Ofelia Esparza is one of the most revered visual folk artists in California. She is a Chicana sixth-generation altarista (altar-maker), artist, and educator from East Los Angeles. Art and her cultural heritage have been a driving force throughout her life.
Esparza graduated from East Los Angeles College and California State University, Los Angeles. She is a retired teacher from the Los Angeles Unified School District. In 2016, she received an Honorary Doctorate Degree in Humane Letters by California State University, Los Angeles.
Esparza, who has raised nine children with her husband, is known for her 40 years of home and community ofrendas (altars) for Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) observances, which occur on All Souls Day. The altars are multilevel structures which function within the context of the Day of the Dead celebration where people honor their loved ones who have died. The altars contain flowers, candles, food, a glass of water, personal items, and photographs of the deceased. Esparza is credited with expanding appreciation of the Indigenous Mexican Day of the Dead rituals to varied groups of people in the United States who transcend cultural boundaries.
When she was growing up in East L.A., the honoring of the dead for Dia de Los Muertos was always an interior ritual. Her mother made home altars only three other times during the year: “Holy Saturday, Our Lady of Guadalupe and Christmas, or nacimientos.” However in 1979 Esparza’s work became public when she entered East L.A.’s Self-Help Graphics & Arts and met Sister Karen Boccalero, the charismatic Catholic nun who founded the center. Boccalero told her that she was going to do a workshop, and that was the beginning of Esparza’s making of public art. She created one of the first large-scale public altars in the U.S. at Self-Help Graphics. In time, ofrendas became a Self-Help tradition.
Esparza’s primary project in recent years centers on the L.A. County community altar, erected with the help of three of her daughters, at Grand Park on behalf of Self-Help Graphics & Arts. At Self-Help Esparz has also created a large body of prints, located in private and institutional collections.
In 2018, Esparza won a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Her work has been exhibited in California’s Latino Museum of History: Art & Culture, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Japanese American National Museum, Museum of Latin American Art, Orange County Center for Contemporary Art, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Mexican Heritage Plaza, the Mexican Museum, and museums in Chicago, Mexico, and Glasgow.