Every Monday morning, Marisela Orrala goes to the gym at the Ramona Gardens Community Center hoping to find a way to finally defeat the asthma that has been pestering her for years.
Her form of therapy is the construction of an altar, a tradition in Mexico that dates back to indigenous cultures. In present days, altars are used as a place of prayer and worship, reflection and meditation.
Orrala’s altar features a little doll resembling a woman lying on a bed surrounded by prescription medicine bottles. These objects are inside of what looks like a cell closed with a lock. Out of the small cubicle there are pretty trees with flowers and birds, and a sun.
“Some people here are making them about someone in your life, but mine is about this illness I have and that I hate,” she says.
“I have asthma, and I depend on all these medications that I do not want to depend on to be able to breathe, and so I am dedicating it to that.”
The young mother is among a group of Ramona Gardens women attending the Altar-Making Workshops sponsored by the Alliance for California Traditional Arts (ACTA) and Building Healthy Communities Boyle Heights.
Under the supervision of altar-building expert Maestra Ofelia Esparza, the attendees focus on the use of the personal altar as a way to obtain self-awareness and self-discovery about their power to heal and of the multitude of options they have for healing.
They also use the event to learn and discuss about available resources for health care and the new Affordable Health Care Act.
“We are trying to bring to this community altar classes that are related to the healthcare situation right now facing Los Angeles county residents,” says ACTA coordinator Citalli Chavez.
“While we we’re taking classes, we talk about the medical situation of residents without access to healthcare. There are people that unfortunately have not legalized their status in this country and remain without coverage,” she adds.
During the altar construction sessions the students also share common knowledge of healing resources, such as natural medicines traditionally used and passed on by generations.
For Maria Luisa Guajardo the healing she longs to obtain is an emotional one. She is constructing an altar in memory of her daughter who died of lung cancer 11 years ago at the age of 38.
Guajardo is covering a small cardboard box with papers in shades of green, pink and orange and looking for “little pretty things” that she can glue on it to express her grief.
She had never done an altar before, but explained that the moment she heard of the workshop wanted to come and try and construct one.
“I’m going to put my name, the disease she died of, how much I love her and miss her and that I will never forget her until the day I die,” adds the 67 years old grandmother.
Meanwhile, Esparza says she feels she is the one being taught as she shares with the attendees her vast experience in the traditional craft of altar building.
“They call me the “Maestra,” but I say, ‘you are the teachers, the artisans; you have all the creativity’,” says Esparza, 82, who started making altars with her mother when she was a small child.
Esparza appreciates that her students share their personal experiences while making their personal shrines.
“I learn that everyone has a story and has something to share. It is a connection that opens the mind and spirit, which tells me there is much more for me to learn.”
The Altar-Making Workshops are held on Mondays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Resident Advisory Council Community Center at the Ramona Gardens housing development on Lancaster Avenue.
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