Luckily I’m here in Bolivia for one of the most important celebrations of the year so I jumped at the chance to witness the Todos Santos holiday up close and personal. My previous knowledge was limited to piecemeal notions imported from Mexico, but here in Bolivia this special celebration takes on its own particular traditions dating back centuries and is deeply rooted in Andean cosmology.
Life and Death: A Revolving Door
Long before the Spanish arrived, the Andean people viewed life and death as a continuum. Each spring these two worlds converge — the dead return from the underworld (ukhupacha) to momentarily enjoy the pleasures of life and to deliver happiness and abundance to loved ones in the living world (kaypacha).
This intersection of life and death is the Day of the Dead; its celebration coincides with the Catholic All Saints’ Day holiday in Bolivia.
Todos Santos ceremonializes the never-ending succession of arrival and departure, of renewal and disintegration, of the changing cycles in the natural world around us. It accompanies the coming wet season, known in Quechua as Aya Markay Killa, when the rains return after the annual period of drought to nourish the dormant crops and begin a new season of growth.
In Andean society, Todos Santos is a celebration of reciprocity. Knowing the returning dead will be famished and very thirsty after a year in the dry earth, family members prepare the mast’aku, an offering of favorite foods and beverages to be shared during the festivities. This feast nourishes the bones of the deceased, who in turn bring rains that will ensure abundant crops and livelihood for loved ones.
Receiving the Dead: A Feast for All
Todos Santos begins on November 1st with almuerzo, the filling midday meal, when the dead are welcomed home. The family meal is celebrated in style with rich flavors, prayer, amusing recollections and tales, music and togetherness.
The celebration turns public on November 2nd when farewell festivities move to the burial grounds. Streets leading to the cemetery host a lively fair.
Flower vendors, milliners, clowns, artists cram the sidewalks. Food stalls offer ice cream, orange juice, grilled snacks and colorful candies to celebrants en route to the burial grounds.
Flowers and Food
As families gather in the cemetery, the first order of business is to spruce up the grave sites. Vases are washed while trash bins overflow with faded flowers and the stems of their replacement bouquets.
Next, another mast’aku (offertory table) is arranged with sentimental items such as a photographs, flowers, toys and personal mementos. The main contribution is food: dried fruit, pineapples, oranges, sodas and chicha (fermented corn beer) – an appetizing tribute to the dead.
Plentiful masitas (baked goods) adorn every mast’aku: sweet breads in the shape of ladders (representing the Catholic tradition of ascending to Heaven), animals (such as llamas, snakes and birds) and doll-like t’antawawas (literally “bread children”) which date back to Incan times.
Earlier in the week the markets of Cochabamba were brimming with vendors selling these masitas. I watched buyers busily fill their shopping bags in preparation for the Todos Santos festivities.
I found the heaping stacks of baked goods a marvel, more interesting than the synthetic aisles of manufactured Halloween candies found back home. I now understand why Señora Celestina (A Kiva borrower in La Paz)  has been so busy with her baking business!
Supplication and Song
Reverence imbues the entire cemetery despite the outward and celebratory nature of Todos Santos. Everywhere families join in prayer as children’s voices are heard around every corner: “…pray for us now and in the time of our death…”
Santa María, Madre de Dios,
ruega por nosotros pecadores,
ahora y en la hora de nuestra muerte.
Partnered with prayer, of course, is music: guitar players and groups of roving mariachi bands play Andean folk tunes, trumpeters blow a mournful rendition of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence”, and children with pan flutes sing rueful melodies before bowed families.
Bidding Farewell to the Dead
All these ceremonial elements are crucial to the Todos Santos parting ritual that takes place on November 2nd. The abundant food, music and prayer energize the spirits as they return once again to the underworld. Nourished and adored by loved ones, the dead bid farewell to their families and leave the world of the living, ending the precious reunion.
In another year, a new cycle of growth and abundance will again join the two worlds of kaypacha and ukhupacha. Todos Santos will be celebrated once more with all the beauty and vitality that Bolivia inspires.