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Mexican Home Altars

Two candles and a picture of the Virgen de Guadalupe torn from a calendar or magazine once sat atop an unused mini-refrigerator in the Flores' one-room home in Mexico. This simple home altar, seen briefly in The New Americans before it is dismantled for storage, is very different from Ventura Flores' sister's home altar in California. This shrine to the women's mother is a virtual garden of bright pink, purple, red and white flowers framing a large photo.

Home altars are personal manifestations of faith—a link between the physical and the spiritual and an expression of one's relationship to god. Altars can be onetime shrines built for a special occasion or they can be a living, active expression of ongoing spirituality. Some build elaborate, multi-layered home altars, while others build altars using only a few meaningful objects.

What objects go on a home altar and why?

Find out with this interactive feature >

Altars create a sacred space in the home and are used as a place of prayer and worship, reflection and meditation or song. They can function as sites where family history is actively preserved, where loved ones are celebrated and remembered with pictures and artifacts.

The Mexican home altar tradition is centuries old, but it is not the only culture to embrace the art of the home altar—Buddhism, Hinduism and Santeria are a few examples of other faiths that have a home altar tradition.

Scholars say the practice in Mexico dates back to indigenous cultures such as the Maya and Toltec, who built altars to their deities. Home altars flourished in the 19th century when Mexicans living in territories annexed by the United States felt disconnected from the English-speaking Catholic Church. After World War II, as the Catholic Church tried to standardize ritual and worship, altar building in the U.S. was sanitized and the practice declined. Today, Latino activists, artists and religious leaders are reviving the tradition.

While many homes keep altars, it is generally the women of the house who build and maintain them. Many scholars say that the woman as altar builder (altarista) has traditionally been a way for women to assert their power and spirituality within a patriarchal society.


Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos)

One of the most popular occasions for altar building is the Mexican Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos). This is a time of great celebration when the spirits come back to earth for a visit and the living celebrate the lives of the departed. Special altars called ofrendas are built to honor loved ones who have passed.

The growing popularity of Day of the Dead celebrations in America is one reason that the home altar has begun to infiltrate mainstream culture. The rise of personal spirituality and ritual has also increased interest in home altar construction. Artists from many ethnic backgrounds are using the altar as an art form, bringing the practice into museums, galleries and books, exposing the tradition to even more Americans.

The new altar builders often mix different religious and sacred artifacts with secular effluvia like pop cultural icons and everyday items. A Buddha may sit next to a saint, all of which perches above a Mickey Mouse doll and a pair of running shoes—creating a personal collection that becomes a sacred space.

Images of many colorfully decorated sugar skulls usually seen on or around Day of the Dead altars
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Day of the Dead Video
Day of the Dead at the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum in Chicago

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