Sunday, November 6, 2011

Dia de los Difuntos

When we were recently in Cotacachi, we experienced firsthand what "Dia de los Difuntos" is.  It is very interesting to see how the families here view their departed loved ones -- they are still very much a part of the family unit, and their memory is kept alive through this tradition.

Entering the cemetery
Every year on November 2nd, Dia de los Difuntos (Day of the Dead) is celebrated in Latin America.  It is a very important day.  All businesses and schools are closed.  Everyone brings flowers to place on the graves, and they also bring their departed loved one's favorite food to eat at the grave site, making for a picnic-type celebration.  In addition to the food, they make the traditional food for this special day:  A drink called "Colada Morada" and the baby-shaped breads called "Guaguas de Pan" (guaguas means "kids" in Kichwa, the native language of the Incas). This day allows the entire community to gather together and strengthens the community spirit, as they share stories of their deceased loved ones.   

Daniel (left) and Segundo, the mayor's brother
We had a group of about 25 gringos attend this event at the local cemetery in Cotacachi.  Our local guide Daniel translated as the mayor's brother (Segundo) explained the significance of this day.   Segundo explained how the Cosmic Universe of the Indigenous here is divided into three worlds. The powers above include the creative spirit and the sun, stars and weather. The middle world is our biosphere and Mother Nature which is called Pacha Mama in Kichwa. Underlying these two is a lower world which the dead move through and which also corresponds to our own inner spiritual nature. To have spiritual peace and guidance, an Indigenous person is expected to demonstrate respect for family -- past and present.


It is probably impossible now to unravel which aspects of Ecuador's “Sierra” (mountain) culture come from before the Inca conquered the local tribes here. The Inca controlled this area for only about fifty years before the Spaniards came. The mixtures of belief systems in the Andes that developed from these culture-clashes are interesting in their own right. Pacha Mama and Virgin Mary are used interchangeably in Indigenous ceremonies. Sharing bread and drink are, of course, common to most cultures. The concepts of good and bad here are based on selfless versus selfish, just like almost everywhere where people live together.

This little girl is dressed so cute

The little girl and boy in the background are wearing the typical Indigenous clothes

“Bovedas” or “Nichos”

One concept that may appear unique is that a family plot here is often literally a place for the remains of family members to rest close together. Keeping these together makes it possible to reunite the living extended family regularly in one place. Sharing quality time together in honor of the memory of the dead keeps the spirits alive in a sense that is valued here. Some Mestizo families have family members' bones kept together in “Bovedas” or “Nichos” in a Mausoleum-like structure above ground at the cemetery.

Segundo explained that, for the Indigenous, being buried intact with others in the family ancestry, with the bones being kept under the ground is important, so that the spirit of the deceased can begin the voyage to the under-world with integrity, and can more easily reach the end from where it can return to help watch over family. He adds that the soul is purified on its path, so good or bad, all people end up in the same place. Segundo continues to explain that once the purification of the soul is completed, this spirit should be able to help the rest of the family if the family pays its respects. An “egotistical” or bad person, Segundo says, will have a harder time with the purification, but even the best person's spirit will not help the family that does not show respect for the deceased. The greatest characters in life can maintain a long-lasting spirit in beautiful or powerful places, continued Segundo, where their presence as a guardian may even be sensed long after death, so in this sense- the more positive social impact a person makes, the longer their memory lasts, and the longer their spirit lasts.

Baby holding his Guagua de Pan!

Mike with Colada Morada and Guagua de Pan
Daniel made for us Guaguas de Pan which are dipped into the Colada Morada drink.  The drink is similar to red wine in color and is traditionally made with blue-black corn, wild raspberry and blueberry juice, and a traditional herb bundle of red amaranth (sanguarachi) flowers, orange tree leaves, panela or other sugar, cloves, allspice, ishpingo (some call it cinnamon flower), cinnamon bark, star anise, arrayan (a type of myrtle), yierba luisa (the local lemongrass), and cedron (lemon verbena).  Usually you'll also see pineapple, strawberries and apple in it, but Daniel likes to work with traditional local fruits, so he used passionfruit juice and added Andean palm coconut juice  The purple color of the drink symbolizes the grief and the blood of those who have departed. 

A band was playing

Indigenous gathering around the grave sites . . .

. . . and eating together on their loved one's graves
Leaving the cemetery

1 comment:

  1. I just love the pictures and your story