In Guatemala, ancestors are remembered with food, marimba, and ‘flowers of the dead’

Photo from Estuardo Tunche for Prensa Comunitaria

This story is a merger and republication of two articles, by Elías Oxom and Joel Pérez, in Prensa Comunitaria.

Guatemalans across the country celebrated All Souls’ Day this November 1 and 2 with different religious and cultural expressions to remember their ancestors and ancestresses, their departed loved ones. Photographs, flowers, food, and water were placed in cemeteries and homes for the deceased saints.

The altars were decorated with pacaya and Oq'ob’ leaves (also called leaves of the liquidambar tree) and adorned with tutz’ (marigold, which is the “flower of the dead“). Fruits, different types of food, candles, scented pine leaves, and the tree resin copal pom were also displayed.

These practices were carried out with great solemnity by those who still follow them because it is something that has been lost over the years. Yet, despite the fact that some cemeteries were restricted to visitors, people continued to celebrate life. The pandemic has left a lot of pain because of the deaths caused by Covid-19.

Photo from Guadalupe Figueroa for Prensa Comunitaria

For example, before the COVID-19 pandemic, every November 2, hundreds of families would traditionally visit the municipal cemetery of Ixcán, Quiché in northwestern Guatemala, where the Catholic Church would also celebrate mass.

Photo from Prensa Comunitaria, Ixcán, Quiché

Although the health authorities announced that during November 1 and 2 the entrance to the municipal cemetery would be restricted, it was evident that there was no major control. So, some families arrived on November 2 to visit the remains of their loved ones at the cemetery.

Photo from Prensa Comunitaria, Ixcán, Quiché

In Alta Verapaz, this cultural expression brought families together and the activity became a family gathering. In addition to sharing the sacred food, people share a drink of sugar cane juice (b'oj) and pray to those who have passed away. The Maya Kaqchikel people of San Pedro Sacatepéquez celebrated the Day of the Dead in the central park where an altar was made in honor of the deceased. There was also live marimba, violins, and an art exhibition.

Photo from Feliciana Herrera for Prensa Comunitaria

Likewise, in the Maya Ixil territory, in the municipal capital of Nebaj, families visited their deceased from October 28 to 30, since the cemetery was closed on Sunday. In several communities, they remembered their ancestors and ancestresses with marimba and food. They held family and community activities.

Similarly, in the Nuevo Horizonte Cooperative, in the northern Petén territory, from early in the morning, families decorated the tomb of their deceased with colorful flowers and also placed sweets and food that their deceased liked. In San Juan Comalapa, Chimaltenango in central Guatemala, Doña Zoila Girón's family prepared “fiambre,” a traditional Guatemalan dish made with cured meats and vegetables. They emphasize that it is a family cooking tradition on All Souls’ Day. In the municipality of Todos Santos Cuchumatán near the border with Mexico, a traditional horse race was held.

Although two years of the pandemic affected family visits to cemeteries, many communities continued to commemorate their ancestors and celebrate life.

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