It’s late afternoon on October 31st, and a crowd is gathered at Sumpango Cemetery in the Sacatepequez state of Guatemala to arrange flowers and clean the tombs of their dead loved ones. The air is thick with palo santo, and only the sound of children’s laughter permeates as they fly kites ahead of the Festival de Barriletes Gigantes, or Giant Kite Festival that will take place the following day, during All Saints’ Day on the Catholic calendar.
One of the world’s most unique Día de Los Muertos celebrations, this year’s festival attracted nearly 90,000 participants to Sumpango, a town of only 38,000 residents. Around 50 official groups formed the bedrock of the event, with each coalition gathered to showcase their larger-than-life kites during the day’s festivities. Made of paper and adorned with colorful patterns that often depict ancestral symbology or contemporary social issues—from the folkloric owl, which represents the messenger of death in Maya cosmology, to motifs urging suicide prevention—the kites are divided by the age group of their fliers. Children fly their smaller versions by hand, while teenagers and adults accompany bigger kites, including those that aren’t airborne—they can range up to 60 feet in diameter.
Though the origins of the festival remain unknown (some say it began after the country’s devastating 1976 earthquake, others say it began nearly 3,000 years ago with the Maya), the tradition continues to grow in popularity, and is even spreading to neighboring towns like Solola and Santiago Atitlán, set on the southern banks of Lake Atitlán. Photographer James Rodríguez attended this year’s festival, documenting the process of participating groups as they worked tirelessly to both build and fly their kites in a process that can take up to a year.
Girls from the children’s branch of Las Orquideas, the first all-female kite group founded in 1999 and led by Sara Xicon, prepare the final details at the Xicon home the day before the festival. Las Orquideas made a kite that addressed the contemporary theme of tech addiction, with a slogan that read, "Que la tecnología no te consuma," meaning "Don't let technology consume you."
Members of the Happy Boys, a category-A kite group—one of the non-flying groups with kites between 40 and 60 feet tall—prepare the final details of their giant kite the night before the festival.
Members of the Happy Boys carry a log as they prepare their location in the town’s soccer field, where all the kites are raised.
Dawn breaks over the soccer field near the cemetery where the day's kites are showcased.
Sara Xicon, 43, prepares to launch the kite for her group, Las Orquideas, the first all-female kite group, which she founded in 1999. “Part of the reason I founded Las Orquideas, and I am still in it, is because of the machismo that exists in our society,” she says. “Yes, it is a lot of work and takes us months to prepare, but it is very important that we as women do what we want and like, and not just be at home after we get married. Of course we have to be responsible, but I try to make sure the girls are aware of the importance of following their dreams.”
Right: Alejandra Asturias, 18, was selected as "Kite Ambassador" for this year’s festival.
Families fly kites on a hillside near the soccer field.
Kakchiquel Mayan residents of Sumpango tend their families’ graves at the municipal cemetery, repainting the colorful tombs and raking the surroundings.
The view over Sumpango's municipal cemetery, with the Agua Volcano in the background.
Originally Appeared on Vogue