Jim Hammond: Masterminding the Day of the Dead

For the past six years, he has organized Fort Lauderdale’s annual iconic Day of the Dead celebration. Amassing nearly 11,000 people last year, the parade draws crowds from across South Florida, and from all walks of life.

“At one point I saw an abuela and a granddaughter standing side-by-side with a dude with a neck tattoo and piercings,” Hammond remembers. “I think the reason it brings so many different types of people is because we’re all going to die. You can either be scared of it and run away or you can remember what you want to do with your life because it will happen some day.”

Back when he was growing up, Hammond served as an altar boy in the Catholic church, and he remembers holding incense in front of caskets at many different funerals, observing how different families coped with the loss of their loved ones.

“In watching these rituals, you can tell who was remembering in a celebratory way versus tragic way of that person’s life,” he said. For Jim, who lost his dad at the age of 13, the holiday helps him to pay homage to his father through creativity and community.

With the Day of Dead exhibit opening this Saturday at Flagler Village Art Walk, we sat down with Jim to talk about the parade’s humble beginnings and learn about the role of art in building a community.

So… puppets and death. Tell me how this whole thing got started.

Well, we were a group of vagabond artists that had warehouse spaces we could use. We wanted to put on a cool community event and most of the artists had either a death or skull theme in their work. This was all pre-Facebook — actually, I think it did exist but we weren’t on it yet. In 2009, I wrote the first grant for the Day of the Dead festival. At first, it was a mini-grant through the Broward Cultural Division. I received $2,000 for the event. I had a group puppeteers from the Puppet Guild of South Florida who came together to volunteer to start building the first puppets for that year. We advertised through the cultural division and got articles published. With no social media at all, the first year, the parade was up to 700 to 750 people.

How did people react to the first Day of the Dead parade?

The first year, in 2010, about 20% to 25% of the people in the community thought it was a zombie festival. IT IS NOT A ZOMBIE FESTIVAL! We had one theater group come in with Michael Jackson thriller characters. It was our first year and communicating the message was difficult. As it grew, by the third year, most people began understanding that it was more about paying homage to the people you’ve lost. Now, there’s a better understanding of what the tradition is fpr Mexico and throughout Latin America. But, I mean, you still have folks that are gonna show up in a Spiderman outfit because they think it’s Halloween part deux.

So now six years later, you’ve got it down like, clockwork right?

Every year about two weeks out, I feel like it’s not going to happen, haha. I do this as a labor of love. I don’t do this to make money. We haven’t made money yet. The intent of this is to create an important festival to help remember those we’ve lost and pay homage to beautiful traditional rituals of saying goodbye. So every year we are biting our nails to see if we can afford the fees. If there’s not enough money coming in, The Puppet Network tries to help. We have a large volunteer group that ranges about 200 to 250 volunteers, so that really helps.

How do you see Day of the Dead and other art forms as a way of building community?

To me, communal art is how I understand art. I’m a puppeteer, and I come from a history of standing in the street and telling stories to people. I believe there is an artist and a creative sensibility within every person out there. I’d like to get to the point where every farmer has a fiddle they would play once a week. Every baker will take out paint and paint a mural over the front of their bakery. We have dozens of free workshops that are going to happen throughout October for the entire community to come in and try their hand at creating art. For me, it’s the community that’s creating art that makes the art stronger — a community project to create something for the greater community to experience.

 What are you most excited for this year’s Day of the Dead?

I’m a puppeteer. I love puppets. My favorite moment every year is right as the procession is starting at 6:30, when I’m connecting with the crowd and puppeteers. There’s an energy that converges when people have been painting their makeup on and building their costumes. They have spent so much time in their private world creating this vision of how they want to express this holiday. And it’s finally out for everyone to see. The adrenaline and excitement is breathtaking and I tear up every time, because I can’t believe I’m a part of something so important to everyone individually.