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September 2002

An interview with Fidel Sepúlveda, director of Universidad Católica's Aesthetic Institute:
Angels, dreams and spirits

Contrary to the Occidental denial of death, rural tradition considers it one of life's most relevant events. The closeness with those dead is expressed on the "little angel ritual", made when a child dies, and also on the search for the meaning of dreams and spiritual devotion. Fidel Sepúlveda, one of Chile's popular roots most profound investigator, measures the efficacy by which rural psychology integrates death to life.


Adiós delicia quien canta
Al más verde y fértil prado
Sefirillo embalsamado
Refréscame la garganta
Saludo conjuntamente
Los pájaros y sus voces
Que te conducen veloces
Por esos mares ausentes


Goodbye sweetie that sings
To the greenest and most fertile land
Embalmed "sefirillo"
Refresh my throat
I greet altogether
The birds and their voices
That guide you fast
Through those absent seas


(Anonymous lyric of the "Divine Song for the little angel")


It is an old rural tradition that when a child dies, the wake becomes a party full of music, food and drinks, lead by the dead child dressed as a little angel. It is something that can still be seen only on places far from the city and modernity.

—To start, let's describe the little angel ritual.
It is a rite originated in Spain, but that has become more and more Chilean. It is inscribed on the Christian belief about soul's eternity. Death has two possible conclusions: reward or punishment, heaven or hell with an intermediate zone, which is the purgatory. With death not everything comes to an end but a change takes place. It could be for the better or for the worse. In the case of the death of a child, there's nothing to grieve, nothing to cry about.

—Can't anybody cry?
—There's a prohibition for crying. Only the mother is allowed. It is said that if you cry, you wet the little angel's wings, so he cannot fly to heaven. It is a death with a positive sign, because the child has not sinned, he has no guilt, so he can't get to hell nor purgatory, he goes straight to heaven, to eternal happiness. Death liberates him forever of life's condemn. So there's a reason to celebrate, because the child, who is part of a family and a community, has gained what nobody has for sure, and he becomes their mediator, who will protect them from heaven. That's why people sing, dance and celebrate around him. The child is dressed with the costume of an angel, all white, he is given wings, his lips and cheeks are blushed with red for him to seem alive, his eyes are opened with matches and he is sat on a little throne, from where he leads the party. There are singers, male and female. Sometimes there are dances. From the Fourth to the Seventh Region there's a lot of singing to the divine. From there to the South, there are more "tonadas" (rural songs). But the sense is the same.

—And also the abundance of food and drink.
—Yes. It is all inscribed on a rural logic, where all funerals were a party and there had to be food and drink. It is the gift to the deceased to show no poverty. In a funeral of a relative of mine, that I went a while ago at Cobquecura, they killed three cows to give to people, and everybody from the town came. It is the last goodbye, everybody that has known the deceased feels naturally obligated to be there, sharing with him/her, to stay all night. So the family has to take care of that person. It is the same on the little angel's ritual. One drinks and eats a lot, not only at the house but also at the cemetery. It is a whole ritual with a lot of meaning. Death is not a grave, where you fall into nothing. Who is dead is alive and knowing what is going on. They stay with us, and when we die, we are going to get together. All this is sustained on the strength of religious faith, which believes on soul's survival. We also have to celebrate for the person's leaving life's condemn.

—This is related to the poverty and oppression condition, which has defined peasants' history, in the sense that life is seen as a burden.
—Yes, on that sense, for a lot of mestizos and indigenous people, death is liberation, a hope upon a change for the better.

—What defines the "song to the divine" and the "little angel ritual"?
—They are songs hugely valuable from an aesthetic and anthropological point of view. On these cases, one asks for the little angel to remember his/her parents, relatives, even the country and Mother Earth, to protect all them from heaven. Some talk from the community, in other cases the poet takes the little angel's voice, he expresses his/her feeling when leaving and the things he/she remembers. The little angel becomes a representative of the community in heaven.

—And how one maintains this little angel embassy on earth?
—After the funeral, it starts a familiar cult. On the mapuche tradition, and others, the dead child stays haunting the house, sometimes even for years.


 
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