Accumulated Material: Contemporary Altares and Ofrendas

POSTED ON: August 15, 2006 IN Jesus Macarena-Avila, Reviews & Reports, Word View

Jesus Macarena-Avila, 15 August 2006

[This essay was written for an exhibition featuring Giselle A. Mercier, Elvia Rodriguez-Ochoa, and Edra Soto, at Gallery Visio, University of Missouri – St. Louis, USA, curated by Jesus Macarena-Avila, 7-18 November 2006]



Fig.1 Giselle A. Merciers installation work (detail shown here)
explores her Afro-mestiza traditions


“Recyclia bear the fragments of other sign systems that have been reconfigured and, therefore, seemingly co-opted or inverted. For this reason, many view the creations as evidence of a material, if not moral, triumph over cultural hegemony exerted by the industrial societies that spew mass-produced objects into world markets.” Timothy Corrigan Corell and Patrick Arthur Polk [1]

Material culture has been with us since the beginning of time starting with the ancient civilizations that used natural materials, including seed pods and stones for ceremonial purposes.  This period in time was the early development of material culture based on meaning and sources.  Within the context of contemporary culture, material has been translated into belief systems – forging the religious and the superstitious, as well as implementing the utilitarian purpose. From natural resources to industrial-made material, materials can be found everywhere. What does this mean to a first world country like the United States (US)? Societys obsession with material consumption has grown into a multi-billion industry and also become a symbol of economic progress and eco-pollution. The act of material consumption is even practiced by everyday families who accumulate material in their households and on their yards, and hence assume the nickname “packrats”. [2]

For Latin American countries, the act of recycling material is commonly practiced; material culture can be metaphoric with layers of culture, history and memory. Fusing these meanings and sources onto common found material become itself a transformation, a hybrid. Using this premise, hybridity or a state of fusion combines belief systems with the understanding that all is in one, not separated. Sometimes people tend to separate its meaning when it is to be accepted as is. These acts can be seen today as creative means practiced by folk artists in South Africa to Brazil; these artists would create artwork out of found objects, such as emptied soda cans.

With homeless communities in urban cities in Latin America and in the US, people are creating “makeshift” homes out of found materials, like discarded carton boxes, and using the materials to survive. Cultural critic Maria Cecilia Loschiavo dos Santos states: “The homeless wrap discarded products around themselves and their possessions to create a basic resource for protection and survival. Thus constructing a living package.” [3]

With this exhibition “ACCUMULATED MATERIAL:CONTEMPORARY ALTARES AND OFRENDAS” will examine installation artistic practices through the “afro-Caribbean” and “mestiza” traditions of altar making, which is prevalent in Latin America, the Caribbean and Latina/o communities in the US. Three Chicago artists will create installation work, incorporating recycled material, photography, mix media, sculpture, video and sound. Giselle A. Mercier originally from Panama (fig. 1), Elvia Rodriguez-Ochoa originally from Mexico (fig.2) and Edra Soto born in Puerto Rico (fig.3) will participate in this exhibit. Their topics put into perspective Chicagos Latina/o communities, utilising the working-class sensibility, subverting “Eurocentric” academic theory into their artistic pursuits, identity politics and lastly looking in their own communities for inspiration.


Fig. 2 Elvia Rodriguez-Ochoas altar-inspired installation (detail shown here)
explores feminist ideologies, memory and motherhood using the image of the “Virgen de Guadalupe”.


In the US, people tend to use words such as “bi-culture” or “bi-racial” to describe a mix blooded individual. Although in Latin America and the Caribbean, this idea of hybridism originally came about during the colonial era. Many scholars refer to this idea of hybrid culture to the “mestizaje” of the Americas, the state of fused race, religion and culture.  Many US scholars are starting to compare and make connections to the “mestizaje” as a concept, using the concept as a historic explanation to describe the notion of globalization and hybridity.

During the European invasion of the Americas and the Caribbean, the process of colonization
created the “mestizaje”. The “mestiza” and “mestizo” (people of mixed races) were the genetic result of the colonization of the Americas. [4]The Spanish settlers quickly mixed with their non-Western slaves: Africans, Asians, and Native Americans. In some instances,mixing happened through the violent raping of non-Western females. The “mestiza/o” population in the New Spain were disliked and not accepted by both indigenous and European communities. However, the “mestizo/a” had the ability to communicate with both worlds, Western and non-Western populations. The governing Spanish community created a caste system to define ones Western heritage, symbolized by wealth and prestige.

Although the “mestiza/o” was a creation of both worlds, in such a society, a persons skin color contributed to her/his upper rank position and privilege; skin color reflecting upon ones connections to Western culture. In order to continually divide and separate, more categories were created in the Spanish settlement. For example, if a “mestiza/o” married a European, they would produce a “castiza/o”. The “castiza/o” would have to marry a European in order to secure economic privilege and social ranking in the Spanish community. Historian Jonathan Israel wrote on “mestizaje”, explaining: “However the government has no objection to the ordaining of castizos, the offspring of Spaniards by mestizas. Indeed, it is clear that the secular clergy in New Spain, which we have classified as creole, has in its veins a strain of Indian blood also and was really creole-castizo-mestizo.” Israel pointed out how a government can control a persons genetic heritage by an invented label. [5]

In 1550, Spanish viceroy Don Luis de Velasco implemented a segregation policy to keep non-indigenous people away from the natives. Friars resisted the policy because they tried to keep peace in an already genetically mixed society. The “mestiza/o” populations were described by the Spanish establishment as an “inferior” people, even though they had the ability to communicate with both Western and non-Western communities. Since the European settlement in Latin America and the Caribbean, cultural indigenous traditions mixed with African slaves, who were brought over by the early European settlers. The mixing of these cultures and races has produced the most influential forms of music, art and literature throughout the globe.

In the Caribbean and some parts of Central America, the mixing involved a heavy influence from the African Diaspora; these areas of the “mestizaje” included Spanish and African cultural influences, and, in some cases, indigenous customs. The term “mestiza/o” was not as regularly used to describe and label mixed blood people as in the mainland; racial terms such as “mulatta” or “mulatto” were instead used.  As with Mexico and Central America, the Caribbean has many hybrid traditions with their religion, music and food. Many religious festivals are fused traditions, such as the carnivals that can be seen in Central and South America.


Religious belief systems stemming from the “mestizaje” has created such a controversial dialogue (even in this present time) that it has become difficult to understand “spirituality” in Latin America and the Caribbean. During colonial times, non-western slaves disguised their non-western beliefs under disguised religious icons, for example the pantheon of Catholic saints and virgins.  The most famous is the Mexican virgin “La Virgen de Guadalupe,” a celebrated religious icon in all of the Americas.  For the indigenous communities, she represents “Tonzantin”, the earth goddess from pre-Columbian beliefs, and for the Caribbean, “Chango” is the African Yoruban god of lighting and fertility, and can be seen as the virgin Santa Barbara.

On many occasions, altar or “ofrenda” making is much connected to religious beliefs, a hybrid culture of Catholicism and indigenous beliefs for the country of Mexico. For the Caribbean: Panama and Puerto Rico, their hybridization involves mainly the influences from Africa and Europe. In many communities, the African Diaspora tradition carry influences in the form of the shrines, and they play a very important role. These shrines interact with another form of a hybridized religion, Catholicism and African beliefs systems. Many of the natural elements of using rocks, fruits and gourds are used in shrines to honor Catholic saints (disguised for Yoruban deity or “orisha” worship).

These hybrid representations belonging to the “mestizaje” can be found in everyday households in Latin America and the Caribbean, where African and indigenous influences are strong and resistant. Yoruban art historian Babatunde Lawal acknowledges that ” because of certain similarities it share with the Catholic faith, the dominant religion in Central and South America and the Caribbean.”[6] Enter the domestic sphere, where common place material plays an important conduit for culture. For example, altar or “ofrenda” making within a home becomes important for Latin American holidays such as “Dias de los muertos” (happening on November 1 and 2).  Ofrenda-making on “Dia de los muertos” is a symbolic cultural tradition remembering the deceased. Elements like photographs and personal objects can be found holding symbolic meaning to its particular environment.

In the case of home “altar” traditions in Latin America, immigrants and residents from the southwestern working class Mexican-American communities have introduced these traditions in the US. In some instances, these approaches have been re-modified and the birth of a “botanica”, a shop of Latin American curios, religious material, herbs and ointments, found frequently in Spanish speaking communities in the United States, became a reality. Also, the creation of “altares” and “ofrendas” can be seen as an act of resistance to the dominant culture because the “altares” attempt to reclaim cultural values due to displacement and patterns of immigration. Latin American artists residing in the US also have contributed and influenced their communities where they have used the “ofrenda” and the “altar” as a platform for artistic inspiration.

Fig.3 Edra Sotos “Ornamentos” (detail shown here) series fuses American and
Puerto Rican popular culture with traditional folk metalwork practices found in Mexico.


The presence of Latin Americans residing in the UShave been there since before the 1848 annexation of the Southwestern states of Texas, New Mexico, etc. Paralleling the 1960s civil rights movements, the Latin American communities began entering the public universities creating a movement. The term “Chicano” rang the militant stance for those South westerners denied of their “American” rights, and on the East Coast, the term “Nuyorican” was designated to Puerto Rican communities in the New York area. These two movements became politically known within the academic circles since 1970s.

Many artists came out of these movements, creating a place for Latin American art in the mainstream cultural institutions, such as the Smithsonian Museum and the Museum of Modern Art. Their artistic production challenged the perceived mainstream notions within the “hi” and “lo” culture of their communities and also within the mainstream academic art world. Their work also serves their own communities to readdress and reaffirm cultural values as unrepresented communities, which include both Latin American immigrants and US born generations.

“Chicana/o” scholars such as Amalia Mesa-Bains and Tom Frausto Ybarra have discussed how “Latina/o” artists have used these traditions of collecting and transforming materials to assert cultural identity and promote a language of resistance and survival. Frausto Ybarra identifies this aesthetic as “rascuache” for the Chicano/a artistic communities. [7]These “Chicana/o” concerns are also shared with Chicago “Latina/o” communities of keeping cultural traditions, values and identity. Mesa-Bains wrote on how “Chicana” artists work within their academic theory of utilising sensibilities belonging to academic “Chicana” artists. She describes it as “domesticana”. She explains as: ” vulgar, inferior, tasteless, and insensible are all terms associated with kitsch. The discourse on kitsch and its relationship to the postmodern avant-garde has been marked by multiple definitions. ” [8]

These traditions involving recycling material, re-inventing common found objects, into works of art. This approach can be seen and found in all parts of Latin American within the artisan and folk artist circle, even within Spanish speaking communities of the US. The action of recycling found material into new works, sometimes with a utilitarian function, could be a transformation, and can be seen as an artistic process. Latin American or self-identified “Latina/o” artists used traditions such as altar making as an artistic source mainly practiced by “Latina” artists.

Within the realm of mainstream culture, “Nuyorican” writer Ed Morales described the current state of “Latina/o” cultural identity in the US as one construction in that has been ready for a century: “It is a Spanglish space. If the postmodern era is characterized by unprecedented heterogeneity and randomness, then Latinos are well prepared to take advantage of it. We have spent the last several centuries preparing our roles at the first wholly postmodern culture.” [9]

Guest Curator, Jesus Macarena-Avila

Macarena-Avila has MFA degree from the Vermont College of Norwich University and studied in the fiber, painting and sculpture departments at the School of the Art Institute, where he earned his BFA. He has obtained a high level of artistic accomplishments and experiences exhibiting his work in the United States and internationally including Australia, France, Mexico, South Africa, Senegal, Spain and Zambia and lectured at educational and arts institutions such as: Antioch College (Yellow Springs Ohio); Australian National University (Canberra, Australia); Columbia College Chicago (Chicago, Illinois); Community Arts Project (Cape Town South Africa); and Northern Illinois University (DeKalb Illinois). Including Victoria University (Melbourne, Australia); University of Missouri at Saint Louis (Saint Louis Missouri); Victorian College for the Arts (Melbourne, Australia) and Witwatersrand University (Johannesburg, South Africa). Past curatorial projects has been exhibited with VUSpace with Victoria University, Melbourne, Australia; Malcolm X College, Chicago, Illinois and Polvo Chicago, Illinois. In Chicago, Illinois, he works as a community based arts educator with many social service organisations and is the co-founder of POLVO, an alternative cultural space promoting contemporary art in Chicago.


[1] Corrigan Corell and Polk discuss the act of recycling mass produced material in the city of Los Angeles in “The Cast-Off Objects Recast: Recycling and the Creative Transformation of Mass-Produced Objects” Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler of Cultural Museum (1999), p. 20.
[2] In the US, many suburban households practised “yard art” in which for major holidays such as Christmas and Halloween, the usage of mass-produced materials tend to be use as decorations for their front yards.
[3] Loschiavo dos Santos discusses the act of recycling with homeless communities in  “The Cast-Off Objects Recast: Recycling and the Creative Transformation of Mass-Produced Objects” Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler of Cultural Museum (1999), p. 111.
[4] Within scholarly circles, to indicate the terms which compliment Spanish language of masculine and feminine usage. For example the word, “Latina/o” can be used like “Latino” for males and “Latina” for females.
[5] . Israel wrote on the history of “mestizaje” in Mexico, “Race and Class in Politics in Colonial Mexico:1610-1670”.
[6] Lawal chronicles the Yoruban influence on Caribbean hybrid religions in “Santeria Aesthetics in Contemporary Latin American Art”, Washington DC:Smithsonian Institution Press (1996), pg. 28
[7] Frausto Ybarra defines the term “rascuache” within the artistic production and belonging to Chicano/a artistic communities in “Rasquache: A Chicano Sensibility”, Phoenix: MARS Artspace (1988).
[8]: Mesa-Bains uses the term “domesticana” to describe the artistic production done by Chicana artists. Chicana artists considered by Mesa-Bains and whose work fits under the term “domesticana” include Carmen Lomas Garza, Santa C. Barraza, Esther Hernandez and Patsii Valdez.
[9] . Morales, Ed. “Living in Spanglish: The Search for Latino Identity in America”, Los Angeles: LA Weekly Books (p.17).