Dia de los Muertos

A Lively Celebration of the Dead in Birmingham, Alabama  

I remember learning about Dia de los Muertos for the first time when I was in the seventh grade. My teacher described it as “Mexican Halloween." I was about thirteen, so I did not question her problematic comparison until I grew older.

I have always been fascinated with Dia de los Muertos; something about the sugar skulls, the food, and the vibrant flowers drew me in. I did not understand how celebrating the dead could be a joyous celebration simply because Americans mourn their loved ones and that is about it. 

This Latin American holiday combines Aztec ritual with Catholicism. The holiday originally was a harvest celebration that was structured around the farming season. The Spanish conquistadores brought their Catholic beliefs to the region and combined the two practices. As a result, this holiday is celebrated on All Saints Day and All Souls Day, holidays that are unique to the Catholic calendar.

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It is believed that the dead would be insulted if their loved ones mourn for them. So, instead of mourning their loved ones, Dia de los Muertos is celebrated with parties, food, and drinking, which are activities that the dead would enjoy being apart of. Dia de los Muertos follows a two-day structure: on the first day, children who have passed are celebrated, and on the second day, adults who have passed are celebrated. Families build large altars for their loved ones and leave Calaveras (the iconic sugar skulls), food, their loved ones' favorite possessions, and alcohol on the elaborate altars. Live music, dancing, and parades are also a part of the celebrations. 

Although this holiday originated from Latin America, Birmingham has its own celebration. This year, the Bare Hands Gallery will be celebrating its 15th Day of the Dead Festival on November 2, 2017 at Pepper Place. It will be a celebration of the lives that have passed on, but also a celebration of the living. There will be a Frida Kahlo Ceremony, parade, music, a memorial roll call, food, art, and homemade altars that were created in honor of loved ones.

I had the opportunity to participate in Birmingham’s Dia de los Muertos festival for the past two years. The first time I went was my sophomore year, I was so incredibly excited to attend, but I was genuinely shocked once I entered the venue. Although this is a beautiful celebration of life and loved ones, it was still incredibly sad. Everyone respectfully stopped by each altar, learning about a stranger’s loved one, but it still felt very personal.

My favorite part of the night was when we were invited to write notes to heaven. Attendees would write a note to a loved one that had passed, and then at the end of the night they would burn the notes, sending them to heaven. I chose to write a note to my grandfather who had passed away when I was eight. I did not know him that well, but I felt like I had never been given an opportunity to say goodbye to him. After writing my note, I understood the holiday. This is a beautiful celebration of the dead but also a form of closure for the living because our loved ones are no longer in pain.  

Dia de los Muertos will be celebrated on Thursday, November 2, 2017 at Pepper Place. Tickets for adults are $10 while tickets for children are $5. If you cannot make it off campus to celebrate, the Cross Cultural Committee will have an altar set up in the atrium of Norton and invites students to write their own notes to loved ones with the comfort of staying on campus.

All photos courtesy of Dia de los Muertos Alabama.