Each year, during the Day of the Dead, the skies above the small village of Santiago are filled with giant kites called barriletes. Although Guatemala shares many cultural features in the celebration of Día de los Muertos with Mexico, it also has its own rituals to remember the dead. The kite festival is the most representative of Guatemala’s unique tradition.
The Santiago cemetery in Sacatepequez is small, so the hundreds of residents and tourists who visit on the Day of the Dead have to stand on the tombs to be able to see the kites take flight. Guatemalan families also often seek out plazas and open fields to fly their own smaller kites.
The largest kites can measure as much as 20 meters. They are crafted from wood and pieces of colored paper that are placed like mosaics to depict landscapes, scenes from everyday life, or simply a beautiful geometric symmetry. Our people organize themselves to craft these giants up to six months in advance.
No one knows when this tradition began but legend tells how every year on the Day of the Dead, bad spirits returned to bother good souls. The people of Santiago were tired of this so the elders suggested filling the sky with kites so the bad spirits would have no place to romp.
Just as in Mexico, the Day of the Dead is a holiday in Guatemala. These similarities are due to the same cultural roots these countries also share with Belize, El Salvador, and Honduras. They all belong to Mesoamerica where the Maya civilization reached its greatest splendor.
For the Maya, death wasn’t the end but the beginning of a new life. It was believed that after death, the hallowed heart of each person was purified so that the earlier life was forgotten and the heart could be placed in a new body. For the Maya, to celebrate death was to celebrate life.
Skeletons are a common decoration and are often depicted in bright colors because these images that we associate with death are seen as the support for life.
During the Day of the Dead, families also get together to share a dish that is unique to the country — fiambre.
There’s no one single recipe for it. It’s a dish that can have as many as 50 ingredients and it should be served cold so it can be eaten during visits to the cemetery. Fiambre combines all kinds of vegetables in vinegar with a variety of cold cuts, sausages, and meats as well as cheeses and other ingredients.
The recipe is so complex that the whole family usually pitches in to prepare it, with some shopping, cleaning, chopping, preparing and mixing each ingredient separately. In Guatemala, this culinary delight is always served on this special day when fresh flowers, paper cutouts and photos of our loved ones bring us together to watch the colorful kites soar overhead.