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Las Ñatitas | PRI's The World

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Las Ñatitas


November 9, 2007 | permalink | |

Hundreds of people crowded into the central cemetery in La Paz, Bolivia.

La Paz is the city we were looking for in today's Geo Quiz.

A family carries an ornate display of Ñatitas out of the cemetery: photo: Bear Guerra

The crowds carried skulls in wooden boxes and showered them with flower petals, in celebration of Las Ñatitas, or Day of the Skulls. Reporter Ruxandra Guidi caught the first day of the weekend-long festival of the macabre and sent us this audio postcard.

audio postcard

Hundreds of people crowded into the central cemetery in La Paz yesterday.

They carried skulls in wooden and cardboard boxes and showered them with petals, in celebration of Las Ñatitas, or Day of the Skulls.

The festival follows the Day of the Dead -- another important celebration of the high plains of Bolivia.

A group of musicians are hired by a cholita, or traditional Aymara woman, to serenade her skulls: photo: Bear Guerra

At the crack of dawn, hundreds of people start gathering outside the cemetery in La Paz with skulls in hand. They show them off to each other, calling them by name, Eduardo or Lula or Pancho, for example. The names sometimes correspond to that of an ancestor. Sometimes they're just made up names.

People buy candles, flowers and cigarettes for their skulls -- then they head into the cemetery for a vigil that lasts several hours. There's a lot of ritual involved in the celebration of Las Ñatitas, and not much is known about how it first came about. What is known is that the Day of the Skulls has had a special significance for the Aymara people for centuries, and that it's become an increasingly popular and public celebration in recent years.

With their Ñatitas lined up in front of them, a group of cholitas is being serenaded: photo: Bear Guerra

The Aymara believe that dead people must be treated with care, because they have magical powers and the ability to bring doom to those who fail to care for them. A skull that's not well attended could break up a family or bring about strong rains that ruin the season's harvest.

People get a hold of Ñatita skulls in numerous ways...Sometimes they inherit one from a family member. Other times they buy one in the black market. Some skulls are even unearthed from abandoned graves. And once they have a skull, they must care for it religiously at home by talking to it and asking for favors. Every eighth of November, they must bring it to the cemetery to shower it with flowers, and offerings like cigarettes coca leaves and alcohol.

Charo is a portly woman in her sixties. She's sitting on a bench in the cemetery with an adorned skull by her feet.

"Tengo mis cunados que lo habian traido no se de donde...Y yo casualmente llegue a la casa y estaba en un cajon de zapatos...Y cuando yo por primera vez lo vi, le di una patada y me asuste...Y a los tres dias me he roto mi pie...Y me he arrepentido y desde ese dia lo traigo para Las Ñatitas, todos los anos"

A cholita stands near a grave during the Ñatitas celebration: photo: Bear Guerra

Charo says "My in-laws brought the skull home one day in a shoe box, and I had no idea what it was...So I kicked it and then when I saw it roll, it scared me...Three days later, I broke my foot. Since then, I take good care of the skull, I bring it to Las Ñatitas every year"

Charo even pays some musicians to come and serenade her skull with a few songs. The lyrics are typically sad -- having to do with death or heartbreak but some songs are traditional Bolivian songs heard at street parties, too.

Deep inside the cemetery there are other people huddled together with their skulls -- eating, drinking, smoking, chatting and occasionally singing. A group of mariachis is singing Mexican songs, and the gathering resembles a birthday party more than it does a creepy festival involving death and skulls.

Las Ñatitas has evolved over the years into a unique street festival that combines elements of Catholicism, Aymara beliefs and a lot of superstition. And not everyone here observes the day in the same way -- some people prefer to do so without the help of musicians by praying to their skulls in Aymara, over and over again.

Eventually, everyone will pick up their skulls and take them into the cemetery chapel to get blessed by a priest. By sundown, the real partying begins. And it'll last all weekend not at the cemetery, but at home, where the skulls spend the rest of the year.

For The World, I'm Ruxandra Guidi, in La Paz, Bolivia.



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