Mastaku in Bolivia

By: Elliot Williams & Leny Olivera



Walking through the crowded alleys of the canchas or open-air markets throughout Cochabamba, the sights, sounds and smells of Mastaku are everywhere. All around are clusters of stalls full of tantawawas, or breads in the form of everything from people, to the sun, moon, snakes and ladders. Vibrantly colored sweets made by artisans can be found in the shape of baskets or little animals. The scent of fresh fruit and flowers permeate the air and people are moving everywhere. Preparations are underway for Mastaku, the Andean holiday honoring the dead.

Recently these preparations have increasingly coincided with another holiday — Halloween. One can’t miss the advertisements on the radio and television promoting the celebration, nor the orange and black displays cropping up in many supermarkets. Even roadside stands have added costumes and decorations to their usual wares.

In Bolivia the first and second of November mark the festival of the dead — in Quechua, Mastaku. This festival begins during the last week of October with the baking of the tantawawas and sweets. It is particularly important for families who have a person who has recently died, to make the tantawawas themselves.

Starting at midday on the first of November the souls of the dead visit the families. They are received with food that has been made with great thought and care. A large table is prepared with all of the favorites of the deceased family member. The table will contain anything and everything that the deceased enjoyed eating and drinking: full plates of typical foods, entire cooked chickens, fruits, vegetables, soda, juices – whatever the favorites were. The tanawawas are also placed throughout the table. In addition the tables and have elements of the Catholic Church like crosses wrapped in black and purple. The area may be decorated with flowers, purple and black streamers, and a picture of the deceased as well.



Later that evening, children from the neighborhood visit all the houses where people are honoring souls and offer prayers and songs to the dead. The families invite all the kids as well as visitors (friends and family) to a variety of breads and corn cookies. The next day the prepared table is brought to the cemetery to meet the dead. It is a time to wish them a good departure and invite all who are close to visit with the spirit, pray, sing, and eat the remainder of the food.

This tradition originates within the millennial cultural practices of the Andean culture and has since been mixed with elements of the Catholic Church. When someone dies, according to the Andean cosmo-vision, the person actually continues living but in another world. Many Andean ritualistas (spiritual leaders of rituals and ceremonies) agree that three worlds exist: one with all of the people who are living; another with protective beings like the sun and the moon; and a third that in Quechua is called Ukjupacha — a world where you find all the people who passed away to be a different kind of being that care for the lives of the community.

Because of this, when someone dies there exist grand rituals that bring the entire family together – not only to help each other through the pain of mourning, but also wishing that the dead are alright in the other world. After Spanish colonization, the Catholic Church introduced new elements to the ritual. For example, the inclusion of prayers and the presence of crosses adorned in black and purple.



In the last ten years the presence of Halloween has become much greater in Bolivia. As a mixture of ancient Celtic practices, Roman holidays, and influences of the Catholic Church, Halloween also has a very deep religious and spiritual tradition. Although in North America the holiday has become increasingly secular, it maintains a focus on community. There is certainly an economic aspect to the holiday as well with an estimated $6.9 billion dollars being spent annually. In Bolivia, there is little to no cultural significance to the holiday. Instead it is only the commercial aspect of Halloween that has been manifested here.

Despite this import, Bolivia’s traditions continue. For those who do choose to observe Halloween, it has become one more reason for celebration. It is another addition to the days of Mastaku, rather than a replacement. In this country where the indigenous majority fervently maintain their cultural practices, Mastaku, or Festival of the Dead, is more alive than ever.

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About Chris LePan

Writer/ Editor
Gallery | This entry was posted in Bolivia, Elliot Williams, Guest Authors, Leny Olivera. Bookmark the permalink.

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