SoCal Altar Builder Brings Mexican Heritage to Lila Downs Concert 

Lila Downs is bringing her signature Latin-influenced sound back to the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall on November 8 and connecting to her Mixtec Indigenous roots through a performance of both traditional and popular Mexican music.

Her last appearance at the Center in 2019 was centered around Día de Muertos, or the Day of the Dead. This year, the Center is thrilled to be welcoming her back for a celebration of Mexican heritage and culture that all can enjoy.

During her last appearance at the Center, the lobby of the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall featured an ofrenda (altar) installation by artist Luis Herrera; this year, as Downs returns to the Center, Los Angeles-based artists Ofelia Esparza and Rosanna Esparza Ahrens will be designing a new altar for display in the Concert Hall lobby, immersing patrons in the tradition of the holiday that will be available to enjoy before and after the show.

Ofelia Esparza is a Mexican American altarista from East L.A. who has been nationally recognized for her work in building public altars in her community for the past 43 years. She is a National Heritage Fellowship Honoree who has shared her knowledge with the Los Angeles community since the 1980s, and in 2016, was conferred an Honorary Doctorate Degree in Humane Letters by California State University, Los Angeles. Alongside her daughter, Rosanna Esparza Ahrens, the duo has been arbiters of Mexican culture for the last several decades, with involvement in numerous notable projects across Southern California.

They served as cultural advisors on Pixar’s Coco, created a permanent altar installation at the L.A. County Natural History Museum, and founded Tonalli Studio—a creative wellness space and gallery—with several creatives in East L.A. As a part of Alliance for California Traditional Arts’ (ACTA) Arts in Corrections program, Rosanna and Ofelia teach classes on visual poetry and altar-building at the California Institution for Women in Chino and joined the Building Healthy Communities project to bring their work to this statewide initiative.

Lila Downs

For this mother-daughter duo, altar-building is an important piece of family heritage that has been passed down for generations; Ofelia is a sixth generation altarista and continues to engage younger generations of her family in the process of altar-building.

Ofelia and Rosanna’s design for the one-of-a-kind altar will draw inspiration from themes Downs plans to explore in her performance rooted in her ancestral ties. In exploring Downs’ music, Ofelia and Rosanna said that their design will echo her iconic artistry, in it that themes of celebration, raices, beauty, culture, tradition, and creativity will guide their production of a uniquely Mexican display.

For Ofelia and Rosanna, the planning process of the altar’s intricate design stems from identifying words such as these. What starts with a theme or subject matter soon branches out into exploring a deeper story or feeling, and from there, a schematic is created to flesh out the structure and design and how they plan to fit it into a space, like the Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall. The planning stages of the altar also include a survey of materials, assessing what artifacts to include and what items are necessary to create or purchase. For Ofelia and Rosanna, flowers and textiles are signature elements that serve as key anchors to their designs.

"Our practice is to hand make the paper marigolds, which are the core of the ofrenda," said Rosanna. "We believe that anything handmade is sacred and when we are creating, we are infusing not only our essence but the essence of the beloved as well. This carries the energy and the connection of generations in the ofrenda."

In Mexican tradition, ofrendas are a key component of Day of the Dead celebrations that are constructed to remember and honor ancestors. Ofrendas typically contain different levels that represent heaven, earth, and purgatory and are decorated with items like flowers, photographs, food, drinks, and sugar skulls. It is believed that during Día de los Muertos, the candles placed on an ofrenda guide the departed back toward Earth and encourage them to visit their loved ones. 

Altars can be built privately in the home, in cemeteries, or in public spaces, and they vastly range in size. Rosanna and Ofelia’s large-scale installation in the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall will take 2 days to build on-site, and with an ofrenda as large as this, several of Ofelia and Rosanna’s family members are involved in the preparation and installation process of this altar build. As altar-building is a tradition that was passed on to her through generations, constructing altars with her family ensures that the memories of ancestors continue to live on and the oral tradition is also passed down. 

"Mama Lupe (my mother and Rosanna's grandmother) always shared this belief: 'We all suffer three deaths; the first is when we give up our last breath, the second is when we are buried or cremated – never to be seen on this Earth again, but the third is the most dreaded death of all, and that is to be forgotten.' This is the essence of Día de Los Muertos. There is an obligation to honor the ancestors and keep their story living through the generations," said Ofelia.

For Rosanna, the best part of altar building is to collaborate with space and explore the new possibilities of creating visceral connections with the community in that space. In creating this altar for the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall lobby, both Ofelia and Rosanna hope that this can be an opportunity for audiences to engage and connect to the past.  

Lila Downs

"We hope that people feel a message that this is sacred space, and they see a connection to their own ancestors," said Ofelia. "In essence, we hope that they see themselves as part of this cultural expression."

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