Dia de los Difuntos in Otavalo, Ecuador

In Ecuador, the day of November 2 is a big deal.  This day marks El Día de los Difuntos, also known as All Souls Day.  All Souls Day is sort of like the forgotten step sister to Halloween (October 31st) and All Saints’ Day (November 1st), but it is nevertheless an important day in the Roman Catholic Calendar.  After living in the US for so long and being influenced by the Mexican culture all around (I love me some tacos!), it is more common for Americans to be familiar with Día de los Muertos, the Mexican holiday which is celebrated on November 1st AND 2nd.  Well.  Hear ye, hear ye!  I am here to give you the Ecuadorian side on Día de los Difuntos, or Finados, and the tradition that accompanies it.

All Souls Day is a day of remembrance of those who died and are now in Purgatory, according to Roman Catholic beliefs.  The living are supposed to pray for the dead’s souls in an effort to release them from Purgatory so they can go to Heaven (source).  In Ecuador, where the majority of the population are Catholics, people go to the cemetery and visit their relatives who have passed away and spend the day with them, becoming a family event.  Families bring prayers, flowers and food to the deceased.  The food typically tends to be what once was the deceased favorite meals, as it is believed that they eat these meals in the afterlife.  Some of this food often includes Colada Morada and Guaguas de Pan, both foods which originate from the burial rituals of the indigenous people of Ecuador.  Fun fact: Did you know that in Ecuador, referring to this day as Día de los Muertos is considered offensive?  In Ecuador we say Día de los Difuntos, or Day of the Defunct, as difuntos (dee-FOON-tohs) is a more polite word to use.  Don’t get caught in Ecuador saying Día de los Muertos.  You will be beheaded.  HA!  Kidding!.  We don’t do that anymore.

Let’s dig more into the background of these foods.  Stay with me.

Guaguas de pan in Otavalo, Ecuador

Guaguas de pan (GWAH-gwas deh PAHN) are literally bread babies.  Guaguas is a word from the Quechua language of our indigenous people which means babies or little children.  But what does a bread baby have to do with dead people?  According to this source, back in the day, Ecuadorian indigenous people would stake a pointy-ended “doll” made of dough into the dirt to indicate that a dead person had been buried.  This dough doll at the same time served as food for the deceased to eat and continue to live in the afterlife.  The indigenous burial ritual which lasted 5 days, consisted of feeding their dead as a sign of love and respect and to help them in this new stage of life.  This tradition has stayed with the Ecuadorian people and helps explain food offerings in modern days.  Another source indicates that, according to Ecuadorian indigenous beliefs, the dead don’t “die” , but move into another life, and communication between them and the living is still possible.  The instruments that facilitate such communication include homemade bread (thus the guaguas de pan), and el champús, which is a beverage made of corn flour, panela (brown sugar in its raw form), and lemon leaves.  These are the origins of what is known as Colada Morada (coh-LAH-dah moh-RAH-dah), a purple drink made out of all sorts of fruits and spices.  However, the first source of this research indicates that the original indigenous drink was called Uchucuta (oo-choo-COO-tah), which was made of corn flour, potatoes, beans, peas, cabbage and achiote.  According to this author, this drink then morphs and it is somehow replaced by what we now know as Colada Morada.  The colada morada, or Purple Drink, represents the fusion of the indigenous and Catholic beliefs, because the color purple represents death and mourning in the Catholic religion.

Growing up, I was fortunate to not have relatives or loved ones pass away, with the exception of my paternal Abuelita, who passed away in my teens.  I never got to “celebrate” the dead like other people around me did, but I clearly remember vendors all around the city, and outside of the cemetery selling flower crowns and ornaments as El Día de los Difuntos approached.  People would buy these to decorate the tombs of their loved ones.  There would also be food vendors outside of the cementery selling colada morada and all sorts of food.  Although I didn’t have anyone close to me pass away, I remember going to the cemetery in Guayaquil on one occasion as a little girl, with my nana Gloria to visit her mom who had passed away from breast cancer.  I remember we took her flowers, some guatita, and some colada morada which we placed on her tomb in the ground.  I remember my nana Gloria kneeling next to her tomb and crying inconsolably, because she missed her mom so, so much.  I put my hand on her head, gathered her hair back and told Gloria, “If you really miss your mom, I can lend you my mom to make you feel better.”  She looked at me and smiled, and we headed home.  It made me so sad to see her cry.  Once home, I ran towards my mom and hugged her as hard as I could.  I was so thankful to have her with me.

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One of the places in Ecuador where El Día de los Difuntos is very important is in a small town called Calderón, just outside of Quito, Ecuador’s capital city.  During el Día de los Difuntos, this relatively sleepy but densely populated  town becomes quite colorful and festive and the cemetery becomes THE place of gathering.  Families, kids, elderly, all go to the cemetery and spend the day there with their loved ones, deceased and alive.  Outside the cemetery, vendors compete for the share of money selling flowers, candles, figurines, rosaries, religious stamps and food, which of course includes colada morada and guaguas de pan.  Fun fact: Calderón is known for the fabrication of figuras de mazapán, or marzipan figures, which in the seventies and eighties helped fuel the local economy.

Here on T’s Tasty Bits, we will be celebrating El Día de los Difuntos with what else!  Colada Morada and guaguas de pan.  Stay tuned for the recipes on these goodies coming soon!  I hope you learned with me more about this Ecuadorian tradition.

(Pictures source here)