The Art of Making Day of the Dead Altars | El arte de hacer altares del Día de los Muertos


Wednesday, October 20, 2021, 6:00pm to 7:15pm



A Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos) beautifully decorated with paper flowers, pictures, and candles.

Free Virtual Public Lecture

Ofelia Esparza, Visual Artist and Altarista

Rosanna Esparza Ahrens, Graphic Designer and Altarista

Leer en español.

Advance Registration Required.

Live interpretation in English and Spanish
Interpretación en vivo en inglés y español

Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is a Mexican tradition that seeks to commemorate and celebrate the lives of loved ones who have passed away. The creation of an altar is a key component of this celebration, which is both bittersweet and joyful. In this program, Los Angeles-based artist, educator, and altarista Ofelia Esparza will share her philosophy and approach to making altars and to keeping Día de los Muertos alive in the U.S. She will be joined by her daughter, graphic artist and collaborator Rosanna Esparza Ahrens. Together they will discuss their creative process to make public altars—from remembering loved ones, to gathering materials, and working in community to create a final piece that invites reflection and healing.

To join the program, you will need to download the free Zoom app in advance. If you already have Zoom, you do not need to download it again. For details on how to improve your Zoom experience, visit the How to Attend an HMSC Program webpage.

El Día de los Muertos es una tradición mexicana que conmemora y celebra la vida de seres queridos que han fallecido. La creación de un altar es un componente clave de esta celebración, que es a la vez agridulce y alegre. En este programa, la artista, educadora y altarista de Los Ángeles Ofelia Esparza compartirá su filosofía y enfoque para hacer altares y mantener vivo el Día de los Muertos en los Estados Unidos. A ella se unirá su hija, la artista gráfica y colaboradora Rosanna Esparza Ahrens. Juntas discutirán su proceso creativo para hacer altares públicos, desde recordar a sus seres queridos hasta reunir materiales y trabajar en comunidad para crear una pieza final que invita a la reflexión y la sanación.

Presented by the Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology, Harvard Museums of Science & Culture, the Consulate General of Mexico in Boston, and the Mexico Program at the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, Harvard University.

About the Speakers

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 at Self Help Graphics & Art (SHG), where she also became a printmaker under the tutelage of SHG founder, Sister Karen Boccalero. Cultural arts practices were integral to Esparza’s own classroom curriculum at City Terrace Elementary School until her retirement in 1999. Ofelia’s work honors womanhood and the dignity of her community which reflects indigenous spirituality founded in nature, informed by her mother’s Purepecha traditional practices of ofrendas, nacimientos (nativity scenes), and altars honoring Tonantzin (Our Lady of Guadalupe).

Esparza 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. Esparza was honored with a National Heritage Fellowship in 2018 from the National Endowment for the Arts, and is a 2021 United States Artists Fellow.

Rosanna Esparza Ahrens, a Chicana artist/altarista represents, seven generations of altar-makers from Purepecha roots, hailing from Guanajuato, Mexico. Born and raised in East Los Angeles in 1961. She is the daughter of Ofelia & Amado Esparza. Her altar-making process takes on many forms from writings to 3D structures, informed by her practice of connecting to what is available in the NOW moment as a participant in nature and the universe.

In 2017, this altar-making duo were commissioned by the L.A. County Natural History Museum to install a permanent altar in the Becoming Los Angeles Exhibit, honoring the city’s cultural diversity. Ofelia & Rosanna also served as cultural advisors to PIXAR for its 2017 production of COCO. Currently, they teach classes on “Visual Poetry & Sacred Space” in the Arts In Corrections Program (AIC) at the women’s prison in Chino, CA, via the Alliance for California Traditional Arts.