By Corinne McCaw
If you were walking around Pepper Place in downtown Birmingham last week, there was a chance you may have stumbled upon a row of Port-o-Potties covered in pictures of familiar faces: maybe John F. Kennedy, John McCain, John Wayne, or John Steinbeck. I personally could not deny the intrigue of this, and chose to enter the stall of Pope John Paul II and was surprised to find even more pictures of him on the inside as I relieved myself of the Jarritos I had just downed outside at the Día de los Muertos Festival of Alabama.
For Americans not of Mexican descent, the first experience at a Día de los Muertos festival can be shocking. In the United States, honoring our deceased loved ones is traditionally a very somber experience noted by bringing a bouquet to a graveside or supporting a foundation in honor of the deceased. The Mexican holiday of Día de los Muertos offers a different way to honor those who have passed, filled with public altars, music, traditional food, dancing and most importantly a vibrant community.
Día de los Muertos is a traditional Mexican holiday celebrating and honoring the lives of deceased relatives, friends, pets and those unknown through a blend of primarily traditional native Meso-American ritual and the Catholic religious practices. El día de los Muertos traditionally takes place from Nov. 1 to Nov. 2 each year–el Día de los Inocentes or the day of the children and All saints day respectively–but depending on where you chose to celebrate Día de los Muertos, Oct. 31 and Nov. 6 might be included as festival days as well.
Walking through the streets near Pepper Place last week, in addition to seeing the Port-o-Johns, you would have heard traditional music and seen the traditional costume for Día de los Muertos of Alabama which takes place every year since 2003 after being founded by Tracy Martin in honor of her father Spider Martin, a civil rights-era photographer with an affinity for Mexican culture. The annual festival is now led by a board of directors, creative directors, and team of over 160 volunteers who put together the festival for the over 8000 people who attend.
Though Catholicism is the dominant religion at the festival, as noted by an altar to mother Mary greeting everyone as they enter and the radio station blasted by a local taco truck talking about the “secret to Catholicism,” it is open to participants of all religions and ethnicities, as the desire to honor loved ones who have passed is a universal experience. As one alter noted, El muerte no tiene fronteras or “Death has no borders”, as clearly depicted by the butterfly map in memory of the lives lost due to COVID-19.
While Día de los Muertos is a colorful and eccentric festival filled with food, games, music, and tradition, it is also a serious time of reflection and remembrance of those loved and deceased.
Amy Castro, the president of the Board of Directors for Día de los Muertos Alabama, said her favorite part of the festival each year is the roll call. The roll call takes place each night when a list of every name of someone who passed and is being remembered is read from the main stage. When that individual’s name is called, someone–a father, mother, child, or friend–will say “present” or “presente” for them, demonstrating that while our loved ones may no longer be here with us, they are present in our love and remembrance.
Castro has deep ties to the festival as her brother-in-law was one of the original founders of the festival, and the two largest altars are dedicated to her brother-in-law and sister-in-law who passed. “Everyone goes through loss and I think [Día de los Muertos] is a great way to grieve together,” said Castro. “We have a diverse festival family that embraces the idea of the afterlife and celebrates our loved ones in different ways”.
There were altars with the star of David, honoring family members persecuted in the Holocaust, as well as other people groups currently facing persecution internationally. The Black Cherry Tree Project, a group dedicated to sharing the story of victims of racial terror in the area, decorated altars with the names of those who had been killed unjustly and decorated their altars with an array of flowers and candles. There were also altars made by advocacy groups such as the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice.
A few of my favorite altars are decorated for notable figures who have passed recently, but still leave a large impact on those they inspire such as Ruther Bader Ginsburg, Chadwick Boseman and Rep. John Lewis. All three of these altars were filled with candles and offerings to express honor and gratitude for their life’s work.
The altars of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Elijah McClain were also present, and many people stopped throughout the evening to place candles or small offerings and stop for a moment to think about the legacy of these 3 individuals.
In addition to the altars for known individuals created by their families or loved ones, there were a few altars for unborn or newborn babies who had passed far too soon in addition to those “lonely souls”. Lonely souls are those who passed that may now have any relatives actively remembering or honoring them, so this altar serves to remember those we have forgotten to remember. Día de los Muertos is a union of people who have lost someone they love and choose to honor their life and keep it alive in their heart.
If you want to get involved in the next Día de los Muertos festival, you can find more information here.