For the past week, we’ve been celebrating Dia de los Muertos, which is known to non-Spanish speakers as the Day of the Dead. Although the Day of the Dead is officially celebrated on November 1, it’s such an important holiday in Ecuador that preparations are made weeks in advance. Businesses and schools even close in observance of the festivities and as many as 80,000 to 100,000 tourists are expected to visit Cuenca.
Being out of the loop and generally unable to communicate, I was very interested in the tone of this holiday. There was clearly much celebrating to be had, with dancing and parades and donkey races. There were wooden car races, live concerts and puppet shows. However, on every street there were also vendors selling bread called guagua de pan which were shaped like babies. These bread babies were served with a blackberry juice called colada morada. It appeared that the bread, aside from being consumed on the spot, was also left in family tombs along with beautiful flower arrangements and pictures, like offerings.
The cemetery we visited was very impressive. Much of it was comprised of walls and stories of tombs. There were little window shelves in the front which contained fresh floral arrangements, food, pictures and cards. These items were kept secure by decorative grates that covered the window shelves and could be removed to change out the items on the Day of the Dead. Down below the walls of tombs was an endless variety of immaculate grave sites adorned by flowers and pictures.
For about three days, I wandered around wondering why I was eating bread shaped like a baby and drinking a juice that was possibly intended to represent blood. Yet, this morbid message (of sacrifice?) did not seem to coincide with the overall meriment of the celebration. The babies themselves did not seem to be horrified by their fate but were colorful and painted with smiles. I was slightly confused by this mixed message, as Ryan and I hungrily devoured another and washed the lump down with the sweet juice.
One morning, as we waited for the big Bread Festival to begin, we wandered into a hostel to have breakfast. The owner’s daughter spoke very good English and I asked her about the significance of the bread babies. “But why are they shaped like babies?” I asked. She considered this question and was stumped. I realized that I wouldn’t know how to explain to a foreigner why American’s dress up like Betty Boop and Batman for Halloween either. That’s just what we do to celebrate. She finally went to ask her father and his friend the meaning behind the tradition. When she returned, she explained that, because the Day of the Dead is so close to Christmas, the bread babies represent the baby Jesus and were a symbol of the celebration of life.
It turned out there was nothing spooky or morbid about the Day of the Dead. Rather, families gather on this day to pray to the souls of their loved ones, asking them to return for this one special day. The food and flowers are not offerings, but are gifts to welcome them home. Very cool.