In El Salvador, citizens reject Halloween and celebrate a unique Day of the Dead

November 4, 2013

TONACATEPEQUE, El Salvador — Painted carts carrying torches and characters from mythology paraded through the city of Tonacatepeque, 25 kilometers north of San Salvador, on Nov. 1. The indigenous tradition known as “La Calabiuza” precedes the arrival of the Spanish to Americas. Only recently has the festival regained its prominence as the country’s most popular way to celebrate the Day of the Dead.

The caravan of chanting revelers – some painted an ashen red and others acting as skeletons – attract the attention of locals and foreign tourists.  

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“We participate in the Calabiuza festival to not lose the tradition and to reject the Halloween of the United States,” said 15-year-old Francisco Siliezar, while dressed as Cipitío, a person that according to the legend loves the most sympathetic woman after his mother left him. The chubby character eats ashes and wears a wide pointy hat.

The tradition disappeared due to the country’s civil war from 1980 to 1992. But after young people started to the imported Halloween, the community decided to take up La Calabiuza again, and today it is one of the most prominent festivals in the country.

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In 1530, Spanish conquerors tried to enforce their own traditions on El Salvador. But Tonacatepeque historian Luis Silva, 66, explained that Salvadoran ancestors did not attend the festival and instead fought hard to emphasize “La Calabiuza,” a word that means “skull” in the local language.

“What the Spanish brought has virtually disappeared, and this has stayed the same and it is an hour for us,” Silva said.

Tonacetepeque Mayor Roberto Herrera said the festival not only maintains tradition but most importantly it turns young people away from violence. Due to gang violence, El Salvador has the second highest homicide rate in the world, only surpassed by its neighbor Honduras.

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Other characters in the mythology include La Siguanaba, a beautiful woman who flirts with all the men, and is later punished by a god for abandoning her son Cipitío. La Siguanaba is cursed to look lovely from far away and hideous up close. There also is the devil, el Cadejo (a frightening, otherworldly black dog) and la Llorona (the Weeping Woman). All these characters are seen throughout Central American folklore, but with their own twists in each country. In Costa Rica, La Siguanaba is known as La Segua – a siren-like woman who woos drunken men to come to her rescue before transforming into a terrifying horse-beast.

But El Salvador’s La Calabiuza brings together all these legends into one full day of partying.

In the central plaza of Tonacetepeque, residents cook with improvised stoves and use huge metal bowls to cook pumpkin and honey to share with attendees late into the night. The Day of the Dead concludes on a dais in the downtown plaza where the participants with the best costumes are honored.

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