Every November 1st, like in the Philippines, Guatemala celebrates as well El Dia de los Difuntos or the “Day of the Dead”, it is the day wherein people honor the departed. It is a common practice among Guatemalans to visit family graves and decorate them with flowers & candles. In addition, it is the time of the year wherein it is customary for Guatemalans to eat “fiambre” (a cold meat and vegetable dish). Furthermore, this is a very special occasion especially in the predominantly Kakchiquel town of Santiago, Sacatepéquez where they celebrate a particular Guatemalan tradition called the Giant Kites Festival. Because of this tradition, Santiago, Sacatepéquez located about 20 kilometers from Antigua, the provincial capital Sacatepéquez, is called Cuna de Barriletes Gigantes or the “Cradle of Giant Kites”. This tradition of at least 110 years old of flying colorful and picturesque kites on the Day of the Dead derived from various religious practices, including Christianity, and locals believe it’s a way to communicate with the dead.
On the day of the festival, the giant kites are brought to the cemetery in the morning; however, people will not fly them to the skies until dusk and only once done tending the graves and enjoyed a sumptuous meal. These giant kites or “barriletes gigantes” in Spanish are work of art that takes a lot of time, skill and tremendous amount of patience to finish. Back in the days it was mainly a men’s work but now women help in the intricate design of kites. Preparation of the kites begins five weeks before November 1st, when male youth gathers around to collect bamboo to be used as the frame of the kite. All kite materials are natural, such as:
- Frame of the kite made of bamboo.
- The glue made from yucca flour mixed with lemon peel and water.
- Ropes of the kite string made out of maguey ( a plant from which tequila is extracted).
- Kite tail is made of woven cloth (the place where people attach their hand-written messages to the spirit).
- Woven stalks of castilla ( a plant like wheat).
The youth waits for the strong autumn winds to raise their kites to the skies, summoning the traveling spirits until 4:00 p.m., once the kites are lowered, people will go back home and await the arrival of the soul. Some may set up an altar and lit candles in honor of their deceased family members and friends.
Early in the morning around 4:00 a.m. of the following day, November 2nd, there will be a procession heading the cemetery with candles. The townspeople raise the giant kites for the last time to lead the spirits back to heaven. Afterwards, in the evening, kites torn by the wind are burned inside the cemetery; they believe that the smoke is guiding vagabond spirits to the skies. The surviving kites are shown in the local Catholic Church during a novena for all the deceased and after are burned and buried in the cemetery, and this completes the ritual for the Day of the Dead.
Mainly the Giant Kites of Sacatepéquez is about honoring and remembering the dead, but locals also consider this tradition to compete to who has the most beautiful & best designed kite and which of them flies it most. The Giant Kites of Sacatepéquez: tradition and arts combined into one as part of Guatemalan culture.