Most Latin American countries celebrate El Día de los Muertos or the Day of the Dead. Each country has its own traditions. Day of the Dead in El Salvador, also known as the Day of the Faithful Departed (Día de los Fieles Difuntos), has an especially painful difference from the celebration in other parts of Latin America.
Day of the Dead in El Salvador
In 1980s, much of Central America was embroiled in civil war, and El Salvador was no exception. During the revolution, some 75,000 people were killed or disappeared. Of those whose bodies were found, many are in mass graves.
Others have been located but are still to be reburied. As such, November 2 has a much more somber meaning in El Salvador. For a culture that honors its dead, it brings great sorrow to be unable to visit them in their final resting place on this important day.
Honoring Those Lost in the Civil War
In honor of those lost and unrecovered in the war, there are monuments to the dead that attempt to give families a place to go on Day of the Dead in El Salvador. The most prominent example is the Monumento a la Memoria y la Verdad (Monument to Memory and Truth) in San Salvador.
Much like the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., the Monumento lists the name of known victims of the violence, and it is heavily visited on the Day of the Dead by families who leave flowers and candles at its base.
The date has also become an important one for organizations working on behalf for victims of the civil war. By commemorating those lost through vigils and religious ceremonies, they continue to advocate for reparations and legislation, as well for more information about the whereabouts of victims.
A more joyful aspect of Day of the Dead in El Salvador dates to much before the 1980s – in fact, it was celebrated even before the arrival of the Spanish in Latin America. It’s called La Calabiuza, and in El Salvador, it is one of the reasons that Halloween has yet to make as big of impact on its culture as it has in other parts of the world.
La Calabiuza is Held in Tonacetepeque, north of San Salvador where this festival turns November 1 into a celebration of the popular culture of El Salvador.
From the word “skull” in the language of the local indigenous people, the La Calabiuza festival was able to hold its own for centuries, even with the pressure from Spanish colonists to convert to their own traditions.
Revelers, mostly young people, dress as characters from Salvadoran legends and myths, as well as skeletons and other painted characters.
Examples of characters include La Siguanaba, a beautiful woman who abandons her son and is then cursed, and El Cipitío, her son, who wears a pointy hat. You’ll also see La Llorona, the crying woman common throughout Latin American legends, and the frightening Central American mythical creature El Cadejo.
With the upheavals of the civil war, people abandoned the tradition of La Calabiuza. But after its end, community leaders did their best to bring it back, in part to pre-empt the import of Halloween.
Nowadays, the festival has modern touches such as a costume contest, food stalls, and a dance.
Both the vibrant La Calabiuza and more emotional Day of the Dead traditions are part of El Salvador’s culture of respect for those that came before them and fit squarely into the Hispanic tradition of Day of the Dead.