You may know it as the Day of the Dead in Mexico. In Guatemala November 1st is called All Saints Day. Families flock to cemeteries to decorate graves and visit their ancestors, but the wonderful surprise about this special day is the kites. Guatemaltecas create colorful kites, tiny and gigantic, artistic or whimsical or with socially conscious themes, and fly them high above the cemeteries to release the spirits in a joyous celebration.
The small town of Santiago Sacatepequez is known for its beautiful kites on this day. Sacatepequez is the name of an area, like a county. Many of the towns with saint names bear the name of the saint then the geographic area: the school where I taught from 2003 through 2006, on the outskirts of Guatemala City, was in Santa Catarina Pinula; the villages surrounding Lake Atitlan all end in Atitlan. During my years there, I visited the kites of Santiago twice.
The town is close to Antigua, less than an hour drive. At the turnoff from the main highway, buses released people who would walk the long winding road to the village. Riding with some friends, we drove in closer to town, found a dirt parking lot in a finca (farm) and walked the remaining mile or so to the cemetery, passing kite and craft vendors, aromatic food stands. One of my friends turned to me with a smile and said “There’s nowhere I’d rather be today than here doing this,” and I had to agree.
At the top of the hill, before the cemetery, festivities were already under way. Music and a loudspeaker drew us to a stage where the lovely reigning Señoritas of the nearby villages sat, surrounded by a backdrop of kites. A banner and a kite announced one hundred five years of this tradition in Santiago Sacatepequez.
A gigantic kite was under construction, with huge bamboo poles supporting a fifteen-meter frame.
We threaded our way through tight crowds at the cemetery entrance to see a panorama of kites, spectators and kite operators, amid vividly painted grave markers and memorial structures covered with fresh flowers.
I wandered the grounds visiting the elaborately designed kites before flight to admire their handiwork. Geometric patterns, religious icons, many topped with flags. Some bore slogans for social justice or political messages:
El hombre y la mujer tienen iquales oportunidades
Man and woman have equal opportunities
Conoscamos nuestra propia historia para luego conocer al resto del mundo
We must know our history in order to understand the rest of the world
Estamos heridos pero no de muerte
We are wounded, but not dead
Young and old men carried kites to high places in preparation for lifting them into the air, some standing on tall grave monuments, working ropes tied with rags trailing behind. Strolling through the cemetery was like crossing an obstacle course; I stepped with care to avoid taut ropes and running men who leaped over and tromped on burial mounds. Kites fluttered like so many exotic birds, their brilliant plumage looping and twisting above. Ancestral spirits, feeling light and appreciative, were surely soaring into the blue sky, floating upwards. Along one side stood several huge kites on display. Poles were used in the center for leverage to raise the big kites. It was quite a spectacle to see one go up!
Not long after noon a brisk wind swept through the cemetery giving a welcome lift to many of the airborne kites, but wreaking havoc with the gigantic kites. A collective sigh could be heard as the tall fragile structures sagged and left only the boney skeletons standing. This fleeting art form, as elaborate and labor intensive as the carpets of Semana Santa in Antigua that are crushed underfoot each day, was ripped and blown so soon after its creation. Soon after their demise we headed out, caught in a slow-moving claustrophobic crush of people in the streets.
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