Approach to the Visitations of Home Altars

The approach to the visitations of home altars was an ethnographic research and home-based study of the prayer practice of Mexican-Americans in their homes. The question was how their home altar influenced their prayer practice. Home altars traditionally have provided a heritage of home prayer: this study also attempted to learn how home prayer practice had motivated Mexican Americans in their faith and in their participation in their parish life and pastoral activities today.

Questions sought included: Where they had aquired their altar bultos (A three dimensional figure of a person apporoved as a Saint by the Catholic Church) and retablos (flat picture of Saints)? How did they relate with their altar pieces? What did their Saints (Santos) mean to them?

What had they experienced in their prayer life in relation to their Saints. Persons visited were overjoyed to discuss their altars and talk about their Saints.

The total experience proved to be a happy one. We appreciated what people shared. They all were very friendly. Historically, the Spanish speaking people have had to resort many times to their homes as a place offering spirituality.The Family resides in the home and friends visit the home. Grandparents, especially grandmothers or abuelitas, usually taught the faith in the home. Religion Casera or Home Religion played an important part in their lives because for centuries families were isolated from large urban religious centers with priests. Many people were isolated even more after 1848 when Mexico lost its lands that now comprise the southwestern states of the United States.

New Dioceses were later created in the new U.S. territories and states. Bishops and priests were brought in from Baltimore. The new problems encountered in serving the Spanish speaking included the language barrier. Priests could not speak Spanish. People during this transitional time really didn't believe they were part of the church. Even now after all these years, the Hispanics, in their diverse groups are in need of being intergrated into the Catholic Church. Yet, the people kept their faith during these many decades because of their home religious practice. They prayed around their home altars, used the sacramentals ,rosary, candles, pictures and statues of saints. They lived in the spirituality learned from their forefathers, especially the abuelita who taught the faith at home.

At least one time during the year, the persons we interviewed held a religious ceremony in their home. Sometimes an invited priest attended and assisted with a liturgy of the word or celebrated a home Mass. The special occasions were at Christmas time, during novenas prayed at home for a deceased person, weekly rosaries, or special days of prayer.

For the most part, the persons visited were members of a parish church. They participated in their parish and were involved with home religion as well as with their church. Home Religion and culture for the Spanish speaking people seemed very well integrated. The Catholic faith of Mexican-Americans historically goes back hundreds of years to Spain, after about 2,000 years of Catholicism when St. James converted Spain. Possibly the apostle Paul visited Spain. The faith continued through the experience of having to rid Spain of the Moslem invaders. That took some 700 years of conflict until 1492. In that year, Spain reached out to the "New World" with Christianity. In the span of 500 years, the faithful, both Spanish and the new native converts built a string of churches, missions. schools and hospitals in an area some 9000 miles long from Argentina to the United State's southwest, Florida and Puerto Rico. Generation after generation received the faith, practiced it and passed it along, usually in front of home altars. Because of geography, terrain, economical reasons and lack of priests for isolated rural areas, the faithful became dependent on home religion and cultural faith. Their religion casera and religious heritage progressed from one generation to another.

Even today when we see children breaking a pinata at birthday parties, we must remember that the pinata had a religious significance. The pinata represents a challenge for the blind-folded persons to break the unseen recepticle of rewards. In the game, the person swings in hope of striking the pinata open. In a spiritual sense, the stick is swung against evil. It is evil and ignorance that keeps people from Christ. When the pinata is broken, evil is supposedly destroyed and the reward spills out for the benefit of the others as well. Our brothers and sisters and neighbors present at the party are rewarded.

Many of the day-to-day activities of the Spanish speaking have a religious basis. The Catholic faithful do not pray to the statues orthe pictures of saints but to the saints in Heaven represented by the pictures or statues. This prayer practice among family is thus extended in time, space and relationship, The altar prayer practice involved friends and relatives at home and through spiritual projection, reached out to Heaven.

This is an important point: People wrongfully get accused through misunderstanding and ignorance of such practices for seemingly to pray to pictures of saints. In actuality, the picture served only as a reminder and prayer was meant for the saint in heaven. The deceased family members were belived yet alive but living in heaven, another dimension of creation. Many of these people were connected to the world of God, which included saints. When we asked to comment on their thoughts about the saints they had, one of the families simply replied that they were like their extended family. Thus, their extended family included those who had gone forth into the next world. This is why Mexicans and Mexican-Americans celebrate the "day of the Dead,'. They believed that although their ancestors have passed away, they continue to live on, albeit in a different form and in a different place.

- There is a reason-based faith for these beliefs: First of all, when Moses and Elijah appeared with Christ on the mountain, Peter, overwhelmed, said something like 'That is all good, Lord, build something here or do some marker or what?'

This experience, when Christ was transfigured, showed that people (Moses and Elijah) that had passed away from the Earth continued to live in another dimension. Our indigenous spiritual roots in America (Aztecs and other native peoples) belived in the after life as well. Another thing, in regards to the altar pictures (Retablos), there is a story that supports the use of pictures, it goes something like the following: A certain king learned that Jesus Christ had performed some remarkable miracles of healing, and desirous himself of healing, sent a messenger to ask Jesus for some healing. Jesus himself could not go to heal the king, but sent one of his apostles carrying a picture of Jesus. The king was healed. Did Christ heal through his picture? Did the faith generated from the presence of the picture healed the king?