As October tricks into November, Cuzco waltzes into a set of feasts, emotion, and parties. While in North America people find costumes for parties or for their children to go to safely contained ‘trunk or treats”, and borrow celebrations from Mexico for schools and public institutions. In Cuzco three complex sets of feasts come take place on top of one another in a troubled, yet bouncing melange in which bread babies and horses, compete with witches and the best musicians from the coast. It is a week of celebration.
Like much of Latin World, Cuzco will celebrate the Day of the Dead (el día de los muertos) on November 1 and 2, Friday and Saturday. This is a feast that evolves from a papal decision in the ninth century to hold a feast to celebrate all Saints whether recognized with their own feast day or nor, in order to leave none unrecognized. That day of mass and popular devotion was located on November 1 and called Todos Santos, All Saints Day. In the Catholic calendar it is followed by All Souls Day, which seldom has a name in common practice today, to recognize all the souls of the dead.
In much of Latin America, this relatively new doubled feast encountered indigenous civilizations with their own focus on what Europeans called the dead. As a result, the two tended to merge into a single feast in which people honored their own dead family and for a brief time welcomed them into their homes and hearts.
Nevertheless, there is a modern history of these feasts from colonial times to the present that should not be forgotten, even though there is little work in history yet to help us with that task. These now are feasts that seem absolute and timeless.
In Cuzco and much of highland Peru, the Catholic feast has become something different. It is a twinned feast, with a Day of the Dead and a Day of the Living, although they are not in strict sequence nor completely linked to November 1 and 2.
Already, Cuzco is redolent of the feast. Bakeries are producing the most visible remnant of the day, the omnipresent bread babies “t’anta wawas” and the bread horses. Indeed bread–the pan de muertos–seems a common theme in this time, perhaps having some reference to the resurrection because of the leavening in bread, or perhaps some other local set of meanings.
In Cuzco those meanings are thick, and the babies are filled with meaning and ritual activity beginning with an Andean dualism, the pairing of two cosmological significant things to make a whole–two days and two kinds of bread, along with two genders, among others. There is much more as we shall see in this weeks articles.
But this is also Halloween, a holiday of the Anglo American empire that still dominates the globe. Not more than two decades ago, almost no one celebrated Halloween, that feast that officially is the day before All Saints Day, and celebrates the opening of the world of the dead, the underworld and the world of demons, to be visible and to interact with the living.
But Halloween, though increasingly popular as a feast of costumes and parties, as well as candies and the whole structure of giving candy, is growing in Peru, not just in Cuzco.
The internet fills with reactions that point out the politics of the holiday, domination and cultural control, and propose instead nationalism and indigenous rights and culture.
In Peru, the 31st is also officially the Day of Creole Song. It is a day established, before the family members return from the other world, to recognize the marvels of Peruvian song, with its waltzes, mariners, and many other forms.
Nevertheless, in Cuzco, this holiday is also one of power and control–in this case of the coast and its culture over the rest of the country. The feast is honored and celebrated, though not with the power many would wish. The nation hoped to tie its song, and the passions of love, betrayal and endless hope into the ongoing nature of family through chaining song to the feast of the living and dead.
Throughout the Imperial City, people will be giving and receiving bread babies, visiting cemeteries, eating, drinking and dancing, as well as going to clubs and restaurants decorated with spider webs (something that has much more significance in the Andes that a simple reference to the eerie of Halloween. It is after all a place where the spider weaves and weaving is the making and refreshing of worlds.)
In short, this is a week of parties, but parties filled with celebration, fun, sadness, love and, of course, politics just under the surface. Like the sweetness of bread,these bring joy and togetherness in a world where politics and death are a constant presence.