El Velorio, a Francisco Oller painting.

El Velorio, a Francisco Oller painting.

Since humankind first developed reason, death has been a fundamental question. Various cultures in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas had many questions about death and in facing these questions they created varied and complex beliefs that gradually evolved into philosophical concepts and complex magical and religious rituals.

Since the beginning, humankind has sought an explanation for our dreams, as they could not conceive that a body asleep and unmoving could be transported to other places and different situations. People of various races and cultures came to explain the phenomenon through a generalized belief among aboriginal peoples that man was a harmonic combination of a mortal physical body and an abstract, ethereal entity that was hard to define, what the western civilization refers to as the soul. This duality between the mortal body and the immortal soul has been a fundamental element in magical and religious beliefs.

The relationship between the body and the soul was interpreted in many different ways by early peoples. For some, the body had to be preserved for the soul to survive, such as the Egyptians and their mummies, while for others the body was perishable and fleeting, and the soul did not need it to survive.

Racial and cultural integration happened more rapidly, strongly and intensely in the Americas. Representatives of the three great races of humanity, with their different beliefs and cultural ways, mixed together to form a true New World that showed a rich syncretism that was the result of the racial mixing. In the Caribbean, this phenomenon is seen most clearly in the popular magical and religious beliefs of the masses.

There is a custom surrounding death and the afterlife that is shared among various peoples in the Americas. It shows how the beliefs of diverse cultures have contributed to our formation. These beliefs have been harmoniously integrated and have adapted to new practices in society. One of these originated in the ancient belief, common among people of the Near East, in angels of earthly origin. In the early years of Christianity, this belief was used to explain the fate of children who died before they reached the age at which they could be held responsible for their sins. The oldest reference to the Christian belief that children who died should not be mourned in sadness, as they could not be considered sinners and were not covered by original sin, was seen in the second century.

Many beliefs and rituals arose over the centuries in various parts of the world because of this concern over the fate in the afterlife of children who died. The beliefs about death among the indigenous populations in the Americas, such as the Tainos, were not entirely different from those brought by the Spanish conquistadors. This fact allowed some of the indigenous religious practices and beliefs to survive in the mixed-race population through a gradual and spontaneous syncretism.

Indigenous children were buried in clay vessels, like those found in various parts of the Americas, which suggest a respect for the mortal body and a belief that a new life awaited the dead child. Indigenous people such as the Tainos, as documented by Fray Ramón Pané (a primary source for understanding the magical and religious beliefs of the Antillean Tainos) believed that the afterlife was happier than life on earth, and when the conquest was causing widespread suffering, many chose suicide without any fear of death.

It is clear that the indigenous people, like the African cultures, believed that the spirit would have similar needs in the afterlife as in the earthly life, so the body was often adorned and food was buried with the dead person.

Spain, a melting pot of ancient cultures where Greek-Latin and Judeo-Christian religious beliefs melded with those brought from northern Africa by the Muslim Arabs and their black slaves with animist beliefs, came to the Americas with a vast magical-religious complex in which the afterlife played an important role. In Spain during the time of the conquest, the short earthly life was looked down upon and considered a mere step toward preparing for eternal life. This concept, rooted in Medieval Europe, and especially in Spain, helps us understand the lack of importance the conquistadors placed on the earthly lives of the indigenous people, because their main concern was saving their souls so they could experience eternal life.

Spain, more than another other Catholic nation in Europe, had adopted the old Christian beliefs about the death of innocent children and had created a complex ritual for their funerals. Dying as a martyr was also considered a way to achieve eternal blessings. The predominant mood at the funerals of children was one of joy. Their souls were freed from the struggles and misfortunes of earthly life and they immediately rose to heaven to forever be angels at the side of God. The joy with which people had to accept the death of a child became ever more evident and festive. Early on, the Catholic Church established rules and guidelines for funerals and burials of innocent children. The priest who officiated was white and the church bells, when sounded during the burial, were to be rung in a festive manner, and not sadly, as they were for the death of an adult.

The Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors brought these traditions and their concept of the death of innocent children to the Americas. Infant mortality was higher in the Americans than in Spain. The colonists’ difficult and dangerous lives, in strange lands, made them even more eager for the distractions provided by festivities. The death of a small child was one such opportunity. This is one of the reasons why the custom of the velorio del angelito (little angel’s wake) continued among the most marginalized and vulnerable groups in the Spanish Americas, even when it had almost disappeared in Spain.

The indigenous communities that were affected by the impact of the Spanish culture, the Africans and the mixed-race locals that resulted from the fusion of the races, realized that the celebration of an old Spanish custom, the velorio del angelito, did not conflict with their own customs, so they adopted it and incorporated it into their traditions. Thus the celebration of the velorio del angelito spread throughout the Americas, even into indigenous populations in the far reaches of the continents. In the Caribbean, the ritual is most commonly seen in the black societies of the Greater Antilles, on the island of Trinidad, in Venezuela, Colombia and in other geographic regions where the black population predominated. This situation, and the fact that some of these communities referred to the ritual by a name of African origin, baquiné or baquiní, led many to believe that it was an African custom brought to the Americas by the blacks. In various western African languages, the root “ba” is associated with children. The word has been found in the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Jamaica. The ritual has been reported in Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, Brazil, Venezuela, Costa Rica, Panama, Guatemala, Chile and Mexico. In Puerto Rico, the ritual was called the velorio del angelito, baquiné, baquiní, quiniván or florón, depending on the region. The age at which the dead child could be considered an angel and the corresponding wake could be held was also something that varied.

In the communities where the ritual had been conducted for many years, there were always certain people with the reputation of having special knowledge of the customs. These people were often put in charge of organizing and directing the wake. They were almost always older men known for their loquaciousness and sense of humor. They were called the “wake masters.” In baquinés in the coastal areas, this is reminiscent of the griot of West Africa, who told stories and portrayed the personalities of characters. The parents or closest relatives would dress the child in a white shirt that could also have blue or pink, depending on the gender of the child, and in white socks without shoes. In early times, wings made of cardboard or paper might be affixed to the child. The child’s hair was combed and adorned with flowers. The lips and cheeks were rouged and sometimes the body was embalmed to extend the wake. Once the child was prepared, he or she was placed on a table in the main room of the house, covered with a white sheet and adorned with many flowers. Relatives and friends contributed to the wake by bringing sweets and drinks. The parents and godparents were primarily responsible for making the wake as full of treats as possible, especially rum. The entire neighborhood would participate in the days and nights of the wake. People would take seats around the table bearing the body of the child where the host or “wake master” would be. He would begin the activity by inviting everyone to play and sing in honor of the “little angel.” Many people brought musical instruments to accompany the songs. As soon as enough people were present, they began the canticles, led by the master. Some songs described the parents’ worries during the child’s illness and the efforts made to save the child using popular remedies. On other occasions, the child was asked to intercede with God for his or her relatives. The consolation of the mother was the topic of other beautifully poetic songs.

In addition to the songs, games and jokes, another important aspect of the baquiné, especially in primarily black communities, was the “sung stories.” These stories, often of African origin, had a chorus that the people in attendance would repeatedly sing. The sung choruses, in general, had phrases in African languages that many participants no longer understood. But like the stories, they remained part of the oral tradition. There was generally no singing at the burial. Two rows of children, dressed in white and carrying flowers, preceded the procession of the participants. Then came the coffin, carried by older children or adults, except when the dead child was a newborn. In that case, the child was carried by the father. The burial was done without ceremony, with no songs or prayers for an angel. The father or godfather paid the costs of the burial.

The velorio del angelito is a magnificent example of the harmonious magical-religious syncretism in the Americas, especially in the Caribbean and specifically in Puerto Rico. While it has disappeared because of the socio-economic changes the island has undergone, as well as the Protestant influence, which condemns the celebration as pagan, the ritual has preserved the “sung stories,” one of the best forms of black oral literature in Puerto Rico, and it has been the inspiration for many writers and artists.

Author: Zahira Cruz
Published: July 23, 2012.

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