This time each year, I receive a number of “chores for the weekend” emails from the Birmingham Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos) Festival with great information and lists of ways that volunteers can help each week. Things like puppet painting, sign hand lettering, hang butterflies, work on animal altar, restore old parade umbrellas… I love seeing these emails because it adds to the excitement that DOD is approaching! This little festival has grown into a powerhouse and is in its 12th year. Born the same year as Fiesta Birmingham it is a highlight of the fall for me after Fiesta is over. I get to jump from one colorful event to another and both Latino themed to boot!
As I mentioned, DOD started the same year as Fiesta but I have to confess, I didn’t know about its existence until about year 3 when a story hit the Birmingham News entertainment section about the event and why it was created. I was intrigued…a Day of the Dead Festival in Birmingham, AL??!! I remember thinking – this is so incredible – and I also remember thinking what an education this festival could provide to our community at large – much like what we were trying to do with Fiesta and the different cultures within the Latino community. DOD is another aspect to Latino culture that is not quite understood, but this festival is determined to make it understood!
At the time, DOD was housed each year inside and around Bare Hands Gallery in downtown Birmingham. One day at lunch (this was in 2006), I decided I had to go by and meet Wendy Jarvis, the Director of the gallery. Turns out, she had wanted to meet me too so we could discuss our mutual festivals and how we might partner! Don’t you love it when a plan comes together?!
I found out more about DOD and its creation that day. Local artist Tracy Martin wanted to find a way to honor her late father, civil rights photographer James “Spider” Martin, when she and some close friends turned the gallery courtyard into a huge altar and memorial wall. This was in 2002. The celebration was expanded – and “born” – the following year and other artists and members of the community were invited to make their own altars and “ofrendas.” Wendy said as the celebration continued each year, she saw it as an opportunity to expand the gallery culturally, especially with the growing Hispanic community in Birmingham.
So that year – 2006 – was the year Wendy, Isabel Rubio – Executive Director of the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama (HICA), and I met to discuss how we would partner to bring more Latinos to the event. A women’s group from HICA took part in the celebration and built small altars at the event and brought family to celebrate a tradition they would have normally celebrated in Mexico. Since that time, HICA has always had a booth and altar display at DOD and become a true partner of the celebration.
That year, DOD also participated in Fiesta by having a booth in our non-profit village and showcasing some of the art and sugar skulls that would be on display at DOD. It was a great way for Bare Hands Gallery and DOD to get the word out – in English and Spanish – to Fiesta attendees, reaching a huge cross-section of the community.
Oh and one more thing…DOD is a photographers dream…you can’t take a bad photograph at this event. The colors, altars, costumes and entertainment are…do I dare say…to die for!
Here are a few of my own photos from the early days…