By Luke Maguire Armstrong
Every year in Guatemala on November 1st, families flock to cemeteries to paint communal tombs and celebrate those who have passed on by releasing colossal kites into the sky.
“There’s been an accident,” a desperate woman’s voice returns to the loudspeaker. “Would emergency personnel please come to the main stage?” Following the format of her previous rants, she repeats herself in a progressively more panicked tone. “Would emergency personal please report to the main stage? This is serious. There has been a very serious accident!” Responding to her announcement are four firemen with unhurried smiles scampering through the crowd with a stretcher in their arms. I turn to a friend and bet him that another kite has crashed into someone.
Before the woman’s alarmed voice finishes, it is interrupted by the buoyantly deep voice of the gleeful announcer who introduces the next team of kite fliers.
I’m in Sumpango, Guatemala on November 1st, The Day of the Dead. All throughout Guatemala, families have flocked to cemeteries to make merry in the final resting ground of their ancestors. Amidst colorful celebrations, families paint above-ground tombs colors that will mark the shared graves of grandparents, uncles, aunts, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters for another year. They lay down pine needles, a symbol for welcoming, and decorate the tombs with figurines and flowers.
Though dating back centuries, today is the thirty-third consecutive year that this ancient ritual has been observed here. The Feria de Barrilete Gigante (Festival of Giant Kites) is celebrated in different ways throughout the country, but Sumpango and Santiago Sacatepequez are the two towns that have mega festivals to honor tradition.
© David Dean
Attending Against Odds
I’m here today against long odds: last night was Halloween, a holiday celebrated in excess by the unattached ex-pat community I am part of. Last night’s festivities left me in need of Gatorade, Tylenol and naps.
There are two different people who live inside me. One is an untamable ball of energy who wants to strike life in the jugular and shower in its vibrancy, while the other likes to take naps—long, restful naps. The latter plays snooze-button roulette and only leaves his bed out of necessity. In Paris it was he who drank green tea and journaled instead of going to an out-of-control EZ3KIEL concert that my Parisian host raved about.
He does feel guilty about hating fun, however. Often from his bed he hears some vibrant festival happening outside of his Jocotenango, Guatemala apartment, but instead of participating decides to drink tea, listen to Damien Rice and read emo poetry . . . He’s lame and in hindsight, I think I hate him.
But on the Day of the Dead, it was my good side, my Yang, the overly enthusiastic let’s-go-on-reckless-adventures side of me that dragged my uninspired Yin, Halloween-wrecked body from the wrack of the bright morning and forced my fingers to dial the number of one of my Guatemala friends, Loch. The previous night we had made hangover-permitting plans to drive to the kite festival. A half hour after the call he pulled up to my apartment with a tired, I-can’t-believe-you-dragged-me-out-of-my-bed look on his face. A fresh liter of Gallo beer sat dividing us in his car’s center counsel. “To help the hangover,” he said as we sped towards Sumpango.
Hangover Curing Kites
If there is a way to distract your body out of a hangover, Sumpango on November 1st is it. Lively locals, tourists, expats and volunteers crowd the festival grounds situated on a ridge overlooking the cemetery. Thousands have come to celebrate and send kites into the sky. In every direction, kites as large as youthful imaginations loom like giants around the field’s outskirts. Some reach sixteen meters across. Made meticulously months prior, the larger kites represent thousands of hours of work and a considerable financial investment. Each one uniquely depicts past and present Guatemalan cultural markers.
Amidst the diverse folklore surrounding the festival, one story with countless variations has it that that every first of November, evil spirits invaded the cemeteries to bother the good spirits who rested there. Finally the Sumpangueros (people from Sumpango) consulted the village elders who guided the community to release kites into the sky to block the evil spirits from bothering the good.
The Unconquerable Sky
November is kite month in Guatemala because the post rainy season temperature brings warm winds apt for launching kites weighing hundreds of pounds into the sky.
While smaller kites dot the blue sky in every direction, so far none of the giant, festival kites have reached it. One after another they have fallen into the crowd after promising starts. Most falling kites are destroyed upon impact, reducing months of work and thousands of dollars to a single moment of disappointed destruction.