I would love to say that it was David's dedication to his beloved
Old Benque that inspired me to attend Los
Finados this year. But it wasn't. Even though I won't
ever admit this in public, it was sheer curiosity that pulled
me out of bed on the morning of November 2, All Souls Day, and
got me on a bus to Belize's western border town of Benque Viejo
From where I stood, Benque Viejo Del Carmen looked like houses
on hills, all staring down the Mopan
River as it meandered from its source in neighbouring
Guatemala. In this Mestizo-Maya community as elsewhere in Belize,
English is the official language; however, Spanish is widely spoken.
According to my clock, I had three hours to find a hotel, have
lunch and make my way to the House of Culture Benque. My stomach
was the determining factor and I began my search for some hot
chirmole served with rice and corn tortillas. There
was only one problem, I had no idea where to start. Looking around,
I saw Guerra's Store and decided to stop and ask. After admiring
(wreaths) hanging on one wall, I asked for directions.
The owner not only recommended a place to eat but also gave me
my first introduction to Los Finados.
November 1st is celebrated as All Saint's Day by Catholics worldwide.
Benque, a primarily Catholic town, is no different with one exception.
Because of the Maya Mestizo ethnic identity of the Benqueúos,
they also believe that all children who die become angelitos (angels).
On that day, homemade
sweets are set on decorated tables. The angelitos are
believed to return home where they find treats left by living
At the hotel, I received yet another understanding of Los Finados.
The owners, now in their 60s or 70s, remembered that as children,
they did not celebrate
Halloween like the children of present day Benque.
Back then All Souls Day started at around 1 in the morning in
Church. After prayers, people carrying lighted candles would march
from house to house until they had covered the entire village.
Each home would have an altar, a decorated table with lit candles
set for the ancestors. At each home, prayers and petitions
were offered and xpasha (pronounced ishpashá), a specially
prepared corn porridge and bollo, a type of tamales, were served
to the congregation.
My excitement grew. Then the Chans broke the news: the celebrations
weren't held anymore. The Church, believing the custom to be ritualistic
had discouraged the setting of food; so now people only attended
mass and held a procession to the cemetery, where they would leave
lighted candles Those who still set up altars at home
did so behind closed doors. How tragic! Now more than ever I had
to find David. David Ruiz, author, historian and community activist
would surely not allow such a beautiful tradition to become lost.
I hurried into the street, not quite sure which direction to take
and ended up at the Cemetery.
Already graves were adorned with coronas. Some families
came walking; others came in cars. The Guerra-Weatherbourne
family, which had relocated from Benque years before, had taken
the one hour drive from Belmopan. The setting seemed so intimate,
I looked on quietly as the family
helped Mrs. Guerra prepare flowers. Other family members
stopped by occasionally to exchange
hugs and greetings. I began to feel like I was intruding
on their private celebration and decided to continue my search
for the Benque House of Culture.
Down the road from the cemetery, I came upon a tent in the middle
of an open field. Underneath people
were seated in chairs, facing an altar that was set
with candles, a crucifix, food and water. Beside the altar a masked
figure clad in white had taken a seat. Sensing this
was important, I silently headed to the front of the crowd. What
ensued was a two-hour bilingual program of presentations,
prayers and food. David
and all who shared were worried that in the minds of the younger
generation, their beautiful Los Finados heritage had been replaced
by Halloween. The descriptions were so rich and vivid that I time
traveled to their epoch of Old Benque.
The tradition of Los Finados comes from San Jose, Peten. Early
on the day of November 2nd, All Souls Day, the tables of Benque
would be set with white cotton table cloths to symbolize purity.
Centered on the tables were water, food, and other offerings set
for the spirits of family members who had passed on. The corn
bollos were painstakingly prepared with meat from the
fatted rooster and ixpelon (pronounced ishpelon), a purple bean.
The food was placed in new containers, economically made
from calabash (gourd) and or clay, made specifically
for the event. Surrounding the food were black
candles specially made from bees wax and other natural
While adults prayed for the souls of their loved ones, children
kept especially quiet. Their reward came later when they would
parade through the streets with Calaveras
(jack-o-lanterns) to visit the homes of Benquenos, requesting
and receiving ixpasha, bollo and preserves from generous neighbors.
Loved ones were not the only ones remembered on the Day of the
Dead; the Anima
Sola (lost Soul), representative of all the tormented
and childless people who had died, was also considered on All
Souls Day. Food would be set out in the yard, away from the home,
so that these wandering spirits with no home to return to and
no family to pray for them would feast outside and move on.
As the celebration of Los Finados in the field was finishing up,
the ringing of church
bells pierced the night sky. Mass had just ended and the congregation
was on its way to the cemetery. I headed in that direction and
was astonished at the scene that met me.
The cemetery had come to life. Everywhere I looked dots
of light flickered on graves, illuminating the coronas,
crowds of families
children who scampered about. Above the laughter and
chatter, Father Tony's voice rose and ebbed in succession, as
though it were floating on waves.
"... The Catholic understanding of this day has to do with purgatory
... When people leave this world their Christian journey is not
always over ... so God has a place for them to purify those faults
... Today we pray for all those brothers and sisters who are not
as yet in heaven with their heavenly Father ... and we remember
all of them and we ask God ... that their purification process will
be completed and they will come to eternal rest especially on
this day ... so the whole idea is that we're all connected as a
family ... "
I stood mesmerized by the dancing
flames all around me. It had been a long day, but I
was energized by the spirit, faith
and commitment of the people of Benque.
Special Thanks to:
Benque House of Culture
The Mayor of Benque Viejo del Carmen
Images Courtesy of: