What are we really celebrating?
This is what I think about as I step over the forgotten graves at the
Indigenous cemetery in Otavalo (a separate and exclusive location from the
Mestizo cemetery, I might add). Some headstones are disappearing into the
earth, buried in 100 years of dirt and forgotten holidays. Others shine
with golden trim, buried in bouquets of fresh roses, fruits, vegetables,
homemade breads, soups, and the famous “guagua de pan” (literally
translates to “baby of bread”). For Dia de Los Muertos, Ecuadorians come to
the cemetery to celebrate death. I realize that is a foreign concept to
those of us raised crying at funerals for people we didn’t know, awkwardly
changing the subject at family gatherings when a lost name is mentioned,
and holding our breath as we drive by a cemetery so that “evil” spirits
won’t enter our bodies. It is foreign to me too. But here, “mourning” is
nearly reunion. People gather to tell stories, share food, play music, and
most importantly feast on the buckets (and I mean BUCKETS) of bread with
the people they miss the most.
Starting on Tuesday, we began to prepare for the holiday. It was up at 7 AM
and off to abuelita’s for 3 hours of dough rolling, pounding, weaving, and
toasting in the hot clay urn. On Wednesday, off to the parade! My English
supervisor from school begged me to walk so she could show off her “Barbie”
(as she calls me), but as I walk I wonder how hard I have to focus for my
hair to turn black and for me to shrink down 6 inches. On Thursday, more
making bread. On Friday morning comes the moment I have dreaded for the
last two months- ’twas time to kill the cuy (that’s how you know party
shits about to get serious). Friday afternoon, we party! Music! Dancing!
Drinking! Dozens of faces I had never seen before piled into our house to
feast on breads, mote, rice, avocados, donuts, cuy, chicken, soups,
cervezas, and anything else we could whip up in our little outdoor kitchen.
It didn’t matter that my parents didn’t recognize half the people there,
everyone was welcome, everyone was family.
Friday evening me and my sister take the bus into the city and head to the
cemetery. It extends all the way up the hillside and is full of color. I
don’t feel scared or sad, I feel alive- as if there is an energy there that
I never noticed outside the walls. We place flowers at the head of a
cousin, a grandfather, an uncle. As we make our way down the hillside, my
sister tells me about the worlds of the Kichwa religion. She says that Kay
Pacha is the world that we live in- where all living things go about our
mortal lives. The world above us is the Hawa Pacha or Hanan Pacha. Here
lives all of the gods- the sun, moon, and the spirits of all the elements.
Below us is Uku Pacha, the world of all things dead, unborn, or beneath the
terrestrial or aquatic surface. They are represented accordingly by a puma,
a condor, and a serpent. The underworld, she tells me, is not like the
“hell” that we think of, nor is the world above a “heaven”. All spirits
exist within the world they are meant for. It is on this day, however, that
our loved ones come to the surface. We dance in circles, all marching to
certain beat, because it is said that this will awake them- that they will
will be dancing with us too.
I don’t know what philosophy I have to align with this, maybe there isn’t
one. I can’t say that I’m no longer afraid of death, or that going to a
cemetery now makes me want to dance. I can’t say for certain that there’s a
heaven or a hell, or that spirits live beneath my feet in harmony. But I
can say that that day, with the family, the friends, the food, the
strangers, the forgotten graves and the freshly buried, I felt closer to
the dead AND the living than I have felt in a long time, and that is
something to celebrate.