respect, and honor–everything you see on an altar is not just happenstance. Careful research and contemplation go into the creation of an altar and ofrenda. “Everything has been thoughtfully placed on an altar, and you have to remember that you, too, are here for a finite amount of time, and think of how you want to be remembered,” Flores says.

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Altar by Consuelo Flores, entitled “Amor Eterno.” On view at Grand Park in DTLA.

Photo by Pamela Avila

Always remember that there’s been a lot of thought, passion, heart, and heartache that goes into building an altar, says Flores. “It’s a very connecting experiencing and when viewing that, not only do you view the altar at face value, but also try to view it and feel the connection that the altar builder or artist has provided with their connection to the dead.”

2. Set the Purpose of the Altar or Ofrenda

Once you’ve gotten to know the person you’re paying homage to on Day of the Dead, the next step is to set the intention for your altar or ofrenda.

“Intent is a big part of [building] an ofrenda,” Ofelia Esparza says. “It could just be a photograph and a flower, but it’s you honoring that person, and if someone is curious, you tell them about that person [through your ofrenda].”

Esparza also believes an altar or ofrenda is a universal tradition. We all have someone we want to honor after their time with us has ended, and an altar is a way of sharing a story about the deceased to the next generation, and the generation after that.

“What do I want people to get from this?” Esparza asks herself when setting a purpose before building an ofrenda. “If I’m [honoring] a family member, I just want [people] to know who this person was and show them how much they were loved.”

But aside from personal altars and ofrendas, Esparza and Flores as well, have also been commissioned to build altars for larger groups of people. For example, the altaristas have built altars for the violent deaths of Mujeres de Juárez, the mass kidnapping of Ayotzinapa 43, and for the victims of the Orlando nightclub shooting.

“When it’s a group altar for a number of people–immigrants or massacres–I want people to remember them not how they died but how they were loved by their family members because they were sisters, daughters, or sons,” Esparza adds. Flores follows a similar method. She approaches group altars by focusing on one story in particular, because it can be overwhelming to try to focus on everyone.

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Altar by artist Celina Jacques (@celinajacquesart on Instagram), entitled “Angelitos.” On view at Grand Park in DTLA.

Photo by Pamela Avila

To Flores, the purpose of Day of the Dead and altar building goes beyond the personal.

“There are three things that are very crucial about Day of the Dead,” she says. “One is that you honor and pay homage to those people who have influenced or impacted your life, who have given you intangible gifts that you still carry with you.”

The second is the significance of coming to terms with your own mortality when celebrating and honoring the Day of the Dead. And finally, the third is “the celebration of life every day, every single day.”

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Community Altar in process by Ofelia Esparza (@ofrenda1 on Instagram). On view at Grand Park in DTLA.

Photo by Pamela Avila

Once Esparza has done her research and has set a purpose for her altar, she starts to think about the setting and size. She often keeps it traditional with her use of an arch as the foundation for her altars.

She explained she likes to use black cloth because it’s like a blank canvas she can paint on and add on other layers. Sometimes she’ll use lace on black because it reminds her of all the funerals she attended as a young girl.

“We were never sheltered from death,” she says. “I was always impressed by the beauty of the flowers, the scents, and the whole ambiance.” It became a big part of why she builds altars still.

3. Select the Offerings for the Altar or Ofrenda

What you place on your altar or ofrenda to offer to the dead can vary, and Esparza and Flores both agree that there’s no one-size-fits-all. What you decide to put on your altar is specific to the person you’re honoring. There are traditional items to star from, but the symbolic meanings behind the offerings you select are all up to you.

Traditional objects one might see on an altar include sugar skulls (according to an NPR article, they can represent vitality of life), your ancestor’s favorite meals, pan de muerto (bread baked in the shape of bones, meant to represent the soil), your ancestor’s preferred wine or alcoholic spirit, a glass of water, photographs of your ancestor, other personal objects that were significant to the deceased, and much more.

While Esparza and Flores mix classic items and artistic license when it comes to their altars.

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Marigold flowers and papel picado flowers for the Community Altar by Ofelia Esparza at Grand Park in DTLA.

For Esparza, marigolds are essential. “The fresh ones are essential for their strong scent but also the color. Even after they’re dead, they hold a very strong color. They last for years.”

“I always include the marigolds. I still want the symbolic item that is connected to an ofrenda,” Esparza tells us. “Its strong aroma, my mother would say, attracts the soul to come partake in the ofrenda.”

Although marigolds are an ancient symbol representing the dead in Mexico, they don’t remind Esparza of death at all. Instead their vibrant color reminds her of the celebration of Day of the Dead.

“It’s celebrating life, we’re not celebrating death,” she explains. “We mourn and grieve like everybody else but there’s a time to celebrate, and sometimes it’s not easy to celebrate right away, but eventually I think [building an altar] is also a healing process, it’s a very special way to remember someone.”

On the other hand, Flores says she’s gotten pushback from traditionalists because she doesn’t always use marigolds in her altars. She chooses to choose a flower that is specifically meaningful to the person that is dead, if she knew them personally.

What’s most important to her is the connection and authenticity of that relationship, between the dead and the flower she chooses to decorate the altar with.

“For my mom, she loved roses,” she says. “She didn’t particularly care for the marigold because she didn’t like the smell, and so for me, putting a marigold on her altar is going against her, so I want to truly honor her and I want to make her happy.”

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Altar by East LA Women’s Center Youth (@elawcyouth on Instagram). On view at Grand Park in DTLA.

Photo by Pamela Avila

Aside from the marigolds or other flowers that go on an altar, the foods you choose are also significant.

“I use pan de muerto whenever I can, and whenever allowed,” Esparza says. “I always have a glass of water, the soul comes to visit us from such a long way, they’re going to be thirsty.”

Everything on the altar is symbolic of something. “I adhere more to the indigenous custom or traditional of an altar. In Mexico you see that strong sacred indigenous tradition,” Esparza adds.

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Altar by Alberto Tlatoa for South Central Farm (@southcentralfarm on Instagram), entitled “La Procesión.”

Photo by Pamela Avila

Aside from the foods, there are other objects one can place on the altar to show the souls of the dead their way back to the altar. For one, candles symbolize the light, and you can also use flower petals to create a pathway to the altar and back to the “land of the dead.”

Copal, a type of incense, is also used to purify the altar and to attract the souls with its sweet scent. Although copal is most traditional, Flores typically uses sage to purify the area.

“Copal is an ancient element, its traditionally used in Mexico especially in the indigenous communities,” Esparza adds. It’s ceremonial and adds to the ambiance and preparation for the souls of the dead to come and visit your altar.

One can also add their own personal touches, of course, to the altar.

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Altar by @goeastlos on Instagram. On view at Grand Park in DTLA.

Photo by Pamela Avila

“What you put on the altar is not the same for everybody, yet its traditional because what you’re doing is you’re bringing people back based on what you’re placing on the altar and what they cherished in life,” Flores said. “I put my mom’s cooking utensils on [an altar], I created a whole altar that was strictly based on her old sewing machine, and her cup of coffee was next to it and it was very meaningful because it represented who she was.”

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