Celebrating Day of the Dead in Fort Lauderdale

Jim Hammond started the Florida Day of the Dead Celebration in 2010. It has grown from 750 participants to more 10,000.
Jim Hammond started the Florida Day of the Dead Celebration in 2010. It has grown from 750 participants to more 10,000. Florida Day of the Dead

After the last witch and goblin come trick-or-treating at your house this weekend, you may think it’s time to put your skeletons back in the closet.

But wait.

Skeletons are aplenty on Monday, when Fort Lauderdale hosts its sixth annual Florida Day of the Dead Celebration. Last year’s event attracted more than 10,000 participants.

For those unfamiliar with the holiday, Day of the Dead is a Mexican tradition that has its roots in the Aztec celebration of Mictecacihuatl, the queen of the underworld. When the Spanish Conquistadors arrived in Mexico in the early 1500s, they brought their Catholic traditions that melded with the ancient ones to become the Day of the Dead that is celebrated today.

“It’s the day of the year when the deceased have divine permission to come back to earth to visit friends and relatives and enjoy the pleasures of this life once again,” said Fernando de la Torre, the consul in charge of the Cultural Institute of Mexico in Miami.

In Mexico, Day of the Dead is a happy time when families pray and spend the night in the cemeteries while enjoying the favorite foods of their deceased loved ones and tending to their graves by decorating them with flowers, particularly marigolds, explained Susanna Casique Coleman, co-producer of the South Florida festival.

She experienced the holiday firsthand while visiting relatives in central Mexico four years ago. Now she’s excited to pass these traditions along to her two children through this Florida event.

At her grandmother’s home in Celaya, she remembers celebrating with ofrendas, or altars, designed to entice the souls of the dead back home for the evening. She helped make an ofrenda for her grandfather who was fond of tequila, so it included a picture of him and a bottle of his favorite spirit as well as fresh limes and salt. She also recalls an ofrenda for the family parrot that had passed away.

Party for the living

These Mexican traditions have been tweaked for an American audience so that here the holiday tends to be “a remembrance of the dead but a party for the living,” said Brandi Carney of Margate, an artist vendor participating in the event for the second time this year.

The evening begins in Huizenga Plaza with Aztec dancers as well as mariachi and classical Mexican musicians on the stage. Be sure to wear your best skeleton garb as many people will be dressed up. Even children in strollers will wear skeleton onesies, said Jim Hammond, founder and executive producer of the Florida Day of the Dead Celebration.

Finish off your costume by having your face painted colorfully and intricately like a sugar skull, a favorite holiday sweet sold in markets throughout Mexico at this time of year.

Here, too, you can learn to maneuver the giant papier-mâché puppets that will be part of the half-mile-long Skeleton Processional winding its way along Riverwalk. About 45 puppets will participate including a 16-foot-tall Frida Kahlo.

New this year will be a 19-foot-long alligator skeleton and a 17-foot-tall Aztec puppet. The larger figures require up to 17 puppeteers to give them personality and pep.

“People who arrive early will be able to get their hands on these giant puppets and help bring them to life during the parade,” said Hammond, who is also managing director of Puppet Network in Fort Lauderdale.

Skeletons on bicycles decorated as low-riders will clear the way for the groups or krewes that make up the procession. How you are dressed determines which of the 16 krewes you will join.

Pirate or Bride?

For example, you might attach yourself to the “rowdy and fun” Sugar Skull Pirates or the elegantly dressed Brides and Grooms. “It gives people a chance to wear their wedding finery once again,” Hammond said. But this time their makeup is that of sugar skulls.

The parade ends in the Arts District, where Mexican music and a dozen Latin American-inspired food trucks will be available for your dinner and dancing pleasure. When you’re done eating, toss your plate and view the 45 shiny low-riders on display or shop the Craft Crypt.

Carney, with her sister Shelley Mitchell of Hollywood, will be selling kitschy skull-themed artwork, including skulls painted on coconuts and captured in cross-stitched handwork as well as Barbies in full holiday regalia.

There also will be artisans selling more traditional crafts, including sugar skulls and handmade tiles appropriately decorated for the holiday by LuRu, owner of Tortuga Tile Works in Fort Lauderdale who also curates the artisans.

‘Very playful’

Other craftsmen will create papel picado, or cut paper artwork, papier-mâché figurines and leather work — with death as their decorative themes.

“There’s a little bit of creepiness here, but it’s also very playful,” Hammond said.

Elsewhere, children can participate in arts projects and adults can view the ofrendas that participants have created to honor their dead. At about 9:15 p.m., enjoy “the big finale” when the mariachis return with a big band to take over the Folklorico Stage performing “the greatest hits of Mexican mariachi music” until 10 p.m.

For Hammond, who lost his father when he was 13, this festival he helped create has special meaning.

“On this night, I interpret that the spirits of the dead come back so we can dance with them again, feast with them again and laugh with them again,” he said. “It also means we never have to really say goodbye.”

Deborah S. Hartz-Seeley: debhartz@att.net

If You Go

The sixth annual Florida Day of the Dead Celebration begins at 4 p.m. Monday in Huizenga Plaza, 32 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale.

The Skeleton Processional leaves the plaza at about 6:30 p.m. and ends at America’s Backyard and Revolution Live (100 SW Third Ave., Fort Lauderdale) where you’ll find music, food trucks, the Craft Crypt, puppets and more.

Ofrendas will be on display at the New River Inn Museum of History (231 SW Second Ave., Fort Lauderdale).

For a complete schedule and information: dayofthedeadflorida.com.

More Dead

Oh! Mexico restaurant, 1440 Washington Ave., in Miami Beach celebrates Dia de Los Muertos with free tequila shots and $6 Jose Cuervo margaritas all day Saturday.

Rocco’s Tacos & Tequila Bar (all locations) will have $3 Mexican beers plus food specials and entertainment throughout the day and night on Sunday.

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