Skulls and souls: Bolivian believers look to the spirit world

At the ñatitas festival in November, relatives' skulls are honored in the belief they house powerful souls

Skulls of Paulino and Juanita are seen on a table on Nov. 7, a day before the "Dia de los ñatitas" (Day of the skull) celebrations at the General Cemetery of La Paz, Bolivia.
David Mercado / Reuters

LA PAZ, Bolivia — The sun blazes over the labyrinthine walkways of the old General Cemetery as thousands of families gather to listen to music, share sodas and tend to the day’s guests of honor: hundreds of skulls, known as ñatitas. Every year on Nov. 8, the ñatitas are celebrated by those who believe the bones house souls that have the power to influence all aspects of life, including love, money and personal safety.

Celebrated mainly by Aymara Indians, the country’s second largest indigenous group, in the urban areas of La Paz and surrounding towns, the festival reflects the combination of Catholicism and precolonial, indigenous beliefs so common in Bolivia. Hundreds of skulls with lit cigarettes propped between their teeth are serenaded by roving bands of musicians strumming guitars; the feeling in the cemetery is festive and peaceful.

Milton Eyzaguirre Morales, director of outreach at Bolivia’s National Museum of Ethnography and Folklore, explains why a festival celebrating skulls is not considered sinister by revelers. “This is a fundamental fact in the Andean context: Death is the origin of life,” he says. “It’s not like in the Western concept, where death is something macabre.”

A student, Marcelo Ochoa Mollinedo, and his mother use a newspaper to shield the flames flickering atop several small, white candles from the warm breeze. People strolling past stop to scatter flower petals over his grandfather’s skull, which is wreathed with a crown of pale blue hydrangea blossoms. Others offer cigarettes and coca leaves, which are considered sacred because when chewed they ward off fatigue, hunger and thirst.

Some people say if you don’t make the offerings [the ñatitas] will do bad things to you, but I don’t see it that way. I know he’s always going to love me and care for me.

Marcelo Ochoa Mollinedo

discussing the ñatita of his grandfather

Ochoa Mollinedo’s grandfather, Timoteo, was a traditional healer; he is accompanied in death by two older ñatitas that he used in his healing practice. “He died, but we want his soul to keep living with us, and his thoughts and feelings to be with us, to care for us,” says Ochoa Mollinedo, who never met his grandfather.

Having a ñatita in the house is a reciprocal relationship: in exchange for the protection that the bones provide to the living members of the household, the family must make regular offerings of alcohol, coca leaves and candles. But his family’s ñatitas are understanding of the busy schedules of the living, Ochoa Mollinedo says. “Some people say if you don’t make the offerings they will do bad things to you, but I don’t see it that way. I know he’s always going to love me and care for me. When I need him he’ll be there.”

Hats, sunglasses, flowers and beds of lace are common adornments for ñatitas, whose colorful and eclectic presentation seems to give each skull its own personality. There are Zacarias, which wears a jaunty leather cap, and Jorge and Rosaria, a couple resting peacefully on a bed of flowers. There is one ñatita with a full set of dentures, others that wear reading glasses and many whose delicate eye sockets are packed with protective cotton balls. In some Bolivian cemeteries, bodies remain buried for several years before being exhumed and later cremated, which means that it’s not hard to recover and preserve the skull and cremate the rest of the body. The ñatitas may be the remains of family members or are inherited or gifted or even purchased.

Some believe that a ñatita should always be the remains of a stranger, while others use them to keep family members close. And while most people celebrating in the cemetery are asking the ñatitas for help with money or health, some skulls are used for vengeance against enemies or unfaithful lovers.

Detail of a shrine made by Bolivian Aymara indigenous people as part of the traditional ñatitas festival in La Paz, Bolivia, Nov. 8, 2014.
Martin Alipaz / EPA

“Her name is Maria,” says Elena (who does not give her last name), referring to the skull she’s tending. “She’s very dutiful and takes care of the house and keeps me company when I’m alone.” Elena, who received the skull as a gift, says that several of her neighbors have seen a short, plump woman standing in her bedroom, which she believes is the physical manifestation of Maria watching over the house. Elena brings Maria to church every Nov. 8, but she is conflicted because of the church’s official stance, which frowns on the ñatitas and has not allowed an official mass to be performed or blessings to be offered in recent years. “I’m Catholic and I agree with this practice,” she says, “but at the same time it’s contradictory, because she should be resting.”

There are people who believe the current celebration of ñatitas is unrelated to the pre-colonial past, though Eyzaguirre Morales and some other scholars see clear ties.

“Information on homage to the dead in the Andes is abundant and extensive,” writes Spanish anthropologist Gerardo Fernández Juárez in an article whose title translates as “The Revolt of the Ñatitas.” He found that in the 1500s and 1600s, as the Spanish Catholics deepened their hold in Andean Bolivia and Peru and undertook a campaign to eradicate idolatry, accounts emerged of indigenous communities digging up bodies, dressing and feting them with food and drinks before reburial.

Centuries went by, and accounts of these practices dwindled as they were obliterated, modified or pushed underground. This means that the origins of the current celebration of ñatitas are unclear. Modern observers say it began to emerge from a hidden practice onto the public stage, with growing annual celebrations, in the late 1970s or ’80s and that the festival has continued to gain steam ever since. 

Bolivian Aymara indigenous people attend a mass as part of the traditional ñatitas festival in La Paz, Bolivia, 8 Nov. 2014.
Martin Alipaz / EPA

All Saints, All Souls, Ñatitas, the Festival of San Andres — these celebrations of the dead and their souls in November are rooted in the growing cycle of crops and the summertime December-to-February rainy season, according to Eyzaguirre Morales. “In the Andean world (and this concept is unfortunately being lost), the dead arrive at this time of year, and they stay in the earth,” he explains. “They stay to help the seeds germinate... they stay more or less four months.” The dead can help in this cycle of life because, Eyzaguirre Morales says, “Death permits the regeneration of life.”

Simon Aduviri, who works for the Bolivian government’s culture office, believes the ñatitas are related to his country’s spiritual past. “I can’t tell you what was going on 500 years ago, but we are here, continuing with our ancestors and our culture,” he says, standing close to his wife and mother and looking at his father’s skull, displayed nearby on a shaded cemetery pathway. His father’s skull is the first ñatita Adurivi can remember the family keeping, but there will be many more, he says. “This will keep going. When my mother dies she will be another ñatita, and when I die, the same.”

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