Soaring With the Souls of the Dead in Guatemala

When I think of kites I always remember the flimsy little diamonds of tissue paper, sticks, and twine that my friends and I bought at a neighborhood store and finished at home with bits of rags our mothers found to make the tails.  I remember the breezy days, when we walked with our dreams and balls of twine to a field free of power lines and far from houses and streets to launch our fragile assemblies of paper and sticks again and again until they either crashed into pieces, or, if we were lucky, caught the wind and hovered higher and higher, shrinking diamonds of color trailing strings of bowties.

It was probably the boy in me then that drew me to the Mayan kites in Guatemala on Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, that takes place on the first weekend of November.  These kites, however, were no ordinary slips of paper.  They were enormously important to the indigenous people of two small pueblos in the highlands, Sumpango and Santiago Sacatepeques, and they were, indeed, enormous.

There are many excursions available to the pueblos from Antigua, the old Spanish capital where I was staying.  It seemed that every van had been commandeered that day for the short trip, with most people visiting only one venue or the other.  I chose, instead, to arrange my own driver so that I could have the flexibility to visit both and have the time to explore and photograph.  We headed to Santiago first, as its graveyard venue seemed to be the most appropriate place to venerate the dead, as well as the oddest place I could think of to fly a kite.

The driver parked the car on the edge of town and waited as I headed off through the crowded streets to the cemetery.  Though November is the end of the rainy season, the skies were still heavily overcast.  Not a picture-perfect day, but the breeze felt just about right, I thought, as I shook out the memories of the blustery spring days of my childhood.

Souvenirs and crafts abounded along the streets, food vendors tended mounds of fried chicken and plantains, and Mayan women browned fresh tortillas on wood-fired stoves.  I was tempted, as always, to sample the genuinely local fare, but had promised myself fiambre back in Antigua, the traditional meal for the Day of the Dead of pickled vegetables and smoked meats.

Decorated Graves in Santiago Sacatepeques
Decorated Graves in Santiago Sacatepeques

The cemetery was on a dusty hillside on the edge of the village with rows of mausoleums at the top and a collection of more modest tombstones on the slope.  The simplest graves had had their mounds freshly rebuilt to reveal their proper outlines, and most had been decorated earlier with flowers and offerings.   By the time I arrived, the place was already packed, and many of the graves had been thoroughly trashed.  Spectators had climbed on top of the mausoleums for a better view, and the competitors had taken over the slope.  Those who were building the giant kites, los barriletes gigantes, had staked out large areas of the cemetery for assembly, and those who were attempting to launch smaller kites were running pell-mell over the hapless graves.  I hoped the dead understood, but I remembered that they, too, were celebrating.

The origin of the kites is not clear, but they were mentioned by the early Spanish conquerors, and were subsequently incorporated into Catholic religious festivals, as many Maya beliefs have been over the centuries: sacred, ancient, and personal beliefs hidden behind European idols.  The  kites are intended to lift the souls of the dead, to allow them to visit the living again for a day, but they are also an excuse for a great time.  Villagers had labored for weeks with yards of paper and gallons of glue to create complex kite designs for their dead with local motifs, both Catholic and Mayan, and with messages for the living, as well, of suffering, injustice, and hope.  Teams of boys and young men assembled the largest kites, up to 40 feet in diameter, on site, as they lashed long bamboo poles together and attached the delicate paper, equipped with only machetes, rope, and rolls of tape.  These kites are mostly for show – they would require gale-force winds to lift them.  But the “smaller” ones of about 12 feet in diameter are designed to soar.

Most of the tourists stood at the crest of the cemetery hill, snapping away with their tiny digital cameras, or aiming long-barreled lenses like artillery pieces, but a few of us headed down the hill into the melee, dodging the manic launch attempts.  I took special care to avoid trampling the few unscathed graves left and the few, mostly elderly Maya, oblivious to the chaos around them, who were still tenderly brushing aside the dust from white slabs of marble and sprinkling them with bright orange marigolds.

Kite Team Attempts to Launch a Kite in Santiago Sacatepeques
Kite Team Attempts to Launch a Kite in Santiago Sacatepeques

Cheers erupted at each launch, followed by, in most cases, the screams and laughter of those in the path of the failures careening to the ground.  But a few kites managed to catch a gust of wind and rose slowly into the air.  Circles of color, dissolving into mere spots, they scattered against the gray skies.

As I wandered the slope an especially loud cry rose from the crowd as the first of the giant kites was hoisted into position at the lower edge of the cemetery.  The teams of boys and men and a few tourists pulled on lines and pushed the kite upright, the bamboo and rope frames creaking ominously under the strain.  Finally upright, the giant settled against a tall pole and was secured.  Flags at the top fluttered in victory.

Several more giants were still on the ground in various stages of assembly.  Boys hauled enormous poles to the sites and hacked and tied the kites into shape.  When they finished, a boy climbed a tall pole and threaded a line through the end to help haul the next kite upright.  Some of the boys jumped up to grab a section of the taut rope, dangling tenaciously from it in mid air.  Unlike the first giants to be raised, though, not all of these competitors survived, some cracking and collapsing on the way up, and one, after having sat in triumph, collapsing pole after cracked pole until it was bent in defeat.  I had hoped that these giants, too, would fly, but they were to be judged for their motifs depicting village life and religious belief, not their aerodynamic potential.

Kite Display in Sumpango
Kite Display in Sumpango

By late afternoon, most of the giants had been raised and the kites that could fly were far above the crowds.  Time was growing short, and I went looking for my driver to drive on to Sumpango.  After the short ride, he parked the car on the side of the nearest highway, now an endless traffic jam, and I walked up a dirt road to the town.  I stood with the first crowds I found, craning my neck to see the campo, the athletic field where the kites were flown and displayed.  This quickly grew frustrating, and I wandered around looking for a better view, finally finding a path down a hill and over some barbed wire to the field.  Unlike in Santiago Sacatepeques, the giants here were neatly arranged at one end of the campo, and those capable of flying were launched from the center.  It was organized sport as opposed to chaotic enthusiasm, and felt more like a soccer game or a track meet.  The brewer of Guatemala’s biggest selling beer, Gallo, had even set up a loge of sorts for its patrons.  A voice rumbled over the PA; spectators seated in the stands or in the ‘loge’ cheered.

Most of the events, however, were over by the time I arrived, and kite flying had mostly given way to strolling among the towering barriletes.  Unlike those in Santiago Sacatepeques, these kites didn’t seem to be the work of boys, but were more the work of artists.  Material had been cut and shaped to catch the light more than the breeze.  They fluttered gently in the late afternoon sun that had replaced gray skies of the morning.  I spent the rest of my day, too, wandering the display alongside the many families, their young children awed by the flightless giants.  It was time to reflect on the simple wonders in life.  It was time for little boys of any age to dream of the perfect breeze.

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