Christopher Ornelas


These entries are a snapshot in time from Christopher Ornelas’ blog, an online account of his research on collective kitemaking in Guatemala.

We include them as an introduction to his unique work, and we invite you to read more on his blog at: BARRILETESGIGANTES.BLOGSPOT.COM

Christopher will present an essay on his findings in a future issue.

OCTOBER 2, 2007

My brain is a little bit fried right now after talking with Melanie, who is here in Guatemala writing her dissertation. The woman knows everything there is to know about Guatemalan politics. She talked and talked, and as she talked, she made me realize how much of a beginner I am. I feel like I am just scratching the surface of a very deep and bloody history.

Today was long but very productive. I now have good standing with Frederico and Luis thanks to Drachen Foundation. It is very reassuring to know that I am not simply walking into this as a complete outsider. Everyone knows everyone here.

Finding out the history of the Kite Festival is going to be tricky. It seems that neither Frederico nor Luis know the origins of the kites. However, they did lead me to some interesting hypotheses.

Theory 1: The kites are Aztec.

Evidence: The name Sumpango is a transliterated word for Tzompantli, the Aztec name for sacrificial skull racks. Supposedly, there is reference in the Dresden codex to a special kind of weather device made of the leaves of papalot trees and used to determine wind patterns. It is most likely some kind of kite, which would explain the Mexican word for kite, papalote. The Aztecs might have also used kites as part of their religious rituals. The town of Sumpango existed before the Spanish conquest and it is possible that the town was a far-flung post of the Aztec empire, which would explain the name and the religious importance of the kites.

Christopher Ornelas

Christopher Ornelas

Theory 2: The kites were introduced by Spanish priests in an attempt to convert Mayan children. That is about all there is to this theory, but it is entirely probable. The Franciscans employed all kinds of overt and covert ploys to convert the Indians.

This at least is a good starting point. I am going to meet with them again on Tuesday to create a plan of action and to set up a schedule for interviews. Wish me luck.

OCTOBER 16, 2007

This afternoon I am hunkered down at my computer wrapped in a blanket. It is pouring outside and my clothes are soaked from walking in the rain.

Last weekend I walked up to the soccer field with Luis’ high school class to fly kites.

Wednesday was their last day of class, and for their final project everyone had to make a kite. When I got to the top of the hill there were some fifty-odd kids waiting on the bleachers. Unlike the strictly Mayan adornments seen on the giant kites, there was many a Tweedy-bird and several Pooh- bears. Some boys had Spider-man and others Guns n’ Roses.

The soccer field is the same field used to fly the giant kites. It is on top of a hill over looking the city and right next the cemetery. It is not very large, and as I stood watching the kids fly their miniature Pooh-bear kites, I had difficulty imagining how they can possibly fly the giants. Some of the boys had relatively large two-meter kites. Without success they tried to lift them up in the air. It took four of five boys to hold the string, all running like crazy to try to keep it afloat.

Soon the dark clouds gathering overhead delivered their promised goods. Rain started pouring hard and everyone scrambled to get under the bleachers. It only lasted a short while, but it was enough to damage several of the kites whose struggling navigators couldn’t bring them in fast enough. Unfortunately, this is a very real threat for the giant kites as well. Some years all of the kites have been ruined by a sudden down pour. Months of hard work and many sleepless nights can be washed away in a matter of minutes. When this happens it is truly a crushing defeat for the barrileteros.

Christopher Ornelas

Christopher Ornelas

However, the threat of destruction is somehow part of the artwork. All of the barrileteros know that with even a small amount of rain all the intricate details and the precise color arrangements can be easily smeared. A large gust of wind at just the right moment while the kite is being lifted can rip it in two.

There are less than seventeen days left before the Feria and the kite making is progressing forward with a hurry. This last Saturday I stayed up until three in the morning with the group Agrupación Barrileteros, helping them with their design. Around one in the morning, the Barrileteros stopped for a break to drink hot chocolate and eat ham sandwiches smothered in mayonnaise. Everyone was tired but in good spirits, laughing and making jokes. Eduardo, the main coordinator for the group, asked everyone if they could pitch in twenty-five quetzales to pay for team t- shirts. Most people agreed, but a few people could not afford the cost (about three dollars) and shook their heads. A list was written down of who could contribute and how much. This is how most money finances are resolved, with the whole group, and people contribute what they can.

There is no government funding for the barrileteros. Each group shoulders the majority of the costs themselves. The Municipality distributes a small amount of funds to each group depending on the size of the kite. A 13-meter kite might get Q 1,500, but this is a pittance compared to the estimated Q 44,000 to Q 60,000 spent on making just one kite. Everyone in the group is expected pitch in their part to cover this enormous cost – but this is no small feat. Many people in the group are students and depend on their families for their income.

Christopher Ornelas

Christopher Ornelas

Others are working and perhaps can afford to contribute a little more, but few people make hefty paychecks.

Most groups have said that the greatest difficulty in making the kites is paying for them. Some of the more established groups are able to buy the materials in bulk months before the kite making begins. However, most groups cannot afford this luxury. They buy the tissue paper and the glue piecemeal as needed. This way is more expensive and more risky, because toward the end of the month tissue paper is a scarce commodity.

On the day of the Fería, prizes are handed out for the best design, best use of color, best use of traditional Mayan imagery, and best flying capability. But the prizes are more symbolic than anything else. The winning team is awarded Q 1,500, which is almost nothing compared to the time, effort, and expense put into making the kite. Most barrileteros say what they do is a sacrifice to show people the beauty that exists in Sumpango and Guatemala. They don’t earn any money from the kites. Their one moment of glory is to see the look on people’s faces as their kite is lifted up for the first time for everyone to see.

The Barriletes Gigantes are works of art with a life span: they are born, they live, fly, carry on, and die. Despite the love, hours of labor, and money put into their creation, everyone knows that they will only live for one day. They are given one day of glory, to fly and to show to the world the beauty and culture of Sumpango. But they are not intended to live forever. Sometimes they are destroyed by wind and rain. Others die in a brilliant kamikaze dive-crash to the earth. Still others find gradual death in a truja, a dusty room used to store corn after the harvest. There they are stored and forgotten. Their radiant colors fade with time, and rats rip out holes in them to build their nests.

But for one day they live. In my own artwork I know that once the work is complete it is no longer mine. If it is destroyed by the elements, then so be it. Perhaps the barrileteros feel a similar sensation when their kite is lifted into the air – that somehow it is turned into a living creature and they have to let it go.