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Flights of Fancy: The giant Mayan kites of Guatemala

A dazzling display of color and ingenuity, the giant kite looms above me, a circular construction 57 feet across, secured by tall bamboo stalks and plastic string. To both sides stand other kites, enormous demonstrations of the creativity and skill of their creators, as well as messengers of culture and social protest. Smaller kites—still reaching far above the heads of the milling crowd—rest contentedly in front of the largest kites. Behind the crowd, young children fly their own much smaller versions of the giant kites, spotting the sky with bright bursts of red, orange, blue, and green. Vendors from around the country line the small town’s bustling streets, hawking both local and imported wares. The kicked-back rhythm of live marimba music drifts through the air, accompanied by tantalizing whiffs of grilled meat and steamed corn.

Welcome to the Barrilete Festival on All Saints Day, hosted in both Santiago Sacatepequez and Sumpango, Guatemala.

These two towns, within an hour of each other, have carried on the traditional festival for well over 80 years, and both places include similar elements: huge kites, huge crowds, and a mix of Catholic and Mayan religious traditions. People in both towns speak Kak’chiquel Mayan. However, each town attaches a unique cultural meaning to the barriletes, or kites. Santiago Sacatepequez and Sumpango clearly demonstrate how the same people can employ the same custom for two distinct cultural ends: one, to integrate the past into the present; the other, to give regional identity and foster cross-cultural diplomacy.

The barriletes are made the same way in both towns. Held together with bamboo stalks, glue, and a little bit of plastic string, they can measure anywhere between three and fifty-seven feet. Generally, they are made by groups of between four and thirty individuals, primarily young men, although groups of young women, married men, and children also produce barriletes. Names for the groups are as eclectic as Caji´noj (Four Cultures), Espiritu Maya (Mayan Spirit), and Bin Laden. Each group decides for itself the size of its kite, the kite’s message, and the kite’s design, all of which are kept secret until the festival. Then, the work begins: meters of tissue paper purchased, bamboo stalks cut in the coastlands about three hours away, the design traced and cut and glued together. Made only of tissue paper, the kite is fragile; more layers of tissue paper are added to the back of the kite to give it strength. Piece by piece the kite comes together, until a ring of plastic string is added to its outside edges in order to attach the kite to the bamboo frame (called an armazon). Depending on the size, kites take up to five months to create, and are either burned or stored after use. The theme of the kite is critical, and many groups choose messages with social implications: human rights, the end of president Rios Montt´s genocidal rule, cultural survival. On the big day, each kite is judged according to design, theme, and color scheme, and monetary prizes are given to the winners.

The origin of the barriletes is debated. In Sumpango, Julio Asturias, a barriletero (a member of a group which makes the kites), attributes their roots to children. Often uninterested in the traditional All Saints Day task of decorating a deceased ancestor’s grave, children were given kites to entertain themselves. From that custom developed the complex barriletes of today. In Santiago Sacatepequez, Damian Choxin Jolon of the Santiago Association for Cultural Development attributes the barrilete’s existence to a more syncretic religious origin. These kites were created by Mayas to ward off bad spirits on All Saints Day, the day in which the deceased were allowed to visit the human world. Not wanting the bad spirits to return to the earth, the kites were created to make noise to scare them off, and also to carry messages to heaven on behalf of those in purgatory. (This last custom reflects the syncretism that is still strong in the area between Maya religious beliefs and Catholic customs.)

As part of the Santiago Association for Cultural Development, Damien, along with Walfredo Pual Con and Humberto Choxin Jolon, two fellow barrileteros, link the barriletes to the Maya worldview. The human link with Mother Earth is essential to the Maya worldview, and maintaining balance with the earth is the great art and science of life. "To lose this balance brings what we see now on earth, namely, violence," says Damien. The barriletes are used symbolically to communicate with the dead through messages hidden in the layers of the kite, and also are used to promote the Kak´chiquel Maya culture that still seeks this balance with nature.

All Saints Day in Santiago Sacatepequez is organized by the association and includes more than just kites. There is marimba music, native to the Maya of Guatemala, indigenous foods, and flores del muerto, the traditional All Saints Day flower associated with the holiday because of its strong smell. A week before the day, a contest is held to choose a queen for the event. Three candidates compete for the title, which is held for a year and comes with the responsibility to represent Maya culture and values. The winner must speak Kak´chiquel and hold a respected title in the community, like teacher or nurse. By seeking out Maya music, food, traditions, and representatives, the association aims to infuse the region with an appreciation for the value of Maya culture, particularly the use of Kak´chiquel language.

Sumpango values the barriletes primarily for their ability to form identity and create diplomacy. As Julio Asturias is quick to point out, the Guatemalan national identity does not differentiate between the very diverse cultural backgrounds of its citizens. The practice of barriletes gives those from Sumpango a tangible image of their unique identity. It also has served as a bridge to other, foreign cultures. Sumpanguenses have been invited to places as far away as France (2000 Normandy Festival Internacional du Cerf-Volant) and Colombia to display their magnificent handiwork, and have appeared in artistic magazines such as Foto y Diseño (Guatemala) and Manjha News (France). Julio personally feels a duty to represent Sumpango and its barriletes to the world in order to support cross-cultural communication and understanding. After all, he says, "Barriletes form a part of our lives. This is a big part of our identity in Sumpango."

The tradition of barriletes began in Santiago Sacatepequez 109 years ago, was quickly picked up by Sumpango, and has similarly been adopted in a handful of other towns in Guatemala. Santa Maria Sacatepequez, Tecpan Guatemala, Ciudad Vieja, and part of San Marcos have all assumed similar traditions. Victor Angel of San Pablo San Marcos comments that, as the custom has travelled to these various locations, its production has changed: the barriletes of San Marcos are not round nor made of paper, but instead look like rows of bows strung taut to rattle against the wind.

Barriletes serve as more than identity markers or enforcers; they are also used as metaphors for life. Victor compares adolescents to barriletes. Sometimes, the kite will begin to spin wildly against the kite flyer´s string. Pulling it in will cause it to tumble to the ground; it´s best to give the kite more slack, allow it to find better wind, then pull it back in when it has calmed down. "It´s the same with some adolescents," he says. "Sometimes you just have to give them a bit more freedom, bide your time, and wait for the opportunity to pull them back into your loving care." Julio views barriletes as a metaphor for the brevity of life. These masterpieces of art take hours of labor to construct, yet their intricate detail is quickly forgotten once the event passes. So it is with human life, Julio notes. Very quickly we come and go; we do not stay forever.

Cheri Kramer is a former Cultural Survival intern.

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