Amanda McCarther is in the second half of her WorldTeach year in Ecuador. This past week, she had the chance to experience the Ecuadorian holiday “Día de los Difuntos”. Amanda saw quickly that this holiday was more than just the Latin American version of Halloween. Read on to learn about this unique holiday and how it is celebrated in Amanda’s community.
Que las almas de los fieles difuntos por la misericordia de Dios descansen en paz.”
(May the souls of the faithful departed through the mercy of God rest in peace.)
Today is Dia de los Difuntos.
Today we remember the dead.
Most of what I know about this holiday comes from what I learned in my high school Spanish class. All I remember was pictures of brightly painted skulls being paraded through crowded streets and somehow coming away with the impression that this holiday was basically the Latin American version of Halloween.
Today, I realized it most certainly isn’t.
After lunch, my host sister encouraged me to take a walk in the cemetery near our house. She wanted me to witness for myself the customs associated with this day. I had already sampled my host mom’s colada morada and guagua de pan, the traditional food and drink eaten on Dia de los Difuntos, so I was interested to see what actually happens.
I thought it might rain so I took my umbrella. I knew the minute I stepped out onto the sidewalk that something special was happening today. Normally Ibarra is quiet on the weekends. People are home with their families are out at the lake. But today, everywhere I turned there was a cluster of people slowly making their way to or from the cemetery.
As I made the turn onto the street that the cemetery is located on, the trickle of people turned into a flood. Suddenly there was no room. Every available space on the sidewalk was crammed with shifting bodies or eager vendors. I ditched the sidewalk for the side of the road, willing myself not to flinch as the buses and taxis passed less than an arm’s length away from me. But at least I could breathe. And walk at a normal pace.
The entrance to the cemetery was flanked on either side by even more vendors. I paused for a moment to examine their wares. Garish purple, black and silver wreaths made from tinsel and gift bows framed the stalls. Fake flowers in every shade of neon glared from tiny glass vases. Small prayer cards stamped with images of Jesus and the saints and trimmed with lace tumbled out of plastic containers. Every now and again, I would catch sight of someone selling fresh flowers and their soothing, organic colors brought a small sense of tranquility to the chaos.
Then the crowd surged behind me and I found myself inside of el Cementerio San Miguel de Ibarra.
I’d never visited an Ecuadorian cemetery before. I’d walked past this cemetery many times but never had any reason to enter. The first thing I noticed was that the stone wall to my left was actually full of coffins. Instead of rows of headstones laid out on grassy knolls, the interred had been placed in holes in the wall. The opening to those slots which had been “filled” had a panel of glass placed over them to seal them off and stated the name and year of birth and death of the person.
I watched as the family members of the deceased carefully placed the oh-so-recently purchased wreaths and flowers on the ledges in front of the glass. Others stood quietly looking on. Possibly saying or prayer or meticulously coaxing old memories from their forgotten corners.
But those moments, those moments of quiet reflection and prayerful mediation, were actually few to be had. As I wandered further into the maze of crypts and crosses and shrubbery, the spirit of the cemetery took on a livelier air. Children recklessly chased each other around headstones (I found headstones–some of the deceased were buried in the ground). A few of the wilier vendors had slipped inside and were loudly advertising their cold beverages. Adolescents lounged carelessly against the stone crosses while they chatted with their friends. It seemed I had found myself in the middle of a neighborhood block party, not a cemetery supposed to be full of thoughtful remembrances.
But my surprise and slight annoyance at the lack of decorum quickly gave way to an overwhelming sense of joy. Yes, today is meant to remember loved ones lost, but it’s also a day to celebrate loved ones living. There in that cemetery couples young and old were walking arm in arm, neighbors were catching up on news, grandparents gently rocked their grandchildren on stone benches in the shade of the trees. Life in all of its beautiful stages was here, too.
I kept walking.
I found myself in front of a large family crypt. It was made of intricately carved stone and the inside was lined with polished tiles. On the ledges, vases brimmed with freshly picked flowers. I had passed many of these crypts as I strolled through the grounds. Each was meticulously kept up. Some were even built with glass walls or had small chandeliers hanging inside.
But the door to this crypt was open and on the stairs leading down into the crypt sat an old woman. Her skin was little more than crumpled tissue paper and her small form had been slowly pressed into a gentle curve over the years. On her lap rested an open Bible. There she sat, lips slowly tracing each vowel and consonant, as she read aloud to her husband? Her son? Her sister?
My fingers ached to take a picture. I wanted to somehow capture that second’s breath between life and death. For there she sat, literally and figuratively, on death’s doorstep, remembering those gone before and, perhaps, considering her own mortality. I wanted to capture her serenity. For even though she sat so close to eternity, I could feel her sense of peace radiating through the tiny doorway.
She stayed with me as I meandered to the exit and slowly extricated myself from the crushing throng. I thought of her as the crowds thinned and the streets grew quiet. Her small form sat quietly hunched in my mind’s eye as I found myself back on my very own doorstep.
There she sat. Her lips slowly tracing each vowel and consonant with each breath in. And out.
Today is Dia de los Difuntos.
Today we remember the living.
– Amanda McCarther, WorldTeach Ecuador 2013-2014