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.