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This document by Tomás Ybarra-Frausto is concerned with the practice of altar-making as a spiritual and cultural endeavor that blends influences from European, African, and indigenous American sources. Typically characterized as a kind of “folk” art, altars most frequently appear in private homes where they transform the domestic environment into a sacred space. He notes that these forms are composites, amalgamations of various elements brought together by the maker that can be read as highly personal objects capable of communicating individual and cultural histories. Ybarra-Frausto goes on to detail several different forms of this kind of artistic production, including commemorative altars created in honor of the Day of the Dead, [All Souls’ Day on November 1-2] outdoor yard shrines, and cajas [box constructions].


Tomás Ybarra-Frausto is a scholar who provided leading scholarship in the area of Chicano art since the 1970s and who has influenced subsequent generations of scholars. This essay was written for the catalog for the Amalia Mesa-Bains’s exhibition, Grotto of the Virgins, held from November 30–December 31, 1987, at the INTAR Latin American Gallery in New York. Though it was written for the Mesa-Bains catalog, the essay is comprehensive in its discussion of the altars and of altar making. Of note, Ybarra-Frausto closely examines the indigenous and African roots of Chicano altar making, as well as the ways in which this practice can be read as a means of manifesting artists’ personal religious beliefs and cultural experiences, the importance of syncretism in Chicano/Latino art included.

Chicano Studies Research Center, UCLA, Los Angeles, USA
Courtesy of Tomás Ybarra-Frausto, San Antonio, TX