Home > Ecuador > Reviving ancient traditions to honor the dead in Ecuador’s andean region

Reviving ancient traditions to honor the dead in Ecuador’s andean region

The second day of November in Ecuador features one of the oldest, non-civic nor political commemoration, a National Holiday dedicated to pay homage to those who died, whether recently or centuries ago… The tradition has both indigenous as well as Hispanic roots and is celebrated, on the same date, throughout the country, as well as in several other Latin American countries. Thus, today we have chosen to take a look at some locations in Ecuador’s capital city and surroundings, where some of the most renowned “Day of the Dead” rituals are celebrated.

A crisp and clear Quito morning, with its typical blue sky and the omnipresent silhouette of the Pichincha Volcano guarding, as a gigantic shield, the city’s west side, takes us through the streets of the Colonial Center of Ecuador’s historic capital, past magnificent churches, convents and narrow streets, leading to one of the city’s oldest cemeteries: San Diego, located at the very foot of the emblematic Panecillo Hill. The cemetery was built in the 1800’s and its tall white-washed walls cover several blocks. A pretty cobble-stoned Plaza separates de entrance of San Diego Cemetery from the small and charming convent of the same name, San Diego, one of those Quito treasures of colonial architecture and religious art.  Today, the square teems with scores of vendors selling the most varied and imaginative flower arrangements, grief cards with poems and memorial phrases, while a small army of free-lance workers are ready to cater for a demand to paint or fix and arrange worn out tombstones.  As the morning progresses, hundreds, then thousands of quiteños of all social classes flock into the cemetery, to pay a heartfelt visit to their parents, spouses, relatives and friends who now rest in peace. The Cemetery of San Diego boasts the classic Italian design with small and large Mausoleums adorned by white sculptures. The “urban” way to celebrate this day is to visit the Cemeteries, bring flowers, say prayers and give a hand to wearing out graves, tombstones and mausoleums.  The majority of the mourners dress in black or dark colors, as a signal of respect for those who are gone.

Now we leave San Diego and head on through Quito’s Eastern Ring Road, the modern, eight-lanes, Simon Bolivar Avenue, towards the north of Quito, reaching soon the Pan-American Highway.  A mere twenty minutes from Quito’s Historic Centre, northeast of the city, is the small town of Calderon, now practically engulfed by the rapidly growing metropolis.  However, Calderon has remained loyal to its roots and traditions and, on November 2, not only local mourners, but also national and foreign tourists come to witness the ancestral traditions which honor the dead at the local cemetery.  Here, the relatives and friends of the deceased come to spend much of the day sitting around the graves, to “talk” to their departed loved ones. They bring in food and beverages, to symbolically “share” with their beloved dead.  The occasion is one that mixes feelings of sorrow with the happiness of being able to share what their dead liked best to eat and drink, while some indigenous chants sang by the mourners or small amateur music groups, give the ritual an aura of celebration, as an encounter with those who have departed.  Among the most popular foods brought to be eaten around the graves are: corn prepared in various ways, varieties of beans, hominy, potatoes and some meats, mainly roasted pig. The food is complemented by local beverages, predominantly “chicha”, an ancestral sacred brew of fermented maize and fruits. The visitors here, instead, wear their typical dresses, particularly the Indian women, who display their best skirts and shawls, a kaleidoscope of bright reds, oranges, yellows, purples and greens.  The near surrealistic scene is a National Culture Heritage and invites us to meditate on the richly varied Cosmo visions and ethnic diversity of Ecuador’s population.

Having been witnesses to one of the most authentic ancestral rites, we now head back to Quito, where still one more element of this day’s commemoration waits for us, enjoying the ceremonial drink and food of the day: one or more glasses of the famous “colada morada” (translating literally into “purple porridge”); a delicious and lukewarm thick and sweet beverage whose basic components are the “mortiños”, a local variety of small raspberries and dark maize flour; seasoned with cinnamon, aromatic herbs such as lemongrass and the native “ishpingo”; topped with small chunks of pineapple.  The “colada” or porridge is eaten along with “guaguas de pan” (literally “bread dolls”); imaginatively crafted bread figures of all sizes, adorned with a colorful array of sugary designs, faces and dresses, resembling human figures, mostly female.  Thus, in a few hours, in and near Ecuador’s capital, we have traveled back in time at one of the most unique and symbol-rich ancestral commemorations and rites….

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