I've been learning about the Latin American celebrations of Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) since I started studying Spanish in middle school. Last weekend, though, was the first time I had the opportunity to experience the celebration authentically.
We had no classes on Friday, November 1st, in honor of the tradition. My friends and I took advantage of the day by going to Sumpango, where each year they hold the Festival de los Barriletes Gigantes (Festival of the Giant Kites) next to the cemetery.
We walked first through the cemetery. It really is true that el Dia de Todos Santos (Nov. 1) is a celebration. The above-ground tombs were freshly painted in bright colors and covered with pine needles and flowers. At some graves, family members still worked to decorate even that morning. Ice cream vendors pushed their carts up and down through the pathways, ringing their bells and selling cones of bright yellow ice cream topped with a crimson jelly. Kids ran past, their small home-made kites flying high above them.
After we had experienced the cemetery, we moved through the growing crowds to the main attraction--the open field where all of the kites were set up.
The kites were set up in rows, with the smallest--the children's kites--in front, and the largest in the back. We meandered through the rows and watched as some of the kites were erected on giant bamboo poles. It took a team of people and a bit of engineering to get the crepe-paper kites from their spots on the ground to leaning on the tall poles, and that was an event to watch in itself.
As we moved towards the tallest giants, I was amazed by their size and detail. These kites wouldn't fly, though from what I understand an attempt would be made at dusk. But their beauty looking over the festival was unmistakable.
The tradition of flying kites on All Saints Day dates back hundreds of years. Flying the kites, which so easily are ripped to shreds in the October winds, is symbolic of life and death, or perhaps a way to communicate with the dead somehow. Today, many of the kites also bear important messages in their designs. Some cautioned us to care for our natural resources. Some reminded the people of their heritage. All were intricate and very beautiful.
We only stayed for a few hours in the morning, before the crowds became too insane and before any kite larger than 6-8ft in diameter took the sky. But it was worth it. Truly a unique and gratifying experience!