Papalotes, reuniting the living with the dearly departed
From a very young age, children learn how to fly kites - Photo: File photo/EL UNIVERSAL

Papalotes, reuniting the living with the dearly departed

Mexico City
Roselia Chaca
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The "Papalote Festival" is a Day of the Dead tradition in San Mateo del Mar, Oaxaca

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Diana crosses her arms and has a tantrum in front of Lesbia, her mother. After trying several times, her papalote (a Mexican kite) in the shape of a star will not rise; her frustration focuses on not being able to reach the soul of Karen, her sister, this Day of the Dead in San Mateo del Mar.

Since childhood
Diana and 400 other children of the “Emiliano Zapata” Bilingual Elementary School flew all kinds of kites on the morning of October 31; it is the day in which the souls of children descend to the town by riding papalotes.

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“I cannot reach a soul,” repeats Diana kicking. Lesbia Esesarte, who is a teacher in the school, explains to her daughter that her kite has a defect; the thread is too thick and that prevents it from flying. She calms her down by promising her that she will add it a bigger tail at home, so they can fly it from the roof in the afternoon to help the soul of her sister descend; she died 15 years ago when she was only nine months old.

Close to Diana is Luis Fernando, who is six years old. He cannot fly his kite either because it is too small, but he persists. By the end of the activity, he picks up the threads and holds the rectangular shape under his arm. When the teacher asks him how many souls he helped descend, he only shakes his head and says “none,” his kite did not fly high. The higher the kites fly, the faster the souls descend.

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Transporting souls
Elaborating papalotes is a tradition in San Mateo del Mar. All kids learn the art of flying kites from their parents, who in turn learned from theirs, generation after generation. The teaching has two main reasons: if the adult becomes a fisher, the kite will be an essential tool to fish in high seas and also to help souls descend.

“When I ask my students for means of transport, most of them yell ‘papalote,’ they consider it a vehicle in which souls ride on October 31 and November 1 and 2.

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“It’s something we learn from childhood in San Mateo; it’s part of our culture; we cannot understand the Day of the Dead without kites,” Lesbia explains while she helps her students untangle the threads that cause the crash of kites in the sky.

The ikoots, as these people from the sea are known, are the only native group in the country that use papalotes to reach and bring souls for Day of the Dead on October 31 and also to bring them back to their dwellings on November 2.

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A rescued tradition
Lorenzo Édison Fonseca, principal of the “General Anaya” Bilingual Elementary School, remembers that for many years the flying kites ritual at Todos Santos in San Mateo del Mar was lost, but 19 years ago, the schools in the community began to rescue it as part of their traditions and to reappraise it, in addition to promoting family activities.

“For some schools and some teachers, it is very important for children to value their culture, their language, their traditions, their food, their land. It’s important for them to know we are the only ones in the country who fly papalotes for this celebration and that it is special. It had been lost, but we were able to rescue it,” explains the Huave professor.

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Half a block away from where the kids fly their kites, lives Juana Baloes Zepeda, a 62-years-old Huave who observes with curiosity this school activity from her patio while she prepares the tamales she will offer her dearly departed on November 1.

She remembers that in her childhood, only men were allowed to fly kites; women had to wait at home in silence and pray at the altar.

“No, it was a boys thing before; only men were taught how to make papalotes and run in the street with them; it was forbidden for us women. Now, things have changed; thanks to schools I see girls participate, that’s good because I always wanted to fly kites but I had to stay in the patio watching them. Now, women are also in charge of helping the souls descend with kites,” she says with a smile.

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The possible origins
There is the reference that some indigenous people in Guatemala, like Sumpangoy and Santiago Sacatepéquez, also fly big and colorful kites on November 1 and 2 known as “barriletes;” they think their function is to unite the celestial and the terrenal realms.

“In Guatemala, papalotes are flown in their dead celebrations, which makes us think the ritual comes from the south, for there is the theory that Huaves are people who came from the south, according to Fray Francisco de Burgoa who said in his 1674 Geography Description that Huaves came from Nicaragua, so perhaps the kite thing is something from the south, but Huaves are the only ones who perform this ritual,” explained historian and linguist Víctor Cata.

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Learning content
The “Vicente Guerrero” Bilingual Kindergarten has included the elaboration of papalotes as part of their community learning, for in addition to playing and spending time with their parents, children are taught to count, identify shapes and the kinds of wind because it determines the direction kites will take.

“They learn shapes, sizes, colors, and how to recycle because kites are made with used paper or nylon; they also learn how to count, to know the measurements, and to cut. Not only do kites promote dexterity in children, but with this activity we call “Papalote Festival,” we promote healthy relationships between children, parents, neighbors, and teachers,” says Gisela Baloes, a kindergarten teacher.

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As a fishing tool
This kindergarten includes papalotes as a fishing tool within their community learning content because many parents take their children to the sea to help them elaborate and maneuver them.

Fishing is the main commercial activity, so in strong winds season, from October to February, fishers elaborate papalotes with sugar sacks of up to 1.5 meters of diameter and as a tail they thread a fishing net. They make them in the seashore and release them in the Pacific Ocean; as the wind moves, so moves the net until they capture a wide variety of sea products.

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