November 1st and 2nd….or as the Peruvians call it, “Día de las Vidas” (Day of the Living), Día de Todos los Santos (All Saints’ Day), All Souls’ Day (Día de los Difuntos or Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) . . . There are many names, and these holidays are also very common throughout Latin America. On November 1st, I ventured with my host mom to the Santiago district, which is one of the eight districts of Cusco. On this day I was able to experience the true Inca tradition of honoring the dead by bringing flowers and sharing with souls of ancestors. We bought breads shaped like caballitos (horses) and t’anta wawa (babies or dolls), which play a very important part in this tradition. This was my experience:
It is the morning of November 1st, and my host mom and I are having breakfast. She calls her daughter to see if she wants to go to the cemetery with her to visit her mom (her daughter’s grandmother). Needless to say, the next minute I am throwing my hair up in a bun, putting clothes on, and rushing out of the house to the cemetery with her. Sometimes the things you least expect, are the best times you have. We take a 15-20 minute bus ride, jump off and buy flowers for only 2 soles (about 60 cents in U.S.). We begin a short walk to the cemetery, and people are everywhere! I feel like a pinball that’s getting hit back and forth. Street vendors are selling anything from flowers, to food, to who knows what.
We begin our entrance into a cemetery called “Cementerio General de Almudena del Cusco”, and wow is it a sight. The cemetery is very different from those in the United States, where loved ones are buried underground with a tombstone marking them. Here, intriguing, colorful windows are stacked, displaying their loved ones. We walk through, and as I look, you can see how family members come and clean out their loved ones’ displays and place new flowers, figurines, and whatever else that person may have cherished and loved. Young boys come up to you and ask to clean your display. We continue to walk through this maze and finally come up to my host mom’s mother’s display. It was fascinating to see how the dead are cherished. In the United States I feel that death is mourned and always sad. While death is sad, here in Peru you see life even in the dead!
We say a prayer, put some of my host mom’s mother’s favorite, purple flowers in, and leave her a cup of water. My host mom touches the display, says goodbye, and we were on our way. As we walk out I observe people playing music by the displays, lighting candles and incense, and celebrating the life of their loved ones. My host mom begins to tell me the history behind this place. The cemetery began its construction in 1846 and was built with materials extracted from rubble from the Peruvian Independence War. Bullet marks still remain on the walls, because it is said that the front of this cemetery was used for a firing squad during the war, which makes this place an amazing sight; both a historical and a peaceful resting place. The beloved cemetery, now also known as a national museum, holds famous writers, photographers, scientists, doctors, lawyers, etc. There is also a special section just for children.
Overall, this experience was one I would not have had without living with a host family. It was so interesting to see the differences of cemeteries and celebrations between the US and in Peru. And, like I said before, it’s the experiences that you least expect which turn out to be the best ones.
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