Every 1st of November, Guatemalans celebrate Día de Todos los Santos (All Saints Day) also called Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) in some parts of Latin America.
Día de Todos los Santos is a very special and sacred holiday in Guatemala. It’s a day to celebrate and remember loved ones who have passed away. In Guatemala, families traditionally visit cemeteries and reunite at the graves of their loved ones. They tend to the graves, taking time to decorate them with beautiful flowers, palms, pine needles and wreaths. Families will also share a meal together in the cemetery — typically it’s the favorite meal of their loved one. November 1st is also the only day of the year that the traditional Guatemalan dish fiambre [fee-om-brey] is served. Fiambre is a salad that is served cold and it can be made up of over 50 ingredients. (If you ever have the opportunity to try fiambre, we encourage you to give it a shot!)
November also marks the appearance of winds that are characteristic of the new season. These winds create perfect conditions for kite flying. Indigenous people have used kites to communicate and unite with their deceased loved ones, a tradition dating back more than 3,000 years. According to the elders, the impact of the wind against the kites also takes away bad spirits. If you visit Guatemala near Día de Todos los Santos, you will see kites for sale on almost every street corner, children flying kites, and people making kites.
The kites that you see this day are masterpieces built by the local communities throughout the year.
One of the most stunning displays of this tradition can be seen in the towns of Sumpango and Santiago. There, people spend months and sometimes all year creating larger-than-life barriletes gigantes (giant kites). These kites can be several stories tall. Many are circular but some are more elaborate, taking the shape of a peacock, owl, or butterfly. They are all created from tissue paper or rice paper and bamboo so that, even though they are large, they can be flown when the wind permits. Often, the kites display important social messages regarding the environment, women’s rights, and protecting children.
The kites flown in Sumpango are an expression of collective art created by members of the community. The design of each kite, and all of the details found within, has meaning. The kites are pieces of art that represent a sense of identity.
In Sumpango, the local people also compete to see who has the most beautiful kite and which kite flies the longest. Called El Festival de Barriletes Gigantes, this special day in Sumpango is one of the most visited events in this region of Guatemala. The vibrant colors and immensity of the kites, paired with the beautiful tradition of honoring deceased loved ones, draws people from all over the world.
Experiencing cultural traditions deepens your appreciation.
Every culture, community, and individual has their own way of paying respect to the deceased. In some Western societies, it is a somber affair marked by mourning. But in Guatemala, Día de Todos los Santos is a festive, joyous occasion rooted in tradition. If you are visiting Guatemala during this time, the celebrations in Sumpango and Santiago are a must-see. Only by visiting in-person can you truly appreciate the incredible detail found in these elaborate kites and the meaning behind this special holiday.