Interview with Barriletero Julio Roberto Asturias Chiquitó
The celebration of All Saints’ Day on November 1st in the Kaqchikel Maya villages of Sumpango and Santiago Sacatepéquez is unique in Latin America. Their tradition includes the making of giant kites constructed entirely of bamboo and tissue paper and covered in images. Julio Asturias has been a barriletero (kite maker) in Sumpango for eighteen years. Julio is a schoolteacher who also teaches kite making in schools around Sacatepéquez. He has family in Sumpango and he travels to promote and exhibit giant kites inside of Guatemala and internationally.
You were born in Sumpango. What is your personal history with the kites?
When I was nine, I made my first kite, a small kite at school. We didn’t have the materials so we used newspaper. My uncles and my grandfather were barrileteros who worked with the giant kites. My grandfather worked in Guatemala City and I remember him bringing home packets of colored tissue paper, papel de china, which we use to make the giant kites.
I was invited to join the group Happy Boys when I was sixteen. They are known for having many artists and for being innovative. Members of the group came to my house to find me and ask if I would like to join their group. Many times the groups invite children to learn and to join them. Sometimes the children themselves ask to join the groups.
Every group is organized differently. In Happy Boys we pay careful attention to detail; this is a rule of our group. If we make a face, we make it realistic; if we’re making a figure wearing traje típico, we reproduce the actual design of the huipil in the tissue paper. When we portray a Guatemalan landscape, we make it as realistic as possible so that the people who see the kites can imagine the place which looks like what they are seeing. Sometimes we have to cut the paper in 5-millimeter or 3-millimeter sizes. When I joined Happy Boys in 1994, they were already designing shapes outside of the traditional octagon – they were the first group to do this.
Making kites as large as 20 meters with such intricate designs with tissue paper is an enormous undertaking. How are the groups organized? What is the first job for a new barrileteros? The first task you do in the group is to cut the paper. It’s the lowest level job: where you have to start and where you begin learning. After two or three years, you begin learning how to put the different pieces together to make figures or animals.
Some groups have one designer, an artist who draws the kite; others design the kite together. The jobs depend on the skills and abilities of the person. Maybe the person can draw part of the design or even the whole design of the kite. Or perhaps he can combine the colors – there are people very skillful at that. Also the colors change with the sunlight and during different times of the day, so the person must consider that. Then there are the coordinators who put the kite together and oversee the work on different parts of the kites – they must have eight to ten years of experience with the kites.
How many hours do the barrileteros spend working on their kites for the festival?
It’s better to count the time in months than in hours. We begin constructing the kites in July and finish on the day of the festival, November 1st.
During the week, Monday through Friday nights, we start at seven at night and work until one or two in the morning. On the weekends we begin at two in the afternoon on Saturday and work until noon on Sunday, throughout the night. Most of the kite makers are not married; they’re students and workers of all types, for example accountants, factory workers, lawyers, carpenters, electricians and farmers. So one big part of working with the kites is living this life and experiencing what it is to make a kite day by day. You form relationships with the people in your group and the barrileteros in other groups. On the weekends the group members share food and time together as well as work.
How many people in Sumpango participate in making kites?
Between 75 to 80 groups, about 600 barrileteros, participate in making kites for the festival. Apart from the festival, the majority of the people in Sumpango prepare kites for Día de Todos los Santos (All Saints’ Day). Many people here don’t go to the festival because it is very crowded, so they prefer to stay home with their families and fly their kites at home or in the cemetery.
Thousands of people come to Sumpango for the festival on November 1st. How has tourism affected the celebration of All Saints’ Day and the spiritual meaning of the kites in Sumpango?
Before the festivals, the kites were our tradition, a tradition from those before us. But over the years, with the growth of the festival, we adopted another meaning, a social and cultural meaning, which addresses the social problems we have in our village, in our country and in the world, with issues like ecology and discrimination. So our way is changing to have more social messages which others can see, and our culture is carried within the kites. By exhibiting our kites, we’re trying to bring a message of peace to the world which is much needed. And we imagine that in fifty years our kids are going to be here making kites with different messages, but always with the same goal: taking the message to other people.
The kites from the Happy Boys have been exhibited both within Guatemala and internationally. Tell us about this.
In the cases where we’ve traveled with the kites – Colombia was the first country to invite us to their festival in 1999, then France and the United States, and now to Singapore – the countries have invited us to exhibit the kites and also I will teach workshops there. We have also shipped the kites to twenty-five or thirty other countries that wanted to exhibit them, including Italy, Spain and Germany.
How have people reacted to the kites in these international exhibitions?
When I traveled to France with the kites in 2010, the people were very appreciative and excited because they use technology and synthetic materials like Kevlar for their kites. They couldn’t imagine that simple paper could resist 200-300 meters of air pressure. When our kite landed they ran to it to touch it and to see it more closely. They thought the kite was painted but when they touched it and looked closely, they saw that the kite is like a giant puzzle made of paper. They became very interested in Guatemala and in visiting here. Before, many of them didn’t know where Guatemala was.
In your workshop on kite making, you said that the traditional eight-sided Guatemalan kites made for All Saints’ Day had a spiritual significance. Can you talk about this?
Oral tradition tells us that los flecos, the fringe or cut papers attached to the outer four sides of the traditional octagonal kite, make a sound when they are rustled by the wind. This sound keeps the bad spirits away from the cemetery.
Are messages to the ancestors a part of this tradition?
Yes, my uncles and other older people call them telegramas. You write a phrase for someone who has died on a piece of paper. Then you make a hole in the paper and put it on the string of the kite. The message moves up the string with the wind. When it touches the kite, it’s been received by the spirit to whom it was sent. After the message is received the string of the kite was cut so the message would go to eternity. If a child has more kites, he will cut the string when his message is received. But if the child only has one kite, he will put the message aside and fly the kite again.
The themes and the designs of the kites change every year. Do you think that 2012, the end and beginning of the Maya epochs, will be an important theme in the kites this year?
I can’t tell you. The group members do not talk about the theme or designs of their kites. We do not know what the other groups are making. In some groups, most of the members themselves don’t know the theme of their kite or see its entire design until November 1st.
If you’re with two friends who belong to different kite groups, the topic of the kites is not brought up. You can talk about other things, but you don’t talk about the kites or their design. The older members of the group teach this to the little ones. All the members of the groups in Sumpango agree to this secrecy. In all other ways, we work in solidarity with the other groups. If one group needs a color of paper, for example, we use trueque, the exchange system used by the Mayas, to trade colors. If a group needs money for materials, but doesn’t have it, they go to another group for help. We work together to cut the bamboo and get it from the coast. We share, but we never talk about our designs.
Why do you keep making kites? It takes enormous time and effort and also the barrileteros have to contribute money for the materials.When the event is finished you don’t want to think about kites any more. You want to take a rest because your knees and your elbows hurt from working on the floor; your shoulders hurt from carrying the bamboo and putting up the kite; your hands hurt from cutting the paper; you are very tired. So you rest for one month. And then work begins again on the design for the next year.
Making kites is a tradition which makes you use your creativity. What you have left after doing the kite is the satisfaction of being able to express your ideas or what you feel. It is not about material reward. It is having the opportunity to experience how you feel on that one day when you finally see the completed kite. And many other people are seeing it too. You feel like an artist, like a painter who has finished a painting and then shows it to the public. You feel the satisfaction of people seeing your art and also that this work of art was completed.
The kite groups of Sumpango receive no monetary support from INGUAT or other government agencies for the festival or for the international exhibition of their kites. Business and organizations can sponsor a kite or make donations directly in support of the giant kites by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org
There will be buses and tour groups leaving La Antigua on All Saints’ Day to see the kites. Check with your favorite travel agency for more details. You can also participate in a unique home-stay in Sumpango and experience this tradition behind the scenes. (70% of the proceeds go to Sumpango.) For more information, visit www.brightfutureglobaltours.com/sumpango-kite-tour.html or call 3038-4370.
To read more stories by Louise Wisechild, visit www.brightfutureglobaltours.com/blog.