ECUADOR: Diversity in Remembering the Dead

  • by Gonzalo Ortiz (quito)
  • Inter Press Service

Although it does not have the same feel as the Mexican 'Day of the Dead,' where they enjoy skulls made of sugar and dolls in the form of skeletons, the Ecuadorian indigenous communities, especially in the northern Sierra, celebrate every Nov. 2 with a ritual of special foods and beverages at the tombs of their loved ones.

In many places on that day, adults give small gifts with the children, in a rough equivalent of the Christian Christmas holiday. The toys are usually artisan-made, of ceramic, wood or tin, produced particularly in Pujilí, a city in the province of Cotopaxi, 90 kilometres south of Quito.

'The indigenous children are told that these gifts have been sent by their deceased grandparents or great-grandparents,' Rafael Camino, a resident of the area and director of the national folk ballet 'Jácchigua,' told IPS.

The toys include miniature kitchens made of tin, with pots made out of clay, or sets of miniature furniture, as well as artisanal whistles and spinning tops.

Out of a total national population of 14 million, the native population of Ecuador ranges -- depending on the way they are counted -- from eight percent, according to self-identification in the 2001 national Census, to 40 percent, as determined by the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE).

The new Census, to take place Nov. 20, could provide some new perspectives on the count.

'For the Indians this is a day of joy, because they gather around the graves to converse amongst themselves and with the dead. They also give an offering to honour their ancestors, spilling 'colada morada' over the tombstones,' said Camino.

'Colada morada' is a liquid porridge made from purple maize, fermented in naranjilla juice and coloured with the flower of the 'sangoracha,' according to Julio Pazos, author of the book 'The Taste of Memory: History of Quito Cuisine,' published in 2008 and reissued this year.

The ingredients are typical of Ecuador: purple maize is one of thousands of varieties grown in the Sierra for millennia, the naranjilla (Solanum quitoense) is an Amazonian fruit with an acidic taste, and the sangoracha (Amaranthus quitensis) is a type of Andean amaranth, high in protein.

However, colada morada has its 'mestizo' version (of mixed European and indigenous ancestry), with the addition of blackberries, strawberries, 'mortiño' (a small wild fruit from the highland plateau) and sugar. It is sold in restaurants throughout Ecuador beginning a month before Nov. 2, generally as a dessert beverage.

In addition to colada morada, bakeries are making 'guaguas de pan,' a type of bread in the shape of dolls (guaguas), soldiers or doves, and decorated with colours -- an adaptation from the indigenous cultures.

'The 'guaguas de pan,' whose traditional recipe calls for pork fat and eggs, is nothing other than a substitution of the animal sacrifices the indigenous peoples used to make, long before the Spanish and Incan conquests,' anthropologist Alfonso Gortaire told IPS.

'First the animal sacrifices were replaced by the offerings of food to the dead, particularly corn meal in the shape of dolls. Later, with the arrival of the Spaniards, wheat took its place,' he said.

While the urban population participates with its own versions of the tradition, with colada morada and guaguas de pan, the remembrance of the deceased is more subdued. Though many head to the cemeteries on Nov. 2, it is to clean and maintain the tombstones, not necessarily to eat and drink with their ancestors.

'Generally the mestizo population is overcome by sadness for the memories of our dead loved ones, very different from the indigenous celebration,' noted Ximena Ortiz, also an anthropologist and professor.

'The contrast is greater these days because it coincides with a civic holiday, so the government decrees a longer holiday, which means tens of thousands head to the beach or other vacation spots. Day of the Deceased in the cities is very different now from a few decades ago,' she said.

This year, the holiday in Ecuador ends up being four days, because the national government of President Rafael Correa declared Saturday, Nov. 30, a workday, followed by four days of holiday to include Nov. 3, anniversary of the Independence of Cuenca (1820), the country's third largest city, located 430 km south of the capital.

But it is precisely in the southern Sierra, whose principal city is Cuenca, where the 'Day of the Deceased' traditions are least evident.

'In Cuenca they do consume colada morada, and they have delicious guaguas de pan, but I don't recall the indigenous people going with food and drink to the graves of their ancestors,' Dolores Leonor Crespo, 93, told IPS when asked about the customs in her hometown.

Meanwhile, in Calderón (the modern name of Carapungo), a rural parish on the northern outskirts of the Quito metropolitan area, authorities are preparing to conduct heavy traffic and the flow of tourists, according to Mónica Jácome, president of the parish council.

The cemetery of this town draws thousands of visitors every Nov. 2 -- in large part they are outsiders who want to see the indigenous residents celebrate their rituals.

Although Calderón has filled with housing developments and a mestizo population that now reaches 200,000, there are still many indigenous communities in this 'largest rural parish in the country,' said Jácome.

This means that on 'Día de Finados' there are many indigenous families who gather around the gravestones, sharing food and drink, and conversing, in their native Quichua language, with their ancestors, sharing everything that has happened since the last Nov. 2.

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service