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Monday, 30 April 2012

Sumpango Festival, Guatemala

In the ‘Western’ developed world I think we’d all agree that memorials for our departed beloved are scarcely an annual event. When they do come about, they tend to be quite low key, somber affairs. You will experience quite the opposite, should you find yourself in Guatemala, Mexico or a handful of other Latin American countries on November the 1st. Think bustling, colorful and warm. Throw in some indigenous artistic masterpieces and a lot of spirit. This is ‘Dia de los Muertos’, in English ‘Day of the Dead’. Ancient indigenous peoples such as the Incas, Mayans and Aztecs in Latin America each used to perform different rituals to honor the dead. Following the influence of Catholic All Saints Day, brought to the region by the Spanish and Portuguese conquistadores, these traditions developed into the modern day Dia de los Muertos.

Common to the festive day in several countries, families congregate in cemeteries and adorn their loved ones’ graves with food and flowers, particularly Marigolds.

What happens in Guatemala on Dia de los Muertos is unique and nothing short of spectacular. One of the largest and most popular festivals in the country is hosted in Sumpango in the state of Sacatepequez. Ample public transport is available to and from the event, about an hour by bus from Antigua or half an hour from Guatemala City.

Months of preparation go into making the stars of the festival; the ‘barriletes gigantes’ (giant kites), all for the glory of one day where they will be displayed and flown in front of the huge crowd. They are a labor of love; made from an infinite number of cuttings of tissue paper, creating dazzling shapes and figures reflecting culture, vibrancy and meaning. Many kites are designed with messages to honor the deceased and they vary from small (under 3 meters!) to absolutely gigantic, 12 meters plus in diameter. The craft and structure that goes into setting up the giant kites is phenomenal and a true vision of teamwork. Bamboo sticks tied in a star fashion, line the back of the delicately made kites to provide structure and stability while on display.

Upon entering the ‘campo’ there is quite a clear setup; benches in the stand to the left, kites being arranged, admired, tied and hoisted up to a standing position to the right. The vast majority of the crowd is native, quite a refreshing sight if you’ve just arrived from tourist-saturated Antigua. Children and mothers with babies on their backs, in glorious multi-colored traditional Mayan fabrics chatter and mingle as the men work on the kites. Though the local food and drink stands line only two edges of the field, the smell of sizzling chilies, onions and meat is enough to magnetize people from all over. The clapping sound of women flattening corn tortillas is a welcome sound to my ears that lets me know something tasty is on its way. The mobile ice cream man, popcorn man and everything-else man are of course dotted around and will approach you at some point, wherever you may be!

You can take your time to get up close to the kites. It is the best way to witness all the care and creativity that goes into making them. Read the messages, see how they have
chosen to pay tribute to the spirits of the dead. I loved watching the teams carefully erect the kites, rising to heights taller than all the men put together. In the midst of all the preparation, children with smaller kites run across the field hoping to catch the wind and connect with souls in the heavens.

In the main show, starting with the small kites, the crowd awaits anxiously to see them fly. Steady hums of cheer from the audience fill the silence as hopefuls are given three attempts to get their kite soaring. The ambience is thrilling, especially as the kites get larger and heavier. Many of the giant kites are made for the design competition rather than for flying, that is if they survive the forces of Mother Nature throughout the evening.

The other tradition that differentiates the Guatemalan celebration from any other is the dish ‘Fiambre’. The belief is that we must keep the dead satisfied. Family devotion is sustained in the form of cooking Fiambre, a cold salad combining many ingredients of their choice and leaving it by the loved one’s grave. Originally they used the relative’s favorite foods but common ones are maize corn, eggs and cold meats. Tread carefully if you visit the cemetery, which is a short but stimulating walk from the kite field. After you turn the first corner, immediately space is at a premium down the narrow cobbled streets. Lined with market stalls, the pace slows down but this allows you to marvel at the trinkets, the fabrics and the distinctive handmade jewelry on offer. If spending more money doesn’t interest you, the sound of the sellers’ cries or the rugged but also quite angelic busking music will. I’m pretty sure the acoustic guitar duo that I heard were just jamming in their front yard, to the visitors’ content.

In the cemetery some graves are small yet colorful, while others are embellished to the point of resembling small houses with larger crosses, more flowers and even patio features. Families bring feasts and spend the day picnic-style celebrating the lives of the dead together.

The festival has a positive atmosphere and is carnival-esque at times, nonetheless it’s still a sensitive occasion. It is a day for the locals (and thankfully hasn't been developed into a tourist trap!); one that is a very important part of their religion and ancient tradition. It will certainly enrich anyone’s visit should they have the chance to witness it.

©Sophia Efthymiou

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