Celebrating the departed: NM PBS show explores creation of altars for Día de los Muertos


Celebrating the departed: NM PBS show explores creation of altars for Día de los Muertos
By Adrian Gomez / Journal Arts and Entertainment Editor
Friday, September 29th, 2017

The popularity of Día de los Muertos has grown for years in the United States.
In the Southwest, it’s been celebrated for decades, yet it going mainstream with the help of movies such as “The Book of Life” and the coming Disney film “Coco.”

With Hispanic Heritage Month in full swing, New Mexico PBS is getting in the game with the airing of “Craft in America.”

The latest episode, airing at 9 tonight, explores the relationships and influences Mexican and American craft artists have on each other and on our cultures. The program features traditional weaving, the creation of paper jewelry, and the creation of altars for “Día de los Muertos.”

The episode features Ofelia Esparza an educator and lifelong artist, who is an “altarista” – a master altar maker who teaches the meaning and history of Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) and creates the altars that commemorate loved ones who have passed away.

She began this work in 1979 at Self Help Graphics & Art in Los Angeles, alongside founder Sister Karen Boccalero.

Her strong commitment to keep the Mexican tradition of Día de los Muertos alive in the U.S. is visible in the heartfelt beauty of the community altars that she and her family erect annually for the celebrations at Grand Park in downtown Los Angeles.

“I feel so privileged that I’m able to share this,” she says. “One of the most heartening things is that my children are doing this now. It was important for my mother to carry on the tradition.”

Growing up, Esparza would visit five or six cemeteries around Los Angeles with her mother and aunts.

“My cousins and I would play jumping gravestones,” she says. “My family would call us, and we’d eat. My aunts and mother would tell us stories. The stories were repeated all the time. It was like I knew them intimately. It all carried over to me.”

Esparza travels across the country to build altars and educate others on the importance of keeping the tradition alive.

“My mother always said we experience three deaths,” she says. “The first is the day we give our last breath. The second is the day we’re buried. And the most dreaded death is to be forgotten. This is the essence of the celebration. We try to keep a legacy alive. It has to continue and we can’t let it go by the wayside. As an artist, I work between traditional and contemporary altars. I feel honored to carry on this tradition.”

SEND ME YOUR TIPS: If you know of a movie filming in the state, or are curious about one, email film@ABQjournal.com. Follow me on Twitter @agomezART.

“Craft in America” will air “Borders” at 9 tonight on New Mexico PBS, Channel 5.1.