At Cementerio General de Ciudad de la Guatemala the vultures are hanging out.
After having attended several funerals around the world, I thought it might be time to do something that didn’t directly involve dead people. And as a part of the project, I have always thought of covering different ways of celebrating the dead. Therefore the Day of the Dead celebrations felt natural to document in different parts of the world. Starting out this year, I decided to go to Guatemala and cover a tradition of huge kites that are flewn on the Day of the Dead in the cities of Sumpango and Santiago de Sacatepéquez. And ofcourse I will also do some research in different death rituals of the indigenous Maya people while I am here.
I arrived in Ciudad de Guatemala on October 20. I have always been a bit afraid of the violent cities in Latin America but I luckily managed to find a Danish anthropoligist (Pia Flores) thru Facebook before leaving Denmark. She and her boyfriend (Fernando) picked me up in the airport and I stayed with them in their apartment. A good start. Unfortunately they where living in Zone 1, with is considered to be one of the most dangerous parts of the city. So I was a little stuck in their apartment, and a bit scared of going out on my own. And street photography was completely out of the question. I was told not even to use my new photo bag, since it smelled too much of money. Instead Pia’s boyfriend gave me a bag that looked of completely nothing and I was told to put my camera in the bag, if I wanted to bring it along, when we went out.
On the second day we went to see the general cemetery in Guatemala City (Cementerio General de la Ciudad de Guatemala). It is huge. Really huge. Some families have big monuments while others only have a vertical tomb in a tomb complex. These are the cheapest places to be buried and the poorest families can’t even afford a real plate so the name of the deceased is simply written in the concrete used to close the tomb. The first six years in these vertical tombs are free, but after that the price is USD 24 for every successive four years.
We also went to see the Verbena cemetery which lies in a much poorer neighbourhood adjacent to what is called a “red zone”, a slum part of the city where the gangs live and operate from. We were walking around in the outskirts of the cemetery when the boys inside the red zone apparently spotted us and began whistling to each other. Time to find our way out. Quickly!
The vertical tombs at Verbena cemetery next the one of the city’s “red zones”.
After a week in Guatemala City I left for Santiago de Sacatepéquez. I had been checking out Sumpange with a guy called Luis, who is from Guatemala City but works in Sumpango. Sumpango is the most known place for the big kites, but from what I have learned the origin of the tradition is in Santiago de Sacatepéquez. And after seeing both cities, there was no doubt in my mind, that I wanted to document the tradition in Santiago. Here poeple put the kites on display and fly them on the cememtery, while in Sumpango the do it next to the cemetery. It seems like it is much more touristic in Sumpango as well. Not that it will be possible to completely avoid tourists in Santiago but most of them end up in Sumpango.
A week before the Day of the Dead kids are playing with small kites at the cemetery.
I stayed one night in a terrible hotel in the outskirts of the city. It was the best in town – and the only one. Yesterday I moved to a private house, and I am now staying with Gonzalo and his family, children, parents, brothers, sisters, grand parents etc. Gonzalo is 47 years old and ran for mayor last time and will run again in four years. Most of the people of Santiago belongs to the Kakchikel-Maya group and speak Kakchikel. It’s impossible for me to understand anything and most of all it sounds like some kind of an Inuit language. Luckily they also speak Spanish. I do speak a little Spanish too, enough to explain why I am here and what I am doing. Apparently I do speak these few sentences quite well and after my explanation, people mostly try to start a longer conversation. With no luck! But it seems like I am welcome and people are very friendly.
A man is preparing his fathers grave for the Day of the Dead celebrations at the cemetery of Santiago de Sacatepéquez.
At the cemetery in Santiago de Sacatepéquez people are preparing the graves for the celebration of the Day of the Dead coming up on November 1. The tombs are cleaned, some are re-painted, weed are removed and flowers are spread on the graves. I was told that November 1. is the only day of the year where the dead people can walk the earth. Therefore it is important that the graves are nice and clean when the dead come out so they can see that their family cares about them.
A funeral at the cemetery in Santiago de Sacatepéquez. Not much space are left to bury people below ground and poor families can’t afford a traditional grave. Instead the deceased are buried in vertical tombs.