Finados or Day of the Dead
The bread dolls represent the world of the living; the purple porridge the world of the dead.
Since times immemorial, the cult to Death has been practiced in many different ways by the most diverse cultures around the globe. Death being one of the most dramatic, mystical and special events in the life cycle of human beings, special celebrations and traditions have been registered since the days of some of the most antique cultures and civilizations of the Pre-Hispanic world, both in the Americas and in other parts of the world. Due to the characteristics of death, religions have adopted and adapted special rituals and a special date has been designated in the annual calendar to commemorate the 'Day of the Dead'. In some cases this day follows the festivities of “All Souls” and in some cases it coincides with it. In the Hispanic Americas, the Day of the Dead is celebrated, since at least five centuries ago, on the 2nd of November of every year and in most countries it is part of the calendar of national holidays.
While there are some elements which are common with other nations in Latin America, Ecuador’s celebrations of this day do feature some unique characteristics, only found here. One of them is the preparation and widespread eating and drinking of the colada morada ('purple porridge') together with the guaguas de pan ('bread dolls'). This is perhaps one of the most curious of the rites which take place on this day. And it is not just a culinary event, but a reflex of the cultural syncretism between ancestral indigenous rituals, beliefs and the use of native ingredients, fused with certain elements imported by the European culture and particularly the Hispanic heritage left during and after the Colonial days.
For the indigenous communities, the Day of the Dead (locally known as 'Finados'), frequently starts the day before or at the crack of dawn, with family encounters to pray and to clean and adorn the deceased ones’ tombs. Fresh paint for the gravestones and flowers for the tomb and its surroundings are some of the activities which precede a day in company of the loved ones who have passed away. The purpose of this day is to congregate entire families and unite them around the tombs (and the memories) of their deceased relatives and, more importantly, to 'share' a day of communion with them. The participants say prayers and hold 'conversations' with their loved ones, remembering special passages of their lives, expecting advice from them on matters of concern and spending a convivial time of memories, some giggles and also tears. There are profound spiritual connotations to these unique encounters between the dead and those still alive.
One of the main aspects of this full-day rite, especially in the rural areas, is the laying of a large tablecloth over or alongside the tomb to place on it some of the most traditional foods, especially those which used to be preferred by the deceased persons. Again an important symbolic load lies over this ritual, pretending to share with them those typical delicacies, which may feature, for example in the Andean region, foods such as cooked hominy, green beans, roasted guinea pigs, maize-based beverages like “chicha” and other specialties, which are consumed along the day.
The iconic colada morada which is widely prepared and consumed throughout the country, both in the rural areas as well as in the larger and more cosmopolitan cities, is a kind of dark and thick porridge made of black-maize. While the grain is also found in Peru and Bolivia, this is an exclusively Ecuadorian beverage and includes at least two Andean varieties of blackberries which give the drink its purplish color. Small chunks of fruits like pineapple, strawberries and the local babaco are also added to the drink. The spicing which adds flavor to the delicious taste of the colada morada features brown sugar made from sugar cane (panela), cinnamon and other local aromatic spices. The guaguas de pan are flour-bread figures representing doll-like female figures, gracefully adorned with vivid colors made of glazed sugar and aniline coloring, usually filled with local fruits’ jams and raisins. These elements also have a fascinating symbolism for the native cultures: the bread dolls (guaguas is the kichwa word for baby) represent the world of the living; while the purple porridge represents the world of the dead.
The experts still debate, without consensus, as to the real origins of these traditional foods and beverages which accompany the celebrations on the Day of the Dead. The most likely answer is a fusion of ancestral Pre-Hispanic with Spanish Catholic elements. The colada morada and the bread figurines are present in the cemeteries, in the private homes of rich and poor and in all kinds of restaurants throughout Ecuador and, in the larger urban centres, they are the signature food and beverage of the season, which starts several weeks before November 2.
For foreign visitors, one of the best options to admire these ancient traditions is to visit the cemetery of Calderon, a small town just twenty minutes north of Quito, the capital city, which stages one of the most colourful and lively Dead’s Day ancestral ceremonies. Many towns and villages, especially along the Andean Region, also have, with some peculiarities of their own, special rituals on this day which can be seen and shared by the voyagers. Down Ecuador’s Pacific coast, the cemeteries of the smaller villages also feature similar ceremonies with some local variations. One of the most colorful events here can be seen at the cemetery of the small Machalilla village, in the heart of the famous Machalilla National Park and ten minutes from Puerto López, the main touristic hub of the area.
In the larger cities like Quito, Guayaquil and Cuenca, thousands flock to the cemeteries to clean and adorn the tombs, niches, mausoleums and gravestones; to place flower arrangements, often accompanied by cards with warm messages and to pray for those who left. This is also an occasion, particularly in the larger cities, for commerce to bloom especially with the sale of flowers, cards, religious objects, prepared foods and other commemorative items. Last but not least, this is a day of family union, from the communal elaboration of home-made colada morada and guaguas de pan, to the visit of the cemeteries and arranging of the tombs. This is certainly a fascinating cultural event, loaded with spiritual symbols, well worth observing if you are around on the specific dates.
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