The Giant Kites of Guatemala: ‘Stained Glass Windows in the Sky’

Authors: 
Ali Fujino
Authors: 
Ben Ruhe
Article type: 
Journal

The giant kites of Guatemala——barriletes gigantes, as they are called in Spanish—are amazing when viewed either in flight or up close. Up to 40 feet across, the circular kites are flown on the Day of the Dead—the lst of November—in just two Mayan Indian villages near the capital, Guatemala City. Why there and nowhere else, no one is able to say, since credible historical documentation is in short supply, although this ritual kite flying is clearly a very old tradition. The kites honor the deceased, their flight expressing affection, respect, awe; the annual rite also counteracts evil spirits that may be hovering in the sky. Via low key images and messages on the sails, the kites express the makers’ pride in their Mayan Indian heritage. This is a matter of political consequence in a country long wracked by an ethnic civil war, but now, finally, peaceful again, and full of smiles for visitors.

Because they are made of tissue paper in rainbow colors, the kites when flown with the sun shining through them glow and sparkle. Their ruffles twirl and their hummers sound. They are lively “stained glass windows in the sky,” as has been remarked of them, a kind of aerial Chartres. To view these kites being flown by enthusiastic young Indians is a delightful experience for anyone; for the kite lover, it is a spiritual revelation, a profound look at the real message of kites and kiting—innocence, freedom, the fragile connection between heaven and earth. It is a moment in time to be remembered and treasured, an epiphany.

By a lucky stroke of fate, the authors, visiting Guatemala to view the annual Dia de los Difuntos fly, meet one of the leading authorities on the monster kites on their very first day in Guatemala. The chance event occurs in the San Marcos University Museum in Guatemala City when Fujino fortuitously spots a drawing of a kite on a bulletin board. As she reads the attached writing (she is fluent in Spanish after a stint with the Peace Corps in Honduras), a museum assistant approaches Ruhe and volunteers guide service. When the aide learns the two of us are in Guatemala for kites, she wordlessly leads us down the hall to a classroom where, amazingly, a workshop in the making of the traditional circular Indian kites, in miniature versions, is being held. The class is breaking up. The teacher is Cristobal Federico Carranza Sosa, director for 12 years of the kite fair at San Agustin Sumpango, one of the two villages where the giant kites are flown. The other village is quite near Sumpango and is euphoniously named Santiago Sacatepequez. Perfect!

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