Tag Archives: Ofrendas

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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Preparing for Día de los Muertos

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This year is being called Year of the Mexican Artist at Day of the Dead Birmingham. (Photo from Dia de los Muertos Alabama facebook page.)

 

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!

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During the early days of the festival, this alley behind the gallery was filled with remembrances and tributes…so much to see and so many touching photos and artifacts.

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?!

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Tracy Martin puts some finishing touches to the Spider Martin altar when it was in the alley behind Bare Hands Gallery.

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…

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Day of the Dead displays behind the gallery. As the event grew this lot behind the gallery became a huge part of the celebration.

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Tracy Martin’s tribute altar to her father, Spider Martin.

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Thelma and Louise sugar skulls! This was part of a huge display of famous couples – one of my favorites!

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One of the most poignant parts of Day of the Dead is the roll call…people can add the names of their loved ones to be read during the celebration.

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Enjoying one of the festivals with Wendy Jarvis and my dear friend, Lui Fernandez.

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Festival co-founder – Tracy Martin (right) – in one of her many beautiful sugar skull creation costumes.

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Always love getting a hug from Festival Co-Founder, Wendy Jarvis at each years event.