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News > Latin America

Bolivia Celebrates All Saints, Where Death Doesn’t Exist

  • A bread roll in the shape of a child, is seen at the bakery in El Alto in the outskirts of La Paz, Bolivia.

    A bread roll in the shape of a child, is seen at the bakery in El Alto in the outskirts of La Paz, Bolivia. | Photo: Reuters

Published 1 November 2017

Bolivia’s celebration of All Saints from Nov. 1-2 is one of the country’s most deeply rooted and sacred festivals.

Bolivia commemorates All Saints, where death doesn’t exist as the living’s transition into eternal life on Nov. 1-2 and is one of the country’s and Latin America’s most deeply rooted and sacred festivals.

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Once a year Indigenous communities in Bolivia celebrate their dead and share with their souls, named ajayus, in one of the national Indigenous languages, Aymara.

With the Spanish invasion and occupation, other rituals were infused into the All Saints festival but the two-day event conserved its important roots, making the Bolivian tradition one of the riches cultural events in the region.

To celebrate All Saints, Bolivians carefully prepare an immense banquet filled with personal and cultural significance to which their departed are invited to share food with those still living.

Families begin to gather in cemeteries starting at noon on Nov. 1, covering a special tablecloth with food, flowers and ornaments. A white tablecloth means the celebrated deceased was a child, while black means the deceased was an adult. The food has meaning too. The family prepares foods that were favorites of the dead. Breads are made into little figures that carry significance. For example, bread shaped into a ladder is meant to invite the dead to join the celebration, and to return via these same stairs, says anthropologist, Milton Eyzaguirre.

Bread shaped into babies are called,"tantawawas" in the native Quechua language, which has a double meaning during All Saints. The baby-shaped bread commemorates an Indigenous Bolivian tradition that states that in creating these “baby” breads, people are “regenerating life” after someone else dies.

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Sugar cane is also included on the altar to be used as a cane to guide those buried to return to earth. Coca leaves, cups of fermented corn and candles are also laid out on the cloth to light the way for the dead’s return.

Special music is also reserved for All Saints. The belief is that souls arrive midday on Nov. 1 and return to their final resting place midday Nov. 2, so serenades are played. There’s always abundant food and drink for the dead, so they have plenty of energy to return.

The All Saints tradition is steeped more in rural areas, where families prepare for the two-day festivity up to a week in advance. The maintenance of the tradition is important not only because it connects families with those they have physically lost, but it also keeps alive the Indigenous customs found within Bolivia, a plurinational nation whose Indigenous roots are vital to the Andean culture, memory and history.

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