Thursday, June 5, 2008

Monday, November 12, 2007


Check out my blog in Spanish at I would like to give a special thanks to Barriletes a Toda Costa for translating my blog and for posting the entries on their web-site. They are an awesome Argentine Kite organization based out of Buenos Aires. Check 'em out.


Sunday, November 4, 2007

Today I am sitting at my window on the afternoon after the Dia de los Difuntos. The sun is shining through, lighting up my desk. In less than one hour I am supposed to have lunch with Frederico. He invited me over to try Fiambre, the Guatemalan dish traditionally served on the Day of the Dead. It is a smorgasbord of seven different meats tossed together like a salad, with small bits of vegetables added for flavor. My friend Melanie, who has been subjected to fiambre on numerous occasions, thinks of it a kind of torture rather than a delicacy. I will soon find out.

As I walk over to Frederico’s house I think about all of the amazing things that happened over the past few days. Thursday was the Feria Internacional de los Barriletes. It was an all day event, and thousands of people came from all over Guatemala and all over the world. Dozens of kites were on display, giant ones and little ones. The moment that all of the barrileteros had anticipated for months had finally arrived. Yesterday they raised their kites up for the first time. It was a magnificent spectacle.

Until the morning of November first everyone had been working at a fevered pitch to finish their kite. Some groups had not slept for days. The night before last I spent with the Agurpación Barrileteros while they were putting on the finishing touches to their kite. It was amazing to see how far the group had come. Everyone was exhausted and there were circles in their eyes. However, the finished kite, filled with images of demons and angels, looked wonderful.

Another group, Los Happy Boys, (their name is in English, not Spanish) was especially far behind. Less than two days before the Feria they were only 80% finished, even though they had been working eight hours a day for all of October. The night of the Lunada—the moonlit night-- when all of the groups come together to build the support structures, Los Happy Boys were conspicuously absent.

Going without sleep is like a badge of honor for the barrileteros. It’s a sign of dedication, and these past few days everyone has had the strength of a war hero. During la noche de la lundada everyone stays up all night in preparation for the kite fair. It began back in 1999 when one group, El Gorrión Chupaflor, decided that they could save time on the day of the fair by setting everything up the night before. Soon all of the groups followed suit.

A lot of hard work must be done that night, but there is also a lot of revelry. Taco and beer stands lined the soccer field, and hordes of families came out to watch the barrileteros at work. The aroma of smoke and carne asada filled the air. The kites will be raised by pulleys attached to giant posts. Each post must be securely embedded into the ground in order to hold the weight of the kite. That means digging holes a meter and a half into the ground.

Once the poles are put firmly into place each group begins to assemble the kite frame. The bamboo is arranged one on top of the other to create the form a radiating star. Each piece of bamboo must be the same length and must be equidistant from every other piece. Sometimes two pieces of bamboo must be tied together using metal wire to obtain the right length. A cord is then wrapped around the edge of the bamboo to create the outline of the kite. In case of the Agrupación Barrileteros, whose kite is star shaped, they use guide wires to create the desired outline.

Around two thirty in the morning Agrupación Barrileteros finished assembling their kite frame. They pulled out a big pot of hot coffee and ate a warm bean soup with tortillas. Other groups were still hard at work. By the time I left there was still no sign of the Happy Boys. Their space was completely empty, which meant that they still had a long night ahead of them.

The morning of the fair I jumped into a taxi to take me to the soccer field because I was running late. However, the streets were so packed with cars and people that it took us fifteen minutes to drive two blocks. I hopped out of the cab and paid the driver. I figured that it I could get there faster by walking.

The streets leading up to the fair ground were lined with vendors of all sorts. There were people selling steaming tamales, roasted corn, colorful Mayan huipiles, and hand carved trinkets. There were masses of people in all directions. There were lots of brightly dressed Mayan women and men in cowboy hats. An estimated fifty thousand people came into town just to see the kites. Fortune smiled on Sumpango that day—the weather was close to perfect. There sun was out; there was a cool breeze and few clouds.

The Feria began around 10 in the morning with the judging of the infantile category. There were officially twelve groups registered in this category, but twenty five groups showed up that morning. I was asked to be a judge. In years past it was a requisite to find judges from outside of the town, because almost everyone in the town has a connection to one group or another. This year there is a mixture of judges from both outside of Sumpango and old barrileteros who have long since retired.

The judging was more difficult than I thought it would be. The kites are judged in four areas: color, design, theme and flight ability. Some of the children’s kites were very elementary, but others showed a high degree of artistry and technical sophistication. I was never certain if those kids had help from their parents or if they had picked up their skills from working with one of the older groups in the A or B category. Ultimately, I made my decision based on the artistic quality of the kite.

In the early afternoon the B category kites are judged and then flown; they are between 4 and 7 meters wide. This was the most exciting part of the festival. Many of these kites are stunningly beautiful and have just as much detail work—if not more—than the kites in the A category. I had interviewed with many of these groups prior to the fair and it was thrilling to see them fly their kites for the first time.

Flying these monster kites poses a real challenge to both the barrileteros and the festival organizers. The kites have to be flown in the middle of the football field and they need about seventy or eighty meters of running space. Crowd control is a perpetual problem. Thousands of people crowded around the barrileteros, scrambling to get a better view and end up obstructing the runway. What they did not realize, at first, was that the kites could come crashing down in an instant and can cause serious injury to anyone nearby. However, this lesson soon became readily apparent.

The first group to fly their kite lifted it up maybe thirty or forty feet into the air. But the wind was not strong enough and the kite floated back down to the ground. On their second attempt the kite got up higher but suddenly spiraled out of control and landed right in the middle of the crowd. Everyone scrambled for cover, and luckily it did not hit anyone. This happened again and again--one of the kites even knocked out a food stand. And yet the crowds kept edging forward. The temptation to take a picture was just too great, and the theme of the afternoon was ‘duck and cover’.

The winds were not very strong and most of the kites had a hard time flying. Only a handful successfully lifted them up into the air. One of those was Bernabé Herrera’s. According to Herrera, whose kite lifted up with ease, the trick to flying one of the giant kites is to make it lightweight with just the right tail length.

However, many groups sacrifice flying ability for artistry. They choose to use several layers of tissue paper in order to make the colors stand out, thus making the kite too heavy to fly. Herrera, also known as Chonpipe to his friends, only uses one layer of tissue paper.

As Herrera’s kite flew blissfully in the air I marveled at it its brilliant colors. As before, his kite lifted so swiftly that I hardly had time to aim my camera. It flew tranquilly for ten minutes before a strong wind blew it upward. Herrera’s kite leaped forward and suddenly ripped into pieces. It crashed dived, barely missing one the giant kites in the A category. It was a spectacular death.

By the late afternoon all of the kites in the B category had been flown. It was now time for the kites in the “A” category to be judged. By this time most of the kites had already been lifted up earlier in the morning. As they were lifted up, one by one, a huge crowd gathered, intently watching as the barrileteros attached the lienzo, the canvas, to the frame.

I watched as Agurpación Barrileteros carefully lifted up their frame and spread out the lienzo beneath. It took twenty people to lift up the kite. Cords are attached to the frame which are connected to pulleys. The lienzo was glued down and colorful strips of tissue paper were added the sides for decoration. The kite was carefully moved into place; if the placement was off the image might have been crooked. With one big pull the kite was lifted up.

Everyone cheered and clapped. The crowd gathered in to take pictures. It was a very emotional moment. It was the first time that the group had been given recognition and appreciation for the artistry. There was a palpable sense of relief and jubilation. I congratulated Victor, one of the coordinators of the group. He was serious, yet excited. He told me he thought they had good chance at wining a prize.

Unfortunately, the judging was stalled. Los Happy Boys had fallen behind and had still not lifted up their kite. Around three in the afternoon they were still assembling the frame. Their design was especially tricky. The group has a history for making abstract designs, and this year they decided to make a giant fifteen meter kite that would include three smaller 5 meter kites in one. However, with only eight people in the group it was a daunting task.

I decided to take a break from the fair visit the cemetery. When I walked inside the fevered energy of the fair quickly fell away. Even though it was right next to the football field, with all of the crowds and the noise, it was very tranquil. Families were gathered around brightly color tombstones, and the entire cemetery was awash in color. Marigolds and rose petals lined the graves alongside strips of colored tissue paper. People brought food and drinks for the dead, and little children were flying small kites.

As I watched them, I felt a quiet sense of peacefulness and bliss. In the cemetery the metaphor of kite flying as a connection between heaven and earth, the living and the dead, was very alive and present. This connection is at the heart of the giant kites. Even though the Fair is more secular than religious in nature, it is this connection to the past and to the ancestors which drives many of the barrileteros.

The night before, I attended a Mayan religious ceremony in the cemetery. There were two Mayan priests, or spiritual guides, who guided a small group of us in prayer. We gathered around a fire in middle of the cemetery. It was made of a special material that burned very slowly, and was surrounded by herbs and candles. A band of boys with guitars and flutes played traditional music in the background.

The guides stood close to the fire and prayed in Kachiquel, the regional Mayan dialect. I understood very little, but from what I gathered in Spanish they were making offerings to the spirits of the ancestors and to those who had recently passed away. After each prayer they would pick up a handful of seeds, herbs or cebo candles and throw them into the fire. We were each asked to pour aguardiente,a kind of brandy, into the fire in the sign of a cross. At the end of the ceremony the guides prayed that everything would go well and that there would be no accidents the next day.

In the Mayan calendar the day of the dead is not celebrated once a year, but once a month. Kame is the god of the dead and of the ancestors. On his day offerings are given in remembrance of those who have passed away. It is a day to give appreciation to the ancestors for giving us wisdom and to ask for their guidance in our daily lives.

Many aspects of Mayan culture were destroyed and gradually disappeared over three hundred years of colonial rule. Many other customs were eradicated by governmental oppression—the most recent being the civil war of the 1980’s, in which hundreds of thousands of Mayans villagers were murdered. In spite of this, many traditions survive out of sheer tenacity and reverence for ancestral ways.
The kite fair grew out of the Day of the Dead festivities and has since become a clear symbol for the vitality of Mayan culture in Sumpango and in all of Guatemala. It is no coincidence that this is one of the most important religious holidays in Guatemala, Mexico and across central America. It is just one example of the syncretism between Catholicism and Mayan religious beliefs. By worshiping the spirit of the dead, the Maya and other indigenous peoples are able to keep their culture alive.

As the sun began to set I left the cemetery and returned to the soccer field. The fair was coming to an end, while los Happy Boys were just about to raise their kite. A huge crowd was gathered around them to gawk at the spectacle. They were feverishly trying to finish. “Que triste,” murmured one woman behind me. The kite looked rather scrappy from behind: there were wires sticking out, some of the pieces of tissue paper were torn and covered in dirt. It looked as if the abstract idea of a kite within a kite was not so good after all.

The final pieces of bamboo were tied down and cords were attached. The massive kite was moved into place. All at once it was lifted into the air. The boys at the base of the kite pushed with all their weight to keep the legs from slipping. I rushed in to help. Suddenly everyone was clapping and cheering. The front of the kite was marvelous. It stood taller than any of the other kites and the effect of the multiple kites was stunning. Their design was among the best of any the groups. They depicted the three stages of life: birth, aging, and death.

Around six’ clock the fair came to an end. As the sky turned dark each group started taking down their kite. One by one they were gently lowered to the earth, to be folded up and taken home. The fair was a success. The evil spirits were most definitely frightened away and everyone went home to eat fiambre.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Yesterday I flew one on the giant kites for the first time. Señor Bernabé Herrerra called me up in the afternoon to invite me to a test run of his kite using the cola de caña, an old fashioned tail made of sugarcane reeds. When he was a child he used to make small kites using this special kind of tail. Now of days, most kids use cloth or simple paper tails for their kites, and the Giant kites are no different. A tail made from sugar cane takes longer to put together because each of the individual tail pieces has to be tied into place. For a Giant kite it is even more time consuming because the tail must be more than fifty feet long. Bernabe is one of the first people to revive the cola de caña tradition and to use it on one of the giant kites.

I paid a tuc tuc to drive me up to the soccer field. Clouds were gathering and it looked as if it were going to rain again. When I got there they had just started to assemble the kite. First, all of the bamboo polls is laid out on top of each other and loosely tied together. Then a string is wrapped around the edges, connecting all of the bamboo and forming the shape of a heptagon. Using a string as a reference guide, each of the bamboo polls are measured to make sure that one side is not longer than the other. Then the center is lashed together tightly. The frame is then lifted up and placed on top of a blue tarp to ensure that the tissue paper design won’t be damaged.

Carefully, the tissue paper is gently unfolded, facedown, under the kite. There is a circle of duct tape to mark the center, and the frame is carefully moved into place. Once the frame is exactly right, a short flap is cut on each side. The flap is then folded and glued over the string. This is the only thing that attaches the frame to the paper. A string is then tied and crisscrossed between the pieces of bamboo like a spider web. The web lends support to the paper so that it doesn’t bust with the force of the wind.

Once the design is attached, multicolor strips of tissue paper are glued onto the edges. They don’t seem to have any purpose other than to attract attention. The cord is pulled through a hole in the center of the kite and a knot is then tied around the bamboo. Four more holes are punched into the corners, two on the top and two on bottom. The bottom holes are used to attach the tail. The kite is then turned over and the cord is connected to the center and the top of the frame. The cord itself was bigger than my head.

All this time there was a throng of little boys huddled around the kite, enthralled. They helped unfurling the tissue paper and gluing the sides down. Once the cord was attached they picked it up carefully (all ten of them) and moved it into place by the side of the cliff. The cord was unraveled and stretched out half way down the field. All the boys rushed out to grab a spot on the cord.

Every one started running, and with one big pull, instead of lifting upward, the kite rolled along its side like quarter. The kids rushed back to the scene of the kite, and rolled it back into place. “¡Se necesita un poste!” somebody shouted from above. Normally, the kites are held in place by giant posts. Forging this, we wedged the kite between two big bushes. The kids all ran back to the cord.

I grabbed my camera, but before I could even turn it on, the kite was already up in the air, soaring fifty, sixty, a hundred feet high. The boys cheered and huddled around Denis, trying to grab hold of the cord. Denis had the cord wrapped backward around his waist so that he could use his body to bear the kite’s pull. The kids jumped up to grab the cord and the kite lunged to the side. “¡No lo hales! ¡No lo hales!” Denis shouted, trying to keep the kite from spinning downward. With only a small tug the kite lifted higher into the air. With a big tug it can spiral out of control.

For a moment the kite floated serenely in the air and then swung to one side. The kite flew, but the cola de caña tail was too short. This causes the kite to sway dramatically from side to side. The kite they are making this year will be even larger, and the tail will have to be extended by at least three meters.

I stood watching in amazement. Then I ran far away to try to photograph both the kite and the boys, but the kids ended up looking like ants in the distance. Señor Bernabé shouted for me to take a turn holding the kite. I ran forward. Denis handed me the cord and I could feel the kite suddenly lurch downward. I grabbed a hold with both hands and tried to pull it back. The kite surged upward again—a little too much. The cord felt like it was going to rip out of my hands—and it hurt. I thought it was going to lift me away.

Denis told me to hold the cord around my waist, which helped significantly. For a few minutes I stood there holding the kite by myself. It felt wonderful. There was a sublime synergy between me and the kite. It was so powerful; I could hardly believe that I was holding on to such a massive creature.

The kite lurched forward again and I could barely keep hold of the cord. Denis stepped in and grabbed it. All the kids got a chance to fly the kite—or rather, have the kite fly them. They did their best to keep hold, but when the kite pulled forward they were lifted up, feet dragging along the ground, like a puppy pulled on a leash.

I had an interview later that afternoon, so I packed away my camera and thanked Bernabé for letting me come. As I was walking away from the soccer field I saw the kite do a nose dive. Like a supreme diva falling back to earth, the kite crashed hard into the ground. Suddenly a million kids appeared out of nowhere and swarmed around the crash site of like a gang of Umpa-lumpas around Violet Beauregard. I took one last picture and walked down towards the cemetery.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Here are more pictures for your viewing pleasure. The top three are of the kids in Luis' art class. The next three are from the group Gorrion Chupaflor (the humming birds). They have a really cool technique of laying different colored paper to create a blending affect. The next three are of Bernabe Herrera and his son, Herbert, at their home. He has been making kites for over twenty five years. In one photo he is showing me how to attach a razon to the kite tail. When he was a child they used to play a game where they would attack the other persons kite and try to cut their string with the razon-tail. Now of days most kids no longer practice this tradition. Bernabe is an excellent kite maker and he has a reputation for always being able to fly his kite at the Fair.

The final pictures are taken from a procession that took place close to my apartment. I heard lots of trumpets trumpting and I went to the balcony to take a peek. I just saw the tail end of a crowd carrying statues adorned with flowers as it turned the corner. I snagged my camera and ran down the street to catch them. There were three big statues of different saints all covered in flowers. In front of them there were boys carrying banners and behind them there were men with trumpets. Unfortunately, my batteries died just as I got there. But I did manage to snag these two pictures.

This afternoon I am hunkered down at my computer wrapped in a blanket. It is pouring outside and my clothes are soaked from walking in the rain. The wet season lasts until the end of October, and these last few days have been very cold and rainy. When it rains the street in front of my house turns into a gurgling brown river, gushing down the hill. It is nearly impassable by car or foot. The intersections are especially tricky, and sometimes you have to jump from one side to the other and hope that you don’t get carried away.

Last weekend I walked up to the soccer field with Luis’s class to fly kites. Luis teaches several different classes at a local high school, including art (hence the kite project), sports, and Spanish. Wednesday was their last day of class, and for their final project everyone had to make a kite. When I got to the top of the hill there were some fifty-odd kids waiting on the bleachers with a plethora of multicolored kites. There was a big range of styles and varying degrees of craftsmanship. Unlike the strictly Mayan adornments seen on the giant kites, there was many a Tweedy-bird and several Pooh-bears. Some boys had Spider-man and others Guns n’ Roses.

The soccer field is the same field used to fly the giant kites. It is on top of a hill over looking the city and right next the cemetery. It is not very large, and as I stood watching the kids fly their miniature Pooh-bear kites, I had difficulty imagining how they can possibly fly the giants. Some of the boys had relatively large two-meter kites. Without success they tried to lift them up in the air. It took four of five boys to hold the string, all running like crazy to try to keep it afloat.

Soon the dark clouds gathering over head delivered their promised goods. Rain started pouring hard and everyone scrambled to get under the bleachers. It only lasted a short while, but it was enough to damage several of the kites whose struggling navigators couldn’t bring them in fast enough. Unfortunately, this is a very real threat for the giant kites as well. Some years all of the kites have been ruined by a sudden down pour. Months of hard work and many sleepless nights can be washed away in a matter of minutes. When this happens it is truly a crushing defeat for the barrileteros.

However, the threat of destruction is somehow part of the artwork. All of the barrileteros know that with even a small amount of rain all the intricate details and the precise color arrangements can be easily smeared. A large gust of wind at just the right moment while the kite is being lifted can rip it in two. They are artists working in the most delicate of mediums, and because they are making kites they have no choice but to expose their art to the wind.

There are less than seventeen days left before the Feria and the kite making is progressing forward with a hurry. This last Saturday I stayed up until three in the morning with the group Agrupación Barrileteros, helping them with their design. They are moving quickly along. When I first met with them two weeks ago they only had four of twelve sides completed, but now they have all but one side finished. I have been working with them more than any one else. Sometimes I will come to visit them after I’ve finished interviewing a different group. They are always glad to see me and welcome my help.

On Saturday they started drawing the central design onto manila paper. The manila paper is used as a base for the final drawing—its where mistakes can happen and be erased. First the sheets are taped together to create one enormous sheet. Then they are lined off to form a grid, which will help them to reproduce the small color drawing in large scale. The image will then be drawn square by square onto the manila sheet. In this case, there will be demons and angels surrounding a man born into misery. I got to help draw the face of a demon.

Once the drawing is sketched out each different section is labeled with a specific color. As with the sides, each small section of tissue paper will be traced, cut out and pasted double onto a transparent white sheet. The white sheet is placed on top of the manila paper, and the image is traced onto it. The image is finally pieced together using dozens of colors tissue paper.

Every team uses a different technique to make their kite as brilliant as possible. The group Gorrión Chupaflor (The Humming birds) have developed a way of blending multiple colors together as though they were painted on. When lighter colors are placed on top of darker colors, the darker ones show through when glued together. By using very thick splotches of glue they can create the effect of brushstrokes. There are over twenty-eight different colors of tissue paper sold in stores, but by blending the colors together they can create a much greater variety.

Around one in the morning the Barrileteros stopped for a break to drink hot chocolate and eat ham sandwiches smothered in mayonnaise. Everyone was tired but in good spirits, laughing and making jokes. Eduardo, the main coordinator for the group, asked everyone if they could pitch in twenty-five quetzales to pay for the playeras (the team t-shirts). Most people agreed, but a few people could not afford the cost (about three dollars) and shook their heads. A list was written down of who could contribute and how much. This is how most money finances are resolved, with the whole group, and people contribute what they can.

There is no government funding for the barrileteros. Each group shoulders the majority of the costs themselves. The Municipality, through the Comite, distributes a small amount of funds to each group depending on the size of the kite. A 13 meter kite might get Q 1,500 but this is a pittance compared to the estimated Q 44,000 to Q 60,000 spent on making just one kite. Everyone in the group is expected pitch in their part to cover this enormous cost—but this is no small feat. Many people in the group are students and depend on their families for their income. Others are working and perhaps can afford to contribute a little more, but few people make hefty paychecks. Victor, one of the barrileteros, works for the Municipality as a works project assistant. He makes Q 30 per day and Q 300 every two weeks. The little he makes goes to help his family pay the bills, and there is not much left for any thing else.

Most groups have said that the greatest difficulty in making the kites is paying for them. Some of the more established groups are able to buy the materials in bulk months before the kite making begins. However, because money is so tight most groups cannot afford this luxury. They buy the tissue paper and the glue piecemeal as needed. This way is more expensive and more risky, because toward the end of the month tissue paper is a scarce commodity.

On the day of the Fería prizes are handed out for the best design. There is also a prize for the best use of color, best use of traditional Mayan imagery and for flying capability. But the prizes are more symbolic than anything else. The winning team is awarded Q1,500, which is almost nothing compared to the time, effort and expense put into making the kite. Most of the barrileteros say what they do is a sacrifice to show people the beauty that exists Sumpango and Guatemala. They don’t earn any money from the kites. Their one moment of glory is to see the look on people’s faces as their kite is lifted up for the first time for everyone to see.

The Barriletes Gigantes are works of art with a life span: they are born, they live, fly, carry on, and die. Despite the love, hours of labor and money put into their creation, everyone knows that they will only live for one day. They are given one day of glory, to fly and to show to the world the beauty and culture of Sumpango. But they are not intended to live forever. Sometimes they are destroyed by wind and rain. Others die in a brilliant kamikaze dive-crash to the earth. Still others find gradual death in a truja, a dusty room used to store corn after the harvest. There they are stored and forgotten. Their radiant colors fade with time, and rats rip out holes in them to build their nests.

But for one day they live—all on their own. In my own art work I know that once the work is complete it is no longer mine. I can no longer claim hold to it, and if it is destroyed by the elements, then so be it. Perhaps the barrileteros feel a similar sensation when their kite is lifted into the air—that somehow it is turned into a living creature and they have to let it go.

Below is a song that happened to be playing as I was writing this entry. I think it is very fitting and so I leave it for you to read.

Soltarlo, dejarlo ir,
que vuele, que encuentre
su propia voz,
ya no me pertenece a mi.
Yo solo dejo a él.

Soltarlo al aire, dejar salir
del pecho este sentimiento,
que ni murió.
Yo ya vi mi sol nacer,
y vuelve a amanecer.

Volverá comenzar en la vida.
mirando un cielo azul,
con fue con mi poder,
con todo el corazón,
llevando este canción por la vida.