Dia de los Difuntos

Aidan Holloway-Bidwell - Ecuador

November 14, 2012

Halloween isn’t well recognized in Los Bancos. On the thirty-first, my house boasted a jack-o-lantern in spooky solitude, and not one child could be found roaming the barrio in search of tricks or treats. Luckily, the festive spirit that I instinctively accumulated through October found another outlet two days later. The holiday is called Dia de Los Difuntos, or Day of The Dead, and in the States is widely associated with sugar skulls and shrines with candles and food for those who have passed. These however are largely Mexican practices that aren’t shared by many Andean countries such as Ecuador. Dia de Los Difuntos is practiced here in Catholic families (which includes over ninety-five percent of Ecuadorians) not with sugar skulls, but with babies made of bread and fruit porridge.

Fruit porridge, or colada morada, was what Sonia and I made that morning of November 2, Dia de Los Difuntos. “First, sift the flour…and not too fast…here use this spoon to mix it around,” my host mother instructed, and I slowly made it through the long process of making this seasonal beverage. The fine blue corn flour was added to a pot of water and mixed into a violet paste. Water infused with cinnamon, cloves, and flower petals was poured in, along with juices of blackberry and blueberry, pineapple and naranjilla. Last went in the bits of pineapple and strawberry, and the raisins and prunes, and the sugar. Lots of sugar. The crimson-purple mixture was cooked to a porridge-y viscosity, and left to cool.

Some like colada morada, some don’t. I know I loved it at first, but I think I overdid it. After an estimated twelve mugs my devotion started to falter. Fortunately, a warm pitcher of colada morada is an acceptable holiday gift, so when we had all slurped down what we could stomach we poured the extra into a plastic jug and headed to my cousin’s house to meet the extended family, and fill them up with purple holiday cheer.

After a couple hours of introductions and conversations, my host father beckoned me to head home. A relief, since my brain was running on empty from translating, or trying to translate, Spanish to English to Spanish for the better part of two hours. On the way home my brother Alejandro and I headed over to the cemetery. Getting through the iron gates was tricky, one had to duck under colorful umbrellas, dodge between grandsons and granddaughters, nephews and nieces, all buying flowers and crosses at the little tables that crowded the entrance. Once beyond the gates I was greeted with a place unlike any cemetery I was familiar with. Cement tombs rose in grades, stacked like the floors of buildings. Families gathered around their respective sepulchres; cleaning off moss and lichen, repainting a faded tomb with brilliant blue or white. Candles glimmered in the shallow frames of each tomb, casting a glow on the photos and names of loved ones, the wax pooling under the stems of freshly cut flowers. Alejo brought me to two adjacent ground-level tombs, these didn’t have others stacked on top. He introduced me to his uncle and grandfather. The grave of his grandfather, who died eleven years ago, was marked by a white cross. Next to it was the three year old grave of this uncle, marked by a cross of unpainted wood. My host father and grandmother had placed bouquets at each grave previously, and the petals shown with moisture from the thickening fog. Making our way down we passed freshly painted tombs, the white darkening where the soot from the candles accumulated. There were tombs adorned with wreaths and crosses and photographs, as well as tombs that hadn’t seen a visit in years: grey and derelict, blanketed in moss. As we crossed the threshold back onto the street I looked back. Beyond a certain point among the graves the fog obscured everything, creating a grey backdrop accented with drops of yellow light from the candles; an eerie and beautiful sight.

That evening brought me back to the stove top. My mother had bought fresh ginger root and I told her about candied ginger, so we made some. The fiery flavor on my tongue erased the sticky memory of the colada, and I settled down with my host brothers in front of the TV. We finished off the day watching Predator, probably not a traditional practice on Day of the Dead, but a relaxing end to a full day

When my head hit the pillow that night, I thought, skeletons and witches and pumpkins can wait till next year. Day of the Dead was a worthy replacement for Halloween. Both are morbid in their own ways, but where Halloween has come to exploit the theme for fun and entertainment purposes, Day of the Dead is all about reverence and remembrance, which was a very nice change from what I was familiar with.

A great day and a great holiday. Thanks Vallejo family, for sharing it all with me.

Aidan Holloway-Bidwell