Written by Richard James, Photographed by Liesa Cole
At Dia de los Muertos, the most extraordinary public event in the city, I stood among the painted faces and the altars created to celebrate life.
I spoke the words, “Present.” Presente.
The street and parking lots along First Avneue South are transformed into a slice of Mexico with lights, colors and music.
The experience of death and loss is the great equalizer—we all experience it.
Founded a decade ago, the festival has become a part of the fabric of the city. Each November 2nd, organizers have created an authentic slice of Mexican culture along First Avenue South in Midtown.
Wendy Jarvis has been there since the founding of the festival.
“Alabama’s Day of the Dead Festival is unusual as festivals go in that it is created and executed almost entirely by volunteers. Tremendous effort is given to create a celebration that simultaneously respects the tradition and heart of Mexico’s joyous remembrance of lost loved ones while infusing it with Southern memorial elements like Decoration Day and New Orleans Jazz Funeral Processions. We hold our commemoration each year on November 2nd regardless of which day of the week it falls. To include as wide a spectrum of our community as possible we only charge a nominal ticket price ($10 adults, $3 kids, free for kids under 7),” Jarvis says.“Food and beverage vendors are required to keep their prices low as well, and therefore; we do not charge them a vendor fee. All attendees are invited to bring personal memorials and mementos to display on public altars.
“Our Day of the Dead festival has become a cherished cultural celebration of life that has given us a stronger, broader sense of community,” she says. Volunteers raise funds for the festival so that proceeds from the gate admission can go to fund an After School Art Club for homeless children at the YWCA.
Tracy Martin was also there at the very beginning of Birmingham’s Dia de los Muertos festival. Her memorial altar honored her father, photographer Spider Martin, who became famous for many of the iconic images of the Civil Rights Movement. Spider’s love of Día de los Muertos sparked his daughter’s tribute to him. In turn, that tribute was the catalyst for the beautiful event now presented annually by Bare Hands.
When you walk into the site of the festival, the senses can be overwhelmed. The back wall of the buildings that front 21st Street are alive with memorials to the deceased.
Pictures. Mementos. Pieces of a life on display for all to see and remember. This festival has always been very personal to me. The power of life and death reaches out and grabs you in such a distinctive way.
I looked at the display for Spider Martin, who I worked with for maybe a decade in the old days at Birmingham magazine.
I remember his smile and the wicked look that could come into his eyes when a particularly rebellious thought crossed his mind.
Right next to Spider’s memorial was the altar created for Guillermo Castro, the restaurateur who created Sol y Luna and Cantina restaurants.
We were born in the same year, a world apart, but we became friends in a city we both adopted. He showed me the beauty of Mexico—the brown earth, the blue sky and sea mixed with the sun that baked everything golden, and the moon that lit it all by night and bathed the landscape in a gentle yet exciting and wild nocturnal light.
This was Guillermo’s Mexico, and he shared it with me, inspired me to understand what his homeland meant in food and art and song and spirit—just as he shared those same insights and feelings with the city he came to call home, Birmingham.
Those two friends are alive to me in a special way during Dia de los Muertos. I can almost see them; almost talk to them; and that is the most special part of this very special Birmingham festival.
Dia de los Muertos is a holiday celebrated throughout Mexico and around the world. The holiday focuses on gatherings of family and friends to pray for and remember friends and family members who have died. In Mexico, it is a national holiday, and all banks are closed. The celebration takes place on November 1 and 2, in connection with the Catholic holidays of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. The traditions of the holiday include building private altars honoring the deceased using sugar skulls, marigolds, and the favorite foods and beverages of the departed. Family members visit graves with these as gifts. They also leave possessions of the deceased.
Scholars trace the origins of the modern Mexican holiday to an Aztec festival dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl. The holiday has spread throughout the world: In Brazil, Dia de Finados is a public holiday that many Brazilians celebrate by visiting cemeteries and churches. In Spain, there are festivals and parades, and, at the end of the day, people gather at cemeteries and pray for their dead loved ones. Similar observances occur elsewhere in Europe, and similarly themed celebrations appear in many Asian and African cultures.
In Birmingham a city block is transformed into a place of remembrance, love and joy.
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Tags: Alabama, altars, B metro Magazine, Bare Hands, Birmingham, dance, day of the dead, Dia de los Muertos, festival, liesa cole, memorial, mexican, Mexico, Music, remembrance, Richard James, skeletons, sugar skulls, Tracy Martin, Wendy Jarvis