Never before have I experienced a day quite like Dia de Los Muertos. In the week preceding November 2, I asked several people, “What happens on Dia de Los Muertos?” “People visit the cemetery.” Simple Enough. As it turns out, the whole week leading to Nov. 2 was one of preparation for this very important holiday. Local residents visited the cemetery prior to the holiday to repaint and decorate their family mausoleums. They also prepared a fruit drink called Collada Morada, which they took with a special type of bread called Guaguas de Pan. Fiestas sprung throughout the town and people traveled in all directions to visit the cities and pueblos of their deceased loved ones.
I had already taken great interest in the cemetery when I arrived in Baños four months ago. On two occasions I spent an hour of solitude, strolling the streets and photographing the above-ground tombs. Completely absorbed by the intricate displays and “neighborhood-like” atmosphere, I realized that this sacred place, so prominent and important in the lives of many Catholic Latinos, is a place that has had little significance in my own life. Personally, I have only visited graveyards on the day of a funeral or on a tour of significant burial grounds. My association with these spaces conjures sentiments of somber heavyheartedness. This is what I expected to encounter on Day of the Dead.
What I had not expected was the gathering of hundreds of people and an incredible array of flowers at the entrance and throughout the cemetery. For me, it felt like a combination of several US holidays; Thanksgiving, Memorial Day and Christmas. And though I was more of a spectator than a participant since I don’t have family buried in Ecuador, I felt a small part of it through my Ecuadorian friends who showed me their family tombs and told personal stories. I was especially touched during Mass which was convened in the cemetery. The sound was projected over loud-speakers throughout the cemetery as people were scattered from corner to corner, sitting next to and on top of their family mausoleums. Throughout the day, crowds of people wandered in and out of the cemetery, visiting and eating with family and friends. There were tears and bowed heads, but there was also joy and gratitude as families convened to commemorate and celebrate life.