The Ecuadorian Day of the Dead
It is said that before the Spanish conquest, and the eventual spread of the Catholic religion, the indigenous communities would commemorate the Day of the Dead (All Souls Day) during the “Ayamarcay Quilla” or the 11th month of the year, which was the beginning of the rainy season. People would unearth the mummies of their loved ones and take them for a walk around town, that is, they would parade them while they shared food, drink and music. It was a grand celebration in which people would honor the deceased.
The Catholic Church prohibited the procession of mummies as it was regarded as a profanation of their resting place. Therefore, the locals came up with an ingenious way to continue the tradition: making bread dolls that represented the mummies, which initially were prepared with corn flour and pumpkin. Once the Spanish introduced wheat and barley in the Americas, the bread took on different shapes and flavors. Some historians also talk about a drink that was made with fermented purple corn and llama blood, which was considered a sacred animal. Eventually, blueberries and blackberries, native to this region, would substitute the blood color in the drink. The spices were added much later, including ishpingo (cinnamon flower), cloves, myrtle leaves, ataco (amaranth flower), and lemongrass. This thick, dark drink is now called “colada morada” and the bread dolls are the “guaguas de pan.”
In Kichwa, “guagua” means baby, but originally the guaguas de pan represented the mummies that were adults, in most cases, not babies. The interpretations are many and it can be said that the purpose of this celebration is to wish for reincarnation. To this day, indigenous families gather in the cemeteries around the graves of their loved ones and share their favorite foods, tell stories, update them on the family news, and simply honor their memory. Some people offer the bread to the deceased, making a hole in the ground and putting the guagua upside down, then pouring the colada on top. If we are given a new body (the bread) and warm blood (the drink), we will then come back to life.
The Catholic mestizo population, resembling what they do on Sundays at mass, easily adopted this indigenous tradition: eat the body (host) and the blood (wine) of Christ, their redeemer who promises an afterlife. Syncretism is ever-present in our religious rituals and nowadays this celebration is widespread in Ecuador from the end of October to the precise day, Nov 2nd.
Another interesting way in which indigenous communities remember their dead is by keeping a skull in their homes. The skull would belong to someone in your family and would be passed on to the next generations. It is believed that the spirit of the person lives in the head or skull and travels in time, showing their presence by making noises or moving objects. In some cases, people would keep skulls from someone outside the family, for instance, if you happened to find mummies in your backyard. You adopt them into your family, promising to keep their memory alive and, in return for this gesture, they offer protection from bad spirits. If you ever wondered why St. Francis of Assisi is portrayed holding a skull in South American religious art, now you know!
May our ancestors keep us safe and may we never forget them.
We recommend the following places in Quito to try the colada morada and guagua de pan. From Oct 25th to Nov 4th.
Café Anaconda, located in La Mariscal Neighborhood.
Galería Café Restaurante, located in La Mariscal Neighborhood.
El Café de la Basílica, located in the old town.
Crustum 2850, located in the old town.