In a windswept parking lot in Birmingham, strings of lights were askew, sparkly garland drooped and buckets filled with colorful decorations dotted the pavement.
Murals flapped in the breeze, ladders were propped onto makeshift wooden structures and dummies with skeleton heads could be seen, piled at odd angles.
In the aftermath of severe weather in Alabama -- which arrived at mid-week, thanks to Hurricane Zeta -- the team behind Birmingham’s Dia de los Muertos celebration was hustling to assemble a festival site.
Bare Hands Inc., a nonprofit organization, has produced the city’s Day of the Dead event for 17 years, and on Friday, as the 18th edition of the festival approached, organizers and volunteers were determined to succeed.
By Sunday evening, they’ll have the site transformed into a sizable art installation, filled with commemorative altars, eye-catching artworks, memorial exhibits, flowers, candles, masks, sugar skulls and more.
The Dia de los Muertos festival, inspired by traditions in Mexico, pays tribute to loved ones who’ve passed away. Although the event has a serious theme, it’s also filled with joyful celebration, demonstrating love and respect for family members and friends who are no longer with us.
The 2020 edition of Dia de los Muertos at Pepper Place -- in a lot at 29th Street and Second Avenue South -- will run for a full week, Nov. 1-7, 5 p.m.-9 p.m. daily. That’s one change among many for this year’s festival, in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
“We’re going back to the heart of the festival,” said Keri Lane, executive director of Bare Hands. “We’re going to focus on the altars, our featured altars, a public altar and other large altars people have asked to put up.”
The art-and-altars component always has been popular at the festival, but over the years Dia de los Muertos has grown to include a street party, live music and dancing, food and beverage vendors, face painting, a New Orleans-style parade with giant puppets and even decorated port-a-potties. Everything took place on a single night, and many visitors arrived in costume or painted their faces to accord with the festival theme. About 8,000 people attended in 2019, Lane said.
Many of the street-party elements will be absent at Dia de los Muertos this year, in favor of a streamlined experience that allows visitors to take in the altars and artworks while social distancing. Masks will be required for entry to the outdoor site, and the capacity will be limited to 300 people at a time.
“We will have gate counters, so when a handful of people leave, another handful can come in,” Lane said. “We’ll try to keep that moving smoothly.”
Admission to Dia de los Muertos 2020 is free -- donations are welcome -- and folks who attend will take a one-way path through the art installations, browsing at their leisure. Markers on the ground will help to remind visitors that social distancing is required, and hand sanitizer will be provided.
Although soft drinks and water will be available on site, alcoholic beverages won’t be sold this year. A food truck will be parked near the festival entrance each evening, alternating among Taco Morro Loco, Taco Boys, Los Valedores and Corazón Mexican Food.
Also, on Nov. 6-7, the festival will team with an “Eat on the Streets” event at Pepper Place. Restaurants and bars will have outdoor seating on 29th Street South between Second and Third avenues -- not on the festival site, but close to it -- and there will be a screening of Disney’s “Coco” that Friday. (The animated movie has a Day of the Dead theme.) Next Saturday, “Eat on the Streets” will present Latin American music and a DJ, both programmed to complement the festival.
Organizers at Bare Hands made careful adjustments this year, Lane said, keeping the festival alive and health concerns in mind.
“We were looking at the festival as a whole, and we felt like: What can we do for the community?” Lane said. 'We can’t ask 8,000 people to come together, but there’s been so much pain and hurt over the last year, with COVID and (protests for) social justice. This is a very healing event, and it means a lot to a lot of people who work on it and a lot of people who come to it. We didn’t want to abandon it. We felt like, we just need to take it back to its roots. We knew it needed to happen."
“We have an up-and-coming artist named Tyra Robinson who’s doing a progressive art installation the entire week, called ‘Unforgotten,’ that deals with some of the great losses and injustices of the past year,” Lane said. “That’ll be going on all week, so people can come and watch the work in progress.”
The public can contribute photos to a memorial wall, and students from Woodlawn High School created artworks in memory of 17 people who were killed in the 2018 shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Another installation will pay tribute to Kamille “Cupcake” McKinney, a Birmingham toddler who was abducted and murdered in 2019.
Each night of the festival, names on a memorial roll call will be read out loud at 7 p.m. If folks who submitted a name are in attendance, they can respond by saying “present” in English or “presente” in Spanish, representing the deceased.
Helga Mendoza, artistic director for Dia de los Muertos, said the festival touches her emotions every year, and remains a satisfying project.
“It’s been the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done,” Mendoza said. “The night of the festival, when people put their altars up, and people tell their stories, and people are so grateful to have a place to mourn in community ... it is a beautiful thing to be part of. I love this. I love to do this.”