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Dia de los Muertos - History
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The annual Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) Festival in Birmingham, AL honors the Hispanic, primarily Mexican, tradition in which families gather in local villages and cemeteries to remember lost loved ones with stories, music, plays, food and art. It is similar to what we in the southern United States refer to as Decoration Day. It acknowledges death as an aspect of life. The annual commemoration in Birmingham began in 2003 when a Bare Hands Gallery artist asked to honor her father who had died that year with a Mexican inspired Day of the Dead altar. The artist, Tracy Martin, and her father, Civil Rights Photographer - Spider Martin, loved Mexico and its tradition of honoring lost loved ones in a joyful way during Dia de los Muertos. The overwhelming response to the initial installation for Spider was the catalyst for the festival Bare Hands Inc hosts each year, which now occupies the the fenced lot at 2115 1st Avenue South, it’s neighboring alley, and 1st Avenue South between 22nd Street and Richard Arrington Jr. Blvd.

In Mexico, Day of the Dead is an artful, multi-faceted celebration. Each town has a unique way of commemorating, but certain symbols are constant. Altars of remembrance display photos of the deceased; their favorite things in life, such as foods, books, games, beverages, cigarettes; marigolds; prayer candles; salt; spices and copal incense. Family and friends gather around these altars at home and in the cemeteries to share music, memories and prayers. The ancient belief is that the souls of the deceased come to visit during Day of the Dead guided by the familiar colors and smells of food, incense and flowers. Other traditional elements include skeletons depicting the deceased going about everyday activities; monarch butterflies whose fall arrival in Mexico symbolizes souls returning to visit; flowers, particularly marigolds, adorning every altar and gravestone; sugar skulls which children decorate and place on altars, and bread of the dead - a special bread baked for the occasion. The holiday is a celebration of those that have gone before us and of the memories they have given us.

The festival in Birmingham combines community art installation and procession with remembrance, creativity, performance, music and food, to honor a rich cultural tradition and offer an exquisite downtown arts and cultural event. The celebration provides an annual opportunity to increase cultural understanding between the Hispanic and Non-Hispanic communities of north and central Alabama. Local non-profit organizations and businesses, and hundreds of individual volunteers provide in-kind services and financial donations so that the festival is able to ask a small admission price of $10 per adult, $3 per child 12 to 7 years of age, and free for children 6 years and under.

Bare Hands holds the Dia de los Muertos Festival on its actual day of November 2nd and includes local and national Hispanic artists to add to the authenticity of the event. They also mix elements of southern remembrance traditions into the festival such as Decoration Day and New Orleans Jazz Memorial Procession. Other cultural memorial traditions are often expressed in the various altar installations. These efforts offer a cross-cultural, multi-cultural celebration unique in the southeast.

The design of the event offers a way to educate adults, as well as children, about the history, tradition, and art of Dia de los Muertos. Activities include a Day of the Dead craft activities; live music, dance and performance; memorial roll call and procession; and individual altar installations by the general public and artists creating a true work of public art. The work of the festival begins early in the year and reaches full speed in August when volunteers, artists and students begin building props and art for the event. Papier-mâché abounds!  Masks, sugar skulls, flowers and ofrendas are created. Each week from mid-August until mid-November many hands and hearts and hundreds of hours bring a spectacular one-day celebration to fruition.

Image used for background was created by Alexander Henry.

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