While our physical offices are closed until further notice in accordance with Austin's COVID-19 "stay home-work safe" order, the Handbook of Texas will remain available at no-cost for you, your fellow history enthusiasts, and all Texas students currently mandated to study from home. If you have the capacity to help us maintain our online Texas history resources during these uncertain times, please consider making a 100% tax-deductible contribution today. Thank you for your support of TSHA and Texas history. Donate Today »


Teresa Palomo Acosta

HOME ALTARS. Mexican-American women's practice of installing altars in their homes to use for prayer is an expression of faith, art, and cultural heritage that has been handed down orally from one generation to another for as long as Tejanas have resided in the state. The Mexican-American "altarista" tradition has been practiced mainly by working-class Catholic ancianas ("elders") and is linked to the history of altar-making by women, which is evident in the archeological record of pre-Columbian Mexico, Spain, and the Mediterranean. Since they are outside the usual governance of the Catholic Church, the domestic altars also influence their makers' relation to the institution, with some participating as regular church members and others preferring their home altars for worship.

The domestic altars vary in composition from the simple to the elaborate, with each one conveying the experience of its maker. They generally consist of a major image-usually a special rendition of the Blessed Virgin Mary or a favorite saint-set in the center. In Texas, this has included Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, El Niño Jesús, and La Virgen de San Juan de los Lagos. Votive candles, which convey a sense of the sacred, may remain continuously lit. Images of other saints or martyrs, family photographs, artificial flowers, ex-votos, and such personal items as stuffed animals or knickknacks, gifts to the altar maker from family members or friends, are arranged in various positions around the central image. The altarista may engage in daily meditation before the images, recite formal prayers to the Blessed Virgin or a saint, or petition for guidance, advice for her loved ones, or divine intervention in society's social and moral problems. She also transforms the saints arrayed on the altar into confidants and maintains an aura of intimacy by disregarding the formal language of church ritual and addressing saints in the vernacular, changing their names, for instance, from San Antonio to "'Tonito" and referring to the altar as her "altarcito."

Although the custom of altar making and maintenance has been the domain of elders, the tradition has also been taken up by younger women, who bring new perspectives to it. This has occurred naturally as elders have passed the tradition along to their daughters and granddaughters. But it has also been a result of Mexican-American women's individual discovery of the spiritual and artistic importance of altars in their lives. For writer Gloria Anzaldúa, from the Valley, the altar performs the usual function of permitting her to "bare" her soul, but it also facilitates spiritual communion with her mestiza heritage. Some Tejana visual artists have created another form of the altar, commonly referred to as an ofrenda ("offering"). Carmen Lomas Garza's Ofrenda Para Antonio Lomas, which was included as a tribute to her grandfather in her twenty-year retrospective at Laguna Gloria Art Museum in 1991, is a notable example of this type of altar.

The advancement of home altars has also been encouraged more recently by specific art groups and museums. In Austin, Mexic-Arte and La Peña have organized annual exhibitions of traditional and alternative altars. Mexic-Arte's presentation has occurred in conjunction with the Day of the Dead (All Souls' Day), which is avidly celebrated in Mexico. La Peña's observance has revolved around its yearly celebration of the feast of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe in December.

Scholars have couched the significance of Mexican-American women's home altars in terms of both ethnic heritage and women's culture, noting that the altar-making tradition is linked directly to the practice of inventing sacred personal sites and folk arts, such as corridos, communal jokes, and foods made of "bits and pieces." According to this view, altaristas have employed a conscious strategy to fashion an art of survival and beauty for a people whose culture continues to struggle against domination or appropriation. Altar makers have also established a creative and spiritual "space apart," which is a means for women to meet their artistic and religious needs and challenge the "powerlessness" to which male-dominated cultural institutions have consigned them. Thus, altaristas have affirmed themselves as Mexican Americans and as women. Their maintenance of domestic altars has provided them a central, self-made role in worship, art, and culture by emphasizing an intimately based faith that strongly connects their daily lives with the sacred.


Carmen Lomas Garza, Pedacito de mi Corazón (Austin: Laguna Gloria Art Museum, 1991). Jeanette Rodriguez, Our Lady of Guadalupe: Faith and Empowerment among Mexican-American Women (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994). Kay Frances Turner, Mexican American Home Altars: The Art of Relationship (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Texas at Austin, 1990).

Image Use Disclaimer

All copyrighted materials included within the Handbook of Texas Online are in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107 related to Copyright and “Fair Use” for Non-Profit educational institutions, which permits the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA), to utilize copyrighted materials to further scholarship, education, and inform the public. The TSHA makes every effort to conform to the principles of fair use and to comply with copyright law.

For more information go to: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.shtml

If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.


The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Handbook of Texas Online, Teresa Palomo Acosta, "HOME ALTARS," accessed July 03, 2020, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/izh01.

Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Modified on November 6, 2019. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
visit the mytsha forums to participate

View these posts and more when you register your free MyTSHA account.

Call for Papers: Texas Center for Working-Class Studies Events, Symposia, and Workshops
Hi all! You may be interested in this call for papers I received from the Texas Center for Working-Class Studies at Collin College...

Katy Jennings' Ride Scholarly Research Request
I'm doing research on Catherine Jennings Lockwood, specifically the incident known as "Katy Jennings' Ride." Her father was Gordon C. Jennings, the oldest man to die at the Alamo...

Texas Constitution of 1836 Co-Author- Elisha Pease? Ask a Historian
The TSHA profile of Elisha Marshall Pease states that he wrote part of the Texas Constitution although he was only a 24 year-old assistant secretary (not elected). I cannot find any other mention of this authorship work by Pease in other credible research about the credited Constution authors...