Los Finados

by Dreddi

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 del Carmen.

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 the coronas (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 relatives.

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 and food 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 coronas and 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 ingredients.

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 and playful 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:

  • David Ruiz
  • Benque House of Culture
  • Guerra-Weatherburne family
  • Juanita Segura
  • The Mayor of Benque Viejo del Carmen
  • Guerra Store
  • Images Courtesy of:

  • Dreddi


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