Sandy Cortez

First-Gen Altar

by Sandy Cortez


Capstone represents the culmination of an entire academic program. As a first-generation student and the child of immigrants, it felt only right to design a project in honor of the many sacrifices my parents made in order for me to achieve the bachelor’s degree I have worked towards for the past four years. This installation consists of three hand-painted wooden pieces, 15 illustrations, an arrangement of fruit, a rug, and a live snake plant. Each piece of the installation references a part of Salvadoran culture; the rug, fringed and woven with multicolored threads, represents the importance of the country’s textile industry; the fruit and plants call back to the country’s tropical flora and climate.

Throughout my life, family, mentors, and teachers have all emphasized the importance of education. The framed document at the center of this altar, surrounded by tropical fruits and plants, represents the central focus of my life and academic career up until this point. The steps the altar rests on are painted in a traditional folk-art style created and popularized by Fernando Llort. Llort’s vibrant art uses a naive style and vibrant colors in a style inspired by Mayan culture. Llort’s token style of art is significant, capturing the national spirit of the country of El Salvador since the 1960s. The sides of the steps depict a countryside scene typical of the style: little white houses with red-tiled roofs sit alongside a path dotted with trees. Green hills and mountains rise in the background. A bright yellow sun is cut into the panel of wood in an arc.

On the opposite wall are 16 illustrations created in a pastiche of Llort’s style, including a card that provides a bit of context for the installation’s distinct visuals, as well as the illustrations’ function as a timeline. The illustrations above span my family’s journey from El Salvador to the United States, with the journey culminating at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, from where our class will be graduating.

For years, it has been my dream to create a piece of art that incorporated the joyful iconography and bright colors of the Salvadoran folk art I loved so much growing up— the work created for my capstone is more than I could ever have hoped to accomplish. I hope that I am doing my people and culture proud with this small contribution to this style of art and its rich legacy.