Altars as theater

Anyone who has lived in Mexico for a time have come across the concept of the “altar” for Day of the Dead. It is not an altar in the Catholic sense, although its purpose is to direct the onlookers thoughts onto one or more ideas.

This extension of the concept of altar beyond something that is just in church appears in several aspects of Mexican life. Most are related to folk religion, practices that are related to but not officially part of Catholic liturgy. Day of the Dead is the best known of these, where the focus is on loved ones who have passed on. But others revolve around public displays for local patron saints, the Virgin of Sorrows and sometimes are even secular, such as Day of the Dead altars dedicated to Mexican historical figures.

Altar with a canal boat (trajinera) them at the Vizcainas School in downtown Mexico City (credit: Tanyach sa)

While public altars are not exactly new, they have been evolving in central Mexico, especially in terms of size. Much of this has been due to the popularity of “mega-altars” in Mexico City for Day of the Dead. These altars have extended the time when artisans start planning and working on altar projects back to the summer, in order to be ready by October.

Villena with a depiction of the China Poblana

Rodolfo Villena Hernandez is a cartonero (paper mache artist) who specializes in the making of public altars. His interest in Day of the Dead altars began young when he began building them in the family garage in Mexico City. His passion for tradition led him to study history at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Moving to Puebla a few years after that.

Element for a monumental altar in progress

His career as a cartonero began in the early 1990s, around the same time that he became involved in theatre. He has worked as a director and producer and even wrote one play. As the two has their start together, it is not surprising that much of his theatre can appear in his altars, as both have scenes and characters. Although altars do not have movement, placement and position of elements are equally important to both.

While Day of the Dead is still the focal point of his year, he makes monumental altars for other holidays and events such as Holy Week, Lent and Corpus Christi, with the majority commissioned by government and cultural institutions. He has created altars dedicated to Puebla bishop Juan de Palafox y Mendoza for the Puebla city hall, one depicting the Mexican Revolution for the Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla, one dedicated to the China Poblana and another to artist Jose Guadalupe Posada for the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago. While most of his works are meant for display in the state of Puebla, his has also exhibited in several cities in the United States, thanks to patronage from the National Museum of Mexican Art and others.

Villena altar at the Museo de Arte Popular in Mexico City
Inside Villena’s workshop

His work has earned him a number of awards such as being named a “distinguished citizen of Puebla” by the state and a “grand master” of Mexican folk art by the Museo de Arte Popular in Mexico City.

Villena being interviewed by the media at the National Meeting of Paper Mache Artists in Cuernavaca

Despite his success, making a living at this work remains a challenge for the nearly 50-year old artisan. Government grants and other support is fickle at best, and he must fight to negotiate decent prices for his work. He lives with his parents and his workshop is in a delapidated building on the old industrial corredor that links the cities of Puebla and Tlaxcala. To supplement his income from monumental altars, he does smaller cartoneria works as well as give classes both at this workshop, Puebla cultural institutions and even once in the United States.

Feature image courtesy of the artisan, all others by Alejandro Linares Garcia unless otherwise noted.



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