Creating Sacred Space: Altars in Hispanic Homes Have a Long and Rich History That Feminists and New Immigrants in the U.S. Are Reclaiming

By Malcolm, Teresa | National Catholic Reporter, November 14, 2003 | Go to article overview

Creating Sacred Space: Altars in Hispanic Homes Have a Long and Rich History That Feminists and New Immigrants in the U.S. Are Reclaiming


Malcolm, Teresa, National Catholic Reporter


Altars in Hispanic homes testify to a centuries-old tradition that makes visible the link between the spiritual and the physical world. Combining crucifixes, statues of the Virgin Mary and saints with photos of family members who have passed away and objects associated with them, Hispanic home altars are about honoring family relationships and connecting the living with the dead, said scholar Lara Medina, assistant professor of Chicano and Chicano studies at California State University in Northridge.

The popularity of home altars is undergoing a revival, Medina and other scholars say, driven by an influx of new immigrants from Latin America as well as the attention given them by Latina feminists, who see the home altar as a way a woman in a patriarchal culture "claims her authority to name the sacred," as Medina puts it.

Depending on the Latino group, home altars may feature images of the Sacred Heart, the Virgin of Guadalupe, St. Martin de Porres or the Virgin of Charity of Cobre (patroness of Cuba), said David Abalos, professor of religious studies and sociology at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J. "There is almost always a statue, candles around it, pictures of family, people who have died. It's a family altar as well as the religious symbols and icons there," he said.

Medina observed that home altars function as sites of historical memory and teaching tools for families. "With photographs and meaningful objects, they teach family history," she said.

Abalos recalled songs and prayers around his family's home altar when he was growing up. Singing and praying the rosary "binds the family together, binds them around a sacred message--that all are important and valuable," Abalos said.

Alberto Pulido, director of ethnic studies at the University of San Diego, said that home altars, like other everyday expressions of spirituality, communicate the creator's understanding of what it is to be in relationship with God and the sacred, in a "personal, practical and pragmatic" way.

Scholars say the Latino tradition of home altars has ancient roots. Indigenous groups such as the Maya, Toltec and Mexica created domestic altars to their deities.

After the Spanish arrived in the Americas with their own predilection among the elite for elaborate home chapels, native people introduced Christian symbols to the home altars, reflecting the emerging syncretic nature of Mexican Catholicism, Medina said.

"The icons that the Mestizo people developed incorporated Christian and indigenous elements in one object, such as a crucifix with the sun and moon placed on the cross, or a cross made out of corn husks," she told NCR. "It was making the connection between the Christian deity and the sacred cosmic forces and the sacred food, corn."

With independence from Spain came curtailment of church authority in Mexico. The importance of domestic shrines correspondingly increased, said Medina. "The female prayer leader--the rezadora--became important because of the lack of priests. The elder women passed on the faith and the tradition of home altars. The institution was not really present, especially in rural areas."

Home altars were among numerous popular religious traditions that flourished among Mexicans in the area annexed by the United States in 1848. Encountering discrimination in the U.S. Catholic church and anti-Catholicism in the wider culture, "again, home and neighborhood remained central" for the faith of Mexican Catholics, Medina said.

Domestic altars suffered a decline in the 1940s and '50s, falling victim of the effort by the U.S. church to universalize Catholic worship--that is, make it "Eurocentric," according to Medina. The post-Second Vatican Council era continued the push to universalism. "A generation was under pressure to drop cultural traditions," she said. "The home altar succumbed to the pressure."

Numerous families continued the tradition, Medina said, but with a different look. …

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