Gracias, Mexico: Grateful for Day of Dead’s rise in South Florida

Day of the Dead celebrants get into the spirit of the Mexican holiday in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Craig Davis/Craigslegz.com

Day of the Dead celebrants get into the spirit of the Mexican holiday in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Craig Davis/Craigslegz.com

By Craig Davis, Craigslegz.com

There is nothing new about the Day of the Dead.

Día de los Muertos has been an important holiday in Mexico for centuries, originated by the Aztecs, and deeply rooted in other parts of Latin America.

Larger-than-life puppets parade along Riverwalk in Fort Lauderdale on the Day of the Dead. Craig Davis/Craigslegz.com

Larger-than-life puppets parade along Riverwalk in Fort Lauderdale on the Day of the Dead. Craig Davis/Craigslegz.com

Even as Donald Trump decries Mexican influence expanding north of the U.S. border, Americans are increasingly embracing the sacred observance of Day of the Dead as a spirited fall festival.

In Fort Lauderdale, Fla., it is rivaling Halloween – not surprising in a region with a large Hispanic population. It is a welcome development as Halloween has morphed into a commercialized adult zombie fest.

The Day of the Dead imagery of sugar skulls and dancing skeletons is preferable to the blood and gore Freddy Krueger Halloween motif so prevalent.

That was evident as several thousand celebrants gathered in Huizenga Park by the New River for Fort Lauderdale’s sixth Day of the Dead event, an impressive turnout despite Nov. 2 falling on a Monday this year. Many came with faces painted, some in elaborate costume, to participate in the procession along the Riverwalk.

As the name implies, this is a serious occasion. At the same time, Mexicans view it as a joyous time to honor deceased relatives whose souls are believed to return to visit their families on that day. Graves are decorated and departed loved ones are remembered for their appealing qualities and to celebrate their lives.

In reading about the event to gain an understanding, I came across the comments of a young native of Oaxaca, Mexico, who was quoted: “Here, we grow up with the dead. They are always present. So [the Day of the Dead] is a happy time, it’s when grandma, grandpa or mum get to visit. And things have to be nice when they come.”

The Day of the Dead celebration dates to the Aztecs in Mexico. Craig Davis/Craigslegz.com

The Day of the Dead celebration dates to the Aztecs in Mexico. Craig Davis/Craigslegz.com

That outlook is uplifting and appealing, and it was reflected in the rapidly growing popularity of South Florida’s Day of the Dead celebration, whose mission is: “to produce a free signature event every Nov. 2 for all ages that maintains and respects the cultural essence of the Day of the Dead tradition, but also [to] interject a modern aesthetic as envisioned by regional artists. … Memory for the dead. Party for the living.”

Not surprisingly, in the age of political correctness, there has been pushback on the spread of Day of the Dead celebrations in this country. A site called This is not Día de los Muertos is “dedicated to calling out the appropriation of the sacred holiday.” Others say it is a cop-out to call it a tribute to the Mexican tradition.

I disagree. All of us have lost family members and others close to us. The local Day of the Dead event has opened my eyes to Mexico’s creative means of honoring those they hold dear in memory, and it is also a way to bridge the cultural gulf between the nations.

Jose Antonio Zabalgoitia, Consul General of Mexico, traveled to Fort Lauderdale to promote that theme to the gathering at Huizenga Park. He also took the opportunity to speak up on behalf of his people, to point out their hard-working nature and cite some of their accomplishments.

Put that in your taco, Mr. Trump, and try not to choke on it.

An Aztec woman in costume performed a spirited dance and tribute to the dead as a prelude to the Skeleton Processional along the Riverwalk that was led by a Mariachi band. It featured 16 krewes and some 40 larger-than-life puppets, including the giant Mictlantecuhtli, overseer of the underworld.

Some Day of the Dead celebrants come in elaborate costumes. Craig Davis/Craigslegz.com

Some Day of the Dead celebrants come in elaborate costumes. Craig Davis/Craigslegz.com

It was fun and playful. And while honoring the Mexican tradition, there was a bit of an American twist to it. The krewes included a kazoo band, pirates, the Working Stiffs and Roller Derby Gang, stilt walkers, a juggler, and bringing up the rear a New Orleans-style jazz band.

So it was part Day of the Dead with a bit of Mardi Gras mixed in. And no, it is not the new Halloween.

It’s better than that, and next year I will be looking past Oct. 31 to Nov. 2 to again revive the memories and party with the spirits of those we’ve left behind.

Larger-than-life puppets are the stars of the Dead of the Dead processon in Fort Lauderdale. Craig Davis/Craigslegz.com

Larger-than-life puppets are the stars of the Dead of the Dead processon in Fort Lauderdale. Craig Davis/Craigslegz.com

Skeletons are plentiful at the Day of the Dead celebration in Fort Lauderdale. Craig Davis/Craigslegz.com

Skeletons are plentiful at the Day of the Dead celebration in Fort Lauderdale. Craig Davis/Craigslegz.com

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