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Cultural Close-up 
Day of the Dead Celebration Catches on in Broward County

By Helene Foster

Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead – a Mexican tradition dating back hundreds of years and celebrated primarily in Latin America − has recently become a South Florida tradition, as well. In the United States, there are several significant Day of the Dead events held in California, Texas and New York City.

In the first and only celebration of its kind in South Florida – now in its second year − more than 2,000 visitors of all ages decked out in their “skeleton best” for festivities that began at the Museum of Art | Fort Lauderdale on November 2. The processional moved on to the FAT Village Arts District at Projects ArtSpace. There, patrons found an evening full of live music, theater presentations, traditional Mexican foods, art exhibits and memorials and shrines to the deceased.

The local celebration, which included everything from parades to music and puppetry, was created by Jim Hammond of the Puppet Network and FAT Village Arts District founder Doug McGraw.  It was well-attended, proving to be even bigger and better than the debut event a year earlier.

“The event has more than doubled in size from our first year in 2010,” Hammond explains. “However, the biggest change was to place the event on the actual Day of the Dead on November 2.  It was a risk as it was on a Wednesday in the middle of the week; however we found when it was placed on the weekend before it got a little lost in the Halloween activities.”

Months of planning and preparation made for a successful event.  There were activities for everyone − both the young and the young at heart, according to Hammond.

“We are extremely proud of the broad cross-section of South Florida represented at the event.  Families with grandparents and children dressed as skeletons filled the first several hours of the event,” he explains. “Schools brought groups of students dressed in traditional Mexican costumes.  As the evening went on, the festive atmosphere skewed younger with 20- and 30-somethings dancing in the artist studios that had bands and DJs.”

Puppets are a signature attraction during the processional. Designed by Hammond and his team at Puppet Network, they use their own unique interpretation of the Day of the Dead tradition. There are over 20 themed puppets ranging from nine to a towering 15 feet in height. The largest creations this year included a bride and groom skeleton. The community really gets involved by helping to fabricate the puppets, assisting in the papier mache, painting and costuming and the actual performance at the event.

Now, with the Day of the Dead behind him for this year, the hard work and creativity don’t stop. Planning will begin for next year’s event in just six months. This spring, a sponsorship plan will be launched with a goal of growing Day of the Dead to include even more themed activities.

The celebration was funded primarily by the Broward County Cultural Division, Fort Lauderdale Downtown Development Authority, Puppet Network, Iron Forge Press, Tortuga Tile Works, Single Barrel Spirits, FAT Village Artist Association and the developer of FAT Village, Doug McCraw.  Many volunteers and creative community members also pitched in to help.

“We were fortunate to have a strong base of cash donors giving from $5 to $100 to help fund the event,” Hammond says. “The individual artists and studios cover their own expenses to open each exhibition.”

Hammond is very pleased with the turnout for this year’s event. “As a resident of Broward County since 1996, it has truly become my home.  I am proud of the creative community in South Florida and the support we have received in this and other community-based events.”

Broward County Cultural Division
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