The Blood of Kings: A Look at Culture With Ofelia Esparza


A mural created by Erin Yoshi, titled “Land of WE” that depicts Ofelia Esparza is painted to the side of the building in which her studio resides. (Photo by Noah Garcia)

When culture is a priority to someone there is no way to hide it. Ofelia Esparza, a native artist to East Los Angeles, lives her culture with a passion that blooms like cempazuchitl in October.

Esparza still lives in the same house she grew up in. The 85-year-old has gained international recognition for her altar building, a talent she learned from her mother.

“She would make four altars throughout the year,” Esparza says about her mother, “A nativity scene altar, an altar for [Holy Saturday], an altar for Día de Los Muertos and one she kept year round for the Virgin Mary. It turned into a community thing, everyone would gather with food at the cemetery, sit around the tombstones and the stories would begin.”

Ofelia Esparza, an East Los Angeles artist, and world-renowned master altar builder sits to talk about the importance of culture. (photo by Noah Garcia)

Esparza learned the craft well. So well, in fact, that she gets commissioned to make altars for Día de Los Muertos all over the world, “It’s not a business, I go to where I’m invited. Altars are very unique, no two are alike. They’re not this commercial thing that [Día de Los Muertos] is becoming. It’s a bridge.

A bridge that Esparza explains connects generations and culture. It was through altar building with her mother that she learned about her ancestors. Her mother would talk about long-dead family members while creating the altars that were always humble, “They weren’t always these elaborate things until later.”

Esparza recalls going to Chicago where she made an altar in memory of those killed protecting the environment. The topic brought tears to her eyes, “Greed is killing the earth. A young man from Honduras, a scientist, was kidnapped and killed because he was protecting baby sea turtles from poachers.”

Altars, especially altars for Día de Los Muertos, are steeped in culture, with roots buried deep in indigenous tradition.

“It’s something to be proud of. My brother told me once after some boys had made me cry when they teased me about my skin color, ‘Don’t cry. Why are you crying? Don’t you know that through our veins runs the blood of kings?’ He was very proud of our roots, my mother was as well. She didn’t even want to become a U.S. citizen because it felt like a betrayal to her,” said Esparza.

Today’s political climate makes it difficult to focus on anything that isn’t in the news, especially when one’s own community is under fire. But culture is vital for survival, a sentiment that Esparza agreed with.

“Culture is everything, it’s identity, you have to fight to be who you are,” said Esparza. It’s something the 85-year-old fights for every day. It’s the passion in her veins along with the blood of kings that gives life to everything that she does.

Email Diana Juarez at [email protected]