Community connects Dia De Los Muertos artwork
By Claire Trammell, Reflect Alabama Fellow
Artist Helga Mendoza said she’s always been interested in the grieving process.
“I lost my parents when I was very young. So my work has always been kind of a way to process loss and kind of understanding the relationship between religion and the way you are supposed to understand death,” Mendoza said.
With grieving a strong theme of her work, it seemed appropriate that Mendoza was selected to create the featured image for this year’s Dia De Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, festival in Birmingham. The 21st annual event takes place Thursday and Friday at Sloss Furnaces.
Originally from Colombia, she settled in Birmingham in 2000 and found a way besides her artwork to grieve: through celebration. Mendoza started working with Bare Hands, the organization that plans the Dia De Los Muertos festival in Birmingham. She found comfort in that community.
“You start talking to all these people and it’s like you are grieving in community. Grieving is a process that is very lonely. And the festival provides us that kind of space for all of us to grieve together,” Mendoza said.
The Mexican tradition of Dia De Los Muertos centers around ofrendas, or altars, which are a creative expression by individuals to honor their loved ones who have passed. Through her many different roles over the years, Mendoza has helped create beautiful and culturally significant memorials for a variety of families and individuals. The altars are put on display for those who attend to view and remember.
“For that day, for that moment, it feels like we get it as humankind. We are here together,” Mendoza said. “I want people to recognize the value of art for society. I want people to recognize the beauty in this tradition.”
The cover artwork Mendoza created for this year’s festival depicts a woman in traditional Mexican clothing connected to plants, flowers and greenery. The figure acts as the roots to the tree of life, which is a traditional symbol in Mexican artwork. Mendoza said the woman represents the festival since she is what connects everything.
One powerful moment during the celebration for Mendoza is the roll call. At that point names of the deceased are read and those honoring them that day say “presente,” which means “here.” It’s a statement that those who have passed are not forgotten.
“It’s such a powerful, beautiful, beautiful moment,” Mendoza said.
Although the event is rooted in Mexican culture, Mendoza said Dia De Los Muertos is for everybody.
“I love how all the demographics in Birmingham are starting to get involved, and really connect us. We all have a common denominator. That is death.”