Hundreds of fresh marigold flowers, papel picado (paper cutouts of flags that resemble pennants or banners), and photographs of loved ones who have passed away, are featured among the spectacular community ofrendas, or altars, that mark this year’s Noche de Ofrenda ceremony in Grand Park, downtown Los Angeles. The display of 20 altars created by artists and community organizers is a central part of L.A.’s yearly Día de los Muertos festivities. For nearly a decade Grand Park has collaborated with Self Help Graphics & Art to bring the visually stunning community event to the public, which returns after a one-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Chicano artists in East L.A. were chief among those who helped to popularize the Día de los Muertos annual festival, which has origins based in Indigenous tradition melded with Catholic observances of All Saints Day and All Souls Day.
One such artist, the master altar-maker and 2018 NEA National Heritage Fellow Ofelia Esparza, was present at the opening night along with her daughter Rosanna Esparza Ahrens, to whom she has passed down her family traditions of altar-making.
Among the altars at Grand Park is one dedicated to the people all over the world who have lost their lives to coronavirus. In addition to the photos of those who passed away from the fatal disease, it features photos of health workers urging safety standards, and grim statistics of the losses of the last year and a half.
Another altar celebrates the lives of women leaders and asks, “What would a world without violence against women look like to you?”
The following photos were taken Saturday, October 23, 2021 at Grand Park, L.A. on the opening night of Downtown Día de los Muertos.
Photography by Yannick Delva.
Attendees pose in front of LACMA’s (Los Angeles County Museum of Art) Tree of Life exhibit.
Ofelia Esparza wears a flower crown with marigolds and a butterfly—symbols associated with Dia. (The bright color and scent of the marigolds attracts the dead to visit the altar and the butterfly represents the spirit of the departed.)
The large Community Altar that Ofelia created for Grand Park. It contains the basic elements of a Día de los Muertos altar: fresh marigolds, tissue flowers (to represent marigolds), candles and photos of loved ones who’ve passed away.
Dr. Elena Esparza sprinkles marigold petals as a final touch to the Community Altar.
Grand Park’s Community Altar, adorned with crowdsourced photos from the L.A. community, candles, marigolds, and tissue flowers.
LOUD + Los Angeles Family AIDS Network: We have a four tier altar in the shape of a Calavera Catrina; she is holding a basket of pan de Mueros (bread for the dead) and wears a red AIDS ribbon. The altar embraces 187 red roses representing the number of new HIV infections in cisgender women in Los Angeles County each year. (LOUD stands for Latino Outreach Understand Division).
Visitors to Grand Park view the Community Altar.
Created by artist Sovanchan Sorn, Pchum Ben is Ancestor’s Day, a 15-day ceremony is a time when many Cambodians pay their respect to deceased relatives of up to seven generations. Pchum means “to gather together” and Ben means “a ball of food.” It is believed that deceased relatives wait at the pagodas for their loved ones to return to them. By praying and offering food during Pchum Ben, the family helps their ancestors pass on to a better life. Inspired by traditional spirit houses and bai-seys, seven gold arches represent seven generations acting as the stairway and bridge for the living and the dead to communicate through prayer. The banana leaves, lemongrass, and rice adorning the altar pay homage to our ancestors; photos are from her family and friends.
Mi Estori: Artist Collective: A pair of wings with the transgender and non-binary flag in the back of a traditional altar with ofrendas and images of transgender and non-binary people murdered in 2021.
The Wall Las Memorias Project: The altar resembles a small version of the AIDS Monument in Lincoln Heights (a neighborhood in L.A.) Representing the color and shape of the AIDS ribbon, the altar’s focal point is the arch surrounded by red colored details.
“What would a world without violence against women look like to you?”
AF3IRM Los Angeles ofrenda honors women who have been victims of femicide. This altar honors the grief of those affected by gender-based violence.
L.A. City Councilmember Kevin de Leon dedicated an altar to union members and leaders we have lost. Grand Park is located within his district (Council District 14). The altar has tissue flowers, marigolds, pictures, and sugar skulls. The large picture is of Tomas Mejia, a janitor with SEIU who was killed on the job during a domestic violence incident at the apartment complex he worked at.
LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art) created a Tree of Life exhibit allowing park visitors to write the name of a loved one on the colorful ribbons as a way of remembrance. It contains marigolds, butterflies, and a calavera (skull).
The Wellness Center: A household kitchen hutch is decorated as a traditional altar with iconic images and messaging about the impact of COVID-19 on the lives lost and the sorrow of the living survivors.
Visitors to Grand Park view the Community Altar in the evening.
During the Noche de Ofrenda event, LACMA hosted free arts-based workshops for kids to decorate a calavera picture or a clay mold. Teaching artists from LACMA were on hand to help explain and guide kids on how to decorate.
Sonali Kolhatkar is currently the racial justice editor at YES! Media and a writing fellow with Independent Media Institute. She was previously a weekly columnist for Truthdig.com. She is also the host and creator of Rising Up with Sonali, a nationally syndicated television and radio program airing on Free Speech TV and dozens of independent and community radio stations. Sonali won First Place at the Los Angeles Press Club Annual Awards for Best Election Commentary in 2016. She also won numerous awards including Best TV Anchor from the LA Press Club and has also been nominated as Best Radio Anchor 4 years in a row. She is the author of Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence, and the co-director of the nonprofit group, Afghan Women's Mission. She has a Master’s in Astronomy from the University of Hawai’i, and two undergraduate degrees in Physics and Astronomy from the University of Texas at Austin. She reflects on her professional path in her 2014 TEDx talk, “My Journey From Astrophysicist to Radio Host.” She can be reached at sonalikolhatkar.com