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
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