With the rise of significance centered around publicly acknowledging healing work through ancestral trauma and spirituality, connecting with our roots through the loving guidance from your local Curanderx has become increasingly normal in today’s societal shift. It’s a homecoming of sorts, reverting back to the knowledge that was once understood as an extension of our culture, which is now making its rounds pivoting away from a concept misaligned largely around negative misconceptions, to instead, as a window of opportunity for profound healing. Among the many beautiful rituals you can undertake in your journey of discovering your inner magic, is integrating altar work into your personal spiritual practice. Altars go as far back as the existence of our indigenous ancestors. Altars are a means of strengthening your connection to spirit by way of appreciation and respect as it relates to your spiritual practice.
Wanting to create an altar, but getting hung up on the self-limiting belief that you don’t know enough to articulate a “correct” altar by standards of external validation? I feel you. I once was there too. Truth is, no one can tell you how to correctly create an altar. The culmination that goes into the process of what it took to create your personal altar, will going to vary accordingly. Your altar is your personal magic. There will never be two in the same, because the way you interpret your connection to spirit is vastly different than the next person and that is what makes altar work powerful, in my humble opinion. However, we all have to start somewhere, and we get by with a little help from our friends. I have covered tips on creating your own altar on my podcast, Better Work B*tch! in past episodes, which you might find insightful.
The real treat, however, is the knowledge shared by Curandera and Doctora, Lisa Martinez. I had the pleasure of interviewing Martinez, who is based out of Colorado and specializes in altar work. She shares insight from the perspective of remedio curandero approach. Here’s Lisa’s guidance on how to set and create your own altar.
Is there a wrong or right way of creating your own altar?
Dra. Martinez: In my opinion, if you are creating your own altar — especially if you are a beginner — then I say there is absolutely no wrong way. I know there are protocols and do’s and don’ts in many of our traditions. They are there for a reason and important. But, when we are just starting on a spiritual journey we can get too caught up in the details and lose sight of the point. It’s more important to open your heart and listen to what you are being guided to put on your altar than being concerned about right or wrong. Our personal altar space is just that…personal. It’s where we will lay down prayers for healing, growth, manifestation and more. It’s where we will let go and embrace. Where we will be emptied out and filled back up. When we allow ourselves to step into a place of childlike joy and creativity, what we create as our altar is perfect. I believe we should all be encouraged to start somewhere and know that we will learn more along the way.
What are some basic tips for beginners for creating their own altar?
Dra. Martinez: Just jump in! Many people already have an altar or the beginnings of one and they don’t even know it. Humans are drawn to the sacred, to honoring and to memorializing. When someone comes to me and says: “I want to have an altar but I don’t even know where to start.” I always encourage them to look around their space and make note of where they are already putting all the meaningful items they have. More times than not there is already a table or shelf that has the picture of a loved one, maybe a small trinket they were given by them, rocks from their favorite places, crystals, little statues, etc. The next step is to acknowledge with intention what your heart and spirit have already been doing by consciously calling it your altar space.
Clean the space consciously. Wipe down the table or shelf. You can use cleansing herbs like rosemary or rue in the water, or even a few drops of agua Florida or frankincense. The idea is that you are preparing something special to honor your Holy Ones, Guides, Santos, Angels or Ancestors. I always recommend putting down a cloth first. For beginners, white is a perfect start. The cloth is the foundation for setting a formal space. Altars in all traditions have the foundation laid first whether it be cloth, fur or foliage. It’s the “red carpet” for the Sacred. Once you have a cloth or covering you can begin to put items of significance upon it. Crystals, stones, feathers, statues, pictures, prayer beads…so many possibilities!
Where does your knowledge of altar work come from?
Dra. Martinez: My grandmothers! I grew up surrounded by altars! Not only were there altars in different parts of our home but, extended to outside the house and wherever we might be. For example, if we traveled there was an altar set up in the hotel room or even outside if we went camping. Wherever we went, there was an altar. My grandmothers took their altar space very seriously and ofrendas were an important part of their practice.
When I moved away from home to the Navajo Reservation where my son was born, I was exposed to different types of altars than I was accustomed to in my family. It was beautiful because it was where I was able to find connection and commonality in a world that was so new to me. The offerings were simple and made use of what was available.
About a decade ago, I was introduced to much larger and more elaborate altars when I spent some time studying with local curanderos/as and in Mexico. With them, I learned how to include the Sacred Directions, the elements and how to honor specific deities. I also learned how to create the altars for specific ceremonies or healings.
What does having an altar mean to you?
Dra. Martinez: For me, having an altar is of utmost importance, it means a lot to me. When I walk into a space whether for a night or for long-term, one of the first things I think of is where to place my altar. It’s a commitment to the Holy Ones and Ancestors that walk with me, guide me and protect me. It’s an acknowledgment of “otherworldly” and that which is greater than myself. It’s a reminder of where I come from and why I do what I do.
What intentions should go into creating an altar?
Dr. Martinez: I think first and foremost, sincerity. There should be a sincere desire to connect, build relationships with and honor whomever or whatever you are wanting to work with or call into your life. All other intentions have the potential to guide our thoughts, attitudes, manifestations, and experiences. Some examples include setting intentions to bring more prosperity into our lives, heal old wounds or for protection. We can also set intentions to be shown the way through difficulties or how to become more available in the community to offer support. There are so many different intentions that can be set but, it’s important to remember that setting the intention is only one part of the process! There is always work to be done in order to see our intentions become reality and we have to be willing to do it. This is part of the commitment that comes with having an altar.
How often do you recommend cleansing an altar?
Dr. Martinez: Altars should be cleansed at least monthly, as part of the deep clean ritual and every time you feel called. If I have a lot of people over to my house or treatment space, I will cleanse my altars with copal. My altars will bring balance to difficult situations or collect stagnate and heavy energy, as a way of protecting me and my family. I want to clear that away as soon as I can, not just because it’s necessary but because it’s a form of gratitude. I wouldn’t ask my loved ones to hold a heavy box for days or weeks. It’s the same with our altars.
In my tradition, we use sacred smoke of copal, palo santo, sage, cedar or various incense, both as an offering and a cleansing. Offering sacred smoke shifts the vibration of the physical altar space, as well as the mental, emotional and spiritual spaces within ourselves. The shift occurs the moment we smell the fragrance of the smoke. We feel the clearing of energy that is not purposeful and become aware that we are now in the worlds of the sacred. I offer smoke at my altar very often.
Other things that can be used to cleanse altars are Agua Florida or various herbal washes that can be homemade or purchased at some botanicas. You can also use water with herbs, lemon or flowers. Back in the day, my grandma used to use the “Indio” brand aerosol. It actually makes me laugh to think about this. She used to spray it before BINGO too.
What end of year routines do you do for your altar(s)?
Dr. Martinez: I do! I like to get something new for my altars. Maybe a new offering plate or glass or new cloth. I bring in extra-special offerings. I like to burn candles and give thanks for all the guidance and support for the last year. I also like to take time to reflect on the lessons I’ve learned and any areas that I might need more work. I set intentions for the next year for personal growth and how to support the community. I always ask what my Holy Ones would have me do. It’s important we remember that we can’t always be at their feet asking. Relationships are reciprocal so, it’s important we also do their work in return for all they give us.
How often should an altar be refreshed/revamped?
Dra. Martinez: Some altars need more attention than others. In general, if you choose to have items on your altar, such as food or flowers then they should be refreshed no less than weekly. There should never be anything left on the altar that is going bad or dying. Food items such as fruit should be fresh and vibrant, cakes and other foods should also be fresh. Flower water should be clear and flowers that are dying should be removed and/or replaced. We create altars as a way of inviting our Guides, Holy Ones, and Ancestors, etc., into our space. When we invite guests to sit at our table, we give them the freshest of what we have, no matter how humble the offering. This is true for our altars as well.
Altars should be more deeply cleaned/revamped at least once a month. We should make sure all the items are free of dust, ashes, wax or splatters. The cloth and offering plates should be cleaned. The table or shelf should be cleaned as well. Some people will do this work in alignment with the moon cycle and cleanse/recharge any crystal in the light of the full moon. If you happen to miss the full moon, don’t stress. Just do it the next opportunity you have and make sure you talk to the spirits of your altar regularly. They will know that you are busy, and they can be very understanding. Don’t get lazy though, they will let you know it’s time to clean things up!
How many altars do you personally keep?
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Dr. Martinez: Seven. I actually had to count them! LOL. I have separate altars for all my Santos. I have several in the room I see clients in, an ancestor altar, one in my office and then others in different areas of my house. They are all tended to with ofrendas specific to that spirit/Holy One/deity and given fresh water, flowers, tobacco, candles, money, chocolate or other items. Most of my altars are out in the open and anyone can see them. I do have one that I keep separate and more private, only because it’s where I do a lot of my most personal work.
In addition to all the ones I already mentioned, I also set up an altar before every class I teach and throughout the year, I put up altars for a variety of ceremonies and events. I have a suitcase that stays packed with altar supplies, so I am always prepared.
This October my son had the honor of creating a Dia De Los Muertos altar at Ritualcravt in Denver, CO. We tended to it for three days keeping the candles lit, and bringing fresh ofrendas of atole, coffee and water so the community could come and bring their own offerings and connect with their ancestors.
Thank you to Doctora Lisa Martinez for sharing her knowledge and tips behind the sacred practice of developing and tending altars. If you’re looking to reconnect with your lost lineage or rediscover your divine power, altar work is an essence to tap into that perpetuates your understanding of how connected you are to all forms of energy and the essence of the universe. May you manifest wisely.