Sunday, 17 November 2013

Of Death, Design and Cuenca's Independence Day: Part the First (Lest They Should Die the Social Death)

One of my students waves me over into the corner of the class with a conspiratorial air.  She is holding a small object concealed in a nondescript, black plastic bag.  She flashes me a nervous smile.

<<This is a baby.  It's for you.>>

This has to go down as one of the creepiest statements I've ever been on the receiving end of.  I feel like I've taken a wrong turn and ended up in Royston Vasey (feel free to replace this archetype with your own preferred flavour of disquieting and surreal small-town setting, perhaps something from David Lynch).  Apprehensive doesn't begin to cover it. 

She reaches her hand into the bag: my breath is held and my fingers crossed in the fervent hope that I'm not about to become enmeshed in a shadowy child trafficking ring or accessory to a case of infanticide.

She draws the small object out from the bag.  It is at once both beautiful and grotesque.  A bijou, baby-shaped confectionery: all sugared bread and goo and dried fruit.

<<We have them when we celebrate the Day of the Deceased.>>

Well...that's lovely (in a very particular sense of the term lovely).  I am taken aback by this apparently unbidden, yet somewhat sinister, generosity.

A few moments later, she comes up to me again, red faced.

<<Incidentally, I think I stole your pen.>>

<<¿How do you know it's my pen?>>

<<It has your name written on it, teacher.>>

And so it does.  A Christmas present from my parents, onto which they had my given and family thoughtfully engraved school-jumper style, lest I should forget.  I hadn't been quite sure where I'd misplaced it (this is not an unusual state of affairs in the grand lackadaisy that is my humble existence, hence the engraving) but here it is, returned safe and sound

In an odd way, the two gifts share a certain forget-me-not quality, one in remembrance of those past, the other in order that I carry a memento of who I am (that is if I don't leave it lying around for students to inadvertently pilfer).

And with that, the mystery of the unsolicited present comes clear.  ¡Ah sweet guilt, oh great shame-flushed bearer of gifts!

So ¿what is this sugar-coated monstrosity? I hear you ask.  It's called a 'guagua de pan'.  Guagua (or wawa) is the gloriously onomatopoeic word for a baby or young child in the Quechua (and its Ecuadorian cousin Kichwa) and Aymara languages of the Andes.  So, a 'guagua de pan' translates literally as a 'bread baby'.

Originally made to represent and honor those who had died young, they are a traditional element of the Ecuadorian celebration of the Día de los Difuntos (Day of the Deceased), which takes place each year on the 2nd of November (shifted from its ancient perch to coincide with the Catholic celebration of All Souls' Day).

The people of the Andes don't lavish quite the same level of macabre opulence upon their commemorations of the departed as the Mexicans do: shell-encrusted, spirit-awakening, dancing skeletons and sugar skulls are conspicuous by their absence.

The difference in approach is rooted in the difference in traditional belief.  In the Aztec world, life and death were considered to be intricately intertwined: typical depictions of burial show the greedy earth opening its maw to devour the dead.  Skeletal imagery was symbollic of the cycle of fertility and regrowth and the imagery of the Mexican Dia de Muertos reflects this.

Amongst the offerings laid for the adult dead during the Mexican celebrations are bottles of tequila, mezcal and pulque, which would no doubt please Centzon Totochtin, the four hundred hard-partying rabbit gods of drunkenness in Aztec mythology.   The focus is definitely upon the joyous celebration of the cycle of rebirth.

One of the Centzon Totochtin - not averse to a bevy.
In keeping with the more reserved but highly communal nature of the people of the Andes, the focus of their Día de los Difuntos is slightly different.  The Inca made a distinction between two deaths, the rather mundane death of the body, and the far more serious social death which occurs when your ancestors cease to remember you.   The act of remembrance in the Ecuadorian Día de los Difuntos helps to keep the souls of the departed from suffering this social death.

Differences notwithstanding, what the Andean celebrations do share in common with their Mexican counterpart is that families bring offerings to their deceased relatives and ancestors, often having a picnic at the graveside along with the spirits from the Más Allá (great beyond)

Headstones and burial plots are cleaned, flowers are placed, the living and the dead have a good catch-up and the deceased's favourite foods are consumed for their benefit; along with guaguas de pan and their traditional accompaniment: 'colada morada'.

The deep purple of a Catholic funeral mass, of mourning and penitence, 'colada morada' translates literally as 'dark purple strained'.  It is made from various combinations of fruits such as andean blackberries, strawberries, blueberries, naranjilla and babaco; panela (cane sugar), cornflour, lemongrass, lemon verbana and spices such as cinnamon, cloves, and ishpingo: all mixed together and served up warm and steaming.

In the days leading up to the Día de los Difuntos, guaguas de pan and colada morada suddenly become available from every bakers, every cafe and restaurant and every street stall and peddler's cart in the city.  Cuenca's tradespeople are clearly determined to ensure that no soul shall suffer the social death through forgetfulness.

Perhaps now is an apt moment to heed their advice (with or without confectionery assistance) and think upon those who have passed, lest they should die the social death for mere want of remembrance.

No comments:

Post a Comment