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.