Category Archives: Dia de los Muertos

Alabama Dia de los Muertos Celebrates Quince Años!


Dia de los Muertos celebrates Quince años!

Dia de los Muertos Alabama, presented by Bare Hands Gallery, celebrated 15 years this year!  I know I’ve said this before but I’ll say it again…after my beloved Fiesta, this is my second favorite festival of the year.  Fiesta board members have always felt a kinship with DOD Alabama going back to our fifth year in existence.  That was the year we “discovered” one another as each of our festivals grew and that was the year we decided to support one another.

This festival has been looking for a forever home since it lost its original location last year due to the changes in the Birmingham landscape.  The Rotary Trail was completed and it just wasn’t possible to use the same area for a festival this big.  Last year, the festival temporarily moved to Cahaba Brewery and it was packed.  After the crowd that showed up, they knew they needed more space so this year they secured Pepper Place for the event.

Papel Picado lines 2nd Avenue South between the main altar area and the main stage at DOD 2017

The entrance was at 3rd Avenue South with sponsors lining the left hand side.  A portion of 2nd Avenue South was closed off to house the main stage on one side and the food court on the other.  The main altar site was in the middle between the two in a large parking area.  It was so beautiful and reminiscent of the original location.  Two large brick walls surrounded the space and were used to hang murals and other décor.  Chairs were set up around the site with fire pits as was done in the old location.  I can remember years when it was so cold that those fire pits were a God-send!  Lights were strung between the walls and papel picado was everywhere!  The Mercado was in the parking lot of Pepper Place and there were so many vendors with beautiful hand crafted items for sale!  I wanted one of everything!

This year, the set up allowed for more space and a better flow to all the event components.  The event was crowded but there was more space to walk around and not feel like you were being walked on or constantly running into someone.

I arrived at 3 p.m. to photograph some of the set up yesterday.  I always like to get there early to do this and then I stay until after sunset to take photos by candlelight and enjoy catching up with friends.  This year I had a meeting to attend from 4 to 7 so  when I got back to the site, the line to enter was down the block!  Luckily, I had pre-purchased my ticket so walked directly up to the entrance and was given my wrist band!  (Lesson to you folks who didn’t plan ahead!)

People watching at DOD is always entertaining and I love the way more and more are painting their faces as sugar skulls and dressing up.  They embrace this event and seem to take the time to understand the reason behind it…why it is important and why it exists.  It’s not just a costume party, it’s a remembrance of loved ones who have passed on and a way to keep their memories alive for ourselves and a way to tell others about them.

There is also such artistic talent in our city and so much of this talent is displayed at this event in the costumes, the unique vendor items and of course, the altar creations.  I am always inspired when I see what is created and moved to tears by at least one thing I see.  This year, there was an altar created to honor the people who have perished in the many natural disasters experienced in 2017.  It was both haunting and moving…

Here are some of my photos from last night…sometimes it’s just easier to tell the story with photographs.  Meanwhile, happy Quince to DOD Alabama…it was a fabulous event! Viva la Vida!

My Day of the Dead Altars 2017

I’ve been creating Day of the Dead altars for many years now.  Every year I add more items to my DOD collection and swap thing up as I work through the set up each year.  It’s a very personal and sentimental process and not something that I want to get “routine” by any means.  Of course, there will be papel picado, monarch butterflies and votive candles.  But other things will change depending on photos I’ve discovered or stories I’ve heard of family members.

This year, I created a nicho retablo for my altar from a photo of my dad and his brothers and sister.  They are all sitting on a couch at my grandmother’s house – all smiles.  I love this photo!  It’s makes me smile and get misty-eyed all at the same time.  These siblings are clearly happy to be together and someone thought enough to capture this moment in black and white and I’m forever grateful for that.  This is my first time to create a retablo and it won’t be my last!  I wrote a blog post last week about how I created my retablo.  I have plenty of DIY arts and craft supplies on hand to make a few more so I can see my altars really taking on a new “look” next year.

The nicho retablo I created for my Day of the Dead/Dia de los Muertos altar this year!

One change I made this year was to create altars in just the dining room.  In past years, I’ve used the coffee table in the living room to honor my mother’s family.  This year I used half of the dining room table for the Stone/Weaver clan.  The other half shows my extended Zuniga family.  Then I incorporated the tea cart into the décor and placed the Odom/Wilson family there.  My husband’s parents wedding photo hangs in the corner where the tea cart is so this seemed like the perfect place for this particular altar.

My buffet has always been the Zuniga family altar for my dad, his parents and siblings.  This year I changed up the photo of my dad.  Usually I have the photo of him in his beloved T-Bird car but this year I found an old photo of him from his early professional days.  It’s larger and makes him seem larger than life even in his younger years.  I’ve tended to lay photos around the tables and altars too but this year I added a few more framed photos.  I think this will be a goal for next year – add more frames and also a few more retablos.

Every year it’s a labor of love to create these altars.  I started earlier this year so I could have them around a little longer.  I tend to want to leave them up for a few weeks after Day of the Dead if over too but they will need to come down this weekend.  When I take the altars down, I also take my time and reflect on everyone no longer with us.

Tonight I flipped the switches on all the votive candles on the altars and took some photographs of the beautiful setting.  Then I raised my Day of the Dead wine glass in a toast to those who are gone from our earthly presence but are clearly not forgotten.

Making a Nicho Retablo for Day of the Dead

The nicho retablo I created for my Day of the Dead/Dia de los Muertos altar this year!

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 left to right – Uncle Lorenzo, my dad Praxedis, Uncle Felix and Aunt Gloria

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.

Heart applied to my dad’s photo and a look at the glass decor before everything is finally pulled together and completed.

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!

My newly created nicho retablo now has a special place on my Day of the Dead/Dia de los Muertos altar!


And the Day of the Dead collection continues to grow…

Cynthia Rowley placements I found at TJ Maxx this year!

Collecting Day of the Dead/Dia de los Muertos items has become a year-round thing for me.  It used to be that I would begin seeing things in stores around September but these days, you can find things all the time!  Granted, a lot of the items I find in local stores like Target are rather whimsical and mass-produced.  They still blend nicely with my more unique pieces and give me ideas for creating my annual Day of the Dead altar at home.

DOD Sugar Skull yoga pants! Aren’t these cool?!

In August, I was in TJ Maxx with my daughter when I spotted these cute pumpkin DOD placemats by Cynthia Rowley!  There was also a tablecloth, but I decided to just get the placemats.  Of course, when you are at TJ Maxx, you have to look through the clothes section and I was thrilled to find these sugar skull yoga pants!  I’m sure I’m going to turn a few heads when I wear them at my local YMCA later this month!

I always go to World Market to see what their new collection looks like.  I happened to hit it right when they were putting all their items out on display last month.  I was drawn to this sugar skull bowl because of the subtle colors.  Plus they had a pillow with the same sugar skulls and colors on it!  I had a $40 gift card which helped me pay for these two items.  Oh, and I also found this incredibly colorful porcelain cup because…why not?!

On to Target…you know they always have a DOD collection and it seems to have gotten bigger over the years!   This year, I added a sugar skull banner, a trio of Day of the Dead birds, two sugar skull “dolls” and a sugar skull candle holder!  They also have some cutesy items in their Dollar Spot section and I decided to buy two of the fabric sugar skull buckets.  I figured they would be good to use for candy for Halloween.  It’s interesting how both World Market and Target seem to have coordinated their color scheme this year for their collections.  I’m loving the blues, oranges and pinks in these new items and they’ve made for a very coordinate kitchen table this year!

These little sugar skull pup salt and pepper shakers remind me of my pup, Lucy! These are from Von Maur.

Von Maur Department Store had these cute sugar skull dog salt and pepper shakers!  They reminded me of my pup, Lucy so of course I had to buy them!  This was an unexpected place to find DOD items!

Vintage style designs on these Day of the Dead placemats I found at the Albuquerque airport!

This year, we had my Zuniga family reunion in Albuquerque, New Mexico and I always look forward to finding new DOD items when I’m in NM or out west.  Amazingly, I always find the best items at the Albuquerque airport!  These placemats are beautiful with their traditional depictions including La Catrina, La Virgen de Guadalupe and dancing sugar skulls.  I bought 6 total – two of each and plan to use them on my dining room table when I create my altars this year.

In addition, at our reunion I snagged these beautiful Catrina candle sticks!  I plan to use them this month and next around the house.  They are so colorful!  And I also came home with a purple and yellow sugar skull very large cup that my cousin Boogie made!  Could this BE any more perfect for this time of year???  Or any time, really…

Sugar skull puppy toys – one for Lucy and one for my grandpup, Lucia! These are from Pet Smart.

Finally…I was in Pet Smart to pick up some doggie treats for my pup, Lucy when I spotted these DOD puppy toys!  I picked up one for Lucy and one for my grandpup, Lucia!  They squeak which should make for an interesting game of fetch and retrieve!

I’m sure there will be more to add as we get closer to Day of the Dead.  I really can’t help myself when I see these items…I think I’m going to have to add another storage container or two this year to accommodate everything!

Birmingham’s Dia de los Muertos 2016

A look at the skyline of Bare Hands Inc.'s Dia de los Muertos festival in its new venue - Cahaba Brewery this year.

A look at the skyline of Bare Hands Inc.’s Dia de los Muertos festival in its new venue – Cahaba Brewery this year. Murals of Spider Martin and Guillermo Castro are displayed at the start of the altar displays.

I’ve said this before – aside from my beloved Fiesta, Bare Hands Inc.’s Dia de los Muertos festival is one of my favorites of the year.  Both just celebrated year 14 and both will celebrate their 15th – or Quinceanera – next year.  For a festival to make it that long is impressive and this year was even more so for DOTD Alabama.

Early in the year, I heard the festival had been cancelled.  They had lost their long time location due to some changes in the geographic region and had also gone through some leadership changes with the retirement of long time ED Wendy Jarvis and installation of new ED, Robert Hernandez.  But like any organization with volunteers who have a passion for what they do – they persevered and several months into 2016, they decided the show would go on (as they say) and partnered with Cahaba Brewery to move the festival to Avondale.

Roll Call of the dead is a time honored tradition at the festival - as names are called, if family/friends are in attendance, they call out "present" in the audience...

Roll Call of the dead is a time honored tradition at the festival – as names are called, if family/friends are in attendance, they call out “present” in the audience…

And what a move!  The festival drew over 6,000 people this year!  As I was leaving at 8:30 I ran into Robert and Festival Director-Jennifer Gowers and their faces said it all… Jennifer grabbed me and said “where are all these people coming from?!”  We looked at the entrance and people were still streaming in and the festival opened at 4 p.m.  After a group hug, we talked about the incredible turnout and all the hard work it took to pull the event together in a shorter period of time.  Incredible is the only word I could think of at that moment.  Labor of love is the phrase I choose now.


Day of the Dead is not your ordinary festival, after all.  It is a way for people to honor and celebrate the memory of loved ones who have left us.  The altar installations and tributes are always very moving and I find myself lingering in front of several because of the unique ways in which people are honored and remembered.  I met a young woman from Mexico who described in detail the altar that she and her family pulled together to honor her family.  Every single item on that altar had a unique significance and as she pointed them out to me, along with the stories, I felt myself tearing up.  What a tribute!  What  beautiful stories…and I was so appreciate that she was sharing these with me.  But then again, that is what this festival is all about…sharing your family stories, sharing the stories of your friends and others you love and cherish so that they are always remembered…

A portion of the altar that had so many interesting details recounted to me by a family member.  Very traditional...

A portion of the altar that had so many interesting details recounted to me by a family member. Very traditional…

That’s what Day of the Dead/Dia de los Muertos means…that’s what Robert, Jennifer and the rest of the board members and volunteers accomplished this past November 2nd.  Viva la Vida!!!

Artist Julianna Jackson poses with her incredible headpiece in the DOD Market.  The creations at her booth were exquisite!

Artist Julianna Jackson poses with her incredible headpiece in the DOD Market. The creations at her booth were exquisite!

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Zuniga-Odom Family Altars

img_2148I started working on my Day of the Dead altars this weekend.  It’s always a special time deciding on the perfect way to display the memories of loved ones who have left us.  Then I head to the basement to pull out my DOD boxes which takes a bit more time these days with all the new items I’ve added to my collection over the years!  But I do love going through the boxes and seeing what will work to enhance the beauty of the altars and memories.

This year, I made just a few tweaks to my altars.  I picked up some very colorful papel picado tin buckets at Target in  the “One Spot” section of the store last year and thought they would be the perfect addition to my altars.  The turquoise, yellow and orange colors go perfectly with the other décor and in particular, the marigolds that I use to adorn all the altars.  I’ve added tea light candles to each bucket and I know the light reflecting through the bucket will be beautiful tomorrow night…

Papel picado tins from Target will hold tealight candles for Day of the Dead

Papel picado tins from Target will hold tealight candles for Day of the Dead. The blue bottle was hand painted by my daughter Emily – the other side sports a sugar skull. The photo on the bottom is of my dad and his niece Christie.

Mariachi hats were another addition this year.  I found to child mariachi hats at the Alabama Thrift store earlier this year.  I couldn’t believe my good fortune.  These hats are not cheap and they are in excellent condition.  I knew I would use them for something and when I started pulling my altars together, they just worked.  In addition, my mother gave me three miniature mariachi hats for my birthday in February, so those were also added.   One day I hope to add a full size mariachi hat to my altar.  I can already envision what it will look like!

One of the mariachi hats I found this year during one of my thirfting adventures.  Made a perfect backdrop for family photos on my DOD altar...

One of the mariachi hats I found this year during one of my thirfting adventures. Made a perfect backdrop for family photos on my DOD altar…

Finally, while I was in At Home a few weeks ago, I spotted a terra-cotta sugar skull as I was about to leave the store.  So many of the DOD items you see these days are a little too mass-produced looking.  I guess that’s why you can find them everywhere.  But this one was different…and so if there was one, there had to be another!  So I set out to search the store for one and I spotted it – out of sight in the Halloween section.  Perfect!  They look great on my dining room table!

Terra cotta sugar skull found at At Home a few weeks ago...

Terra cotta sugar skull found at At Home a few weeks ago…

As for photographs of loved ones who have passed…I remember a scene from the movie “Book of Life” about remembering all your ancestors to keep their memory alive.  As I’ve been getting photos organized this year, I came across several from my mother’s side – the Weavers and the Vansants.  My great-great-grandfather Levi Weaver is pictured in one photo with his young wife Bessie Vansant Weaver along with his grown children and a few of their own.  With the photo of Mary and Rufus Vansant I’m trying to recall the relationship.  I think they were my great-great-grandmother’s parents and I know I have this written down somewhere but I have several boxes of photos and family tree information that I need to go through and sort and identify.  My Aunt Gail gave me this photo many years ago and it has always spoken to me because of their clothing and where they are sitting.  They look like sharecroppers to me but that’s just my impression so I’m not sure.  And I imagine that life wasn’t very easy for them either.  These are additions to my altar this year…

Photos on the Stone and Weaver family altar...these old photos are additions this year of my great-great-grandfather and his family!

Photos on the Stone and Weaver family altar…these old photos are additions this year of my great-great-grandfather and his family!

Tomorrow night, I will light the candles and photograph the glow of the altars.  Then I will sit in my living room and reflect on the lives represented on these altars and give thanks for each and every life.

Viva la vida!

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Dia de los Muertos 2015…a look back…

A little girl admires the sugar skull masks at Dia de los Muertos Birmingham Festival 2015

A little girl admires the sugar skull masks at Dia de los Muertos Birmingham Festival 2015

Day of the Dead/Dia de los Muertos is tomorrow and Birmingham has one of the best celebrations around!  This is a story I did for Alabama News Center last year about the festival.  I look forward to sharing more photos and stories from DOD 2016 later this week!  (By the way…I’m about to #bloglikecrazy for the month of November as a blogging challenge through See Jane Write!  Should be fun!)

Birmingham’s annual Day of the Dead Festival, organized by the nonprofit Bare Hands Inc., was Monday, Nov. 2 in downtown. This was the 13th year for the festival that celebrates the lives of departed loved ones with lively celebrations, food, music, flowers, dancing and stories. The event has grown in popularity in recent years and continues to expand, drawing a diverse crowd.

Day of the Dead, or Dia de los Muertos, is a Mexican tradition that celebrates life rather than mourning death. The day coincides with the Catholic celebrations of All Saints’ Day (Nov. 1) and All Souls’ Day (Nov. 2). Many people describe this event as a colorful, vibrant and joyful commemoration rather than something somber. Altars feature photos, food or drink and hobbies of lost loved ones. Many Hispanic members of the community have embraced this event and participate as a remembrance of their native country.

Mural by artist Tim Kerr honored the Foot Soldiers of the Civil Rights era.  Dia de los Muertos Birmingham 2015

Mural by artist Tim Kerr honored the Foot Soldiers of the Civil Rights era. Dia de los Muertos Birmingham 2015

This year, the festival invited visual artist Tim Kerr from Austin, Texas, to create the central memorial. He chose a mural to honor departed foot soldiers of the civil rights movement. It was featured next to the altar honoring photographer Spider Martin. This annual altar is created by his daughter, Tracy Martin – a founder of the festival – and always draws a crowd.

While the festival honors the traditional Mexican Day of the Dead, it incorporates other elements that make it unique. To many Alabamians, it brings to mind Decoration Day in the South. It also gives a New Orleans feel with the jazz funeral parade and procession that takes place around the event. “Dressing up” is a mainstay at the festival. A parade honoring celebrated Mexican artist Frida Kahlo marched along with the jazz band and paraders performed on the main stage.

A young girl has her face painted as sugar skull at the festival.  This is one of the most popular things to do at Dia de los Muertos.

A young girl has her face painted as sugar skull at the festival. This is one of the most popular things to do at Dia de los Muertos.

The children’s area provided families with sugar skull or “calavera” crafts, activities and a puppet show. Speaking of sugar skulls, having one’s face painted at the festival is popular and not limited to children. The line to have faces painted was long but the results were praised. The public altar area provided a place for attendees to bring photos and personal remembrances or “ofrendas” and honor a departed loved one. One young woman, born and raised in Alabama, commented that she didn’t know much about Day of the Dead until recently when a friend told her about it. She was looking for a way to pay tribute to her father, who recently passed away, and she was excited to take part in this year’s event.

“I want to remember the good times and not dwell on my dad’s death,” she said. “I think this is why events like this are so meaningful and powerful to people like me.”  She held a picture of her father holding her as a baby, and brought his favorite fruit, an apple, to include in the public altar area. Through tears, she remarked how happy she was to be a part of the event.

A couple dresses out in full sugar skull makeup and colorful clothing for Dia de los Muertos Birmingham 2015.

A couple dresses out in full sugar skull makeup and colorful clothing for Dia de los Muertos Birmingham 2015.

One of the most heartfelt moments at the festival is the annual roll call. People submit names of deceased loved ones to be called out from the main stage. As names are called, family and friends in the audience hold up pictures of their loved ones.

Robert Hernandez, a festival volunteer, created an altar to honor his family as well as Selena, who was known as the Queen of Tejano music before her murder in 1995. His creation of a large white flower was a central feature of his altar highlighted with music from the late artist. Hernandez met someone attending the festival who knows Selena’s family. The friend took pictures and promised to pass them along to her family.

Altar by Robert Hernandez dedicated to Tejana Musician Selena was a popular stop at Dia de los Muertos Birmigham 2015.

Altar by Robert Hernandez dedicated to Tejana Musician Selena was a popular stop at Dia de los Muertos Birmigham 2015.

Another volunteer noted that Day of the Dead in Birmingham is not a secret anymore.  “More and more people are discovering the beauty of this holiday and want to be here,” she said. “It’s been a wonderful and uplifting night.”

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