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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.