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Sunday, December 3, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Jerry Large

Mayans' kite fliers send aloft a message of pride

Seattle Times staff columnist

A kite can travel a long way if it has enough line. One string that starts in Seattle reaches all the way to the highlands of Guatemala, where Mayan Indians fly barriletes gigantes: huge, round and colorful kites.

On the Seattle end is the Drachen Foundation, which has modest space in a building on Queen Anne. Drachen means kite and dragon in German.

I'd heard that the foundation's administrator, Ali Fujino, was in Guatemala last month to see the Mayan kites fly on All Saints' Day, and that the Indians were using their kites to show pride in their heritage and to send a message to the government that they are tired of being exploited.

Indians are the majority in Guatemala, but they are also the majority of the poor in a country where 75 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. Ladinos, people of mixed European and Indian heritage, run things.

Fujino said the government doesn't allow Indians to speak their language in school and Indian culture is neglected except for those instances in which it can attract a tourist dollar.

As is true elsewhere in Latin America, Indians are relegated to the lowest rungs of society.

A civil war raged in Guatemala for 36 years, pitting Mayans and others disaffected with the government against various U.S.-backed rulers. We were fighting communism then, and we saw potential enemies in nearly every popular uprising.

Just recently a memo advocating U.S. airstrikes against Nicaragua was in the news, because the guy who wrote it, Robert Gates, is President Bush's nominee for defense secretary.

Gates wrote it when he was the No. 2 man at the CIA in 1984 because he thought Nicaragua was about to go communist.

Across Latin America today, Indians are organizing and pressing for better treatment.

In Guatemala, there are many organized efforts, but there is something special about the quiet protest of a kite.

Fujino says the kites look like stained-glass windows in the sky. They are made of colored tissue paper, cut into shapes and glued together in geometric patterns. The kites that fly over the cemetery in Sumpango on All Saints' Day depict scenes of Mayan life — a mother doing her daughter's hair, people working, women in traditional clothing as colorful as the kites.

And there are words on the kites. One lambastes land grabbers. Another says: Respect our lives. It's the basis of peace. Others speak of government atrocities.

Fujino is a constant traveler, who lived in Honduras from 1974 to 1977 when she was in the Peace Corps. She was sent to Guatemala in 1976 to help when an earthquake devastated the capital and killed 22,000 people.

She first heard about the kites of Sumpango when she was in Honduras, but kites weren't on her agenda yet.

While traveling in China she met Scott Skinner, an avid kite enthusiast, who asked her to help him establish a kite museum, but she'd worked for the Smithsonian and thought he should do something more dynamic than a museum.

Skinner established the foundation in 1995, and Fujino has run it since the beginning. The foundation takes a hand in anything having to do with kites. It publishes an electronic journal, holds seminars, gets kids into kite flying. It buys historically significant kites that are in danger of being lost, restores old kites, displays kites, and Fujino travels around the world helping people put kites to all kinds of uses.

Kites have been used to study bats, capture moths, photograph whales and earthquake fault lines. And, of course, to send messages.

Fujino said 50,000 people were gathered around the cemetery in Sumpango this year, mostly from the area, but many more tourists than were there in 2001, the first year she attended the flying.

It's gotten so popular that the government now sponsors a rival kite flying in Santiago. The kites there have only geometric designs. No messages.

The foundation is helping spread the word of the Mayan kites and their messages. They've given the organizers a laptop and camera so they can document the making of kites for the event. It takes weeks to make one, and lots of money, too.

A kite maker told them why he spends weeks making a kite each year. "It's the only thing I can think of that permits me to revisit my Indian culture — combining my mind and my soul and my skills."

When kites fly in Sumpango, the people who make them soar, too.

Jerry Large: 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com.

His column runs Thursdays and Sundays and is found at www.seattletimes.com/columnists.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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