Nov 1, 2012
When death is always near, the living learn to laugh with it, to touch heaven and assure themselves it’s waiting. That’s my guess at why the Mayan town of Sumpango celebrates the Day of the Dead with a Festival de Barriletes Gigantes, or Festival of Giant Kites.
The Mayan town of Sumpango celebrates the Day of the Dead with a Festival de Barriletes Gigantes, or Festival of Giant Kites.
In 1976 a 7.5 earthquake killed 23,000 people in Guatemala, 244 of them in Sumpango, which was leveled. Three years later Sumpango held its first kite festival. Guatemala’s 36-year civil war raged on until 1996, but the giant kites kept flying. Each year, Sumpango’s young kite makers compete to see how close they can get to God, how long their kites can stay in heaven, and how much beauty they can fit into these messages to the spirits. Tradition has it that all souls return on November 1, and that these kites deliver prayers to the dead.
My husband, Dale, and I are in town for the final Day of the Dead of the final calendar of the Ancient Mayans: the 12th Baktun. The theme of the 2012 kite festival is the 13th Baktun: not the end of the world, but a new age. We approach the soccer stadium from the cemetery, so we see the backs of the kites first: towering black circles braced with bamboo, 15 to 20 meters high, or about 50 to 65 feet. These exhibition kites are just for show, too massive to fly.
This 65-foot exhibition kite is just for show, too massive to fly.
As we walk past the first behemoth and look back, a stained glass window of tissue paper leaps out: a mural of Mayan warriors in jaguar costumes dancing a hunting dance. That 65-foot kite is one feather in the expanding tail of a dinosaur-sized peacock, as row after row of kites rise around us. A marimba band plays hip-shaking happiness, and the music and colors weave a tapestry of communal spirit. Thousands of people pour onto the field, from Sumpango, Guatemala, and the world.
The boys of Corazon Juvenil are the third generation of this team: their grandfathers made one of the festival’s first kites.
We’re excited to spot a 50-foot kite we watched being made last week by the 15 teenage boys of team Corazon Juvenil. When we first saw this kite it was in sections on a conference-room floor. Now that the circle is complete, the Ancient Mayan woman kneeling in the center is even more impressive, her belly pregnant with the 13th Baktun. The team members grin with exhausted pride over a creation months in the making. These boys are the third generation of this team: their grandfathers made one of the festival’s first kites.
The team lashes bamboo supports and rigs a rope-and-pulley. Then a rush of legs, arms, and ropes sends a massive butterfly into the air.
We wait among an elbowing crowd to await a surprise: a black silhouette that’s not round like most others, face still hidden in the dirt. The team lashes bamboo supports and rigs a rope-and-pulley. Then a rush of legs, arms, and ropes sends a massive butterfly into the air. Its wings are a fiesta of blues, greens, and oranges, surrounding symbols of nature: trees, a jaguar, a quetzal (the national bird).
A fiesta of blues, greens, and oranges surround symbols of nature: trees, a jaguar, a quetzal (the national bird).
Many of the other kites feature similar themes: plants, animals, indigenous peoples, and the earth itself. They seem to express hope that the 13th Baktun will be a green age when humans live in harmony with their planet.
The kites seem to express hope that the 13th Baktun will be a green age when humans live in harmony with their planet.
Cesar, his daughter Rocio, Dale, and I step back-back-back to take in all the kites, and this vision of multi-colored inspiration rising above a joyful hive of humanity is so overwhelming that tears spring to my eyes.
This vision of multi-colored inspiration rising above a joyful hive of humanity is so overwhelming that tears spring to my eyes.
“Are you all right?” Dale asks.
“Yes. I’m just so excited!”
We share apprehensive chuckles over whether any kites will make it off the ground. The largest flyable kites are 4.5 to 6 meters in diameter, about 15 to 20 feet, and there’s almost no breeze – just rising heat and lowering stillness. With so many spectators swarming the field, there’s limited room to run. The smallest children start the competition with almost-normal-sized kites, and even their flights are short.
Three tiny boys grip the bottom of one small kite, holding it as high as possible, waiting for the runner to go. Suddenly…the kite vanishes, up and away…but only for a moment.
Another kite crashes, tissue tearing and bamboo snapping. But the team’s determined faces never falter as they tape it together for another go.
One toddler becomes a superstar when he coaxes his kite so high it becomes a vanishing dot. The announcer shouts into an over-modulated microphone: “He’s only four years old, everyone!” The boy’s tiny chest pokes forward as he stands straight and tall. Patriotism may partly be an accident of birth, but I’m still moved by that feeling pulsing the air around me.
“He’s only four years old, everyone!”
At 2:00, we begin the long wait for enough wind to let the larger kites compete. For a better view, we perch atop a 15-foot cliff, which fills with jostling people.
“I’m afraid of falling off,” I tell Dale.
“Me too,” he says, and we lean wayyy back.
The sun sears our skin. The soccer pitch throbs with bodies bobbing to marimba music and impatience. But the kites remain as still as the dead. I close my eyes and pray for no stampede.
At 3:00 a breeze brushes my cheek, and the first runners sprint through gaps in the crowd. The announcer repeats to no avail, “Please make room for the kite flyers! We don’t want anyone to get hurt!” One kite tries to climb the air, but can’t gain traction. Then another and another. Finally a kite breaks away, and we join the crowd in brief cheers of encouragement. Seconds later it dive-bombs the crowd, sending dozens scattering for cover amid gales of laughter – this is my favorite part.
A few kites stay aloft for seconds, even fewer for a minute.
A few kites stay aloft for seconds, even fewer for a minute. By 3:45, we realize that if we wait for a longer show we’ll risk heat stroke. So we trudge back to the cemetery.
The present continues sending its response to the past: “From death, we create life.”
Last week in Sumpango, we saw a painting of the aftermath of the ’76 quake: crumbled buildings, a toppled church, a body on a stretcher, mourners weeping. Today, as afternoon burns on, the present continues sending its response to the past: “From death, we create life.” Giant kites at the festival and tiny kites at the cemetery deliver remembrances to the dead. These prayers may be thin tissue, but they don’t fear the end of Mayan days. They celebrate a rebirth of hope.