Day of the Dead

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Photographs: Jorge Vinueza

The wall that divides Otavalo’s two cemeteries — the mestizo on one side and the indigenous on the other — rises like a magic mirror between parallel universes.

On one hand lies a world of respect, silence and solemnity, as small groups of mourners dressed in black move ceremoniously down the paved walkways, their steps echoing on the cement floor and their careful weeping welling up in front of the sometimes extravagant tombstones. On the other, life, colourful skirts and blouses, the smell of food, hundreds of people making their way up the hill of indistinct graves, singing and laughing with their ancestors, eating with family and telling stories to a spiritual presence that may go back millennia.

Difuntos seems a profound reflection on how cultural experience breaks something as natural as death in two.

Deeply disparate perspectives run through Otavalo. It’s a juxtaposition you may find in other parts of Ecuador, but thanks to the indigenous predo- minance in this town-turned-city, it turns out to be an experience like no other in the country.

There is such a large pre-Hispanic heritage population here that it is that version of life which meets the eye, a vision one even catches from the main highway heading into town, like a cultural monument of sorts as people crowd their burial ground. The cemetery looks much more like a fair than a place of death!

The climb to the cemetery’s main gates is a push-and-shove affair, escorted by stalls selling crowns, flowers, even clothes and crafts, and, more poignantly, the iconic bread guaguas. Unlike their commercial version in Quito, stuffed with jelly to excite the younger generations, these dolls seem more like clay sculptures, especially given their hardness and tastelessness; one can only conclude that they are probably reserved for deceased souls who have long left earthly flavours behind. Beautifully decorated, those representing women and girls with colorful doodles that mimic the local embroidery and headwear are offered to women, while bread horses and pigeons are for the men.

The colada morada (a drink made of flour, purple and blue berries), another emblem of this special date across the country, is harder to come by: you may notice it in plastic jugs being shared among relatives.

The Otavaleños have brought entire banquets in huge metal pots: pulses, peas, potatoes, rice, meat, hard-boiled eggs… a lot of fruit. They call this offering ricushca. The women spread cloths on the ground and serve both their living and their deceased. They have been preparing this “picnic” since three in the morning, including the home-cooked specialties their deceased most enjoyed in life. They lunch beside the tombs as the Angel Kalpay visits them, reciting in Kichwa, Spanish and Latin prayers learned from the local nuns in exchange for bread and fruit.

Unattended food is snatched by those who hungrily pass by… turn your back, and you may think it was a muerto who ate it. In the middle of the cemetery, the “great cross” with its decorations rises two meters high, the site where the “blessing of the food” takes place. Musicians arrive — today they amplify their voices with mics and connect their instruments to loudspeakers — and the locals sing and move to the beat as a local priest invokes Mother Earth and Jesus Christ, the bounty of the harvest, all in the same breath, re- counting passages from the Bible and stories of an ancient Andean cosmology in honor of those who give life to this very particular fiesta: the deceased.

The “Ángel Kalpay”, half-celestial being, half-man, an Indian who prays in Latin (the “angel who runs” is the translation), is dressed all in white with a purple cloth wrapped about his head. He swings a brass bell while holding a pitcher of holy water he was given at the first Mass on November 2nd. He walks through town announcing All Soul’s Day. He is sometimes let into the homes to bless them, bless the families’ deceased, and even ease the spirit of those who have not yet found peace in the afterlife.

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