A Texan Finds A Home At South Florida's Day Of The Dead Celebration

Oct 29, 2018

When I was a little girl, my mom told me, “Nadie sabe lo que tiene hasta que lo ve perdido,” which translates to, "you don’t know what you've got til it's gone."

Her words still resonate with me today, especially since this is my first year away from Texas – my home.

Dia de los Muertos, which will take place Nov. 1 and 2, is a tradition that has been celebrated for thousands of years and traces back to indigenous tribes in Mexico. The holiday originated in central and southern Mexico. On that day, the souls of all the deceased are said to come down from heaven and reunite with their families on earth. You might remember it from the Disney animated film Coco.

By this time of the year,  Dia de los Muertos – Day of the Dead – decor is everywhere across the Lone Star State. In our version of Publix, called H-E-B, and in other markets and stores, you can buy calaveras, sugar skulls, decorations, religious candles and the famous pan de muerto – bread for the dead.

I am new to South Florida so I decided to look for a Day of the Dead celebration early; two months ahead of time to be exact. I did two searches: "Miami Day of the Dead" and "Miami Dia de los Muertos." What mostly came up were restaurants offering discounted margaritas.

A traditional ofrenda, an altar with artfully arranged gifts and mementos as offerings to the deceased for Día de los Muertos.
Credit Tara Chadwick / Courtesy

Somewhere along my search, I found a Florida Day of the Dead celebration. And a community in Broward County was hosting a workshop to prepare.

On a recent Friday afternoon at an art studio in Fort Lauderdale, instructors taught folks to make ofrendas, the artfully arranged gifts and mementos placed on altars as offerings to the deceased for Día de los Muertos.

There were about 20 people. To my surprise, the majority of them were white, including Jim Hammond, the organizer of the ofrenda workshop and the founder of the Florida Day of Dead festival. “There’s a universality in funereal death and ritual,” he said.

Hammond isn't Mexican-American. In fact, he's Irish, Polish and French. But he said he has long been fascinated by death.

"Watching how people said goodbye and the different way people said goodbye impacted me more than I ever expected," he said. "This fear of death and heaviness of death lived with me from the time I was a child." 

Hammond can trace his connection to Day of the Dead to his childhood in upstate New York. He remembers watching his Roman Catholic grandmother celebrate All Saints and All Souls Days. 

“My grandmother would bake cookies and light candles for those who have died. She was creating a memorial altar that she knew was important on this sacred day,” Hammond said.

I can relate to his experience. My grandmother would also bake cookies and buy gifts for our dead loved ones, like cigars for her father, my great grandfather, as a gift. 

"It wasn’t until this community brought me in that I was able to lift that heavy veil that I experienced when I was a little kid experiencing many different funerals," Hammond said. 

Hammond founded “Florida Day of the Dead” nine years ago when he was a full-time artist and puppeteer. He was drawn to the fusion of bright color and macabre imagery. At first it was an artistic project, he said, until he saw how people reacted.

“There was such a need for Ft. Lauderdale to find a way where different people can connect. We find community and family through this collective ritual,” he said.

Just like Dia de los Muertos, All Saints and All Souls are also Nov. 1 and 2, and they are both Catholic holidays.

Day of the Dead is a mix of Catholic and indigenous Mexican traditions.

In Mexico, families gather in cemeteries awash in rich orange marigolds called cempasúchiles. According to traditions, honoring the dead brings good luck. Many people dress up in elegant gowns and paint their faces as calaveras, or skulls, as a way to normalize the meaning of death for their kids. They bring their deceased loved ones their favorite foods and drinks as a way to commune with them. 

The ofrenda altars are also a key custom.

Carol Cheyen, 70, is creating an ofrenda to honor and express her love to famous dead puppeteers.
Credit Alejandra Martinez

Carol Cheyen, 70, is not of Mexican descent either. She’s from Michigan and has been a member of The Puppet Guild of South Florida for many years. At the workshop, she was working on an ofrenda to honor and express her love to famous dead puppeteers.

“Like Burr Tillstrom. You may not know his name but he’s responsible for ‘Kukla, Fran and Ollie,’ which was on TV in the ‘50s. So we’re kind of honoring them,” she said, as she tried to find a place on her altar for their photos.

The Puppet Guild of South Florida also create puppets that become large floats used in the Fort Lauderdale’s Day of the Dead parade. The event this year, which will be held Nov. 2, will also feature Mariachi bands, Aztec dancers and Mexican folkloric dancers.

Hammond is aware of criticism that he is an Anglo man leading a Mexican event and tradition, but said he is devoted to keeping the celebration authentic.

In 2015, an elderly Mexican woman at the event thanked him. “Completely in Spanish and she grabbed my shirt and arm and she had tears in her eyes. And I didn’t understand a word she had said except ‘family,’” he said.

That abuela has not been the only Mexican to give Hammond a thumbs-up. Susanna Casique Coleman, 42, is a Mexican-American who grew up in Chicago, where Mexicans make up a third of the population and Day of the Dead is seriously celebrated. She moved to South Florida when she was 22 and will participate in this year's event.

“This has been able to bring it to my kids. I really think that if I didn’t have this then they would have little to no exposure of what I had growing up,” Coleman said. She has two kids and says Fort Lauderdale’s event gives her a chance to carry the tradition forward. 

In last year's Florida Day of the Dead Norma Zetina (right) painted her face like a Calavera.
Credit Norma Zetina / Courtesy

Norma Zetina, 58, is also participating in this year’s event. She came to Fort Lauderdale from Villahermosa, Mexico, 30 years ago. “Yo pienso que es muy importante que los extranjeros aprendan las tradiciones Mexicanas,” she said: "It’s important that non-Mexicans in the U.S. learn Mexican traditions."

In my family, Day of the Dead has a deep meaning. My grandfather passed away three years ago and his birthaday is Nov. 1.  I’ll be honoring him, my grandmother and great grandmother and I’m thankful to have a place in Florida to honor my loved ones on this sacred day.

My ofrenda will be decorated with my grandpa’s favorite chocolates, tons of marigolds, and cafe with tons of sugar, just like my great grandmother liked it.

IF YOU GO

The Florida Day of the Dead celebration is Friday, Nov. 2 at 4 p.m. in downtown Fort Lauderdale. The Mexican Consulate will be participating for the first time.