Farmers Market Update: Dia de los Muertos, Guatemala
by Karen Merzenich
Last week I was traveling in Guatemala and had the great pleasure of visiting a farmers market in Santiago de Sacatepequez, a town that’s about a 30 minute drive from the main Guatemalan tourist town of Antigua. It was a festival day, so the market was in full swing.
One common Guatemalan fruit for sale is the nispero. I have never heard of this fruit before, but when I looked it up it was translated as “sapopilla” or “naseberry.” It was described as being similar to a plum, but a little more tart and with a mango-like fibrous pit. Guatemalans eat nisperos raw, and they also use them to make wine. I love how they’re displayed on a bed of banana leaves.
I was surprised to see rambutans in Guatemala – I always assumed they were only grown in Asia. In Guatemala, they are called momochinos.
Avocados grow wild all over Guatemala at this time of year, and many indigenous people make a living by collecting wild avocados in big bushels and selling them to vendors or at the market.
Radishes are in season too, and on many menus at this time of year. Here a young girl displays them on a piece of hand-woven Mayan cloth.
By November, the corn growing season is nearing its end, but you can still find maiz negro (black corn) for sale, raw or roasted.
The black corn is also ground to make masa (dough). for black tortillas, which have a very distinct flavor compared to the white or yellow corn tortillas. Women roll the masa heavily over a piece of volcanic rock. Then, they pat them into thick tortillas and toast them on a large flat metal plate over an open fire.
Some market vendors don’t even set up a stall—they just sell what they have off the back of their pickup truck.
I had specifically visited Santiago de Sacatepequez at this time of year so I could attend their well-known Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration. November 1st is an official holiday for Guatemalans—so they can spend the day in celebration of their deceased friends and family members. In Santiago, the day’s activities combine elements of Catholicism with Mayan traditions. Because it was a festival day, there were special kinds of food for sale, like these half chickens with cooked eggs inside and whole fried lake fish.
Another special food people eat on this day is sweet potatoes, yams, pumpkins, or small plums cooked in a cinnamon-infused brown sugar syrup. Sticky, sweet and tasty!
On Dia de los Muertos people come to Santiago from far and wide and converge on the cemetery. The families spend the morning painting the graves with bright colors. Once the paint is dry, they buy marigolds and other long-lasting flowers, evergreen wreaths, and pine needles to adorn the graves. The fragrant pine needles from the surrounding hills are not only used on Dia de los Muertos but for weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, and other important holidays. (When I explained that we only use green wreaths for Christmas in the U.S., they thought it was crazy.)
As the day goes on, people sit on and around the graves and enjoy a special lunch. Many splurge on the variety of freshly grilled meats available in the market.
All day long, people in the cemetery proudly display and fly enormous homemade kites, which are made by painstakingly cutting and gluing tissue paper shapes together. The round kites are backed with bamboo poles for stability. It generally takes a team of people 2-3 months to make each kite.