October 24, 2012
We walk past Sumpango’s tree-packed central park into the two-story concrete marketplace – our driver César, my husband Dale, and I. Market women wave desultory hands or fans made of sticks and plastic bags over displays of raw meat, homemade soup, and fried this and that – human oscillators scattering flies. We head upstairs to a food court filled with cafeteria-style tables and empty of fast food chains. A friendly mother and daughter make and serve us delicious grilled carne asada, fresh cucumber salad, and rice… oh, and Guatemala’s ubiquitous bland corn tortillas.
A friendly mother and daughter make and serve us delicious grilled carne asada, fresh cucumber salad, and rice.
After a leisurely lunch, we head to the balcony overlooking Sumpango, a cradle of 20,000 Mayan people rocked between mountains and volcanos. Boxy concrete houses climb nearby hillsides. They used to be all adobe, but in 1976 an earthquake of magnitude 7.5 obliterated most of those homes and killed 244 of the people who lived in them. All told, that quake killed some 23,000 Guatemalans. When Sumpango’s grieving people rebuilt, they used concrete and rebar in hopes those materials would hold up in the next major quake.
Sumpango’s homes used to be all adobe, but in 1976 an earthquake of magnitude 7.5 obliterated most of them and killed hundreds of the people who lived in them.
We stroll down the street to the administration building, where César has talked officials into giving us a peek at preparations for Sumpango’s annual Festival de Barriletes Gigantes (Festival of Giant Kites). We find ourselves in a small office where a couple of middle-aged men try to explain the event and try to figure out why we’re here a week before it starts. Poor Dale looks baffled. I’d translate for him, but it’s all I can do just to follow the rapid exchange of three Spanish-speakers.
Afterward, Dale will tell me that their earnest tones and the official surroundings gave him the unnerving impression we were being interrogated for possible imprisonment. I’ll explain that they were simply speechifying about “this great festival of ours,” trying to impress upon us the incredible dedication, talent, and civic pride involved. Most of the teams are still working on their kites, which lie in sections in homes all over town. They won’t put all the pieces together until the final few days before the festival, which will take place on November 1, the Day of the Dead.
“A lot of people don’t realize that the artists don’t paint the designs. Instead, they cut colored China paper into shapes and layer them to create shading.”
The older gent tells me, “A lot of people don’t realize that the artists don’t paint the designs. Instead, they cut colored China paper (specialized tissue paper) into shapes, and layer them to create shading.” Thus, each kite is a mosaic, though the results do look painted: the green curve of a leaf, the yellow point of a flame, the red comb of a rooster.
The entire community gets involved in this event, which receives no outside support. That’s no small statement in a town of poor and working class people, who scrimp all year to splash out on this one big hoorah. It’s more than a festival. It’s an expression of community. And, as a 33-year-old event, it has been a source of healing from the earthquake that nearly wiped out this town 36 years ago.
This exhibition kite will be nearly 50 feet tall when finished.
The men walk us across the hall to a meeting room where one of dozens of teams is working on an exhibition kite that will be 15 meters, or nearly 50 feet tall, when finished. It will be too enormous to fly, but will be displayed behind the flyable kites, which are still quite large: some up to six meters (nearly 20 feet). The giant kite is in pieces, yet still almost takes up the entire room.
“That’s the eye of Baktun,” César says. “The all-seeing eye of the Mayan calendar.”
The bright, bold, eclectic design is an answer to this year’s theme: the 13th Baktun, which begins on December 21, 2012, when the current Mayan Calendar ends. This kite doesn’t treat the end of that calendar as the end of the world, el fin del mundo, but rather as the birth of a new age. It features a pregnant woman, her body tattooed with Mayan masks. In another section, green husks flow Medusa-like from the head of the Mayan corn god. A giant eye looms over it all. “That’s the eye of Baktun,” César says, “the all-seeing eye of the Mayan calendar.” All the festival kites will also become a spiritual symbol of the Day of the Dead, rising toward heaven to join the departed of Sumpango.
Green husks flow Medusa-like from the head of the Mayan corn god.
Three teenagers patiently cut and layer colors, then glue them into the puzzle splayed across the floor, bit by bit, layer by layer, each piece contributing to the whole. The 15-member team calls itself Corazon Juvenil, or “Young Heart.” Its lead designers are Hamilton and Jorge.
“How old are you?” I ask Hamilton.
“And how many years of experience do you have at this?”
“18,” he repeats, grinning.
“Ohhh… you’ve been doing this your whole life?”
Hamilton and his teammates represent the third generation of this group. His grandfather was one of the original members.
Hamilton used to come with his father when his father was on this very same team. Hamilton and his teammates represent the third generation of this group. His grandfather was one of the original members. Hamilton talks about the team and their kite with obvious pride, not in a boastful way but in the way of someone with confidence in his skill, passion for his art, and affection for his friends.
The skulls in the center represent the more pessimistic interpretation of the 13th Baktun: that December 21, 2012 might mark the end of the world.
In another room two boys of about 13 work on a 4.5 meter (nearly 15 foot) kite. It’s a circle, the shape all the kites will take when finished. A gathering of skulls in the center represents the more pessimistic interpretation of the 13th Baktun: that December 21 might mark the end of the world. But even here there’s hope: a Mayan man carries the earth on his back, and bright flowers circle the circumference.
Everyone involved in the Festival de Barriletes seems excited, nervous only about deadlines, not doomsday.
The boys sit atop the kite, pretending to be busy, but mostly just giggling. Everyone involved in the Festival de Barriletes seems excited, nervous only about deadlines, not doomsday. But the idea of changing times is on their minds. César and an older boy say that humans are abusing the earth, and consequences like climate change may force us all to change our ways in answer. Dale and I will return on the Day of the Dead to watch Sumpango’s youth send their answers flying.