Day of the Dead in Guatemala
In Canada and the US today, we’re scaring ourselves with Halloween tricks and costumes. But head south, and everyone is preparing for tomorrow’s Day of the Dead, to celebrate and communicate with the souls of the departed. In the highlands of Guatemala, Michele Peterson connects with the locals—both dead and living.
The sky was a brilliant blue and the winds brisk—a perfect day for kite flying. But this wasn’t an ordinary frolic in a country field. In Guatemala, the Maya believe the barrier between the realms of the living and the dead is thinnest on Day of the Dead (November 1) and All Saints Day (November 2), so it’s an auspicious time to communicate with the souls of the departed.
The Maya attach messages to balliletes (kites) and let the wind carry their words to heaven. The best place to see these ceremonial kites is during the balliletes fiestas held in Santiago Sacatepéquez and Sumpango, in the highlands west of Guatemala City. That’s where I was headed.
Together with friends Daniel and Thelma, we drove along the highway until we could drive no more, blocked by buses disgorging busloads of passengers amid clouds of ochre dust. Processions of Kachikel Maya carrying wreaths of orange marigolds and offerings of cakes wrapped in shiny cellophane joined us. Dressed in ceremonial finery, their woven clothing of sparkling blues, magenta and emerald, made it seem as though we were surrounded by a living, moving rainbow.
We wound our way up a steep hill to a grassy plateau framed by three perfect volcanoes, where we took in the view. Given the spiritual significance of the kites, I’d expected a solemn ceremony of sombre people silently honouring their ancestors. Nothing could have been further from reality.
It was a carnival scene. Vendors hawked balloons, toddlers ran helter skelter and impromptu soccer games kicked dust into the sky. At one end of the field stood rows of giant paper kites as tall as office buildings. These teams of ballileteros (kite fliers) weren’t simply flying kites; they were competing for the honour of best design, theme and size. Preparations had begun 40 days earlier.
“Follow me,” said Thelma, as she navigated her way to the children’s section.
“Each kite is handmade of bamboo and paper,” explained a father with his two small sons. “We even make glue made from yucca flour, water and lemon peel.”
The children’s kites were small but of fine craftsmanship, catching the sun with a kaleidoscope of colour. The launch of the competition was imminent, so we hurried out of the way. The two boys got into position and hoisted their kite. Once it was airborne, it swayed to reveal an image of the Virgin of Guadeloupe, caught a breeze, wobbled briefly and then crashed to the ground.
The audience groaned in disappointment. Everyone had a soft spot for the Virgin. Not only is she revered for her ability to grant miracles but she’s a patron of the poor and oppressed.
We watched as even more kites rose on the ocean of air above us. Many displayed messages promoting women’s rights (no mas violencia), human rights and peace. It was a fascinating mix of indigenous Maya tradition and political action. Hours passed in a blur of technicolour kites, food and music. Finally it was time to go.
“Wait,” said Daniel, holding out his hand. In it was a simple child’s kite, a pretty pink and yellow octagonal.
“A recuerdo—a souvenir,” he said.
Although thrilled with the little kite, I didn’t need a souvenir to remember Day of the Dead. I’d forged a bond with Guatemala, connecting with the people I’d met, the food I’d eaten and the sights I’d seen.
Top Spots to Celebrate Day of the Dead in Guatemala
If you’re in Guatemala on November 1, here are some other places to celebrate the Day of the Dead:
This alcohol-fuelled horse race is a three-day celebration of All Saints Day in the town of the same name.
Santiago Sacatepéquez and Sumpango
These towns are home to the age-old custom of giant kite flying.
In Antigua, sample the traditional Day of the Dead dish of fiambre, a cold meat salad with as many ingredients as there are variations.
Preparations begin weeks in advance with the cleaning of the tombs and construction of altars at cemeteries across Guatemala. Founded in the 1870s, Cemetario General in Zona 3 is Guatemala’s most historic cemetery and is a hub of activity, with food vendors, music and families coming to honour their ancestors.
Market days are Thursdays and Sundays in this Maya town northwest of Guatemala City, but it’s an especially lively scene on Day of the Dead with copal incense, Maya rituals, flower wreaths and processions.