By Mariela Marin
Altars are a thing these days. When we think about them, the obvious image is that of the vibrant, celebratory Dia de los Muertos ofrendas, but there exists a wide range beyond that. As a practice with a long history in Latin American, African, European and Indigenous cultures, there are endless possibilities of what a personal altar can look, feel and serve as. Adorned with candles, images, plants, natural elements, trinkets, etc, they are a tool and tradition that has held meaning for generations of Latinx folks.
Ultimately, in the Latinx experience altars have been instrumental in affirming, celebrating, and remembering in a variety of contexts. They serve as a tool to honor both the personal identity and the broader culture of the creator/curator. The altar enshrines the sacred feelings, relationships, beliefs and stories that shape who we are while also providing a portal through which we can connect and communicate.
Altars also have the added ability to enhance and encourage processing and healing both outside of, or within a therapeutic context. As creators and curators of personal altars, we engage in the thoughtful practice of gathering, assembling and maintaining the physical structure itself, but also deeply exploring themes and insights that weave through our interaction with the altar. Along the way we are able to join with objects, concepts and narratives in a way that both externalizes, but also tethers us to the work of relationship with self, others, concepts, and spirit in a tradition that lives imbued within our ancestral lineage. They are a physical manifestation of the journey where we can ground ourselves, actively interact with, reshape, and ritualize.
Fostering a new or renewed interest in this practice can open up avenues of examination, curiosity, and relation in a culturally affirming manner. It is a practice honoring both self and community opening pathways towards healing available to all.
Mariela is a Queer, Latinx therapist and Teaching Faculty and Latinx Mental Health Specialist at Antioch University Santa Barbara. Additionally, they serve as Executive Director at the Community Counseling and Education Center (CCEC) with over 15 years of experience in the field of mental health. They find their many roles help them fulfill the mandate of caring for the community and they are deeply committed to the well-being of their students and clients. Mariela believes in the power of culture, connection, nature and community to heal and strives to support others on their journeys in ways that resonate and empower while also honoring ancestors and supporting future generations