On November 2nd of each year, communities all around Ecuador celebrate el Día de los Difuntos or Day of the Deceased. Families gather in cemeteries, spend time cleaning gravesites, leave new bouquets of flowers or wreaths of shiny plastic, and share food together.
Difuntos literally translates to deceased. Many Americans will recognize that this celebration is similar to the Day of the Dead celebrated by many Mexican-Americans, though the Ecuadorian version has a slightly different flavor.
In Calderón, a community about 15 kilometers outside of Quito, we experienced Día de los Difuntos firsthand. We did our best not to look like nosy tourists. At one point, we were interviewed by a pair of University students studying tourism and we explained that we wanted to visit in order to learn about the tradition so that we could share it with others. I did my best to remain unobtrusive; my pictures were always taken from a distance and the only time I highlight a single family is the photo taken outside of the cemetery of threesome looking out at the crowd waiting to get in.
Many people were visiting that day and it was clear that not all had family interred at the cemetery. Many were like us, walking around and experiencing the day. Perhaps they didn’t have family nearby and were there to honor the memory of their loved ones in a place where others were doing the same. I have to admit to a small amount of envy. My family has no single burial ground, no one place to visit to honor the dead.
We learned from the two University students that the tradition of sharing food at the gravesite is meant to symbolize the coming together of the living and dead. In most parts of Ecuador, families bring Guaguas de Pan and Colada Morada, though we saw plenty of folks enjoying ice cream as well. The Guaguas de Pan are literally loaves of bread shaped like babies and symbolize the living. The Colada Morada, a drink made from several local fruits, herbs, spices, and thickened with the flour of blue corn, symbolizes the deceased. Many families eat and drink directly on the gravesite and some leave food and drink so that the departed can partake at a later time.
This day isn’t about a quick visit. Many families set up for hours. We saw picnics taking place under colorful umbrellas and young children playing tag between the crosses. Little boys tended to climb high so that they could look out over the tops of the vaults. Many people took the time to refresh the paint on the black wrought iron fences around individual graves. There were piles of old, dead flowers and pulled up weeds. No one seemed to be in a hurry. And the slow pace of the hot day leant itself to reflection. It all seemed a very appropriate way to celebrate El Día de los Difuntos.