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Mayan pride flies high

A town expresses its cultural pride through kites.

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In Sumpango, the kites honor Mayan ancestors and culture.

Susan Llewelyn Leach/The Christian Science Monitor

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In the highlands of Guatemala, even the smallest child seems to know how to string together a simple kite to ride the mountain breezes. Tugging on a fluttering piece of tissue until it becomes airborne – even for a few seconds – holds an endless fascination. But not just for children here. In Sumpango, it's the adults who have upped the ante on our relationship with the wind.

The Mayan village nestled in the lush hills about 15 miles north of Antigua is the site of Feria del Barrilete Gigante – a giant kite festival held each year on Nov. 1. These are kites the height of a house. The largest span 40 feet and are confections of lashed bamboo and vibrant tissue paper held together with gallons of glue. The smaller ones are made of corn stalks and twine.

When I was growing up, kites were always a staple of holidays. We would dash along the beach to lift them skyward and, occasionally in a moment of distraction, forget to hold on, only to see them float away. Here the relationship is more grounded. The Mayans have been launching their vibrant designs into the blustery winds for centuries. In this town and in Santiago Sacatepéquez a few miles away, that tradition has become an annual rite.

Legend has it the kites were flown on the Day of the Dead to honor ancestors and scare away evil spirits with the rustling of their paper tails. Now they seem to fly as much in quiet protest at the government. The intricate designs, which are months in the making, depict Mayan heritage and daily life and often express the suffering of the indigenous people or their social problems.

One kite declared in the middle of its vivid patterns: "Lágrimas de esperanza por una Guatemala en paz sin discriminación" (Tears of hope for a Guatemala in peace without discrimination). It was a sentiment echoed on other kites and seemed more than mere words in a country whose 36-year civil war came to an end only a decade ago.

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