Altar Planning Committee Kicks Off Altar Project

At 4:30 PM on Thursday, November 1st, the Altar Planning Committee hosted a community gathering for the reveal of the Diasporic Communal Remembrance Altars in the Hormel-Nguyen Intercultural Center of Sproul Hall. The altars represented three spiritual traditions: the Mexican ofrenda, the Haitian Vodou altar, and the Puerto Rican/Cuban mesa blanca-bóveda.

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Taty Hernandez ‘19 began the event with a warm welcome to the crowd that had gathered, thanking them for coming and acknowledging the enormous collaborative efforts that went into the creation of the altars. Hernandez also emphasized the implicit political nature of the altars since they “are all from cultures and religions that have been persecuted, time after time after time after time, because of anti-blackness, [and] because of anti-indigenous sentiment.”

Following the opening remarks, Kaitelyn Pasillas ‘20 came forward to thank all the altar collaborators, which included ENLACE, SOCA, Latinx Heritage Month, the BCC, McCabe Library, the Interfaith Center, the Spanish Department, Black Studies, the Religion Department, Latin American and Latino Studies, and Kitao for co-sponsoring the event. She also uplifted the collaborative efforts of the Altar Committee, which consists of Hernandez, Joy George ‘20, Catherine Williams ‘19, Vanessa Jiménez-Read ‘20, and Tinbite Kelemwork ‘22, along with Kitao student leader Amal Sagal ‘19, Lauren Jackson from the McCabe Library, and Sue MacQueen from the Scott Arboretum, who provided the flowers for the altars. Pasillas then introduced visiting Assistant Professor James Padilioni, Jr.

Professor Padilioni provided a concise description of the mesa blanca-bóveda, an altar that is used in Puerto Rican and Cuban Espiritismo (spiritism). He explained, “Espiritismo develops one’s faculties of mediumship in order to channel Spirit for healing and for the increase of wisdom and spiritual perception. An espiritista or practitioner of espiritismo works their bóveda by sitting before it and meditatively waiting to hear what the ancestors and guides have to say.” Professor Padilioni also briefly discussed the individual components of the mesa blanca-bóveda, which, along with the components of the Haitian Vodou altar and the Mexican ofrenda, were also described on posters that were placed around the room. This altar was two-tiered, with the mesa blanca constituting the bottom tier and the bóveda being the top tier. Together, these two tiers represent many spiritual ideas. On the mesa blanca, the white tablecloth symbolizes purity in Catholicism and, for the Bantu people of West-Central Africa, the land of their ancestors. Also included on the bottom tier was a fuente in the center of the table filled with water, a metal crucifix, flowers, and candles to honor one’s genetic ancestors. The bóveda, or burial vault, is meant to honor non-blood ancestors, santos, and elevated spirit guides. On this top tier there are seven fuentes, arranged as six smaller fuentes around a larger, central fuente that contains another metal crucifix. This arrangement is believed to interact with electromagnetic fields and channel Spirit to the altar. Professor Padilioni’s class, Religious Experiences of African Diaspora, contributed to the creation of this altar.

Professor Yvonne Chireau was then introduced to discuss the Haitian vodou altar, which was constructed principally by the students in her Decolonizing Afro-Latin American Religion and From Vodun to Voodoo: African Religions in the Old and New Worlds courses.  She started by leading a chant to guide the spirits towards the altar, prompting the audience with “Kwa Simbo!” and “Kwa La Kwa!”, to respond with a resounding “Kwa!” Professor Chireau continued with an explanation of the history and function of the Haitian Vodou altar. This Vodou altar represents three of the eight spiritual nations of the Haitian-Vodou tradition: Petwo, Gede, and Rada. The left side of the Vodou altar is for the Petwo. Of them, Professor Chireau remarks, “they are the creole spirits that are born not in Africa. Note the colors, red, symbolizing the fire element, and the earth element, which is where they are from, Haiti. They recall the spirit of Revolution that freed the enslaved people of Haiti.” The middle of the altar is dedicated to the Gede spirits whom Professor Chireau describes as “the cosmic homeless” saying, “they come because they are welcomed to this space they always want to have a good time, even in the face of something that is perceived as so final as death. The Gede’s colors are black, and purple, they are drawn to us by good food, drink, and festivity by the living who will remember the dead with joy and with sorrow at this time.” Finally the right-hand side of the altar is for the Rada, “the ancient spirits associated with Ginee, or Africa.” The slower-moving, kind hearted nature of these spirits is reflected by the colors white and blue and their elements, air and water

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Miryam Ramirez ‘21 gave the description and history of the final altar, the Mexican ofrenda. The altar consists of images of family members and ancestors that have passed and offerings of their favorite food. One of the most important parts of the ofrenda is the cempazuchitl flowers (also known as the Mexican or Aztec marigold), which are believed to guide the souls of the dead back to the world of the living. Ramirez highlighted the indigenous roots of this long-standing tradition, tracing the origins of the event to a Nahua tradition that was celebrated during Miccailhuitontli (now the month of August). During colonial times, it became a symbol of cultural resistance. After the arrival of Christianity to the region, the indigenous people were persecuted for practicing their spiritual customs, and the event was practiced in secret and moved to coincide with All Souls Day in November, where it became the Día de los Muertos we know today.

The last speaker for the event was Karen Avila ‘19. Avila brought attention to the spiritual connections formed in this powerful place of energy within the community of people gathered in the space around the altars. She asked everyone to acknowledge these connections, and to acknowledge their neighbors. Avila wanted the people around her to recognize the altars and the process of their creation as “a manifestation of love,” and to think deeply about the meaning and purpose of life and death.

The Committee invited everyone to enjoy the catered food, and Avila reminded the crowd to enjoy the meal as a community because community is an essential aspect of the celebration of life and death. The food was catered by El Merkury, a restaurant that serves a variety of Central-American and Mayan dishes, and people milled around, talking and laughing as they waited in line to enjoy the communal meal.

STORIESDiana GarciaComment