This summer I visited the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I always love going here and seeing the exhibits. My late cousin, Chila (Orcilia Forbes), served on the board of the center and it’s such a wonderful place to visit and explore.
I was walking through the permanent exhibit section with my mother and my cousin, Ophelia (better known as Boogie!), when we came across a really beautiful piece of artwork of the Virgen de Guadalupe. It was a retablo or shadow box of a large Virgen Mary in the center, surrounded by small shadow boxes all decorated in different ways with other images of Mary. We were all in awe of this piece. I wish I could remember the name of the artist, but suffice it to say that the wheels started turning in my head and in my cousin Boogie’s head! I didn’t get a photo since no photos were allowed in the gallery, but I sketched out the design so we could have something to reference. Boogie and I decided this was something we needed to modify and try for our next Zuniga Family Reunion in 2019! We always bring photos and make a point to remember family members who have passed on. This would be a wonderful way to engage family members and plan a reunion activity! Between now and then though, we decided we would each work on a prototype to see what we needed to have on hand in order to create a nicho retablo.
As background, nicho retablos are a mixed media type of creation or artwork. In Hispanic culture, they tend to be spiritual and religious and can be used on an altar for events such as Dia de los Muertos or in devotional places of your home. Sometimes these are made with small tin boxes, like an Altoids tin box, while others are made with wood and have doors that can be closed on the images inside. These are always very colorful and vibrant. The décor can be quite ornate but there is a beauty in all this décor and it is quite striking because it tends to signify the person or persons being honored.
Boogie called me shortly after I got home from Albuquerque and she had found some shadow boxes at Hobby Lobby that she thought would work well. She sent me a photo and I went to buy a few. They looked perfect! I set out to make a nicho retablo for my Day of the Dead altar this year and chose a photo of my father with his two brothers and sister. I’ve always loved this picture of them…all sitting on the couch at my grandmother’s house and smiling broadly! I knew I wanted to make this multi-dimensional so I made several copies of the photo so I could cut out each figure and experiment.
Meanwhile, I had collected various “artsy” items like old jewelry, fabric leaves, decorative ribbon and other crafty items from various places. I hit a creative roadblock as I got started and I wasn’t sure what to use so I went to Pinterest to browse. Something I saw sparked my creativity and I decided I needed monarch butterflies to place behind each figure from the photograph to make it appear they had wings! I headed to Michael’s and found a package in the perfect size!
From there everything started evolving…I used ribbon at the top of the display that reminded me of papel picado. I also placed some of the same ribbon on the glass at the bottom. Next, I hot glued each of the figures to the back of the shadow box, staggering them so they would all fit.
Next I used plastic amber gemstones from an assorted I bought at Hobby Lobby along with brown sequins leaves – two leaves to a gemstone – to create a flying effect, like a flying heart. Honestly, I wasn’t sure how I was going to use them but when I put them on the counter top, two leaves fell next to a gemstone and I took it as a sign to use that particular design! The front part of the retablo, the glass, needed a little something more so I cut up a few fabric leaves to make them smaller and added a yellow looking plastic stone – again, keeping with the flying heart effect.
The final touch was a red plastic gemstone heart. There was only one in the package that I bought. I placed it on the photo of my father adding a pop of color to the shadow box. It was now ready to seal up and place on my dining room altar.
The addition of this handmade nicho retablo this year is really what my altar was missing and feel a few more in the works in the weeks to come. I know when I begin seeing photos on social media of other altars for Day of the Dead/Dia de los Muertos this year, it will keep this creative streak alive so I’ll need to take advantage of that!