Día de los Muertos: Celebrating life among the dead
By Kristen Sawyer
On the 2nd of November, the spirits come out to play. Seeking, crying, plotting, rejoicing spirits. They’re emboldened by the the time of year — Día de los Muertos. Day of the Dead. But in this conservative, significantly Catholic city, how many Cuencanos do believe in spirits?
About 75% of Cuencanos consider themselves to be Catholic. And yet, even in a city so religious, Día de los Muertos, celebrated on November 2nd, feels like a small nook in time, as if something pagan and spiritual bypasses church rituals. A feeling of remembrance sits heavy on the air. More tiendas appear along the edge of the graveyards, selling flowers, and small bread babies, and warm glasses of purple juice.
Every country has its own way of remembering the dead. In the United States, there’s Memorial Day, which tends to be less about remembering the dead and more about a long weekend of bbqs and picnics. In Mexico, men and women parade through the streets. Giant skeletons and palm-sized sugar skulls are everywhere; it’s a celebration of life. Costa Rica has parades of masked men and women who dance down the roads to trumpets blasting. In Ecuador, the day is marked with the tradition of a visit to the cemetery, and typical food that only appears during Día de los Muertos.
This time of year, when walking through the streets of Cuenca, you can find little bread-shaped babies staring up through the windows with their icing eyes. They are guaguas del pan. Guagua, from the Quechua for baby. Baby bread. Some of the best guaguas are found in the district of los hornos de la leña — the wood-fire oven district. There are ovens over one hundred years old.
If walking toward the Tomebamba on Mariano Cueva, right before crossing Calle Larga, you can find one of the best wood-oven bakeries. It’s un hueco, a hole in the wall, but following the scent of fresh-baked bread will bring your nose into the small store on your right-hand side. The yawning mouth of the oven roars. The bakers wield long, wooden spatulas, feeding the oven dough, and yanking baked bread out of the flaming tongues.
There, you can also find colada morada. Colada meaning strained, referencing the fruit strained out of the drink; morada meaning purple. This juice is made with blue or black corn flour, Andean blueberries, and fruits. A glass of colada morada is served warm. The tradition of the juice and bread comes from the indigenous of Ecuador. October and November were the time for the cosecha, the harvest. Typically the rains would come during this time, and the indigenous would celebrate the passing of life with the rain, while dining and drinking.
Nowadays, Cuencanos claim that it never rains during this time of year. Día de los Muertos conveniently resides in the middle of Cuenca Independence celebrations, happening in the days leading up to November 3rd. Perhaps the carnival-feel of the city’s celebrations is what makes Día de los Muertos feel more like a spectacle than something sacred. At least, that is, until you step inside the cemetery.
The largest cemetery in town, El Cementerio Municipal, is located on the corner of Avenida Gonzalez Suarez and Avenda Guapdondeleg, just a few blocks from Huayna Capac. In the days leading up to November 2nd, you can walk down the streets that border the cemetery and you’ll find thousands of flowers: wreaths, stems, bouquets. Along with them, there are balloons, candles, knick-knacks — small remembrances to leave on the gravestones of the departed.
The cemetery stays open late on the night of November 2nd. It’s when the families come to spend time among the tombstones. Once inside the cemetery’s gates, it doesn’t feel as bustling and busy as it does along the street. There are hundreds of people, but there’s a quietness, a sigh, hanging in the air.
In Mexico, they feast with their dead among the stones, taking shots of tequila and celebrating life. In Cuenca, no tequila shots will be sipped, nor will guaguas or colada morada be consumed inside the cemetery. But families do bring flowers and photos, memories and gifts. They sit around the stones and talk. Over the stories, the amplified voice of a priest can be heard — the padre gives ongoing misas (church services) throughout the evening inside the Municipal Cemetery.
The gates are open for everyone, and though it feels sacred, it is not a silent affair. Children play amongst the graves, wandering through the grass and tagging one another. Mothers and fathers and grandparents rest, talking quietly. There’s a vivaciousness in the cemetery, among the stones — the collection of thousands of stories. Take time tomorrow to go inside. Walk around and pay respects to the lives unknown but loved.
Kristen Sawyer is a teacher and writer based in Cuenca, Ecuador. She publishes the creative writing magazine La Revista Zero and loves reading, biking, cooking, and traveling.