There were flowers hanging from the ceiling, and in paint cans and buckets on the floor; the smell of incense; and the flame from white candles illuminating the photographs of relatives and sculptures of saints.
The mixture of religious deities of Yoruba and Catholic beliefs had such a strong presence that the Cáceres family felt the need to pray in front of a 7-foot-tall painting of the Virgin Mary — also part of the altar.
“We felt inspired by this environment and found it was the right time to pray,” said Sol Cáceres, 32, who visited the installation after eating tacos with his wife, Ansel, and daughter, Jade Marie.
La Ofrenda — The Offering — is an art project that integrates the customs and personal belongings of more than 50 Philly Latino residents collected by lead artist César Viveros over the course of two years. Viveros considers this artwork a “sensory experience” that speaks to the ways these communities express their faith, hope, and resilience.
“This is an interpretation of the so many personal ways in which Latinos hold onto the beliefs that give guidance and meaning, in new spaces and new social environments like the one we find in Philadelphia,” Viveros said.
Viveros, who lost his wife, Ana Guissell Palma, a year ago, added to the installation his own family photos and a rosary gifted by Pope Francis during his visit to the city in 2015. Palma was both a co-artist and co-director of the installation. The couple recognized how much had been documented about Mexicans’ use of altars for Day of the Dead celebrations — à la the movie Coco — but they wanted to explore how other Latinos were using altars in everyday life.
After engaging with residents from South and North Philly and Bensalem for two years, the artists heard from people who store their personal faithful belongings in small drawers in the bedroom, burn incense in the kitchen, or place sculptures and candles on tables in the basement to offer their prayers.
This collective ofrenda is in the heart of South Philly’s Mexican community, the Ninth Street market.
Artist José Ortiz, who managed the project, said it took five months to design, create, and install the syncretic artwork.
“It is perceived that the altars are not only for those who are no longer with us, but also are spaces for consulting, healing old wounds, and conversation with something that is larger than oneself, that can help balance and handle life,” Ortiz said.
Elizabeth Cristóbal was on the 47M bus on her way to buy tamales when she caught a glimpse of the artwork and decided to take a closer look.
“I strongly identify with the god of the moon and the ancestors, and my kids are fascinated by images and the stories around them,” said Cristóbal, 35, who spoke with her children about the stars and the constellations.