An Awe-Inspiring Altar Remembers One Latino Artist’s Guiding Spirit

At the American History Museum, an installation reimagines the life story of a Latina artist and writer

The installation, "A Room of Her Own: An Altar for My Mother," is on view through January 2015. (Max Kutner)
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Sandra Cisneros was in a Chicago hospital, where her mother was in the last moments of her life. The two women had not always been close. “My mother didn’t understand me and I didn’t understand her,” Cisneros says. That changed around dawn, when she says something spectacular happened. “Her spirit left the room,” she says. “I could feel it dissipate and it was not the woman I knew. It was very tender and sweet and it was this emotion of deep love, absolute love.” Cisneros left the hospital feeling a sense of resolution. “I’m not a medium. I don’t have special powers. I just think my heart was broken open and I was just lucky to feel it.”

Cisneros is honoring her mother with an installation opening on Friday, October 31, at the National Museum of American History, titled “A Room of Her Own: An Altar for My Mother.” A Day of the Dead memorial, the installation will be on view through January 12, 2015. She created the altar with artist Irma Carolina Rubio. Previous versions have appeared at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago and the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque. This one, the women say, is their most elaborate yet.

“My mother’s house was like más es más, more is more,” Cisneros says. The altar reflects that, with surfaces covered in knick knacks. Some items belonged to her mother: a dresser, dolls, books, political pins and even a lock of her hair. Above and beside the surface are photographs and text; below are traditional wax flowers and candles.

Sandra Cisneros is using a Day of the Dead altar, now at the National Museum of American History, to connect with her Mesoamerican heritage. (Max Kutner)
The installation, "A Room of Her Own: An Altar for My Mother," is on view through January 2015. (Max Kutner)
Cisneros incorporated objects belonging to her late mother, including books, political pins and even a lock of hair. (Max Kutner)
Cisneros was born in Chicago and only discovered the Day of the Dead custom as an adult. (Max Kutner)
Versions of the installation previously showed in Chicago and Albuquerque. (Richard Strauss, National Museum of American History)
Cisneros (left) showed the installation to Magdalena Mieri (right), director of the Program in Latino History and Culture and the American History Museum. (Richard Strauss, National Museum of American History)
“I’m not a medium. I don’t have special powers. I just think my heart was broken open and I was just lucky to feel it,” Cisneros says. (Richard Strauss, National Museum of American History)

People observe the Day of the Dead, or Día de Los Muertos, on November 1 and 2. That first day happens to fall on the anniversary of Cisneros’ mother’s death. The Smithsonian Latino Center, along with the University of Texas at El Paso, is hosting a number of live and virtual events for the holiday. Cisneros describes a traditional Day of the Dead altar as “a sacred space that incorporates the Pagan and the Christian rituals of honoring the dead.” “People who come from Europe, they’re not in contact with their dead everyday, whereas people from Mesoamerica are,” she says. “We don’t think of ghosts as haunting; we think of our departed as spirit guides, as allies, as angels.”

The installation is special for Cisneros, 59, who considers herself a writer before an artist. Her work includes novels, poetry and a children’s book. Because she was born in Chicago and only moved to Mexico in recent years, creating this altar was about reconnecting with her Mexican roots. “I didn’t grow up with this custom,” she says. “Now living in Mexico, I’m learning so much about the connection to the spiritual world everyday.”

“A Room of Her Own: An Altar for My Mother” opens today, October 31, at the National Museum of American History. It will be on view through January 12, 2015. Artist Sandra Cisneros will be speaking at the National Museum of the American Indian on November 1.

Update: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that Sandra Cisneros was born in Texas. She was born in Chicago. 

About Max Kutner
Max Kutner

Max Kutner was the editorial intern for Smithsonian. He is now a staff writer at Newsweek and has contributed to Boston magazine and other publications.

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