The Giant Kites of Sumpango: on the power of hearts to make things fly

November 3, 2014 in Guatemala, Travelogue

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“No where else in the world can you see this, ladies and gentlemen! Only here, in Sumpango, Sacatapequez, can you see kites like this! Only here, where we honor our ancestors and our Mayan heritage with this festival will you see kites, 4, 6, 8, 10, even 20 meters in diameter! Handmade by groups of local artisans! They take months to make, much time, much money, much patience and dedication! Handcrafted from bamboo and Chinese paper (tissue paper) we compete to create the grandest kite and the Feria de Barriletes Gigantes! Bienvenidos a Sumpango!!”

The loudspeaker was, in a word, loud, as is the Central American custom, rising above the crowd and working hard to build enthusiasm as barrileteros lifted carefully folded packages, tied with the same string that comes wrapped around my flat of eggs, from within the blanketed bundles carried in on a woman’s head: the precious kite, the result of countless hours and sleepless nights, a tangible piece of the hearts and souls of dozens of people, an offering to their ancestors and to god.

Tony pressed 20Q (about 2.50USD) into each kid’s hand and said, “Two rules: don’t let a kite fall on your head; these things could kill you. And we’re meeting over there by the path at 3:30. Don’t be late!”  They didn’t need any further encouragement to disappear into the crowd. From time to time one turned up, to show off a spongy lizard, just like the one I bought at the Semana Santa party in Veracruz, Mexico, when I was 8, or to display technicolor teeth and tongue, the result of a bag of cotton candy, or to see if another 20Q might be procured for lunch: endless variations on the theme of 3 for 10Q tacos on a styrofoam plate.

It was worth the perilous walk up the hill, ankle deep in chocolate coloured mud from last night’s rain.

I did wonder, for a moment, as I hiked my skirt up around my knees and picked my path between a dog’s pile, slippery plastic trash and the sole of someone’s cheap sandal that had been lost in the tug of war between foot and viscous earth. We shuffled up, up, up, from the point where our driver had, unceremoniously, ejected us from the van on the side of CA-1 to the town soccer pitch on the top of the hill.

Jostled between hundreds of merry makers, working to remain polite to the dozens of hawkers lining the path: kite string (naturally), bead work, wooden toys, elote (a hard sort of corn on enormous ears that is grilled and served in the husk with salt and lime), blue corn tortillas, popcorn, grilled meats, rubber balls, textiles, and enormous piles of some pastry we didn’t recognize, sticky sweet and coated in honey. The ants, struggling on the surface, we assumed, were for free. Ezra began, immediately, pecking about purchasing a kite. I brushed him off, concentrating on my footing and hoping not to slide back down the hill, wondering whether this sort of activity was worth it, following a three hour bus ride in an extended minivan with 14 of my closest friends. Early morning bus rides aren’t really my thing.

There’s really nothing that can be said to do these kites justice.

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If you’d like the tiniest bit of perspective on the project then I recommend this little home school project for you and the kids: Create a design on a piece of poster board, make sure it’s intricate. Perhaps take your inspiration from a quilt book. Be sure to incorporate aspects of your family, your religious beliefs, your community vision, and the history of your people. Now  go out and buy a dozen packages of coloured tissue paper. Begin with several layers of black for your base. Next, recreate your design, mosaic style, cutting and gluing layer upon layer of colour until each section is perfectly shaped and vibrant. Edges should be perfectly smooth. No bits of paper should be sticking up or wrinkled. Do it as a group so that you have the authentic experience of arguing through design and construction issues as a community. How long did that take you? Two days? A week? Two weeks? Kites that size in Sumpango are child’s play, quite literally. They’re flown in the cemetery  for friends and family, they don’t even show up to be considered at the festival.

Each and every kite deserved an entire day, or maybe a week, of examination. I’d like to have been able to talk in detail with the creators and to have asked deep questions about the how and why of each one, but there was no time for that. The teams of competitors were in action: spider webs of bamboo were being wired together by men who had clearly done this before. Kites were carefully unrolled, their edges fastened over the strings forming the circumference of the kite form, and then they were gently raised against logs twice the height of telephone poles to support and display them until it was time to fly.

The excitement may have been above town where the big kites were flying but the real party was in the cemetery

Where families gather each November 1 to decorate the graves of their loved ones and celebrate in their presence. Halloween is not a thing in Central America, but All Souls Day is: Dia de las Muertas, the Day of the Dead. Thick beds of pine needles are laid down over the mounded graves (a sign of honor and welcome to the Mayans) marigold and rose petals and artfully arranged in colourful designs. Offerings of what the deceased most enjoyed in life are ceremonially arrayed: coffee, fruits, cigarettes, and liquor. Patriarchs swing incense boats over and between the plots while women unpack their rainbow bundles and lay picnics for their families. Balls are kicked in the walkways. Kites are flown by little boys balanced on the tops of mausoleums. Everywhere there is laughter and loud conversation.

“Here! Here! Look!” she shouted up at Tony, waving with one hand and pulling the shawl from her head with the other, “You can take my picture if you want!” She smoothed her hair, sat up very straight and smiled. “This is my father, he was 94, and below him, my mother. Over on that side, my brother, we are here with them today!” 

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The crowd squinted countless eyes into the afternoon sun as the biggest kites began to rise.

“Please, we beg you, make space! Down the center, please make space! These boys need room to haul the ropes and to run, these kites are hard to get into the air!” The announcer repeated.

In one enormous swoop kite after kite, each more impossible seeming than the last, leapt into the air, rising on the applause of the crowd as we all willed them into the blue. An 8 meter kite was the biggest one that truly flew this year, far up above the crowd, hovering between earth and heaven like the hearts of so many who were reaching for loved ones beyond.

“Only here, only in Sumpango, do we fly these kites! Only here because kite flying is in our hearts! We are mayan and we are fliers of kites. We fly the kites because it is in our hearts and the kites fly because we fly them with our hearts and from our hearts! Nowhere else can they do this.” 

I smiled as I watched the crowd: Old women with faded ribbons braided into their hair in traditional fashion. Men with children on their shoulders. Little girls with huge ears of elote and flecks of corn silk stuck to their noses. Sweating young men with gloved hands hauling ropes with every ounce of their strength and falling together in a heap when a rope occasionally snapped and one of the enormous birds drifted off over the mountainside.

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I couldn’t stop looking at the kites.

The great big, beautiful barriletes, symbols of all of the things this community holds dear: friends, family, tradition, history, culture, multi-generational heritage, art, industry, and the thread that connects us between life and death. The love, the patience, the dedication and creativity that went into these fleeting works of art overwhelms me. They are symbols of all that is beautiful in this world and how quickly it all passes away into the next; a string snaps and it’s gone, just like that. And what happens when the string snaps and the kite drifts free? The crowd gasps and then erupts into a raucous cheer, that’s as it should be, don’t you think?

I can’t stop thinking about them: They’re so much work, and they’re so heavy, it seems a miracle that they can fly.

  • The labour involved in making them spectacularly beautiful.
  • The herculean effort of assembling and raising them.
  • The sweat pouring from the faces of those pulling with their whole hearts to tease them away from the earth.
  • The cheers of those who can do nothing but watch and wait and encourage.

This is life, is it not?

Sometimes we are the artists, other times the hard labourer, other times, it’s simply our role to shout encouragement and cheer as loud as we can for the guy who’s in the fray. This is how all of life’s heavy things are lifted, borne through generations and eventually set adrift on the breezes of time as our life’s ultimate piece of art. None of us can do it alone. We need help to piece it together. We need others to pray for the wind and to hold back the rain on a cloudy afternoon by mental force alone. It’s the cheers of those who’ve come before and those who are hoping hard to follow us that fill our sails and keep us on the path.

The kites of Sumpango are many things, but to me, they are a reminder that expending great effort and expense on something that is beautiful, even if only for a moment, is worth it in this world. They are an example of what can be accomplished if we will pool our resources and work together. They are a reflection of the reality that sometimes we do our best and crash, splintering into a million pieces, but other times we soar, and the off chance of soaring is worth the risk of leaping into the void. They are evidence of the power of community and that the power of our hearts really can make things fly.