Celebrating Day of the Dead Amidst secrets unknown to the ordinary tourist

08/Noviembre/2012 | 15:24

By Lance Brashear

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As tourist or resident of Quito, you have likely visited Alameda Park – a small, green respite squeezed into the congestion and bustle of the capital city 

It offers some attractions, including the old observatory and astronomic museum in the center of the park and paddle boat rides around the man-made pond.  The Belen Church, currently under restoration, sits on the north end while a Simon Bolivar monument marks the southern boundary.  But few ever notice the small virgin, unmarked save for the graffiti, on the west side of Alameda Park.  The “Virgin of the Corner,” as it is known, sits across the street, in a little slice of earth just above the bus stop.  It is easy to miss.

The virgin marks the approximate location of the Santa Prisca Church, erected in 1586, according to the City Council Acts (Actos de Cabildo) researched by the late writer Luciano Andrade Marin.   These records indicate that the church replaced a “humilladero,” or “ermita,” named Veracruz - a simple cross or monument that marked the scene of a horrific event in the pastures of what was once known as “Añaquito.”

Añaquito is now Alameda Park, the site of the “Batalla de Añaquito,” or as it is more commonly known today, the Battle of Iñaquito.

The horrific crime

The battle occurred on the 18th day of January, 1546, when 300 soldiers led by the Viceroy of Lima, Blasco Nuñez de Vela, representative of the King of Spain in the territories of Peru and Ecuador, came to establish order in Quito, whose then leader, Gonzalo Pizzaro, was in defiance of royal orders. 

The viceroy and his men were outmatched and ultimately decapitated by Pizzaro´s forces.   Andrade Marin says that Pizarro himself ordered that a chapel be erected on the site of the decapitation, to be named Santa Prisca, in honor of the patron saint commemorated on that fateful day.

More than 400 years later, in 1948, workers restoring part of the Hospital of San Juan de Dios in Quito´s historical district - today the city museum - discovered a hidden room filled with more than 300 human skulls.  Because of their numbers, features, and the trauma to their bone, Andrade Marin deduced they could be no other than the bodies of those killed at Iñaquito.

The hospital was built only 19 years after the battle, presumably by and for the families of those left behind, in particular the orphaned, mestizo children, who it is theorized, exhumed the skulls of their murdered fathers in Iñaquito (the site having been marked by Veracruz).  The room was purposefully constructed as an apparent resting place for the skulls in the hospital, where they remained for centuries.  

Enough time has passed that the gruesome discovery, now more than half a century ago, no longer remains in the popular memory of the city.  Tours of the city museum do not even mention it, nor is the personnel even aware of this historical fact when inquiries are made (test them by asking about the room of skulls the next time you visit).

The horrific custom

If it seems macabre for the children of the Spanish soldiers to dig up the heads of their fathers to relocate them to a hidden room beneath their hospital, then consider what the Spanish witnessed only a few years earlier when they first came to present day Ecuado - something not always talked about during what has come to be a rather festive time of year when we enjoy cute breads and delicious fruity drinks.

According to Marlo Brito of the Sinchi Sacha Foundation, it was during the final week of October and the first days of November when, ancestrally, this world marked the changing of the seasons with an eerie custom.  Once every year the indigenous natives of Ecuador would remove the bodies of their loved ones from their burial tombs for a procession and celebration. 

The processions coincided with the beginning of winter - the end of the dry season and the beginning of the rainy season – a time when fertility returns to the Earth. Macabre though they seemed, the processions were a way of giving thanks and asking for blessings in the planting and harvesting of crops.  The ritual also involved offering food to the deceased, since it was believed that such an offering was a way to communicate with the dead. 

But the practice of parading the dead was soon prohibited by the Spanish and the tradition evolved such that objects representing the bodies of their loved ones were used during the annual festival and parade.  Since food was a significant part of the tradition, representations of the dead were eventually made of bread.

Today, we recognize these breads as “guaguas de pan” (Kichwa for bread babies).  And the celebration during which they are offered and consumed is officially recognized every year on the second day of November: Día de los Difuntos, or Day of the Dead.

Day of the Dead celebrations often involve visiting gravesites, an act which is itself a manifestation of the processions of centuries ago.  In its most traditional expression, food is still taken to the burial sites of the deceased where it is left for the dead or it is shared among the living members of the family at the tomb of their loved ones. 

Guagua breads are accompanied by another culinary tradition: colada morada, a warm drink made with black corn flour and fruits.  The two have become so ingrained into the popular culture today that hundreds, if not thousands, of establishments offer them for sale.

This year, when the Quito Tourism office, together with the School of Gastronomy at the University of the Americas (UDLA) -  a leader in developing culinary tourism - decided to recognize the 20 best coladas moradas of Quito, it seemed only appropriate to this writer that the ceremony be held at the City Museum, former Hospital of San Juan de Dios, resting place for 400 years of those killed in the Battle of Iñaquito, a fact that seemed oblivious to all as they ate, drank, and were merry.


Ciudad Quito

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