Bolivians Honor Skull-Toting Tradition
LA PAZ, Bolivia – It’s a tradition people outside Bolivia might find creepy: families perch human skulls on altars, revering them and asking them for protection and good luck. On Tuesday, the skulls were gussied up and taken to cemeteries, where the families crowned them with flowers and filled their jaws with lit cigarettes.
The chapel in La Paz’s main cemetery was filled with hundreds of people jockeying to get their skull, or “natita,” in a good position for a special annual Mass. Thousands more people gathered outside.
“I was scared of them at first, but now I realize I was scared because I wasn’t taking care of them,” said Shirley Vargas, who brought two skulls, who she calls Vicente and Maria, to the Mass. “Now I keep them in my room with me. I love them a lot, and they have helped our family when we’ve had problems.”
Milton Eyzaguirre, an anthropologist, said Bolivians are now more willing to bring out their skulls than before.
“People are bringing back the idea that we’re not separated from the dead … but that life and death are always connected,” said Eyzaguirre, a curator at La Paz’s Museum of Ethnography and Folklore.
The tradition reflects the force of pre-Hispanic belief in this poor country whose population is majority Indian; the Roman Catholic Church has chosen to recognize this and other non-Catholic traditions as a way of retaining its own influence.
On Tuesday, people of all ages entered the chapel carrying skulls in fancy glass boxes or on silver platters. Others used plastic bags, shoe boxes or baskets. Most of the skulls were decorated with bright knit caps, cotton wool in the eyes and crowns of red roses and hydrangeas.
Vargas said she got her skulls from a medical student. She believes they helped her father recover from a chronic back problem.
The ancient Andean belief is that people have seven souls, and one of them stays with the skull, Eyzaguirre said. This soul has the power to visit people in their dreams and provide protection.
Eyzaguirre said he began believing in the skulls when a building at the museum collapsed, killing four construction workers, after he moved out some skulls without a proper ceremony. The museum staff held a ceremony, offering food and drink, and he’s had no problems since, the curator said.
Some Bolivians also credit the skulls for success in business and with family.
Rubita Montano believes her natita helped her recover $4,000 in stolen money. On Tuesday, she sat in a grassy patch in the cemetery and handed bags of coca leaves to strangers who prayed to the skull, named Tatiana Dumas.
Montano said she bought the skull at a cemetery. It’s common for cemetery workers to take skulls from graves when relatives either abandon their dead or stop paying cemetery bills, said Eyzaguirre. The practice isn’t legal, but officials turn a blind eye to it.
“She’s like a daughter or a sister in my house,” said Montano as she chewed coca leaves and arranged lit cigarettes in the skull’s mouth.
Others, like Viviana Martinez, use the skulls of relatives. “This is my cousin Juan Jose. I’ve had him for 30 years and he helps me with everything,” Martinez said.
The Rev. Jaime Fernandez, who has given a Mass for the skulls for 10 years, acknowledges the challenge of reconciling Catholic teachings with this ancient Indian belief. “I use my time today to teach them Christian values and symbols, but I have to watch what I say or the people will get upset,” he said.