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.
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.
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.
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.
A couple of weeks ago while running errands I found myself driving some backroads I don’t take on my normal route. Out in Montopolis, southeast of the center Austin, TX, I passed some unconventional cemetery gates which framed some severely overgrown grounds. Remnants of last year’s Dia De Los Muertos still apparent from the dried marigolds strewn from it’s gate. I had to find out more about San Jose Cementerio.
The crumbling cement cemetery gates of San Jose Cementerio. Someone had cut back the grass as best they could since the first time I had driven by. As you can see, it’s still overgrown with weeds.
Contributing to the death positive movement
After reading The Order of the Good Death’s, The Year of Action Resource Guide post earlier this year, I’ve been yearning to find a way I could contribute to the death positivity movement. But how could I do that? I can’t be a funeral director. Mortician? Death doula? Too much of a learning curve and emotional weight. One item stood out to me – cemetery preservation. This was something that didn’t involve working directly with the grieving or dying, which is an area I’m very hesitant to go into. Nothing like the gung ho death positivity girl blundering her way through comforting the grieving. I’m humble enough to know I’m in no position to provide guidance in such a trying time. While I have an interest in mortuary science, I tend to find myself gravitating more towards the historical aspects of death and culture. I was surprised I had never thought about this route before.
Another view of the grounds facing northwest. There were many cement borders graves with overgrown weeds in them.
I begin reading through the resources provided which included the following:
Saving Graves was particularly rich with helpful information surrounding the art of cemetery preservation and the best path forward if you want to form a coalition to help work on a local graveyard. However, I found none of these resources really lead me to where I could find resources on a local level. There was a registry of endangered gravesites but there was only one listing for Austin, TX. That couldn’t be right, could it? So I stalled out a bit.
But ask and ye shall receive! My drive back San Jose immediately presented my with an opportunity. I went home and googled it to see what other historical information I could find. I could only find one website, The Austin Genealogical Society, and one video, which had some helpful information. With the discovery of The Austin Genealogical Society’s website I uncovered a whole list of endangered graveyards! I was also able to find the Save Austin’s Cemeteries group which regularly holds events to document gravesites, clean the grounds, and repair stones. San Jose was the key to unlocking this information.
…I found none of these resources really lead me to where I could find resources on a local level…San Jose was the key to unlocking this information.
The history of San Jose Cementerio
Here’s what I uncovered about this graveyard’s history. The site is actually abandoned and has no formal caretakers. It’s flanked by two churches but neither are affiliated with the cemetery. While the gates you see in the photo above appear to be the main entrance to the site, the original entrance remains in the northeast corner. You can still see the cement pillars with deteriorating decorative gates. It features a variety of grave marker and headstone styes – wooden crosses, cement stones with handcarved names and dates, tile decorated stones, to only funeral home markers. One of the most elaborate are the two gated family plots by the large oak tree which are encased by large ornate iron gates in the shape of stars.
One of the star shaped family plots with an obelisk marker.
There is no uniformity to the graves in terms of rows, which direction they face or even era. Most of the marked graves seem to date from the late 1800s to the 1950s. However, it’s clear there are many unmarked graves here due to the sunken uneven ground and misaligned stones. Many stones I came across were broken and barely visible. It’s easy to imagine other graves simply vanishing after a decade with no one even aware they existed.
Surrounding the people buried here and the history of the site, it’s one of many unclaimed Travis county cemeteries which is home to the early Mexican Americans in the area. If you can imagine this area was previously surrounded by fields filled with crops in a rural location. Currently it’s surrounded by homes, busy highways, and Mexican mom and pop shops. The areas was a popular spot for newly migrated Mexican Americans and became a vibrant spot for Mexican culture.
From its beginning the cemetery maintained a policy of free burial for any person of Mexican descent. The founders made a point of providing space, coffin, and religious rites for the burial of any Mexican transient that died in the area, claiming the bodies from the City of Austin to ensure appropriate burial. – San Jose Cemetery, Austin Central Library
Because of this policy, the grounds filled quickly, was expanded and even then, again, was filled. With no records of the burials or plot locations, it wouldn’t be uncommon to see multiple graves stacked one atop the other. This would also contribute to the uneven grounds and sparsely marked graves.
The grounds were originally founded by the Union Fraternal Mexicana in 1919. Thereafter, it received regular care up to the late 50’s but has sat in a general state of disrepair since then. Community members and state historical commissions contribute when able but there is no one responsible party. San Jose sits on it’s own.
Exploration and understanding
Upon my visit, I pulled up to the western side of the cemetery on Richardson Lane. I parked my care and began the trek into the grounds. While making my way in I noticed a neighbor by his fence peering my way, watching me probably assuming this goth girl is going to do something weird. Nevertheless, I continued.
I immediately noticed the grounds had it’s grass moved since my original drive by the site. I was prepared for at least knee high weeds and overgrowth. But who was tending to this? Perhaps an ally in my quest? A mystery to be solved! Upon further exploration I noticed the bizarre spacing of the stones. There were no rows and no general direction they were facing. It was a hodge podge of graves and markers. Nothing was uniform.
The most depressing observation was the state of the headstones and markers. Only a few remain standing with names and dates visible. Many lay broken in half or completely gone with just a base remaining. It broke my heart to see all of these people’s last remaining mark on earth just forgotten about. In Mexican culture its told once you’re forgotten by the living you truly die. Knowing this it made my exploration even more sombre.
But amongst this sad backdrop were some truly majestic moments of beauty and grandeur. The most obvious is the beautiful oak tree in the center of the site, which can be seen at the top of this post. This thing is massive. If you’ve ever been down to Texas you know how amazing this type of tree can be. The canopy probably had a radius of around 30 feet. When you walk underneath it feels like you’re under mother nature’s outstretched arms and she’s protecting you while also embracing you. Every crackle of the branches in the breeze, tumbling leaf, and crunch under your feet makes you keenly aware of it’s life amidst a sea of the dead. Another equisite tree was found on the eastern side of the yard, old and gnarly, in stark contrast to the perfection of the live oak.
Giant live oak tree in the middle of the cemetery.
Gnarled tree in stark contrast to the beautiful live oak.
A personal connection and mystery solved
As I concluded my exploration, I made my way back to my car on the west side of the yard. As I approached my car, I noticed the same suspicious neighbor eyeing me. I figured rather than hop in my car and drive away I’d introduce myself and ask a few questions.
I made my way over to the older gentleman, looking to be in his late 50s, and explained the reasoning for my walk around the cemetery. His sister and mother sat on the front porch of the house on a porch swing, looking onward. The yard was a sea of Texas bluebonnets. He explained that his family has lived in the same house for generations, with his mother growing up in the home. This meant that he was extremely familiar with the history of the cemetery across the street. He mentioned how when he and his siblings were younger they would play in the graveyard and even buried a few pets on the grounds.
Another tidbit of information he shared solved the mystery as to who was tending to the site. He pointed me in the direction of a couple up the street who have been extremely passionate about the care of San Jose. The husband, who receives no payment for his services, makes it a point to drive his riding mower down to the site to do his part in keeping the grounds manageable. While not perfect, and still considered overgrown, you have to truly appreciate this couple’s sense of duty and responsibility. I can’t imagine the scope of the job to clean up the entire site.
Some of the unique headstone art
Some of the unique headstone art
Some of the unique headstone art
Some of the unique headstone art
At the end of the conversation, he asked if I had seen “the man” in the cemetery. The man?! Immediately I was ecstatic. Not only did I find a graveyard with some history, but potentially some ghost stories? He quickly dispelled that myth by telling me there’s a homeless man who likes to stay under the large oak tree. He cautioned me about wandering alone in the area. As a girl from a rural area in New England, I never paid a thought to this and realized I probably need to be more cautious in my exploration. With that, I hopped back in my car looking forward to more time I could spend with San Jose Cementerio.
Hair art was often molded into the shape of a bell jar for easy display.
The Victorian era (from 1837 to 1901) was a time when people were surrounded by death. Many families were forced to confront death directly whether it was because of the lack of medical advances, the mourning of Prince Albert by Queen Victoria (the queen after which the era was name) 40 years after his death until her own, or the Civil War that was being waged in America where over 620,000 soldiers lost their lives. This period is unique since we see such a strong development of mourning culture. Many of the historical tales I’ll share on this blog took place at this time, but today I’m going to focus on Victorian hair art.
Wear mom’s hair as earrings
When most people think of hair and mementos they think of a lock of hair in a locket worn around the neck. A simple representation of keeping a piece of a loved one close after they’re gone. During the time it was even practice among the living seen as a gesture of friendship. Girls would exchange locks of hair similarly to the friendship bracelets we see today. Hair is an extremely personal thing. The power in which a color or tone of hair holds, the style in which its worn, the length, it’s health, it’s age are all incredibly representative of the wearer.
An elaborate family portrait surrounded by floral hair art.
Beyond the simple locket, women of middle class standing, would make elaborate wreaths, earrings, brooches, and even dioramas from the deceased’s hair. A blend of the deceased and living’s hair could also be used as a sentimental representative of the closeness of the family to the deceased. Hair from the dead would be collected and saved in a “hair collector” so it’d could be used to weave into elaborate designs. Hair was collected one by one as each family member passed away. The practice was viewed as a simple part of tending to your home and was featured in publications for women at the time. You could find patterns similar to dress patterns available today.
This art had an incredible amount of symbolism built into the designs, patterns, and material as well. For the deceased, wreaths wear shaped as horseshoes with the opening at the top signifying the loved one’s ascent to heaven. In wreath’s made with multiple family member’s hair the deceased’s hair would have a more prominent placing. It can’t be understated how popular and outright trendy it was to wear this jewelry at the time.
What does assassination have to do with hair art?
Lincoln’s funeral train adorned with a portrait.
The art form slowly fell out of style towards the end of the era as embalming gained popularity. After Lincoln’s assassination his body was preserved and carted around the country by train to allow his people to mourn. This journey would require a method to preserve the body. Any decay, odor, or shocking changes to the visage that the American public was so familiar with would need to be avoided at all costs. It was a rather macabre event. Oddly enough Lincoln’s son who has died of Typhoid at the age of 11 was also disinterred and brought on the ghoulish tour and reburied next to his father in Springfield.
Lincoln’s body toured over 400 cities on it’s journey to Springfield, Illinois.
Previous to Lincoln’s assassination, Dr. Thomas Holmes would be on the battlefield serving as a part of the civil war. Holmes would test a new procedure called “arterial embalming”. This procedure gave way to the modern day practice of draining the blood from the arteries and replacing it with preservative chemicals. When the public realized they could have their son’s corpse sent home for a proper viewing and burial, demand skyrocketed. This paved the path to the undertaker (soon to become the funeral director) gaining a position of stature and respect within local communities. Previously, the undertaker carried no weight within popular social circles and was often viewed as a grim figure.
The embalming tent at Camp Letterman after the Battle of Gettysburg depicting a mortician’s services. No different from the current day display window at a department store, the mortician’s “goods” were put on display.
Fear of the Dead
So what does Lincoln’s assassination and the rise of the funeral industry have to do with the decline of Victorian hair art? With families having their deceased embalmed by a professional, this meant the power and control over mourning was slowly being handed over to the funeral directors and embalmers. There was no certification or schooling required to become a mortician, but they soon held the same stature as a surgeon or distinguish doctor.
Families were made to believe corpses were somehow dangerous to families and could spread disease. Shocker: Dead bodies pose no risk to the living, unless their death was caused by something contagious like tuberculosis. Best to hand over these ticking time bombs to the professionals, right?
Families were slowly having to confront the reality of death less and less. This lead to the significant deterioration of mourning culture. This included the art of Victorian hair craft. The decline can also be attributed to the shifting in preferences when it came to fashion and interior design. Both were becoming more simplified, straying from the elaborate fabric patterns, layering of wallpaper, and detailed furniture pieces. Hair art simply didn’t fit in with the fashion of the time.
Hair art created by a student at the Morbid Anatomy Museum’s class on Victorian hair art.
Keepers of the craft
Present day there are some organizations which strive to keep the art alive. Most infamous is the Leila’s Hair Museum, which is run by Leila Cohoon who begin her collection in 1952. She’s been collecting every since, so you can imagine how many pieces she’s acquired over the ages. At the now defunct Morbid Anatomy Museum, there were previously classes devoted to crafting Victorian hair art. You can also find some originals at auctions, estate sales, and antique stores. With the art not completely lost, a small sect of the public strive to keep it alive.
Do you own any Victorian hair art? Would you like to? Would you make a piece from your loved one’s hair?