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Sandra Cisneros’ ofrenda is displayed at the National Museum of Mexican Art. Cisneros’ ofrendas, altar-like pieces that pay tribute or give thanks,incorporate symbols that represent the person her mother was before she became a mother and a grandmother.

Author’s ‘altar’ keeps late mother’s memory alive

Sandra Cisneros, author of The House on Mango Street, is constructing an altar at the National Hispanic Cultural Center in memory of her mother, Elvira “Vera” Cisneros.

The altar is a recreation of her mother’s room, one of her mother’s favorite escapes, Cisneros said. She said her mother wasn’t happy with her roles as a mother and grandmother and instead focused more on who she was as an individual.

“Just looking at the things, to me, the objects that I chose and the arrangement of them and the colors will be like reading a book,” she said. “You will get a snapshot of who this person is just by looking at her clothes, her jewelry, her heritage.”

The room is a symbol not only of her mother finding solace in solitude, but when Cisneros was in the hospital room when her mother died, she said she saw a side of her mother she had never seen.

“I think every death is different,” she said. “I was expecting something really strong. My mother was this strong, opinionated, angry, feisty, cabrona woman. She’d take no prisoners and she’d speak her mind, she didn’t care if she hurt your feelings, she was like a dragon lady. I expected that energy when she died, and she was like a little lamb, she was sweet and tender.”

A year ago, Cisneros created a similar altar dedicated to her mother at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago. Cesáreo Moreno, chief curator at the Chicago museum, said the piece was an ofrenda, a Mexican-American piece of art that is similar to an altar.

“An ofrenda is more of an offering, paying homage to a person, paying homage to … an idea in Mexican American culture,” he said.

He had asked her a few years prior to install one for the museum’s annual Day of the Dead exhibition, but he said she told him that she was not quite ready for that step in the grieving process.

“So, finally, when she did say she was ready, I knew that the ofrenda for her was part of this process, her coming to terms with the loss of her mother, and at that point it was her father as well,” Moreno said. “Most ofrendas are a way of keeping somebody very important alive in their life.”

It will not be an exact replica of the first ofrenda, though she said she is not sure what will change about it. These changes will reflect the ways in which her impression of her mother as an individual has developed since her death in 2007, Cisneros said.

“Because I’m a writer, there’s a lot of text, writing on glass, the wall, the headboard,” she said. “For me, as a writer, it’s always an exploration, an examination of people that are close to me, that I care about. In exploring them, I kind of figure out how my mother became who she was.”

Cisneros said she has not planned specifically what she will write. The process will likely be spontaneous, with her writing down impressions of the experience of whatever comes to mind while she constructs the altar, she said. For the opening on Saturday, Cisneros will read her new essay, “An Ofrenda for My Mother,” which appeared in Granta, a U.K. literary magazine. Cisneros said it describes the grieving process and the role the creative process plays in facilitating illumination.

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“A Room of Her Own: My Mother’s Altar”
An art installation by Sandra Cisneros
National Hispanic
Cultural Center
Ofrenda viewing
Saturday 6 p.m.

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