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Communing with the Dead: The Blessing of the Ñatitas

Natita carried by a man in La Paz

La Paz, Bolivia, November 8th, a stream of Bolivians rush hurriedly into the Cemetery General church looking for blessings. However, these are no ordinary blessings. This congregation carries in hand human skulls. Today is the Fiesta de las ñatitas.

What are Ñatitas?

Ñatitas, translated to “pug nosed ones”, are human skulls inhabited with spirits believed to have supernatural abilities. Filling the cemeteries across La Paz, the festival is an opportunity for families to both receive blessings from other ñatitas while also sharing their own ñatitas with their community. The powers possessed by each ñatita can range from curing illnesses to even specializing in criminal cases, helping law enforcement to capture criminals.

Family members carry ñatitas into a church
A man carries his family’s ñatita into the General Church awaiting blessing (Photo by AP)

The sourcing of these human skulls is unique in that many aren’t closely associated with the families they end up with. You’d expect them to be close family members or loved ones that met an early death, but most are sourced from medical facilities, archeological sites, and many are even from cemetery plots. Although unfathomable to Americans, many cultures lease cemetery plots to families. This process works fine until a family lapses on a lease payment and grandma is moved out to make way for the next paying customer. The bodies in these cases are cremated but the skull retained, hence your ñatitas.

Cultural Remnants of the Armayans

The ability to commune with the divine through the ñatitas for any number of afflictions or daily challenges is a welcome connection to this group’s religious past; previously, driven underground by Spanish colonialism in the 16th century. The Spanish brought with them Catholicism and they didn’t tolerate the perceived hedonist practices of the indigenous Aymara people. While much of the Aymara did convert, many privately retained ties to their culture’s past creating an amalgamation of their two religions. One of the surviving practices is the ritual of the ñatitas.

Ñatitas are adorned with sunglasses, floral crowns, cotton and offerings of cocoa leaves
Ñatita adorned with sunglasses, a floral crown, cotton and an offering of cocoa leaves (Photo by AP)

Matchmaking of Ñatitas

There is an element of matchmaking, however, with the skulls that find their way into a family’s home. It’s said that each ñatita has its own personality and those don’t always mix with their owners. The building of a relationship between the ñatita and patron takes time and effort, but eventually can yield a long and beneficial relationship for each. Upon receiving a ñatita, the spirit residing within will visit a family member within their dreams during their slumber. Through these dreams the two will communicate, learning about each other, and eventually the ñatita is said to reveal their identity. Interestingly enough, this identity doesn’t always match the owner of the physical manifestation of the skull. The Aymara believe each person is a union of many souls each contributing to various aspects of our personality. After death, however, these souls are able to separate and act of their own volition, in this case communicating with families and bestowing knowledge, blessings, and good fortune.

One family's collection of Ñatitas
Some women in the Aymara community have become caretakers to many a ñatita. In these homes many ñatitas are given names are have their own niche areas of guidance. Vistors come to pray to them for better fortune when it comes to love, finances, and health. (Photo from Denver Post)

Ñatitas become fully integrated members of families. Offerings are made and they can regularly be seen surrounded by cocoa leaves, candy, and alcohol. Often they’re dressed in other adornments, such as floral crowns, glasses, cotton in place of their eye sockets and noses, as well as the occasional cigarette placed between their loose or sometimes missing teeth. The Bolivian people take pride in their ñatitas, as you would your own family member, so it’s crucial to them that they pay their respects and keep them looking and feeling immaculate in their homes.

The bond is not between the living and the dead, however, because to those assembled at the Fiesta the “dead” are in fact still a vital and sentient group. The bond is simply one between friends, who on one side happen to be living, and on the other side happen to be dead. – Paul Koudounaris

But it’s during this day that each family gets to share and appreciate their ñatitas with the world. Cemeteries become gathering places for hundreds of Aymara. They come carrying their ñatitas on beautiful velvet pillows, inside glass cases, or even within makeshift boxes to stage multiple skulls. It’s a time for communing and embracing their culture, which is finally being allowed to be celebrated. Up until 2006 when Evo Morales, an Aymaran himself, was elected as Bolivia’s President, Aymarans were still persecuted. Bolivia is becoming a country shifting to focus on the needs of the indigenous majority. The Fiesta de las Ñatitas shows the power of one culture’s embrace of death. This spirit acting as a source of strength within their community.

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