GUATEMALA CITY – Belen Arroyo, 8, tosses a rainbow-striped kite over her head in hopes the slight breeze will be enough to give it flight. Instead, the plastic kite crashes to the ground as her older sister looks on, shaking her head.
“Here, let me try,” said Josselyn, 9, as she grabs the kite string from her sister’s hands.
“I’ll show you how to do it.” This time the kite soars high above the traffic on the busy downtown street in Guatemala’s capital city.
“Five quetzales,” the girls cry out to passersby who stopped to watch the kite. The sisters are helping their mother, who runs a booth selling Madonna and reggaeton CDs, sell kites in preparation for Dia de Todos los Santos, or All Saints Day, on Nov. 1. “We’re getting an early start,” said the girls’ mother, Feliciana Tax. “Right now there’s not much competition, but next week, everyone will be selling kites.”
Celebrated throughout Latin America, All Saints Day honors the dead. According to tradition, the flying of barriletes, or kites – a tradition unique to Guatemala – is a way to communicate with the souls of friends and family members who have died.
By Nov. 1, Tax said, she expects to be selling a hundred kites a day, many to tourists and Guatemalans who will head to the nearby towns of Santiago Sacatepéquez and Sumpango for the annual famed kite festivals.
More than 200,000 people turned out for the event last year.
“These aren’t just kites that will fly,” said Damian Gil of Sumpango. “They are so big, and so detailed, you can’t believe they are handmade.”
Made of fine paper and bamboo, the wingspan of these brightly colored exhibition kites can be more than 20 meters and they take 15 to 20 people to launch.
Groups of 25 or more kite makers start getting together two or three months before All Saints Day, working evenings after they finish their day jobs to create scenes of volcanoes, Guatemalan ruins, or the traditional indigenous patterns on the massive kites.
Some are lined with a special kind of paper that, when flown in the wind, makes a noise similar to that of a truck driving by – a noise that some say is meant to frighten away the evil spirits that leave their tombs on All Saints Day.
Carlos Xoquic, 23, has been crafting kites since he was 11. He and a group of about 30 who call themselves the “Happy Boys” started working in July to build this year’s kite, which will be18 meters high and 22 meters wide. They work every night from about 7 until 1 a.m.
“A lot of kites show the customs and traditions of indigenous people, but we’ve expanded this year and started experimenting with different themes,” Xoquic said.
“Ours focuses on the dignity of humankind: love, hope and light, which is the beginning of everything.”
The celebrations, which grow in size and extravagance each year, have become a mixture of indigenous traditions and Latino influence, said Guillermo Vasquez, anthropologist at the University of San Carlos in Guatemala City.
Flying the kites today is symbolic, a way to commemorate not only the dead but Guatemala’s history, he said, adding that he doesn’t know how many people actually still believe the kites are a way to reach the souls of the dead.
“It’s a tradition that has been passed down from generation to generation,” Vasquez said. “It’s a way to celebrate our culture, with flowers, food and kites.”
Besides kite flying, the day also is associated with platos tipicos, or traditional foods like fiambre, a medley of meats, spices and vegetables.
Julio Cardenas, a taxi driver in Guatemala City, said that every year he looks forward to eating the dish – something that has been made more difficult with the current food and economic crisis, he said.
“It’s expensive to make, so unfortunately people aren’t making it as much as they used to,” he said. “We’re slowly losing our traditions.”
Like many traditions, flying kites for All Saints Day has become commercialized, Vasquez said. Even the official Festival de Sumpango Web site features advertisements for Gallo beer and Pollo Campero restaurant.
And each of the country’s Saul E. Mendez stores for men’s suits display giant kites in their stores as a sales gimmick.
Gil, who attends the festival every year and in the past worked on some of the monstrous kites, said the commercialization doesn’t bother him.
“This is something that everyone, young and old, can enjoy,” he said, adding that in his town, children as young as 10 begin learning –whether in school or from a relative – how to craft the ornate kites. “It’s our way of showing all Guatemala has to offer.”
For Xoquic, making the kites is a “manifestation of who we are as an indigenous people,” he said. “And it’s fun.”
For more information about the Festival de Sumpango, go to www.festivalsumpango.com.