Celebrating Life and Death at Bolivia’s FIESTA DE LAS ÑATITAS
Photos: Szymon Kochański
I’ve said it many times, but fuck it, I’ll say it again: we in the West have a very unhealthy relationship with Death. Although it comes to us all, we have been taught to fear it and avoid it at all costs. Just the mention of death, especially one’s own, brings a sense of dread and foreboding to most of us. I think I immerse myself in it because I am trying to rid myself of the fear by provoking it, but if I’m going to be honest, it hasn’t yet left me. I want to have a different relationship with it, so I am fascinated by celebrations of death that happen in different cultures. Bolivia’s Fiesta De Las Ñatitas is the perfect example of how corporal death can be an accepted, and even celebrated, part of life. With its roots in Aymara spirituality – and with a sprinkling of colonial Catholicism of course – Fiesta De Las Ñatitas is a day to honor the dead’s continual impact on the living.
Each November 8th, La Paz is overrun with celebrants, with more than to 10,000 people crowding into the chapel of the Cemetery General. Each family brings its ñatitas, or human skulls; these skulls are given places of honor in their homes, and are considered important family members. They house the spirits of the dead – not necessarily the spirit of the person whose skull it is, either. When a person acquires a skull, they are visited in a dream by the spirit who will be their constant companion from that day forward, advising them, bringing them luck and fortune and love. The ñatita is decorated and given offerings and presents of cigarettes, coca leaves, flowers and other gifts in its household shrine. Sometimes, the eye sockets are filled with cotton balls and “lips” are formed around its jaw out of tin foil. And each year, it is paraded in the capital along with thousands of its counterparts as a way of thanking it for its service.
Many of the skulls are bought from grave diggers who work at the Cemetery General. Since the cemetery plots are leased and not sold, if and when a family doesn’t pay the lease the bones of their ancestors are exhumed and headed for the incinerator. Enterprising gravediggers recognize the value in the skulls, and will offer them for sale as ñatitas. Later, these skulls will return to their place of burial in full regalia, celebrated instead of feared. Many people believe that the dead remain with us; that only the body dies and the soul of our existence continues. In less than a week, here in the West we’ll celebrate the return of the evil dead, while in other regions they will celebrate the kindness and love that is still felt by the spirits that never left.
Info via The Order of the Good Death