The truth is, we never really entered Sumpango, Sacatepequez. It was All Souls’ Day, November 1st, the day before the Day of the Dead, but we did not visit the cemetery. We stopped in the middle of the road and quickly hopped off our ride, a refurbished van that had probably been shipped to Guatemala from Korea. We exited as quickly as a group of twenty-one foreigners could and walked straight up the dirt path.
The Annual Sumpango Kite Festival takes place in a large, rectangular soccer field, enclosed on one side by a small slope and on the other by giant barriletes (kites). Vendors lined each opposite length of the rectangle. On the hilly side, families picnicked and waited for the show to start as their children flew tiny barriletes. The event’s host, a man with a low masculine voice, the type of voice that narrates documentaries and conjures up gentle authority from thin air, repeatedly asked some Carlos to come up to the stage and pick up a lost wallet. We don’t have your money, but we do have your documents.
Guatemalans celebrate All Souls’ Day and the Day of the Dead with food and barriletes. Fiambre, a salad of eggs and cold cuts, according to one Guatemalan guide, represents the mixing of European and indigenous cultures. Many stories explain why barriletes have come to be associated with the holiday yet, like with the origins of the Sumpango Kite Festival, they are not so clear…
Teams spend hours and hours finalizing their design. They meticulously bring the barriletes to life with papel de china (paper mache) and resistol (liquid glue). The Sumpango Kite Festival’s competition includes both a flight endurance category and a design category for display kites. The barriletes are not just beautiful; they feature motifs and messages full of political, environmental, and cultural significance for Sumpango’s largely Kaqchikel-Maya population.
Indigenous people make up about 40% of Guatemala’s population, but they have been widely discriminated against for centuries. For many indigenous communities, barriletes are more than pretty pieces of aerial art. The kites symbolize a connection between the living and the dead, between the earth and the sky. They are a way to remember the dead and honor them. Barriletes have also become an outlet for young indigenous people (that make up the kite teams) to express their grievances against a system that threatens their culture and values. Through these barriletes, they subtly voice their frustrations against a state and elite that have repeatedly violated them. Not even half a century ago, in yet another Cold War proxy war, the Guatemalan government unleashed waves of genocide against Mayan communities, claiming that they were defending democracy by eliminating foreign Communist influences. This was the Guatemalan Civil War (1960-1996), and the Reagan administration provided both aid and military training to the Guatemalan government.
At the festival, a giant barrilete shaped like a bird read “Mayan Descent, Sumpango Sac. Before and After of Life.” Another, a quetzal, the national animal as well as the name of Guatemala’s currency, was incorporated into the wing of this bird-shaped barrilete. The other wing featured polar bears and penguins standing on rapidly melting ice, a bright sun behind them and smiling skulls raining in the background. While most of the barriletes featured environmental themes or took pride in indigenous heritage, a few made implicit references to the Guatemalan genocide. In one, a village elder’s mouth was covered, but its accompanying message insisted that “they can not silence us.” In another, a small child was depicted as an angel. The message read: “Sumpango, Sac. In Memoriam… of the souls of my people taken by violence.”
At around 2:30 pm, our group reconvened. We had been split up into teams of three and given an hour to explore — precisely to avoid an incident like the one that had happened earlier in the town of Santiago when one of our members, distracted by the scent and sizzle of street tacos, caused a delay in the back of our line and half the group was lost for about an hour.
The host repeatedly asked the crowd to clear up space on the field to avoid any injuries. The first barrilete was up. Yet it was only in the sky for half a minute or so. We had huddled together, yearning to see the barrilete up close. Soon, we were trying to get as far away from it as possible… And it came crashing down on the neck of an unfortunate soul. The next kite had a softer landing.