Dedicated to commemorating deceased ancestors who are perceived as still active in daily life, the Day of the Dead or All Saints Day is celebrated across Latin America on November 1st . For centuries , rura l communities throughout the highlands of Guatemala have celebrated with festivals featuring kites that carry messages to ancestors. The largest of these kite festivals occur in two communities near Guatemala City, Santiago Sacatepequez and Sumpango.
While smaller kites are flown throughout the day, the largest are exhibition kites, eight to twelve meters in diameter, that do not fly (Fig. 1). These barriletes gigantes provide a focal point for the festivities, and their imagery conveys political and moral impetuses for their production each year. As I was able to document the kites at Santiago Sacatepequez in 2008 through support from the Drachen Foundation, my discussion will focus primarily on this community. Following a general introduction to the social context and over arching characteristics of these kite festivals, I will investigate all seven 2008 exhibition kites at Santiago Sacatepequez, and attempt to discern what they might signify in contemporary Maya society.
The Guatemalan highlands are heavily implicated in the country’s colonial history. While indigenous people always inhabited the area, today the highlands are home to an especially concentrated Maya population. It is within this social context that the barriletes gigantes are newly created each year by teams of young Maya men in local churches and community centers (Fig. 2). Women are normally responsible for making wreaths and flower arrangements for sale on the Day of the Dead, although all-women kite teams at Sumpango have been constituted sporadically. Each team is named, consists of approximately ten to fifteen members, and exhibits from year to year in their local fest ival . In addition, families and unestablished teams produce smaller kites, 4-6 meters in diameter, whose designs are highly heterogeneous ; at Sant iago Sacatepequez (hereafter referred to as Santiago) they may be purely geometric, feature a corporate logo, a figural design, or s imply declare the team name . Nevertheless, community rules require that all kite designs be made entirely of cut tissue paper. After gaining community approval for the design, a team member designated as the artist draws only the outline on a paper base, which is reinforced with tape. Designs are traced, cut into varied shapes in appropriate colors of tissue paper, and then glued to the kite using starch adhesive. Cutting tissue paper in graduated colors for naturalistic modeling becomes intricate, expensive, and timeconsuming, requiring months of work.