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  • Santos & Ofrendas: Ten Highlights of Latinx Art at the Smithsonian

    In the United States, Latinx religious art takes on many forms: from vibrant Día de los Muertos-inspired ofrendas (altars) adorned with flowers, foods, and photographs to carved and painted images of santos (saints) from local pigments and wood.

    As part of the Creative Encounters: Living Religions in the U.S. program at this year’s Smithsonian Folklife Festival, two groups of participants of Latinx descent will present on the National Mall, including the Esparza Family of ofrenda altar-makers from Los Angeles, as well as santeros (saint makers) Nicolas Otero, Ruben M. Gallegos, and Andrew Montoya from New Mexico. Prior to their arrival and your visit to the Festival, take some time to explore Latinx religious art in the Smithsonian collections.

    1. A couple’s portraits of santeros at work

    Photographs of New Mexican Santeros in the 1990s by Chuck and Jan Rosenak

    Chuck and Jan Rosenak are key figures in the American folk-art movement, accumulating one of the finest collections through their first-hand experience traveling throughout the country. They first discovered contemporary folk art at an exhibition at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in the 1970s, and after retiring to New Mexico in the early 1980s, they began collecting and documenting the folk art of the Four Corners region, with interests in Hispanic art of the Southwest including saints and altars.

    In the 1990s, the Rosenaks gifted their collection of 220 pieces and additional archival materials to the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Some of the highlights include photos of famous New Mexican carvers and santeros with their work. Photographs like “Marco A. Oviedo at altar” and “Eulogio and Zoraida Ortega at altar” give rare glimpses into saint makers’ art arranged within an intimate and spiritual setting.

    Among the artists included are those who trained the santeros coming to the Folklife Festival this year: Alcario Otero and Charles Carrillo, who taught Nicolas Otero, and Arlene Cisneros Sena, teacher and aunt of Andrew Montoya.

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    2. A santera’s altar

    Sketch for a New Mexican Retablo by Marie Romero Cash, 1980

    Drawing of an altar in a limited color palette of blue, orange, and red. Nine squares in a grid-like formation each depict a saint. Onto of them is a rounded top that houses a depiction of God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit.

    Marie Romero Cash is a Latinx artist from Santa Fe, New Mexico. She emerged as a leading figure in the santero tradition and is known for her commissions for the Cathedral Church of St. John in Albuquerque and St. Francis Cathedral in Santa Fe. Her work deals with visual representations of the Catholic faith and its saints intertwined with Mexican and Southwest artistic and cultural traditions.

    This 1980 sketch for a retablo (devotional altar box) was commissioned for a renovation project of the San Juan Nepomuceno Church in El Rito, New Mexico. It is painted in a traditional New Mexico santos style, with geometric forms, delineated outlines, quick and simple lines for faces and emotions, and a limited yet highly saturated color palette. The sketch follows the traditional forms of an altar, with three rows consisting of three devotional images, each housing a single religious figure. Some of the figures represented are those of high importance to Latinx Christian traditions in the United States, including Our Lady of Guadalupe and Our Lady of San Juan de los Lagos.

    Interestingly, a crucified Christ figure is depicted and titled Nuestro Señor de Esquipulas (Our Lord of Esquipulas), a title for Jesus Christ from Guatemala that quickly spread across Central America, Mexico, and into New Mexico, as a deity who heightens the pain, suffering, and death of Jesus Christ rather than his traditional passive representations.

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    3. A rare view of a homemade altar

    Photograph of a San Antonio Altar by Kathy Vargas, 1987

    Small, three-tiered  altar holding a statue presumably of Our Lady of San Juan de los Lagos encased in glass. The lower two tiers have mismatched vases and candles with flowers. The altar has a frame of gray pebbles.

    San Antonio-based artist Kathy Vargas is a photographer who specializes in documenting Latinx spaces, as well as manipulating images by mixing influences from pre-colonial and Latin American Catholicism through double exposure and hand-coloring techniques.

    In the 1990s, Vargas, along with folklorist and performance artist Kay Turner, began a documentary project on yard shrines in San Antonio. Their book Beautiful Necessity: The Art and Meaning of Women’s Altars (1999) features photographs of domestic altars in Texas with a focus on Mexican and Indigenous spiritual influences. This “Photograph of a domestic altar” comes from around this time, depicting a small and handmade altar probably in someone’s house. A variety of mismatching vases, containers, and candles frame the altar, which holds a devotional statue of presumably Our Lady of San Juan de los Lagos, all framed by a structure delicately decorated with shiny pebbles.

    Most of the altars photographed by Vargas are considered to have long disappeared; her work remains as rare evidence of an intimate yet deeply important cultural practice.

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    4. A santo for a child

    Santo Nino de Atocha by Ruben Gallegos, 1991

    A small painting depicts the Holy Child of Atocha sitting in a blue cloak and holding a staff with a water gourd and basket in his other hand. The frame consists of orange and blue geometric details.

    A participant in the 2023 Festival, Ruben Gallegos is a santero from Albuquerque, New Mexico, who specialized in religious imagery through retablos, especially at a miniature scale. He mixes acrylics and his own handmade paint from natural local pigments. His style is unique from the larger santero tradition, often adding highly detailed painted outlines as a sort of frame for the figures.

    In this Santo Niño de Atocha, created in 1991, Gallegos features the Holy Child of Atocha, a Catholic image of Jesus Christ, often represented holding a basket, staff, and a drinking gourd. The Holy Child of Atocha became highly popular in Hispanic communities of North America due to the original shrine being founded in 1554 in Plateros, Zacatecas, Mexico. In the late 1500s, there was a mining accident in the area, and the trapped miners were said to have been visited by the Holy Child, who brought them water in his gourd and led them to safety. Since then, the Holy Child has become a symbol of Zacatecas and the protector of miners. The practice of venerating the Holy Child spread into New Mexico, and a large shrine for the Holy Child exists today in Chimayo, New Mexico.

    5. A teacher’s altar made from scratch

    Devoción de Nuevo México by Charles M Carrillo, 1998

    A large handmade altar with a protruding table-like base and a painted backboard consisting of five scenes depicting Catholic saints and angels, and a large rounded dove on the top. In the middle is a space  reserved for a statue to be placed at the center, with a white painted curtain behind it.

    Charles M. Carrillo is considered one of the leading santeros in New Mexico. As an artist and advocate, Carrillo works with Spanish colonial techniques to revive earlier traditions of New Mexican art. Using local minerals and plants, he prepares his own natural. He has passed his knowledge and skills on to 2023 Festival participant Nicolas Otero.

    In his 1998 reredos (a screen covering an altar’s back) Devoción de Nuevo México/Devotion of New Mexico, Carrillo borrowed a colonial technique through its construction by utilizing a mortise-and-tenon process, meaning no nails or screws were used. He prepares natural pigments from local New Mexican minerals and plants. The reredos frames a stage in the middle, perhaps leaving space for a devotional object to be placed. Surrounding it are images of Saint Anthony of Padua, Saint Francis of Assisi, the Archangels Michael and Raphael, and God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit as a dove on the top. Carrillo paints decorative architectural elements rather than carving them, as seen on the painted posts on the sides.

    6. A federally funded santo

    Santo y Santitos Painting by Herman Bacharach, 1936

    A print depicting the Virgin of Guadalupe in a blue cloak with tiny black stars as details. She has a golden yellow and orange radiating and pointy halo around her, surrounded by teal and red floral motifs. Below her stand three angels and a small child inside of a crescent moon.

    Herman Bacharach was a painter and printmaker from Las Vegas, New Mexico, who took inspiration from surrounding Native American culture. In 1935, President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal created the Works Progress Administration as a federal agency to provide work to unemployed people. Within the WPA was the Federal Art Project, which sought to promote American art through funding artists directly. Bacharach would eventually be employed by the agency to create numerous works.

    Santo y Santitos was one of these WPA-funded pieces. The print depicts a large Our Lady of Guadalupe in her typical regalia of a star-ridden blue cloak and a dress filled with images of flowers. The print follows santero artistic techniques of New Mexico, especially in its saturated earthy color palette, geometric forms, and simple facial outlines.

    7. A modernized female death symbol

    Death Cart, Luis Tapia, 1986

    A large wooden cart with two wheels and a seat that sits a human skeleton with a long black braid, an open mouth, and wide eyes that render a shocked emotion.

    Born in 1950 in Agua Fria, New Mexico, Luis Tapia has been cited as one of the key contemporary transformers of santeros. He reimagines the lives of Catholic figures today, confronting issues such as immigration, inequality, and more, highlighting the complexities of modern society through a lens of the Latinx community values of faith and cultural pride. Tapia pushes the limits of the santero tradition, contesting outdated ideas and traditions while still embracing the culture.

    Death Cart features Doña Sebastiana, a symbol of death in New Mexican Holy Week processions, specifically by the Penitente Brotherhood, a charitable Catholic fraternity active in New Mexico and Colorado with roots in Spain. During their annual reenactment of Christ’s crucifixion, the Penitentes display Doña Sebastiana as a warning for people to prepare their souls for Christ for their eventual deaths. Taipa’s version of Doña Sebastiana is hand-carved out of cottonwood trees native to New Mexico and painted with natural pigments found in the area. Taipa creates a realistic Doña Sebastiana, one who is in shock, scared, and aware of her surroundings, rendering an uncomfortable viewing experience for the audience.

    8. An ode to a Mexican cinema icon (and later her mother)

    An Ofrenda for Dolores Del Rio by Amalia Mesa-Bains, 1984

    A large altar installation piece framed by two pink curtains and multiple framed black-and-white photographs on either side side, holding within a large mirror shrouded with a dark pink fluff. The altar holds multiple smaller shiny items, candles, photographs, and other collectibles on top and below of the mirror. The ground has smaller pebbles and film reels.

    Amalia Mesa-Bains is a Chicana artist who specializes in large-scale interpretations of traditionalofrendas, engaging with ideas of women’s spiritual practices, colonial histories, and cultural memory as vehicles for identity formation. In an effort to find relatable examples of feminine Latinx beauty, Mesa-Bains created An Ofrenda for Dolores del Río, an intimate, regal, and unapologetically feminine capsule of Chicana culture. The ofrenda honors Dolores del Río, the Hollywood and Mexican Golden Age of Cinema actress known for her strong and iconic performances in classic films such as María Candelaria (1943).

    In Hollywood, del Río was seen as an exotic and silent beauty. But in Mexico, she played the roles of heroines and marginalized people. Mesa-Bains explored this dichotomy, making a physical distinction between her Mexican heritage on one side of the ofrenda and her American identity on the other. Instead of the traditional ofrenda format of three tiers, Mesa-Bains innovates it to resemble a woman’s vanity with a mirror that forces the viewer to see themselves within del Río’s life.

    Mesa-Bains’s mother died in 2004, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum allowed her to add photographs of her to the ofrenda. These images of Mesa-Bains’ mother and Dolores del Río creates an intimate joint memorial to the two, as her mother was the one who introduced her to del Río’s films.

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    9. A small peep into a beloved holiday

    Día de los Muertos Altar Scene, 1998

    A small handheld shadow box with a bright pink frame with floral motifs in white and blue. Inside of the box is a diorama of a traditional Día de los Muertos/Day of the Dead domestic altar scene, including a table holding offerings of food, dishes, and plates, decorated with hung photos of the Virgin of Guadalupe and other saints. Orange marigold flowers and cut paper crowd the scene, while an image of a small girl, the presumed loved one, is shown on the tablecloth hanging off of the table.

    Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), is a Mexican holiday celebrated on November 1 and 2 as a remembrance of loved ones who are no longer living. Rooted in Indigenous Mesoamerican traditions, it is believed that the spirits of the dead return to visit their loved ones. Those who celebrate create ofrendas with photos of the family members, candles, decorations, sweets like pan de muerto, and personal offerings such as the dead’s favorite foods and drinks to help them on their spiritual journey. The holiday has continued to be celebrated in Mexico and Mexican-American communities in the United States.

    In this shadow box made in 1998, a Día de los Muertos domestic and intimate scene is ornately rendered in all its vibrant festivities at a miniature and transportable scale. Images of Our Lady of Guadalupe and saints are placed at the back of the ofrenda as visual evidence of the syncretic nature of the holiday. Colorful papel picado (perforated paper) are hung around the ofrenda, bearing an image of presumably the loved one being honored. Bright orange marigold flowers completely overwhelm the ofrenda, as they are thought to help lead the dead back to the ofrendas their family made for them. Among the favorite foods placed in traditional Mexican ceramic dishes and jugs, are bread, fruits, and a chicken dish that is presumably mole.

    This shadow box was donated to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History by Mexican American folk art collectors Janice and Glenn Hatfield. Perhaps bought as a tourist artesanía (handmade craft) made for export, this piece serves as visual evidence of this treasured holiday.

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    10. A smooth carving of the original sin

    Temptation in the Garden by George T. López, 1950-1960

    A three-part hand-carved wooden art piece, with the rightmost depicting a male and female figure pointing upward, while the middle resembles a tree with four branches, fruits hanging on by small sticks, and a snake curling up the tree and a devil figure appearing on top. To the left is a rounded fence-like piece that is carved with repeating smaller tree-shaped elements.

    A participant in the 1982 Festival of American Folklife, George T. López was a sixth-generation wood carver and one of northern New Mexico’s prominent santeros. His father, the famous santero José Dolores López, created the Cordova style of saint statues that were chip-carved and unpainted, using a distinct geometric style of decorating hair and clothing with small etched lines. The younger López used simple tools of a saw, a knife, and sandpaper to create his stunning artworks.

    Inspired by the Bible creation story of the book of Genesis, Temptation in the Garden is a large depiction of the original sin, in which Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit. In the middle is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and a serpent changing from a snake into a demon, highlighting López’s idea of how easily Satan can deceive people. The serpent’s tail and head are carved directly into the tree trunk, with little slits as details along its body. A figure of Satan emerges from the middle of the tree, surrounded by large branches delicately holding the forbidden fruits, amazingly attached by tiny sticks. A fence to the side of the scene helps frame the arrangement of the wooden figures, adorned by a carved motif of vegetation.

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    Luis Guevara-Flores is an intern in U.S. Latinx expressive culture for the Folklife Festival program Creative Encounters: Living Religions in the U.S. He is a Mexican American undergraduate student at Yale University double-majoring in art history and Latin American studies.

    This internship received federal support from the Latino Initiatives Pool, administered by the National Museum of the American Latino.

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