Arch. Myriam B. Mahiques Curriculum Vitae

Friday, October 9, 2009

Religious Altarcitos in Chicano's Houses

Domestic Altarcito in a family room. Personal archives
In the XIX century, two factions arose in the Catholic church in Mexico and Texas: priests that reviled the Chicanos for their religious traditions and, those who, on the contrary, worked in the community offering them their help. This indefinite situation, caused that the Chicanos interpret the Catholicism in their own terms. They observed the traditional sacred days, but often they ignored religious prescriptions; the non sanctioned tradition was then taken to the home, with the realization of altars. With them, the Catholicism was used to palliate the social subordination and to affirm the cultural identity.

The geographical isolation gave birth to a religiosity centered in the home, and this manifestation can still be seen in small tables with iconography, everything surrounded of flowers and with a great cross hanging in the wall.
Chicanos, as poor and oppressed people, selectively took of the Church what helped them to make sense of their lives, and to proclaim their identity.
The Chicano women have a spiritual and social force sustained by the Altars. As guardian of the religion and the home, they influenced to the community and they transmitted cultural values, giving emotional support to the families that lived in a hostile environment.
With the combination of crucifixes, statues of the Virgin María, Jesus Christ and saints with pictures of the extinct members of the family, plus the objects associated to them, the altar in the Chicano home surrenders honors to the family, while it connects to the alive ones with the deads. (Teresa Malcom, 2003).

Altar del Día de los Muertos in Plaza Olvera, Los Angeles. Personal archives.
The altar of the Day of the Deads is a variant of the domestic altar. The day of The deads is a religious celebration in all Mexico and California, November 2, and it surrenders honors to the memory of the members of the family that "left". The ceremony is tied to the prehispanic agricultural calendar, since this was the only celebration that took place when the crop began. The Aztec concepts of life after death must be related: determining factors for a man´s destiny in the next existence were his social position and the circumstances surrounding his death. Scholars suppose they did not believe in retribution after death based on his conduct in this life. This might have been expected as confession of sins and penance were usual ocurrences. (Ake Hultkrantz, 1984).
Beginning at the Day of All Saints (Día de Todos los Santos), November 1st, the families build altars in their homes and/or in cemeteries and squares, exposing the pictures of the deads, placed in turn next to religious icons and other allegories, such as baked food and symbolic sugar skulls. The foods are accompanied by the traditional Pan de Muerto (sugar coated breads adorned with bits of dough in a shape like bones and tears). Beverages served up are fresh drinking water, fruit flavor water, cups of chocolate. Alcoholic beverages as beer, pulque (aguardiente) and tequila are served up as reminders of the good times they had on earth. The myth says, when the sun passes through the zenith, all the souls return to town and to their former homes, to which they are guided by the smell of the food.

The altar may be personalized with the addition of the objects that were essential to the deceased’s daily life, accompanied by a small skeleton figure that represents the deceased’s profession. For a man, the typical displays are a machete, a hat, a serape; for a woman, kitchen utensils, a shawl, a basket filled with needlework materials. A defunct musician will have the musical instrument, a smoker, a pack of his favorite cigarettes. For the angelitos (little boys and girls died in infancy), the ofrenda would be wooden or tin toys, along with sweets and a cup of milk.

Display for the Día de los Muertos in Los Angeles. The tall figure at the right of the skulls is ¨La Calaca¨ (also known as La Parca, La Pelona, La Huesuda), the representation of death. To her right, the small figures represent different professions.

Altar del Día de los Muertos in Plaza Olvera, Los Angeles. Personal archives.
One of the key elements in the composition is the use of the paper cut-outs that derives of the Aztec practice of the use of paper banners in connection with important religious rites. Today, they are translated in Arts and Crafts of tissue paper perforated with geometric patterns or flowers, birds. The traditional colors are the purple that symbolizes the lament and the fuchsia or brilliant orange to symbolize the happiness of the return of the deceaseds. When the parties finish, paper cut-outs is thrown to the air, giving a certain tridimensionality to the topic of the partitions.

The candles represent the illumination of the souls’ way, they also constitute a significant part of the offerings and it comes from Christian traditions. In some homes, a candle is fastened by each member of the family. Four candles are located in a cross formation pointing out to the 4 cardinal points. Under the altar, a cross can be shaped with petals, earth or ashes.
This Christian celebration is a mixture of pre-Colombian beliefs and is sustained by the concept that only the meat decays, but not the soul. The life and the death are views in an unit, in an infinite cycle. The death can be a vengeance to the life, because it liberates us of the vanities in which we live and it converts to us all, at the end, in a sack of bones.

Therefore, the death can be interpreted as a joke; the skulls and corresponding elements, are exposed in the altar, in an non Euclidian order.
It is important to say that the ceremony does not end with the Altar. It is extended to the streets and evolves into a collective event. “Throughout the first two days of November, all the doors of the house remain open, to encourage visitors from all over town to participate in the celebration and to visit the family shrine. On the afternoon of the first, a coffin containing a white cardboard skeleton is carried through the streets of the town. As it passes by, women dressed in black and holding lit candles cry in sympathy. The entourage travels the streets, asking permission to enter the homes of the celebrants. Once inside, the casket is laid on the floor, and everyone kneels around it to give the prayer, ''Our Father". After the prayer, the owner of the home gives bread or sugar skulls as a farewell. The procession ends at the local cemetery, where a funeral is simulated.” (Gaceta Consular, 1996)

Altar del Día de los Muertos in Plaza Olvera, Los Angeles. Personal archives.
Finally, there is a more profane altar that is tied to the patriotism. The Mexican anthropologist Manuel Gamio has explained that mestizos or native living in rural districts of Mexico, did not have a good notion of their nationality or of their country, but when they became immigrants of U.S.A. at the beginning of the SXX, they learned immediately what the Madre Patria meant. Starting from there, they gave a place of honor for their Mexican heroes, building altars with their pictures in their houses, including the Mexican flag and giving this way a new religious quality to patriotism.

Chicano domesticity is embedded in mythical space. Yi-Fu Tuan provides this definition: “Mythical space is an intellectual construct. It can be very elaborate. Mythical space is also a response of feeling and imagination to fundamental human needs. It differs from pragmatic and scientifically conceived spaces in that it ignores the logic of exclusion and contradiction. … In mythical thought the part can symbolize the whole and have its full potency”. (Yi-Fu Tuan, 2007:100)
This definition is related to the concept of fractality: the minimum part has the information and characteristics of the whole. We cannot state that the domestic patterns are fractals but they have fractal dimensions in their physical configurations (as location of objects) and mythical thoughts have fractal conditions.

Altar del Día de los Muertos in Plaza Olvera, Los Angeles. Personal archives.
Dale Hoyt Palfrey. Mexico Conjurs Spirits With Picturesque Ofrendas. August 19th, 2007.
Gaceta Consular. Number 25, Year IV, Austin, Texas. 1996.
Gagnier Mendoza, Mary Jane. Día de los Muertos: The dead come to life in Mexican folk art. En México Connect. On line.
Hultkrantz, Ake. The Religions of the Mexican Americans. University of California Press. Berkeley and Los Angeles. 1984
Malcom, Teresa. Creating sacred space: altars in Hispanic homes have a long and rich history that feminists and new immigrants in the U.S. are reclaiming.(Family Life). In National Catholic Reporter, November 14th, 2003. (High Beam Research on line)
Treviño, Alejandro. Mexican Americans and Religion. In The Handbook of Texas on line. Texas Historical Association. 2005
Yi-Fu Tuan. Space and Place. The Perspective of Experience. University of Minnesota Press. 2007
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