El Dia de Los Muertos flourishes as colorful festival


Celebrate culture and the arts tonight at the corner of Richard Arrington and 1st Ave. N. behind what used to be Bare Hands Gallery. The sights, sounds, and foods are well worth the $10 admission price. This year there will be traditional Mexican dancing, poetry readings, and of course many altars honoring friends and family that have passed. UAB professors and alumni have lent their talent to this year’s event.

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Weld Editor in Chief has this to say about the annual festival:

My grandmother once pulled out one of her teeth with a pair of pliers.

It seemed like a good idea at the time. She was in a motel room outside of Salt Lake City, having driven alone through a snowstorm, hauling probably a thousand pounds of French cut-glass and twice that weight in books about delicate porcelain and sundry, pretty hand-painted things. She had a toothache. The bleating blizzard outside had made clear its plans to go all night, and her dentist — if she had one, which I doubt — was 1,500 miles behind her in Houston and the booth she was bound for, at an antique show in some high desert. Behind the wheel she could ignore the throb in her jaw and concentrate on the road, but now that the snow had stopped her, the tooth was talking. She decided to shut it up. She went to the toolbox with which she always traveled and pulled out the pliers, along with a small bottle of whiskey. The next thing that happened, the way the story goes, is that she took one man-sized slug from the bottle, inserted the pliers between her lips, grasped the angry molar and yanked.

“When you die, one of two things happens,” my grandmother always said. “Something. Or nothing.”

I think of that utterance all the time, but probably never so giddily as on Dia de los Muertos, Nov. 2, celebrated in Mexico — as well as in Birmingham — as the “Day of the Dead.” Even before my grandmother died (in January 2009, at the age of 94), this phrase was a sing-song in my head during the multicultural memorial celebration: “Something or nothing — something or nothing — something or nothing.” The certainty of the uncertainty has always made me laugh out loud.

From 2003 to 2010, the local Dia de los Muertos celebration was hosted by Bare Hands Gallery, located on the edge of the viaduct on Richard Arrington Blvd. South. Bare Hands closed last year and the space is now home to Gallery Soleil, but the celebration will take place where it always did — in the alley and vast parking lot behind the gallery. Dia de los Muertos numero nueve runs rain or shine from 5-10 p.m. in the big fenced parking lot at 2115 First Ave. South. Admission is $10 for attendees ages 13 and up, $3 for children ages 7 to 12 and free for children 6 and younger.

The festivities begin around 5 p.m. with children’s crafts, followed by Ballet Folklorico Corazon Azteca performing traditional dances at 6 p.m. Birmingham poet and Dia de los Muertos emcee Matt Layne will lead a performance of spoken-word poetry starting around 6:25 p.m., and local artists including Beau Gustafson, Omari Jazz, Kurt Jenkins, Celeste Laborde, Jeszi Parrish and Sharrif Simmons will debut a new performance piece titledAria for Those Who Have Crossed the Ocean. During a “memorial roll call” that begins at 7 p.m., Birmingham poet Matt Layne will read aloud the names of deceased loved ones and then festival attendees will join a mock funeral procession to be finished with fireworks, the tolling of bells, the beating of drums and singing. Susan Torres y Conjunto Clemencia will close out the night with “accordion-based, dance-like-crazy conjunto and more.”
The way of the day

In Mexico, the “Day of the Dead” is a major holiday: the festive celebrations of El Dia de los Muertos suggest a fairly sanguine cultural attitude toward death. Tradition says that if you build an altar of remembrance for deceased loved ones on Nov. 1 and 2 then their spirits can return and celebrate with the living during those special days.

The modern Mexican celebrations of Dia de los Muertos date back to Mesoamerican culture of the 14th century, when Aztec peoples celebrated the lives of children and as well as the memories of dead family members. The goddess Mictecacihuatl was honored as the “Lady of the Dead,” a benevolent spirit whose job it was to preside over the bones of those who had died. The festivities started in the ninth month of the Aztec calendar — about August for us — and continued for several weeks. Human skulls were ordinary fixtures in rituals related to life, death and rebirth. A few centuries later, Catholics co-opted the holiday, moving it closer to the Nov. 1 and 2 feasts of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. In Mexico, Dia de los Muertos is still widely celebrated – there are parades in the form of mock funeral processions, “family reunions” between living and dead, grave decorations, candlelit ceremonies, music, dancing and more.

Birmingham’s Day of the Dead celebration began back in 2003, when artist Tracy Martin and a few close friends turned the Bare Hands Gallery’s courtyard into a massive altar for Martin’s late father, the photographer James “Spider” Martin. The walls were covered in original artwork and photos by both father and daughter, as well as plenty of personal effects — travel mementos, letters, books and more. As is customary in traditional Mexican celebrations of the holiday, there were alsoofrendas, or offerings, of tequila, beer and favorite foods, all laid out alongside garlands of marigolds and bright-burning candles throughout the courtyard.

The following year, Bare Hands expanded the celebration by inviting other artists and members of the community to create their own altars or to add to “Memory Walls” inside the gallery. As the local Hispanic population grew, so did the celebration. Back in 2008, former Bare Hands gallery director Wendy Jarvis saw the event as an opportunity to expand the gallery’s mission of cultural outreach. Although the gallery has closed its brick-and-mortar space, a newly formed nonprofit organization called Bare Hands Inc. still stages the Dia de los Muertos festival, and in the current political climate, the mission of cultural outreach has taken on grave importance.

“In past years, we connected with the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama and other Hispanic organizations,” says Jarvis, who is now the director of Bare Hands, Inc. “Hispanic attendance grew and we were thrilled with that recognition because it meant that this was truly becoming a Hispanic andnon-Hispanic event in this city. It was like a gift from Spider, really, to have this grow from a celebration of his life into a homecoming and a major community event. It became a way for us to reach out to the Hispanic community and really connect with them.”

With the passage and harrowing implementation of HB56, surely there are few spaces in Birmingham where Hispanics feel welcome. And yet staging a Dia De Los Muertos celebration is not a political act so much as it’s a humanact. The art and the myriad altars that will be on display are not macabre. The ubiquitous skeletons in Day of the Dead iconography are not ghouls but grinning mascots from beyond the grave, each meant to signify that a person’s spirit doesn’t die when his body does and nor does his relationship with his loved ones end. Artists and individuals participating in this show have adopted and adapted Mexican symbolism for their altars and shrines, but also added personal effects. The result is that on Nov. 2, the parking lot behind Gallery Soleil will be transformed into a mixed-media memorial with a fiesta-like atmosphere to which the whole community is invited.

I think my grandmother would consider that something.

Dia de los Muertos numero nueve en Memoria a Guillermo Castro takes place on Wednesday, Nov. 2, from 5-10 p.m. in the Big Fenced Parking Lot at 2115 First Ave. South. Admission is $10. Get more information atwww.barehandsinc.org.

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