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Celebrating Dia De Los Muertos in Birmingham

Once a year along 1st Avenue South in Birmingham the streets are closed and Alabamians are transported to another place and another culture.

“There’s the smell of the food, and the smell of the copol, and the smell of the candle wax and the sights of the art and the color and you hear the music.”

Wendy Jarvis is describing Birmingham’s Dia de los Muertos Festival.

“And it is these five senses of ours that are stimulated and the beautiful folklore the beautiful story is that the spirits also hear, see and smell those things and those things guide them to be with us on November 1st and 2nd.”

Jarvis is artistic director of the Festival which is put on by the Bare Hands Gallery. November 2nd is also known as All Souls Day. And, while the day may share some DNA with Halloween, it is a little different. Steven Bunker is a professor of history at the University of Alabama who focuses on Mexican history.

“It goes back to the idea of ancestor worship that there is a line between the living and dead which is not as firm or clear as we often think about it in the United States,” says Bunker. “And so this is a much more porous line there is not the same kind of fear of death as well and this is a way to respect those who have gone to the afterlife before you.”

For the past ten years the Dia de los Muertos Festival has become quite a celebration but it first started out in 2003 as a way to remember a lost loved one.

“One of our artists, her name is Tracy Martin, that spring her father died unexpectedly and he had really loved Mexico and the celebration of the Day of the dead,” says Jarvis. “He thought it was beautiful, joyful way to remember your lost loved ones.”

Martins’ father was noted Civil Rights photographer Spider Martin. The best way she could come up with to remember him was by building an altar for a Day of the Dead remembrance. The event drew a few hundred people but it was their reaction that really struck Wendy Jarvis.

“There were a few people who brought these little tiny mementos of their mom their grand mom. We didn’t even do an invitation, we just put it on our art invitation and word spread and these few people said, ‘Can I put this out?’ and so we made space for them real quickly and said, ‘Of course, of course.’ and at the end of that night we looked at each other and said Spider is going to get his wish this is about to become something for the community.”

And the community has embraced it. Last year’s festival drew over 5,000 people and keeping the annual celebration in check has become a mission of all those involved including this year’s festival director Jennifer Gowers.

“We don’t allow corporate signage, we keep everything for the reason of the festival which is to remember and celebrate the lives of lost loved ones and make sure everybody keeps that heart and soul connection. One day we’ll be bigger and need to fit more. We’re going to cry and fight it a little bit.”

Preparations for this year’s celebration have been going on for months. And, 2013’s festival promises to be the biggest yet. Volunteers are preparing Calaveras. Those are the decorative skeleton men associated with Dias de los Muertos. They’ll be stationed outside of La Casita the festival’s home base. The main theme of this year’s altar shares a little lineage with the festival’s inspiration Spider Martin.

“Year of the Civil Rights martyr, because Birmingham is celebrating the 50th Anniversary of 1963 and the Civil Rights movement and we were looking for a way to tie into that.”

Craig Leg designed this year’s altar and is known as the festival’s Commandante.”

“We got a list of 41 marchers from the Southern Poverty Law Center and they’re up on the wall and we are honoring them this year. Many of them are little known,” says Leg. “Everybody knows about Dr. King and the four little girls, but the rest of them are very unknown so we are trying to make people conscious of them.”

Traditionally, Day of the Dead celebrations look a little different than Birmingham’s celebration.

“You know we would go to the cemeteries, thousands of thousands of people are there visiting the graves and have a picnic and have a party and some are drinking and barbecuing right there on the graves.” Volunteer Teresa DeLeon remembers how Dia de los Muertos was celebrated when she was growing up in San Antonio. “And then you have the radio blasting from the Tejano music or Chicano music right there from the cars so we can hear everything.”

While it’s not quite like that in Birmingham, there is something that appeals to the spirit of celebration of Dia de los Muertos.

“When I came here it was more festive and when you walk in… it’s hard to explain,” says DeLeon. “It’s like a little spirit of change; the loved ones of people who have passed. There are some tears I’ve seen but then there is some joy and remembering of how their lives were. So it’s just like a peaceful inner spirit like everything’s okay.”

And whether you come to Birmingham’s Day of the Dead Festival to remember a lost loved one, enjoy a different culture’s traditions, or connect to your past theirs is something for everyone.

Ryan Vasquez is a reporter and the former APR host of All Things Considered.
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