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Puppet Master Jim Hammond Explains Day of the Dead Fort Lauderdale's Roots (VIDEO)

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Jim Hammond Discusses the Road to Day of the Dead South Florida from Voice Media Group on Vimeo.

A peculiar thing is happening this weekend, a salute to the Mexican tradition of honoring those whom we have lost and who have, somehow, turned to dust and left this planet. This special holiday, Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, comes around once a year and takes over downtown Fort Lauderdale for two days of revelry. Saturday and Sunday, roughly 9,000 attendees will show up in full-on sugar-skull makeup -- ornate face paint with floral designs and striking black-and-white skeletal details -- and clad in authentic holiday garb to join a massive skeleton-puppet processional while mariachi bands sound off among the folkloric ballet dance troupes, an artisan craft crypt component, and an installation of ofrendas altars. Food trucks, tequila, and burlesque will also figure into the weekend's festivities.

But what's odd about this popular fifth-annual event is that we're not in Mexico, and South Florida has a relatively small Mexican population. Moreover, the event's founder, Jim Hammond, director of the Puppet Network, is not of Mexican descent. And yet, the Florida Day of the Dead Celebration kicked off in 2010 with just 700 attendees and now brings in thousands each year.

So why, as Hammond himself asks, "is a crazy gringo from Vermont" putting on one of the city's best-attended events? And one that's well-funded to boot, by $40k in John S. and James L. Knight Foundation grant monies? Hammond explained all this and more to New Times.

See also: Photos of Day of the Dead 2013 in Fort Lauderdale

New Times: What's new this year?

Jim Hammond: We'll have an Aztec ritual, a traditional cleanse that involves a dance component, and it gives a blessing of respect of the north, south, east, west. We've always had ofrendas, which are a Day of the Dead tradition, but this year, we'll have a proper exhibition hall for it at the New River Inn. Sixteen community members built altars for remembrance of people they've loved and lost. And the Mexican Consulate in Miami will send a rep to introduce the traditions.

How did you get the Mexican Consulate involved?

I've been in touch with them from very early on, and a few years ago, they sent a rep to tour what we were doing, and they liked it but said when we have a proper ofrenda exhibit -- it's one of the most important aspects of the Day of the Dead -- they would participate. So this year, they will.

What else is cool this year is we have confirmation that four people will be leading the procession dressed up. Last year, we had Commissioner Dean Trantalis and Genia Duncan Ellis, the president of Riverwalk. They did the opening ceremony. Instead of just showing up this year, Dean, Genia, and City Manager Lee Feldman will arrive in full sugar-skull makeup. This is the photo op of the year! In addition to that, the general consul of Mexico will be introducing the procession at 3 p.m. onsite at Huizenga Park on Sunday.

It feels like we are on track. We've always believed in this tradition and that we are doing something larger than ourselves.

Are you Mexican?

I am not. My connection to the tradition goes way back. I was an altar boy, and my family was into the church. My father was a bookkeeper at the Catholic church. My first job, I was paid one dollar to be an altar boy at funerals when I was in the second or third grade, Catholic school student. I was the little kid who held the gold cross as the casket was being pushed up to the front of the church... I would bring it down to the casket, and the priest would walk around the casket, blessing the body. As a child going through this experience, I was really immersed in the death tradition, and it made me hyperaware of mortality and how people say goodbye.

So when I was 9, my father was sick, and he died a few years later of brain cancer. Watching that process was difficult, and I saw his casket in his church and people saying goodbye, but I was seeking something more. But it wasn't until I met my community of artists in 2007 that I knew what I was looking for. In 2008, I opened up Puppet Network. Within it, I connected with puppeteers and found Chuck Loose and Ian Rowan of Iron Forge Press and LuRu, sculptor of Tortuga Tile Works.

What we discovered was that each of us had a connection to Day of the Dead. I've always worked with papier-mâché, and my work was always referencing Mexican art and artists. Almost all of us had death imagery in our body of artwork. And we've all dealt with mortality. So we wanted to put on a community event, but in our own voices.

How does Day of the Dead impact the community?

Most of the work I've done has involved a community component. My mantra is "My space is your space." What that usually involves is folks will help us build large-scale puppets -- we had over 70 people building them here at our mask- and puppet-making workshop at the Bunker [Hammond's and the Puppet Network's work space in Fort Lauderdale]. There's the sense of community when you have one family -- a Mexican abuela and her daughter with their hands in the glue -- sitting next to a 20-something dude with a neck tattoo, right next to a Greek family of six who are next to a community of artists. Seeing those people from all backgrounds in one location merging together with their hands and fingerprints in these art projects -- it just doesn't happen anywhere else.

I think that's the biggest impact. In a digital age, when people are getting more and more distant, we feel like we are closer because we connected digitally -- but we rarely meet face to face and have a conversation.

Back home, I got community in my church; today in South Florida, I get community from the arts.

Death is everyone. Everyone is going to die. Your personal philosophy about life and death -- atheistic, Catholic, agnostic. This ritual is unique, and we can recognize -- no matter what our personal philosophy is -- that we all pass through the same door when we leave this Earth.

Florida Day of the Dead Celebration. Saturday, November 1, from 6:30 p.m. to 1 a.m., and Sunday, November 2, from 1 to 8 p.m. at various locations in downtown Fort Lauderdale, including Huizenga Park, Riverwalk, New River Inn, NSU Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale, and Revolution Live Entertainment Complex. Visit dayofthedeadflorida.com.

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