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.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Today I walked past a funeral on the way to breakfast. There was a long procession of people marching down the hill carrying a bright silver coffin. There were trumpets playing very loudly, and as they got closer to me I could see that the men and women formed two parallel lines along the street. There were mostly old people. The women were wearing very elegant huipiles and had colorful ribbons woven into their hair like flowers. I stopped at the corner store to watch them pass by. It made me think of Mark.

It has now been almost a year since his death. Standing on the corner I remembered vividly the procession of people walking from their cars to the grave-site, with Mrs. Treviño leading the bunch, all dressed in black. I remembered the feel of the cold urn with Mark’s ashes inside. I remembered the way that people touched it, as if they were touching him. At lunch I told Doña Eframín that in San Antonio we have processions too, only with cars instead of people. But, I said, I thought it was much more powerful to see the old men carrying the casket down the street. She agreed: “Es como que no quieren tocarlo.” It made me think about what it means to carry someone physically in your hands-- in life and in death.

People carry many things here in Sumpango. In the streets you see many women balancing huge baskets on their heads. Some wear shoes, but most of the old women walk barefoot along the cobblestone streets— their feet like smooth stones. Despite the hills and the pebbles they walk very gracefully and slow, carrying their heavy cargo through the chaotic streets. Everyone walks in the street here. The cars, the people, the dogs and the horses are all jumbled together in the middle of the road. There are little tuc tucs--Japanese sized mini-vans-- that regularly blare their horns to alert unknowing pedestrians of their arrival. There are kids on bikes and truck loads of people being carted away to the fields or to work in the fabricas in Guatemala (city).

People here work very hard. I see many men going off to work in the fields carrying shovels and machetes. Every day I see big trucks go by packed high with cows, men, and corn. On every corner there are stands of little women selling helotes, large ears of roasted corn. In the large central plaza there is a large pool divided in stalls for washing clothes. The women go their and grind their clothes against rough stones, like I imagine most people did long before there were washing machines. From my roof I can spy into people’s yards, and I see many people hanging up laundry or chopping wood.

Today I am resting in my apartment. I can hear the loud sound of chanting and clapping coming from the building next door. There is an evangelical church there, and every night you can hear them yelling in prayer. There are many evangelical churches here, and often when I am walking to the house of Don Efraím I pass by their open doors with blaring guitar music shaking the walls. Many people go to mass after work, to pray and sing loudly.

I wonder if these churches are the result of the Summer Institute of Linguistics, the American evangelical group which has worked tirelessly to eradicate Mayan religious beliefs over the last three decades. This is a common theme among many indigenous people. Well funded American evangelicals infiltrate isolated communities by providing schooling, language instruction and health care. In return the youth are indoctrinated into believing that their traditional beliefs are demonic and shameful. It’s the same imperialist story, only with a distinctly American bent.

The evangelicals make me think of Mark too. “All those crazies,” he would mutter as we passed the Black Baptist churches in Brooklyn. But perhaps these people here need that kind of release—the kind you get from singing until your lungs hurt. Maybe they need a break from carrying those heavy baskets on their heads, and the babies wrapped in back-shawls, and from working out in the field all day.

When I was alone in Buenos Aires, after I had found out that Mark was very sick, I sat and meditated for a very long time. I imagined that I could breath in his pain, and that with every breadth I could ease his suffering. Sometimes I would imagine that I was holding him in my arms. Afterward, I would go out onto the balcony and sing. I sang into the wind as loud as I could, and I didn’t care who heard me. It felt good to sing. I knew that if I sang with all my heart that Mark would here me, and somehow I could hold him with my words.


My focus these last few days has been on the kites. At first I thought that I would be loafing about during the day while I waited for the kite-making to begin at night. However, it turns out that there is a lot more work to do than I expected. Every night I have been interviewing different groups. They are all at different stages of development. One group has been working since July. So far, it’s taken them a month to finish four sides and they still have twelve left to go, not including the central design. They have one month to finish.

People have been very eager to give me interviews, and once I started asking a few questions people really opened up. They have all kinds of stories about the making of the kites and about why it’s so important for them. Most of these guys take a fierce pride in their work. I now have a few hours of interviews that I have to transcribe and translate. That has taken up most of my time during the day.

The first group I met with is called Groupación Barrileteros. Frederico took me to meet with them on Wednesday at the Casa de la Cultura. Most of the boys range in age between fourteen and twenty-five. Some have been making kites for over sixteen years and others only one are two. They are apart of Categoria “A” because they are making a kite 13 meters wide. Their design is very intricate and reflects the traditional design of the huiples worn by Mayan women.

Only being down here have I realized what a tedious and time consuming process it takes to build one of these enormous things. The barrileteros are working every night of the week except Sundays, and on Friday and Saturday nights they work until the morning. Every minute shape and line is cut out of tissue paper. Nothing is painted on or outlined in marker.

Most people I’ve interviewed said that the reason they love making kites is because they get to spend time with their friends and because of the feeling of pride they get at seeing the kite lifted up for the first time. The work is tedious—very tedious. I got the chance to help them a couple of nights pasting and gluing. It’s not very difficult, but it requires a lot of patience and organization to reassemble the hundreds of pre-cut pieces that make up just one section. Paste and glue, paste and glue—double—because every piece has to be layered at least twice.

However, it’s not boring, and the guys have a fun time fragando, cutting loose and telling dirty jokes. Every night is about guy bonding. Already, I’ve learned all the Guatemalan swear words. It took the guys a little while to warm up to me, but after the second night they invited me over for beer and chips in my honor. They made me feel like I was a part of the familia. That’s what’s really special about the Barriletero groups: they are open to everyone* . For these guys the group becomes like a second family. They learn from each other, and they learn how to be a team.

*They are open to everyone if you are a boy. If you are a girl it´s a different story. There have been groups of women in the past, but there are none this year. I plan to write more about this in the future.

Friday, October 5, 2007

These are pictures of Sumpango. The first six are of the town and of my apartment. The next few are of the art class that I did with the kids at Luis´school. The bottom ones are of me working on the kites with Grupación Barrileteros-- a really awesome group of guys. I´ll write more about them later. Unfortuantely, I can´t publish any pictures of the designs until the festival is over. The design has to be kept top seceret until the day of the festival. I´m doing well adjusting to small town life; its actually very pleasant.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Tonight is my last night in Antigua. I am sitting outside of my hotel room in the small juggle-like patio. There is a girl talking to her enamorado on the phone up on the roof terrace. Every sentence begins with “Ay mi amor” or “Claro mi amor”. I moved out onto the patio below and turned on the light in the hope that she would move somewhere else.

It is cool and misty outside. This little hotel is a big change from the Candelaria. My room is tiny. The sheets are very rough and scratchy, and the pillows are lumpy. Last night I had a hard time falling to sleep. However, my room over looks a very nice patio and there are plenty of quiet places to sit. There is a roof top terrace and last night I had it all to myself.

In fact, something really beautiful happened last night. I was sitting alone on the roof writing out a questionario and a reseña de mi trabajo for people to read. It was pitch black outside, but I could just barely see the silhouette of the mountains surrounding Antigua. Everything was very quiet. At one point I looked up and I noticed a light cloud over one of the mountain tops. It got brighter and brighter until, very subtly, the celestial face of the moon appeared. It hung there, bright and beaming, as if it had performed some magical play just for me...

Today I went to go visit my room in Sumpango. It is in a dusty unfinished building about 10 blocks from the town square. There isn’t any furniture in it yet, but they will bring in a bed and a night stand tomorrow. It’s on the second floor and there is small bathroom down below. There is an internet cafe on the next block, which will come in handy.

I am a little nervous about moving. I’ve never lived in a little rural town before, and I am going to be the only foreigner there. Also, I don’t really know what I am going to do during the day. Most of the kite-making activities happen at night. The boys get together after school or work starting about 8 and stay up until 1 or 2. Frederico wants me to help in building one—which I would love to do. They work everyday except Sundays.

One possible day-time activity is teaching art classes. This Thursday I am going to do an art activity with the kids at Luis’ school. I’ve decided that we are going to make cities out of card board and rubbish, and afterwards we can destroy them!! It’s a chance for me to relive my childhood a bit.

Argh...I can’t think anymore. Goodnight.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

My brain is a little bit fried right now after talking with Melanie on the phone, my former T.A. who is here in Guatemala writing her dissertation. The woman knows everything there is to know about Guatemalan politics. She talked and talked, and as she talked she made me realize how much of a beginner I am. I don´t know if I have the depth of background knowledge necessary to put this kite festival into its proper cultural context. I feel like I am just scratching the surface of a very deep and bloody history. She told me that Guatemala is a very visceral experience. Something about it gets into you, and you can stop thinking about it, and you can´t stop thinking about blood.

Today was long but very productive. I now have good standing with Frederico and Luis thanks to the Drachen Foundation. They were very helpful and eager to work with me on this project. It is very reassuring to know that I am not simply walking into this as a complete outsider. The town is not as small as I imagined. There are over thirty thousand people there, which means that it isn’t entirely a cow town—although I discovered that they don’t have any restaurants. The buildings are in varying stages of development; i.e. some are beautifully painted and modern looking, while most have exposed cinderblock walls and jagged rebar sticking out of the roof. Everyone knows everyone here.

Finding out the history of the Kite festival is going to be tricky. It seems that neither Frederico or Luis know the origins of the kites. However, they did lead me to some interesting hypotheses. Theory 1: the kites are Aztec. Evidence: the name Sumpango is a transliterated word for Tzompantli, the Aztec name for sacrificial skull racks. Supposedly, there is reference in the Dresden codex to a special kind of weather device made of the leave of papalot trees and used to determine wind patterns. It is most likely some kind of kite, which would explain the Mexican word for kite, papalote. The Aztecs might have also used kites as part of their religious rituals. The town of Sumpango existed before the Spanish conquest and it is possible that the town was a far flung post of the Aztec empire, which would explain the name and the religious importance of the kites.

Theory 2: the kites were introduced by Spanish priests in an attempt to convert Mayan children. That is about all there is to this theory, but it is entirely probable. The Franciscans employed all kinds of overt and covert ploys to convert the Indians.

This at least is a good starting point. I am going to meet with them again on Tuesday to create a plan of action and to set up a schedule for interviews.

The hotel I am in is really lovely. They lights candles every night in the hallways; it fits the name--Candelaria. I will be sad to leave here because everyone is so friendly, and because it is very luxurious. I didn’t expect to be quite so pampered. Oh well, it was nice while it lasted. Tomorrow I am off to find a good el-cheepo hotel. Wish me luck.