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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”