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.

1 comment:

Miracle said...

Chris!! It is so good to see your digital face! I can't wait to read all of your posts and check out your pictures some more. Now I know that you have internet, and we can be in touch. :) Qué te sigas disfrutandote con todo!

Calusy (besos) --Sarah