“The Roots to My Resistance”: The Ofrendas of Consuelo Flores
Mark Maynard profiles L.A.-based Consuelo Flores, creator of Día de los Muertos altars that are rooted in community and social justice.
A Misunderstood Tradition
When Consuelo Flores was growing up in Los Angeles, her family did not celebrate Día de los Muertos and knew very little of its traditions.
“I did not know about the day of the dead when I was growing up,” Flores said, speaking from her home in Los Angeles. “I had no concept of it. My mother and father never celebrated it.”
Día de los Muertos, and its iconography and rituals were misunderstood, not widely celebrated, and at times even thought by some to be evil, affiliated not with the positive memorialization of the dead but a satanic ritual of sorts.
“The reason was because of Catholicism, because of the conquest of Mexico by the Conquistadors, and when they came in, they destroyed anything that was indigenous, anything that they considered pagan, anything that they felt would take away from their commitment to the church,” said Flores. It wasn’t until Flores was older and had returned to Los Angeles from college in Santa Cruz, that she was connected to the Día de los Muertos traditions that go all the way back to the Aztec roots of Mexico. And the person who introduced Flores to the previously forbidden pagan ritual was none other than a Catholic nun of the Franciscan order named Sister Karen Boccalero.
Finding the Voice of Community Through Art
East Los Angeles’s Whittier Boulevard was that path that led, indirectly, to Consuelo becoming an artist, and eventually a builder of ofrendas. The traditional Día de los Muertos displays are interchangeably called altares (altars) or ofrendas — translated as “offerings.”
“During the Vietnam War, the majority of soldiers going to war were Caucasian Americans, yet the majority of body bags or wounded soldiers coming back were soldiers of color,” explained Flores. As the 1970s dawned, the Mexican-American community was united across the entire Southwestern United States. The La Raza Unida political party had a strong presence in Texas and Southern California, and according to Flores, “one of the things they were fighting most against was the inequity.” On August 29, 1970, the Chicano Moratorium Committee organized a peaceful protest in East Los Angeles. Almost 30,000 people showed up to march that day. A young Consuelo Flores was one of them.
“I actually took part in that march. I was nine years old at the time, and we went there and it was a beautiful celebration of unity. There were families that were going because all were being impacted. There were some neighborhoods where I grew up where there were two or three soldiers that were in Vietnam.”
That day, L.A. County Sheriff’s deputies declared the march an unlawful assembly and fired tear gas on the crowd. Not far away, prominent Chicano Reuben Salazar was killed by a Sheriff’s deputy who fired a tear gas canister into his head as he sat on a stool at the Silver Dollar Bar on Whittier Boulevard. Though his death was ruled a homicide, no one was ever prosecuted.
It was in this tumultuous time period that Sister Karen Boccalero, an artist and nun, decided that one of the ways she wanted to contribute to the community was to create an apprenticeship program for printmaking in East Los Angeles. In 1972, Boccalero, and Chicano artists including Carlos Bueno and Antonio Ibañez, created Self Help Graphics and Art which offered opportunities for community artists to learn and practice printmaking and other visual arts. In 1974, Self Help Graphics and Art began the East Los Angeles Día de los Muertos celebration, an event that they have held ever since.
In the early 1980s, Flores, then at UC Santa Cruz, was introduced to Self Help Graphics and Art by artist and writer Harry Gamboa Jr.
“I wasn’t really supported by my family as an artist,” said Flores. “When I came back to Los Angeles, I met my tribe and found my identity because I was an artist.” She began building altars, but she didn’t know their history and traditions. “I would find myself at a loss for words. I did not know what it was about so I was embarrassed and I thought I will never let that happen to me again.”
At the time, there were no resources that she could find in the U.S., so she asked her former mother-in-law to bring back books when she would visit family in Mexico. “They were all is Spanish, but I bought every single book she could and I found one of the best books, Skeletons at the Feet, and I read it cover to cover.”
A Pyramid Structure for Traditional Altars
A traditional altar is built in three levels in a pyramid structure. The ground is usually strewn with petals or grains. Marigolds are the most frequently used flowers on altars dating back to their pre-colonial indigenous roots. “Marigolds would mask the smell of death when someone was laid out to be honored. They would cover or surround the body with marigolds because they have a pungency.” The opened blooms of marigolds are full of seeds, making the flower a symbol of the celebration, as Flores explained “through death comes life.” Marigolds are powerful threads connecting multiple traditions of Día de los Muertos. On specific days for honoring the dead (the celebration actually encompasses two consecutive days: November 1st is All Saints Day, and deceased children are celebrated on this day as well, their innocence connecting them closely to sainthood; November 2nd is All Souls Day, a day of remembrance for all who have died) a family will go to the cemetery and strew marigold petals from the gravesite to the door of the deceased. “That is the way that they believe the spirit will recall its way back home,” said Flores. The petals strewn at the base of altars are there for the same purpose.
The second level is where personal items and other offerings for the dead are placed. These may include glasses, bus passes, jewelry, a favorite t-shirt lovingly folded, a handkerchief and other everyday items. It is also here that favorite foods and drinks, cigarettes, and other things are left for sustenance on the journey to paradise. “The way the deceased will nourish themselves and partake in all of these offerings in not by actually taking the substance and consuming it, but by the aroma.” For this reason, food placed on altars is offered steaming hot, tequila and other beverages are poured into glasses, and cigarettes are lit so the deceased can partake of the scents.
The third and uppermost level of an altar is the layer of utmost reverence for the dead. This is where you will typically find photographs of the deceased in the most visible, focal place for people to see who is being honored. One thing Flores learned was that Día de los Muertos is a very “fluid” holiday. Her altars, many of which are public displays, often reflect the trials and tragedies of the times.
“During the AIDS crisis, altars were created for the victims,” said Flores. “So you have another layer; it’s another interpretation of what an altar will look like.” Many of the ofrendas she has built have honored deaths that have shattered close-knit and often overlooked communities. The fluidity of Día de los Muertos is driven by its purpose — it is the life of the deceased that determines the design of an altar, not the strictures of tradition or the expectations of the living.
Flores has constructed altars to honor the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, the countless women and girls that have gone missing through cartel violence in Juarez, Mexico, and in two public altars this year, the victims of the Ayotzinapa Massacre and the people of color that have been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There But For the Grace of God…”
Flores is meticulous about how the design of each altar respectfully honors its subjects. To honor the victims of the mass shooting at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, Flores recreated a bar.
“On the bar I put different types of drink glasses: champagne glasses, martini glasses, wine glasses, rum glasses, anything that would be found at the bar, and I put a disco ball up around the bar.” On the ground, instead of the traditional orange marigolds, Flores went to the flower market and created a rainbow of flower petals on the ground and on the wall behind. Bar stools were placed next to the altar and Flores painted a huge heart on the wall and drove little nails around it. A string runs through the center of the large heart and was tied to each of the nails where there was a picture of one of the shooting victims, 49 in all, each framed by its own small heart.
While she may design and build up to seven altars a year, Flores was only able to construct two this year because of COVID-19. One is in Grand Park in downtown Los Angeles, and the other is at Self Help Graphics and Art, where Flores first discovered the art of altar building 40 years ago. The altar in Grand Park honors 49 male students of the Ayotzinapa Rural College for Teachers in Mexico’s Guerrero state that disappeared without a trace in 2014 after being detained by police. Their remains have never been found.
“It’s really a little overwhelming at times,” says Flores. “But we have to recognize that there but for the grace of God go I, and that’s what connects me to those students.” Education and hard work are very important to Flores. “I tried very hard to advance myself and there is a saying, ‘he who has learned to read can never be oppressed’, these students were fighting oppression for their community and for their fellow citizens in Mexico and the government didn’t want that.” There is another deeply personal connection to Flores on the Grand Park altar — on the third level are photographs of her parents, and her brother Benjamin Garcia Flores who studied law at Stanford and worked as Deputy City Attorney in San Francisco before becoming a lawyer for the University of California Chancellor’s office. “The very top are the people who impacted me the most — my parents and my brother. He’s the one who really taught me the value of social justice and community service, and so I honor him because he is always very present in my life.”
Honoring Black and Brown Victims of COVID-19
The altar Flores constructed at Self Help Graphics and Art this year is shocking in its relevance and scope. It is dedicated to the Black and brown victims of the COVID-19 pandemic. This includes, according to Flores, “the first responders and essential workers — those that need to go to work. They can’t afford not to and yet can’t afford to pay for health insurance so they wait until the last moment and of course, they die.” The irony that the disproportionate number of deaths of people of color to COVID-19 parallels the same inequality protested by Chicanos over fifty years ago is not lost on Flores. “The delivery method has changed, but the victims remain the same. And it is one of the things that I have acknowledged being Latina myself is that we are considered disposable.”
The altar honoring the pandemic victims does not have flowers scattered at its base. Instead rows of them descend from high on a wall, the hanging threads of flowers symbolic of roots. The flowers are not typical marigolds. Some of them have red in them, and there are marigolds that have a red thread with red petals. Flores explained that she added the red to the traditional orange of the marigolds to visually approximate the image of the new coronavirus when magnified. Altars are typically symmetrical and balanced, but this one, purposely, is not. “The world right now is imbalanced,” says Flores, “I wanted there to be a visual discomfort because I want the realization that something is off-balance. In the middle part are what I refer to as the roots — they’re really trees upside down.”
Trees bear fruit, and when inverted they resemble roots on which Flores has placed photos of a fraction of the people that have died of COVID-19. Behind each photo is one of the red and orange marigolds. Below, at the ground level, are lush green tropical plants.
“The reason you make an offering to the dead is because it takes about four years to reach the paradise land. The flowers that I put underneath are what I consider a tropical paradise.” The imbalance of the entire piece is representative of where we are now, and the installation is titled “The Roots of Our Resistance.”
Flores explains the meaning of the title: “We need to look at the people who died and really recognize that we could be one of them, or I could be one of them, and they have now become the roots to my own resistance.”