An Un-American Halloween: Dia de los Difuntos

While all my stateside friends were partying for Halloween in scandalous, ironic and/or terrifying costumes, a couple of my classmates organized an event with a decidedly more serious tone. Dia de los Difuntos (Day of the Dead) is commonly celebrated on November 1 in former Spanish colonies, coinciding with All Saints Day in the Catholic church. For the occasion, Caro and Rae organized a gathering that combined traditions from their respective countries of Ecuador and the Philippines. Most interesting, you could see how Spanish missionaries were able to integrate elements of Catholicism with indigenous practices of ancestor worship.

Unlike the celebration of Halloween, death is quite present in Dia de los Difuntos, though not in a morbid or grotesque manner. This day is meant to remember and commemorate the passing of your ancestors, and welcome their spirits back home. In many ways, the holiday closely parallels Chinese culture’s Qingming Festival, or Tomb Sweeping Day, where your entire family visits the burial grounds of your ancestors to clean the graves and offer food.

When we arrived, a small altar had been set up with photos of deceased loved ones, candles and a small plate of offerings. Rae began by saying a few words about Dia de los Difuntos, and Caro explained that we would be making guaguas de pan, or bread shaped like babies. Guagua means baby or small child in Quechua, and these breads are meant to be baked and eaten as part of ancestral rites. To accompany the bread, people drink colada morada, a thick, hot drink with pineapple, strawberries, naranjilla (a South American citrus fruit) and other fruits. The drink is dark red, meant to mimic the color of blood.

With that primer, we each grabbed a ball of plain dough and began to shape our very own guagua. There were also doughs of different colors, sprinkles and cloves to decorate your baby for maximizing ancestor-pleasing aesthetics.

A few minutes later, I had created and decorated a professionally shaped…caterpillar. (Don’t ask.) All right, so it’s not quite a baby, but do I really want to be a baby-eater? I think not.

After we’d each created a guagua, there was plenty of leftover dough, so I proceeded to make a few Mario mushrooms…

…and constructed Euler’s formula in a more carb-friendly format. This is quite possibly the first and last time that imaginary numbers have been incorporated into Dia de los Difuntos.

Some of my other enterprising colleagues made a leaf and wrote “pace” (peace) with their dough.

Then, everything went into the oven to bake.

Meanwhile, there was a vast array of Filipino kakanin, or rice cakes. Here we have sapin-sapin, or colored layers of steamed sticky rice, dusted with toasted coconut flakes.

This is a tray of kamoteng kahoy (baked manioc/cassava cake), ube halaya (purple yam and rice flour cooked with milk and steamed) and espasol (steamed glutinous rice flour cakes dusted with toasted rice flour). Be careful, the cassava can be poisonous if prepared improperly!

There was also suman (rice wrapped in banana leaves stewed in coconut milk and served with palm sugar syrup) and puto (steamed rice flour cakes topped with salted egg). Mmm, it is difficult to beat the chewy pull of sticky rice flour desserts. More challenging for palates was the dinuguan, a stew made with pork meat and offal, thickened with blood. I am used to eating pork blood with congee, but the sight of dinuguan can definitely make some people queasy. If you fall into that category, I suggest taking a shot of liquor beforehand, preferably mezcal, all the more appropriate since some kind of spirits must be offered to the spirits.

Finally, it was time for the guaguas to come out of the oven.

Our breads came in a variety of shapes, from bundled babies to hairy-chested men. I popped the green 1-Up mushroom into my mouth, and immediately felt enlivened by death-day bread.

Perhaps I’ll be hosting a more gluten-heavy Halloween party next year?

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