Arts & Entertainment

The cult of ‘ñatitas’ returns to La Paz cemetery

By Gina Baldivieso

La Paz, Nov 8 (EFE).- Jesusa, Rayitas and Lucas are some of the “ñatitas,” or human skulls, taken Monday to the General Cemetery of La Paz to receive prayers and gifts from people who entrust them with their wishes for protection and prosperity.

Nov. 8 is the date chosen by devotees of these skulls to take them to cemeteries and worship them in a deeply rooted tradition in Bolivian cities such as La Paz, where the celebration returned this year to the General Cemetery after a pause in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Hundreds of people arrived at this cemetery with their ñatitas – some in glass urns, others protected in drawers or wrapped in indigenous fabrics. Hats, wool caps, sunglasses and even wigs were worn by the skulls.

In the surroundings of the cemetery, vendors offered traditional flower crowns, coca leaves, cigarettes and candles that are also given to the ñatitas in exchange for a favor.

The owners of the ñatitas were stationed around the cemetery, waiting for devotees to approach the skulls to light candles, entertain them with wreaths or flower petals and even make them smoke cigarettes, offer them drinks or hire musical groups to sing to them.

“Rayitas” was René Huayhua, a musician murdered two decades ago, his brother Justo, who took the skull to the cemetery to receive blessings, told Efe.

“We all come with that faith, with that affection, to remember our loved ones once a year,” Justo said.

A few meters ahead is Regina Laura with her mother and seven ñatitas, among them Lucas, Cirilo, Santa Marisol, Virginia and Coco, who was inherited, while the others were gifts.

“You shouldn’t miss the candle, the flowers… every Monday you have to put the flowers on it and clean it. (In return) they take care of us, they protect us,” said Laura, who is an artisan and attributes to Lucas a municipal award she won in 2015.

Excited to tears, she also said her skulls help her “a lot” when she cries if someone hurts her and that is why she loves them “so much.”

One of the specialties of these ñatitas is making stolen objects reappear, a belief shared by Doña Julia, whose skull “Jesusa” was given to her two years ago by an aunt.

In addition to her effectiveness against theft, Jesusa is apparently also “very miraculous” for business success.

Many people who have ñatitas claim to have seen them in dreams and that is how they know if they were men or women and what names to give them.

The origin of this tradition is uncertain, although the majority believe it dates from pre-Columbian times.

The cult of the ñatitas is a symbolic practice related to All Saints Day, celebrated last week, reported the Municipal Secretary of Cultures of La Paz.

The celebration is held because “in Aymara culture there is a belief in the presence of the ajayu (soul) in human remains of deceased people,” it added.

Until a few years ago, the devotees used to take their skulls to the chapel of the General Cemetery to be blessed and to hear mass, but the church suspended this out of disagreement.

When the masses were suspended, the chapel’s administrators placed barrels of holy water at the doors so that people could bless their skulls, but this year the church remained closed and there was no holy water.

However, this did not prevent the ñatitas from being presented with prayers and gifts from those who approached with devotion to make their requests. EFE

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