Flights of fancy in Guatemala
Ryan Summerlin March 31, 2013
SANTIAGO, SACATEPEQUEZ, GUATEMALA – A giant kite looms above me. Its circular construction is the height of a two-story building and at least 20 feet wide. Nearby stand other kites, all examples of the originality and skill of their creators. Although these particular kites don’t make it off the ground, they serve as visual reminders of Mayan cultural pride and social protest as well.
Other kites, smaller, but still impressively grand scale, do make it into the air, soaring above the crowd in bursts of bright red, orange, magenta, turquoise and lime-sherbet green.
It’s the first of November and my husband and I have come to the cemetery in this Mayan highland village to stand in awe of los barilletes gigantes, the giant kites made for All Saints Day (also known as the Day of the Dead), a holiday celebrated throughout Central America.
We’ve also come to join the hoopla that takes place in this cemetery every year. It’s in full swing by the time we get there. Although families gather to commune with deceased loved ones – the kites acting as “messengers” between the living and the dead – the spirit of the occasion is one of a joyful community fair.
Vendors sell refreshments (including beer), indigenous women wear their finest embroidered traje (traditional clothing), a “queen” presides over her court and judges decide which are the best kites. This is a day when locals bring offerings to family graves and decorate them with flowers – typically orange chrysanthemums that give off a highly pungent aroma as the day passes. They also come to share a once-a-year meal called fiambre, for which there’s no exact recipe but that seems to be something of a chef’s free-for-all.
But surely, the main attraction is the kites. From a distance it’s easy to think they are giant paintings or that they’re made of plastic or nylon. In fact, they are enormous collages, every image made from layers of hand-cut tissue paper – the kind used to line a gift box. Variations of color and shading are made by gluing on overlapping layers of colored paper to create figures of people and animals, landscapes, written messages or simply geometric designs.
The Day of the Dead celebration is the culmination of some six months of work for los barilleteros, the kite makers. Generally these young men (and sometimes women) work in groups, or guilds, some which have been producing kites for many of the 109 years the tradition has reportedly been in place.
The kite makers apply glue to the kite frames with small paintbrushes. Colored paper is then carefully placed and smoothed into position. A backing of black tissue and clear packing tape reinforces the kite, which is then ready for mounting on a giant wheel made of bamboo stalks the size of football goalposts.
The kites measure from 6 to 8 feet wide and sometimes require eight or 10 men to hold their lines as they become airborne. Oftentimes the kites are damaged in their first flight or in a preflight mishap, their beautiful murals shattered by a mischievous wind or by failure to get off the ground. No matter what their fate, barriletes have a very short shelf-life.
According to local lore, kites can be thought of as metaphors for life. Some compare them to adolescents, pulling against the prevailing wind, needing to have a little slack, but in time and under better conditions, eventually calming down. Others point out that these masterpieces take months to construct but are, despite their intricate detail, a here-today, gone-tomorrow proposition – a bit like life itself.
Travel writer Carolyn Schwartz calls Pittsboro, N.C., and Frisco home.