Daniel Bassili

From Discourse 5

We present the first section of this article here and welcome you to read it in its entirety on the Drachen Foundation website at:



Watch a video about the barriletes gigantes of Sumpango on the Drachen Foundation YouTube channel online at:

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The kites of Guatemala are a continuing subject for Discourse. It is a testament to the fascination we have for these kites that are so close to home, yet so elusive. This contribution by Daniel Bassili gives us another perspective of the barriletes gigantes and shows that it is in the eye of the beholder that these kites become magical.

In 2007, as a small Drachen Foundation group witnessed the spectacle of the barriletes, our p e r c e p t i o n s w e r e m o l d e d b y o u r backgrounds. Jose Sainz saw them as a Latino and as a part of the unique Central American culture, Ali Fujino saw them through the eyes of a former Peace Corps worker, and I looked at them as an exceptional part of world kite culture.

Now read the words of Bassili, a student of international politics who visited Guatemala in 2008, and see another side of the spectacle.


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 Nove m b e r 1 s t . Fo r ce n t u r ie s , r u ra 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.

Daniel Bassili

ABOVE: Fig. 1, exhibition kites at Santiago Sacatepequez. All photos taken at Santiago Sacatepequez on November 1, 2008, unless otherwise noted. BELOW: Fig. 2, team Corazon Juvenil hard at work in preparation for the festival.

Sumpango, October 30th, 2008.

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 s o c i a l c o n t e x t a n d o v e r a r c h i n g 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 a n e s p e cia l ly co n ce n t ra t e d M aya 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 S u m p a n g o h ave b e e n co n s t i t u t e d sporadically. Each team is named, consists of approximately ten to fifteen members, and exhibits from year to year in their local festival. In addition, families and unestablished teams produce smaller kites, 4-6 meters in diameter, whose designs are highly heterogeneous; at Santiago Sacatepequez (hereafter referred to as Santiago) they may be purely geometric, feature a corporate logo, a figural design, or s i m p l y d e c l a r e t h e t e a m n a m e . 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 time- consuming, requiring months of work.

On the day of the festival, barriletes gigantes are affixed to large bamboo frames, using rope and glue, and hoisted against wooden supports for exhibition. Kites are quickly damaged, and can be completely destroyed (Fig. 3). Bamboo supports snap and tear through the kite. Wind also rends the fragile tissue paper. These material realities reveal a conservative approach to kite construction. Design, shape, and size may change, but not technique. [Endnote 1] Were the festival purely about aesthetic or practical values, regulations might be amended. But in order to communicate effectively with ancestors, kites must be executed to specifications prescribed by tradition. Indeed, their ephemerality may be what makes them most efficacious in communicating with ancestors who have crossed into an intangible existence.

Since 1992, the barriletes gigantes have increased markedly in size, and figural motifs pertaining to current Maya experience were added to “all-over” geometric patterning. [2] This shift roughly coincided with the re-evaluation that accompanied celebrations of the Columbus quincentennial, and with the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Rigoberta Menchu Tum, a K’iche’ Maya author and activist in the same year. In her Nobel lecture, Menchu Tum underscored the contemporary status of Maya activism in Guatemala:

Daniel Bassili

ABOVE: Fig. 3, wind rends the kite produced by Grupo Juvenil Corazon de Maiz. BELOW: Fig. 4, team Happy Boys at work in a community church. Sumpango, October 30, 2008.

The importance of this Nobel Prize has been demonstrated by all the congratulations received f rom everywhere, from heads of government

– practically all the American Presidents – to the organizations of the indigenous people and of human rights, from all over the world. In fact, what they see in this Nobel Peace Prize is not only a reward and a recognition of a single person, but a starting point for the hard struggle towards the achievement of that revindication which is yet to be fulfilled. [3, emphasis added]

Following this award, Menchu Tum attained international celebrity status, and used it to forward Maya concerns in the public sphere. The “starting point” to which she refers seems to have been picked up by the creators of these exhibition kites, since with the addition of figural imagery, the kites became vehicles for voicing local, regional, and global concerns pertaining to Maya identity. However, while Menchu Tum voiced an academic and explicitly political view from an international vantage point, for an international audience, imagery on the barriletes gigantes evidences popular absorption of this imperative, as it is naturally reproduced by Guatemalan Maya themselves.

Nevertheless, the most pressing issues are h a r d ly a g r e e d u p o n , a s d i f f e r e n t communities, and even different teams within the same community, forward different strategies for achieving their political goals. The most basic indicators of this heterogeneity in the barriletes gigantes of Sumpango and Santiago are drastic differences in visual language and composition between the two communities. Some of these differences may stem from the fact that Sumpango has emerged as locus of the larger and more prominently

advertised festival. This is evidenced by a professional website, [4] heavy corporate involvement, and aggressive advertising by Guatemala’s department of tourism (INGUAT). Furthermore, each community attempts to assert its superiority through distinctive characteristics stabilized by tradition.

Imagery in the “Sumpango style” is remarkably akin to graphic design (Fig. 2 and Fig. 4). Border and background designs are not strictly prescribed at Sumpango, and generally appear as elaborate curvilinear floral and scroll designs ( Fig. 16). Conversely, while artists at Santiago occasionally use graphic novels as a basis for their figural motifs (Fig. 14), in general, the imagery is substantially less modeled. Furthermore, at Santiago, background designs usually represent local and regional weaving patterns and therefore place greater emphasis on rectilinear patterns in banded or scattered arrangements (Fig. 9).

Compositionally, Santiago’s exhibition kites are consistent and conservative when compared to those at Sumpango, whose flamboyant artists sometimes break strongly from the circular form, and have increased the proportion of figural imagery (Fig. 4 and Fig. 5). At Santiago, a main, usually figural, image is placed on the central axis, either at the center or near the top of the kite. (If at the top, the main image is normally rectangular, while at the center it may be round or square). The main image is usually accompanied by text which reinforces the message of the kite. Other figural cartouches are arranged in a geometric pattern, most commonly in a quadripartite scheme expressed by some participants as representing the four world directions. Furthermore, at Santiago a series of flags is affixed to the top of each kite. Finally, “Santiago 109” or “Santiago 1899-2008” appears on almost all of the exhibition kites

Daniel Bassili

ABOVE: Fig. 5, kites by Juventud Santiaguense, Juventud Maya, and Juventud Espiritu Maya. BELOW: Fig. 6, families arrive to decorate ancestors’ graves at Santiago Cemetery.

in 2008, denoting the number of years the festival has taken place in that community.

Settings also differ. Whereas at Sumpango kites are exhibited in a soccer field adjacent to the local cemetery, the festival at Santiago takes place within the cemetery proper, where local families arrive early to decorate the graves of their ancestors (Fig. 6). While the cemetery setting is appropriate to ritual communication with ancestors, it also recalls the country’s civil war and its genocidal counter-insurgency campaign, which peaked in the 1980s, and laid the foundation for contemporary Maya experience in Guatemala. Although the war officially ended in 1996, escalating gang violence, neo-colonial discrimination, and degradation of the environment by external forces continue to afflict the region. These realities frame not only the means chosen by kite teams to express the theme developed by the community each year, but also their reception by viewers.



At Santiago, the theme for 2008 was “Youth for a development with identity” (Fig. 7). In this context, “development” refers to economic or industrial modernization. As such, the theme is intended to counteract d i s c o u r s e s t h a t d i c t a t e c u l t u r a l “authenticity” must remain temporally static. This meta-narrative of modernism disenfranchises non-Western cultures, as Western culture is the only one whose “authenticity” is predicated on “progress.” The theme thus takes a stance against modernist dichotomies, arguing that progress need not jeopardize indigenous identity. In fact, as will be shown, many teams express the view that indigenous Maya tradition is the key to their progress.

The theme’s emphasis on youth penetrates

to the very construction of these kites, since all of the teams at Santiago in 2008 were composed of young men between the ages of 15-25. As such, youth are entrusted with perpetuating the tradition of the festival, articulating the issues most important to them in the subject matter of their kites, and subsequently implementing the ideology inculcated by their messages over the course of their lives.

While diverse visual strategies are summoned to promote these messages, some are widely shared. Utopic visions of either a hoped-for future or idyllic pre- Hispanic past are used in all seven exhibition kites, but in several these images are contrasted with dystopic views of present problems. [Editor’s note: the word “dystopic” characterizes conditions of life which are miserable, the opposite of utopic.] Another shared theme is the relation of local issues not only to the global or universal, but also to the Pan-Mayanist ideology to which Menchu Tum alludes in the passage quoted above. In what follows, I thematically examine all seven exhibition kites exhibited at Santiago in 2008. As I was unable to survey community responses to the kites during my brief visit, the visual readings detailed here are my own, and are not intended to communicate an “insider” perspective. Likewise, it is important to remember that the thematic categories I employ for this analysis may not have been intended or consciously articulated by the creators of these kites.


  1. Juventud Santiaguense

Caring for the environment is a theme that relates the local to the global. While environmental degradation is a global a f fl ict io n , i t h a s p a r t icu la r lo ca l characteristics in western highland

Daniel Bassili (top image enhanced by Marvin Cohodas)

ABOVE: Fig. 7, a banner features the theme of 2008 at the entrance of Santiago Cemetery. BELOW: Fig. 8, overview of

kite by team Juventud Santiaguense.

Guatemala. The lethal pollution and appropriation of water resources perpetrated by (largely Canadian) mining companies and resisted by Guatemalan communities such as Sipakapa is a case in point.

The full geographical range of this environmental crisis is implicated in the flags affixed to the kite produced by the team that calls itself Juventud Santiaguense (Fig. 8). The flag furthest to the right has become a symbol of Pan-Mayanism: the four colors refer to the four world directions of Maya cosmography. Second to the right is a representation of the tzute, one of the characteristic articles of highland Guatemala’s weaving tradition. The tzute pattern distinctive of Santiago featured on the flag also serves as a background to the figural cartouches on the kite proper. Second to the left is the flag of Guatemala. The flag furthest to the left is the symbol of Santiago, the patron saint of the municipio of Santiago Sacatepequez. Between the cartouches are elongated rectangular panels that represent local huipil designs from Santiago and several other communities in t h e w e s t e r n h ig h la n d s , a s f a r a s Chichicastenango (Fig. 9). As such, non- figural imagery in the kite represents both the local and the regional scope of its message.

The environment is called up in the figural cartouches through portrayal of animals. I will begin with visual analysis of the radial cartouches. In the cartouche at the left, there is a pair of wolves, under which is written “1899,” the year that the festival was founded in Santiago (Fig. 10). The right cartouche contains three spotted jaguars, and corresponding to the opposing left cartouche, the text reads “cradle of the giant kites, 2008” (Fig. 11). As such, tradition is engaged, linking past and present. An eagle and wolf appear in the upper cartouche, and the accompanying text declares “No to

global warming” (Fig. 12). Finally, the bottom cartouche contains a toucan, a wolf, and a black jaguar, with the team’s name written at the bottom (Fig. 13). The dystopic present is herein specifically located in a g e o – p o l i t ica l co n t e xt a f fl ict e d by environmental degradation. It is represented in these radial cartouches, since they each portray animals that are native to Guatemala, and risk becoming endangered if current environmental policy continues.

Set in opposition to this dystopic view, the dominant central image collapses time and space, and portrays a utopic scene of environmental symbiosis (Fig. 14). Set in the lush rain forest around Temple 1 at Tikal, at present the icon of Guatemala as a distinct nation state, a human hand holds a globe supporting a pair of Siberian tigers, which are endangered but not native to Guatemala. A generic Mother Nature icon blows a Quetzal, the national bird of G u a t e m a l a , f r o m h e r h a n d . Th e accompanying text may be translated as “Humans are solely responsible for the destiny of the abundant riches of Mother Earth and Mother Nature.”

The image of Mother Nature is a perennial favorite in figural iconography at Santiago a n d S u m p a n g o ( F i g . 1 5 ) . S h e i s distinguished by the representation of her “blown out” hair, vegetal accoutrements, and the association with giant hands (Fig. 16). Although not equated with any specific pre-Hispanic Maya deities, Mother Nature h a s b e c o m e a s y m b o l o f M a y a environmentalism. Paired with an icon of the Classic period Maya, she indicates a continuity of Maya identity in utopic harmony with the environment, as well as calling up the past as a form of instruction for the present in building a better future.

Contemporary Maya have adopted environmentalism as a strategic unifier of

Daniel Bassili (top image labelled by Marvin Cohodas)

ABOVE: Fig. 9, regional huipil designs as they appear on the kite by Juventud Santiaguense. BELOW: Fig. 10, left cartouche

on Juventud Santiaguense kite.

Daniel Bassili

ABOVE: Fig. 11, right cartouche on Juventud Santiaguense kite. BELOW: Fig. 12, the kite’s top cartouche.

Daniel Bassili

ABOVE: Fig. 13, bottom cartouche on Juventud Santiaguense kite. BELOW: Fig. 14, the kite’s central image.

Daniel Bassili

ABOVE: Fig. 15, Mother Nature icon on kite by Juvenil Corazon. Sumpango, October 30th, 2008. BELOW: Fig. 16, Mother Nature icon on kite by Happy Boys.

Sumpango, October 30th, 2008.

cultural identity. Inclusion of Tikal Temple 1 along with Siberian tigers does more than universalize the image. It also counters a r ch a e o l o g i s t s ’ c l a i m s t h a t p o o r environmental management led to the supposed collapse of ancient Maya civilization. This hypothesis, popularized by Jared Diamond, [5] disenfranchises contemporary Maya on a number of levels. For one, by suggesting that pre-Hispanic Maya were incapable of managing their own environment, the “collapse” hypothesis implies that the invading Spaniards were indeed saviors from despotic Maya kings. Today, neo-liberal nationalist resource management, which relegates Maya health and interests behind capitalist gain, is founded on this historical falsehood. Furthermore, the environmental degradation hypothesis suggests that true “Maya culture” disappeared before the Spanish arrived in America, and their land was therefore vacant to be claimed. The imagery in this kite works against these arguments, by asserting continued Maya presence in Guatemala, and reifies this presence by defining it in opposition to current environmental policy makers.

  1. Tejadores de la Cultura

The kite produced by the team that calls itself Tejadores de la Cultura also juxtaposes dystopic and utopic imagery, as Christianity is the proposed solution to current problems (Fig. 17). The flags affixed to this kite denote the team’s affiliations: the flag of Guatemala appears on the left, while the white and yellow flag on the right represent the colors of the Roman Catholic Church.

The tzute pattern that appeared on the previous kite forms the background for this one as well, while a variation on the huipil pattern frames the central image. As they appear on almost all of the 2008 kites, thereby reinforcing the community-centered

nature of the festival, such weaving patterns locate community pride specifically in Santiago. Though bilaterally symmetrical, the composition of this kite is more heterogeneous than in the other exhibition kites at the 2008 festival. At the top of the central axis is a rectangular cartouche containing the Christian holy trinity (Fig. 18). Surmounting the cartouche is the primary message of the kite, which promulgates “The Omnipresence of God.” This rectangular image is itself the center of a triad, as it is flanked by two small diamond-shaped designs. On the left is a heavenly ear with the caption “God hears all,” and on the right a heavenly hand writing in, one presumes, the book of life, with the caption “God knows all.” Just beneath, and at the center of the kite, the circular cartouche labeled “God Sees All” depicts a heavenly eye with a hand holding the scales on which the soul’s deeds are weighed (Fig. 19). Following Catholic conventions, evil deeds, symbolized by a demon, are on the left side of the eye of God (the viewer’s right), while good deeds, symbolized by the angel, are on His right side. Both the demon and the angel hold scrolls on which the evil and good deeds are recorded. The hopeful image shows the soul of the deceased in the scale pan on the side of good deeds, outweighing the evil.

The right-left dichotomy of the saved and the damned, an ancient device in Catholic imagery, continues in the arc of four circular cartouches along the lower register. They provide a Catholic reading of the utopia/ dystopia dyad. Reading counterclockwise from left to right, the first cartouche shows the just man giving alms to the poor (Fig. 20), and the second shows him on his death bed where angels have come to raise him to heaven (Fig. 21). The third cartouche shows a sinner in the act of murdering another man, while in the fourth he has died and is being dragged by demons into the flames of

Daniel Bassili

ABOVE: Fig. 17, overview of kite by Tejadores de la Cultura. BELOW: Fig. 18, the kite’s top central image.

Daniel Bassili

ABOVE: Fig. 19, central image on kite by Tejadores de la Cultura. BELOW: Fig. 20, the kite’s “El Hombre Justo (The Just

Man)” cartouche.

Daniel Bassili

ABOVE: Fig. 21, “La Muerte del Justo (Death of the Just)” cartouche on kite by Tejadores de la Cultura. BELOW: Fig. 22, the kite’s “La Muerte del Pecador (Death of the

Sinner)” cartouche.

hell (Fig. 22). A just man cares for others, while a sinner harms others.

As indicated at the outset of this essay, in Latin America, November 1st is variously called the Day of the Dead or All Saints Day. The distinction may depend on one’s cultural identity and religious affiliation. While the Day of the Dead maintains the pre-Hispanic emphasis on ancestral veneration, All Saints Day is a Christian celebration in honor of God and all of his saints. However, All Souls Day, celebrated by Roman Catholics on November 2nd, is to aid souls trapped in purgatory through alms-giving and prayer. The imagery in this kite conflates aspects of All Saints Day and All Souls Day, insofar as its iconography encourages prayer and alms-giving by expounding the omnipresence of God. The kite provides instructions for direct entry into heaven, and the bypass of those unfortunate souls trapped in purgatory.

In this Christian vision, time is represented as a linear teleology. The future is portrayed as coming after death, at the last judgment, rather than the time when today’s youth are adults, as in the other kites. While other kites stress communal solutions to problems, in this kite both the decisions and the consequences are individual rather than social. Also note that individual choice is represented as male choice. This may stem from the fact that the sources informing this kite are primarily Western religion and epistemology, known for its andro- normativity and individualism, which is set apart from the communal project of Maya revindication. Along these lines, it is interesting to note that this kite was spatially separated from the other kites when they were exhibited in the Santiago cemetery.

This article is the opening section of Daniel Bassili’s thesis. We welcome you to continue reading on the Drachen Foundation website at:



  1. Héctor Abraham Pinto, “Los Barriletes Gigantes de Santiago Sacatepequez,” Tradiciones de Guatemala (1977), 154.
  2. Guillermo A. Vasquez Gonzalez, “Expresiones culturales de Todos Los Santos y Santos Difuntos en Guatemala,” Tradición Popular 181 (2008), 4-5.
  3. Rigoberta Menchu Tum, “Acceptance and Nobel Lecture, December 10, 1992,” nobelprize.org. http://nobelprize.org/ nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1992/tum-lecture.html.
  4. Festival Sumpango 2008, “Festival Internacional de Sumpango de Barriletes Gigantes 2008,” Solucionweb.com. http:// www.festivalsumpango.com/.
  5. Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Chose to Fail or Succeed (New York: Penguin Books, 2005).