Voices of Life and Death

dscf2390Dia de los Muertos : Voices of Life and Death

The annual Dia de los Muertos festival in Birmingham celebrates its 15th year of honoring life. What began as an homage to a beloved father has grown into one of the city’s most enduring and fascinating events. This year the festival will be held on Nov. 2 at Pepper Place. On these pages, we’ve gathered together the memories of the living honoring the dead, from the people who imagined a festival to celebrate life. 

The Día de los Muertos commemoration at Bare Hands Gallery began in November 2003 with a Day of the Dead-inspired installation at Bare Hands Gallery. Artist Tracy Martin built the installation in honor of her father, noted civil rights photographer James “Spider” Martin, who died earlier that year. Spider’s memorial was eagerly embraced by a small group of artists and friends, and thus began the celebration at Bare Hands every November 2 that grew with each passing year, becoming a cherished cultural celebration of life—and death—in Birmingham.

The festival is made possible by countless volunteer hours, given to create an experience that respects the tradition and heart of Mexico’s sacred Day of the Dead remembrance, which combines flowers, music, food, stories, friends, family and memorials in honor of those who have gone before. Many say the gathering has brought them a stronger, broader sense of community. Personal remembrances (ofrendas), family crafts and puppet shows, music, procession, memorial roll call, local artists’ market (mercado), food and beverage vendors, face painters and more are all part of this unique cross-cultural celebration.

Pepper Place is the new home for the Dia de los Muertos festival. The musical entertainment this year is Conjunto Los Pinkys from Austin, TX featuring the Conjuntó Squeezebox King and six-time Grammy winner, Flaco Jiménez.

Voices of Dia de los Muertos

tracy06Tracy Martin

As I contemplate the 15th anniversary of a humble daughter’s attempt to demonstrate the depths of love she felt when driven by the sudden loss and grief at the death of a father, my father, Spider Martin, I am awed to think that at this sweet milestone, a simple sincere gesture to honor and remember my Dad evolved into one of the top 10 Day of the Dead festivals in the world! However, a festival was never my intention, only a need to say a long and elaborate goodbye to my best friend and hero, my Dad!

If it weren’t for this healing, soul festival of love, I am certain the pain of enduring the deep distance of space and time between me and my Dad would’ve been much more difficult to bear. For the belief in and blood, sweat, tears and generous support of every kind from hundreds of amazing volunteers and all of those who have persisted in making this beautiful festival happen for 15 years, I am forever grateful!
Last year was a transition from the old Festival site to a new temporary one, so I chose to make a pilgrimage to Oaxaca, Mexico to partake in one of the world’s greatest festivals and to scatter my Dad’s ashes in a Oaxacan cemetery and at ancient Mesoamerican temples where this historic and culturally significant homage to the dead first began. For me there is finally closure, and I feel Spider is genuinely resting in peace.

At this year’s Festival I have the unfortunate privilege of honoring my beloved Uncle Lee who was more like my brother, and so on we go…living, loving, losing. Through our grief and remembrance we discover healing, celebration and love—Viva la Vida!

Wendy Jarvis

When I began my tenure at Bare Hands I never imagined I would have the honor of helping create and nurture such a beautiful event for Birmingham—a festival that strives to commemorate the sacred remembrance of Día de los Muertos, Decoration Day, and a New Orleans jazz memorial procession in one magical night of visual and performing arts each year. I am ever grateful for the time spent in collaboration and cannot wait to see what is in store for Festival #15.

guillermoMarcus Castro, son of restaurateur Guillermo Castro

The Dia de Los Muertos Festival has held a special place in my heart from the moment I became involved. My father, Guillermo Castro, was one of the original believers in the festival. He deeply cherished the festival as it reminded him of the grand celebration that would take place in his hometown in Guadalajara, Mexico each year on November 2. Following my 15th birthday, he involved me to my first Day of the Dead Festival, the fourth time it was held in Birmingham. I was tasked with distributing traditional Mexican food to the attendees and volunteers, as the festivities carried on through the night. As I observed those building altars, dancing, laughing, praying and celebrating loved ones’ lives, I couldn’t help but feel the powerful and significant impact of this event in the Magic City.

In 2011, my father passed away and in his passing the festival took on a new meaning for me and my family. Each year we come together to create and decorate his altar and to celebrate the great life he lived among all the other’s lost loved ones. I have since become a part of the Dia de Los Muertos board of directors and now serve as the vice president. My mission is to ensure Birmingham’s Dia de Los Muertos Festival continues to build on its 14-year tradition, bringing more and more people of all backgrounds to celebrate the life of the living and the dead together.

Matt Layne

President of

Board of Directors Bare Hands, Inc

The first Día de los Muertos celebration I encountered in Birmingham was through local artist Craig Legg back in the mid-1990s. Craig hosted some small gatherings at the Birmingham Art Alliance where we ate homemade pozole and made papier mâché calaveras or skulls of celebrities who had passed away that year. We toasted the deceased with poetry and tequila, and it totally captured my heart and imagination._mg_3677

In 2003, we were shocked when we lost the great Civil Rights photographer, Spider Martin, and I went to the memorial celebration that his daughter, Tracy Martin, hosted that November 2nd at Bare Hands Gallery. Tracy had decorated the alleyway behind the gallery with lights, photographs, memorabilia, and other ephemera from Spider’s life in what was ostensibly a giant ofrenda or altar of remembrance. That act of love and remembrance is what led to our modern celebration of Day of the Dead in Birmingham. Each year on November 2nd Tracy created elaborate tributes to her father, and each subsequent year, more and more people came down to witness and participate in the celebration. For those first several years, the festival was totally free. We gave away beer and delicious food thanks to local chefs, Franklin Biggs and Guillermo Castro, and the people came pouring in.

When the festival grew beyond the gallery space, we commandeered the alley next door. Then we hooked up with the sculptor, Brad Morton, to utilize his sculpture garden as a staging ground for more and more memorials. We brought in bands like Flaco Jiminez and Conjunto los Pinkys and Del Castillo to play for the festival, and we danced, and laughed, and cried, and remembered. When the celebration was large enough to need a master of ceremonies, I was fortunate enough to be asked, and I have been intimately involved with Birmingham’s Day of the Dead Festival ever since. Last year, we were named one of the top 10 Día de los Muertos festivals in the country by USA Today.

When I lost my own father in 2011, the festival took on a deeper meaning for me. As I made an ofrenda for my dad, I was able to grieve and celebrate his life with each photograph and memory I added to his altar. At the end of the process, I felt I knew my father in ways that I never had before.

tracy08editThe part of our celebration that never fails to move me during our festival is the memorial roll call. People submit the names of their loved ones to be read aloud from the stage on the night of the festival. A few years ago, a woman told me it was the first time she had heard her child’s name spoken aloud in years. As I call out those names, and hear the voices respond from the audience, “present,” I am always reminded of how those we love are never really gone as long as we remember them.

Keri Lane

Festival Director

I have attended the Dia de los Muertos festival since the early years and always been amazed by the beauty of the event. In 2013 I helped create an altar for a dear friend who passed. I learned from that experience that the outpouring of love and grief that goes into an altar for a loved one is incredible, but the cathartic process is healing and such a beautiful way to honor a person’s life. I have worked on festivals and events for years, but am very excited to work with this amazing event and with the incredibly large and talented community of people who dedicate so much to the event. I have been overwhelmed by the amount of time, love and energy that is put into every detail in preparation for the event. This year we are celebrating our Quinceañera or 15th year. We are excited to be calling the streets around Pepper Place our home. We will focus on the heartbeat of the festival that is the art, altars and celebration of life. This year’s event will be held on November 2 from 4pm – 10pm. We will celebrate the lives of those that came before and those that are still with us through great music from groups like Conjunto Los Pinkys from Austin, Texas, the memorial roll call, jazz street parade, the Frida Kahlo Ceremony, dance, food vendors, the Corona/Modelo Beer Garden, the artist mercado, kids’ activities provided by The Birmingham Museum of Art, the calavera face painters, and most importantly the altars erected to those we have loved, including the Fathers of the Festival altars, Spider Martin and Guillermo Castro as well as the many public altars.

Craig Legg

I am very proud of our accomplishments over the years. We have worked hard to introduce this festival to the Birmingham community, staying true to its Mexican roots while at the same time giving it our unique Alabama stamp. Bottom line: it’s a giant art gig consisting of equal parts work, fun and cultural exchange. What’s not to like?

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