Ofelia Esparza

She // Her // Hers

[ID: Ofelia, a Chicana elder woman with her white hair tied back with colorful Guatemalan textile headband, dons beaded huichol flower earrings, a black-corded medicine bag hanging from her neck, and a hand-loomed strap from a shoulder bag crosses her chest. She wears a black huipil with hand embroidered white flowers and olive green embroidered leaves. She looks up as she smiles, set in front of an out-of-focus hedge at Grand Park in Los Angeles Civic Center.]

Altarista (Alter-maker)
East Los Angeles, CA
2021 USA Fellow

This award was generously supported by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Ofelia Esparza is a Chicana sixth-generation altarista (altar-maker), artist, and educator from East Los Angeles, where she has lived since her birth in 1932 and raised nine children alongside her husband of forty years. Esparza is recognized for her work with Self Help Graphics & Art (SHG), specifically for her community ofrendas (altars/shrines) for Dia de Los Muertos.

She began building public altars in 1979, learning under Sister Karen Boccalero at SHG, where she developed a large body of printmaking work. Cultural arts were integral to her own classroom curriculum at City Terrace Elementary School until her retirement in 1999.

Her work honors womanhood and the dignity of her community and reflects the spirituality found in nature. Esparza celebrates her indigenous Mexican heritage, informed by her mother’s passion to carry on her altarista traditions of ofrendas, Nacimientos (nativity scenes), and altars honoring Tonantzin (Our Lady of Guadalupe). She has taught altar-making at Plaza de la Raza in East L.A. since 1984.

In 2016, she was conferred an Honorary Doctorate Degree in Humane Letters by California State University, Los Angeles. In 2017, the L.A. County Natural History Museum commissioned her and her daughter, Rosanna Esparza Ahrens, to install a permanent altar honoring the city’s cultural diversity. The duo also served as cultural advisors to Pixar for its 2017 production Coco and currently teach classes on “Visual Poetry & Sacred Space” at a women’s prison in Chino, CA, via the Alliance for California Traditional Arts.

Esparza was honored with a National Heritage Fellowship in 2018 from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Portrait photo by Jacqueline Esparza Sanders.

  • Artwork by Ofelia Esparza
    Raices Cosmicas (Cosmic Roots), 2018, Mixed media, dimensions 204 × 72 × 108. Photo by Rosanna Esparza Ahrens.
    [ID: A multi-level altar covered with many artifacts, flowers, and textiles. An image of the goddess Ix Chel is located at the highest point, surrounded by hand-made paper flowers. The altar is framed on the left and right by images of the Sun and Moon shields.]
  • Artwork by Ofelia Esparza
    Ofrenda: Monument To Our Resilience, 2020. Mixed media, dimensions 288 × 144 × 168 inches. Photo by Rosanna Esparza Ahrens.
    [ID: A multi-level Dia de Los Muertos altar covered with textiles, photographs of the recently departed, fresh marigold bouquets, hand crocheted tablecloth, and candles. Handmade paper flowers arranged in two wreaths frame the altar, and a giant arch with a sunburst motif forms its center.]
Artwork by Ofelia Esparza Artwork by Ofelia Esparza