Frank tells me the word is syncretism — the perfect combination of two religious traditions. November 1 — All Saints Day — in Mayan belief is the day that the dead return to this world for 24 hours. Families go to the cemetery, decorate the graves of their loved ones with flowers, candles, pine needles, have a picnic, and commune with the dead — asking for advice, sharing the news, and generally celebrating the family.
This tradition is very different from Day of the Dead in Mexico, where skeletons abound amid a sense that “this will happen to us all.” Rather, in Guatemala, November 1 is a family day, when the whole family — including those no longer with us — have a chance to be together. Sort of a combination of our Memorial Day and Thanksgiving, rolled into one.
Also on this day — in the indigenous regions, I mean — kids (of all ages) fly kites, symbolizing the connection between this world and the heavenly world. What is unique about the rites in Sumpango, however, are the size of the kites!
The really, really big ones are as large as 40 foot in diameter, made of paper mounted on bamboo sticks, and no way they can fly! They are constructed by confrades — fraternal, semi-religious groups — and the planning and execution can take all year. Sumpango is on a major crossroads, so it’s no surprise that it has become a hotbed of activity of people who come to share, and to gawk, to picnic, and to take part in the activities.
What was fun for us was that it was a celebration for the local people. Everyone was there — grandmothers bringing the picnic; fathers and mothers overseeing the grave decorations, and children running around, flying kites and eating. The meal du jour is fiambre, a sort of pickled salad, which makes sense in a cemetery but I had tried it in a restaurant several days previously, and let’s just say that fiambre is an acquired taste.
Then on to the really big kites on the futbal field. Frank went for a seat on the bleachers in the shade, while I watched one of the confrades trying to set up their kite. The problem is that the kite is constructed of small (8.5 by 11) sheets of colored paper, held together with tape, laid on a frame of bamboo poles that are themselves several poles lashed together to get the necessary height. All this needs to be lifted up — and if the wind is wrong or the physics not entirely correct, the kite will tear away before it is even on display.
The crowd watched breathlessly — and in the end, cheered as the confrade men and women erected their kite!
A hot day, a celebratory day, and an exhausting day. Day of the Dead.