It is spring in Chile, when strong winds sweep in from the south and cleanse the capital of its winter cloak of smog. It is a time of change and renewal. People fill the parks in the newly breathable air to take their leisure--and join in aerial combat.
This year, a brooding spring arrived grudgingly, as if the nation was trying to hold back time, to ward off an approaching day of reckoning. Given the propensity for political conflict here, those who will vote "yes" Wednesday to another eight years of military rule by President Augusto Pinochet are as jumpy as those who will vote "no." Uncertainty clouds Chile's hopes.
Yet neither the prevailing doubts nor the preponderance of gray, clammy days has deterred thousands of Chileans from a favorite spring rite. For uncounted citizens, spring means kite flying.
Crowd Parks, Fields
Every Saturday and Sunday, when it's not raining, thousands of devotees crowd the capital's parks and vacant fields, however rutted and dusty, to send aloft their square paper kites. No one seems to have figures, but the cluttered skies are testimony to the addiction.
Some Chileans have exploited their hobby this spring to promote the Yes or the No campaign, vertically. Some seek solitude. But many compete. Typically in combative Chile, an innocent and solitary pastime is transformed into a passionate form of warfare.
Close up, the idyllic weekend landscape in downtown O'Higgins Park reveals a none-too-benevolent scene. Many kite fliers are maneuvering their craft, with aeronautical artistry, to make their kite string sever that of a foe, sending the other kite spinning earthward. The falling kites rarely reach the ground. Dozens of boys with 20-foot-long poles or branches are poised like vultures across the field, waiting for a victim--finders, keepers--and rush to catch the falling kites with their impromptu lances.
Smog Rivals Mexico City's
It's little wonder that Santiagoans prefer an outdoor spring hobby. On cloudless days in winter, when the sky is blue overhead, the smog can get so bad that you can see no more than two or three blocks. Santiago's smog is said to be the second worst in the world, after that of Mexico City. Residents walk with handkerchiefs pressed to their mouths.
On fine days in spring, the soaring Andes Mountains that trap the smog in winter become spectacularly visible to the east. On a recent Saturday, kite fliers watched the sunset turn the mountain snows crimson as a fat moon rose faintly over the peaks, brightening as darkness fell and the kite fliers reluctantly reeled in.
September, when the southern hemisphere's spring begins, has often been a time of change, and sometimes torment, since Chile's independence from Spain, celebrated each Sept. 18 with an orgy of kite flying. Chilean presidential elections used to be held on Sept. 4, the last time in 1970 when Marxist President Salvador Allende was elected. After three years of chaos--caused by leftist misgovernment or rightist destabilization, depending on one's point of view--Allende died in a military coup led by Pinochet on Sept. 11, 1973.
Pinochet has ruled unchallenged since then, apart from an assassination attempt by Communist guerrillas on Sept. 7, 1986. Many had expected Pinochet to schedule the referendum, called for this spring under the 1980 constitution, on Sept. 11. Instead he chose Oct. 5, a neutral day.
So September was campaign month, electric with emotions after 15 years without politics. Chileans thronged back to the fray, with fair doses of tear gas and rock throwing accompanying the verbal sallies. Thus there is a hurried pace on the narrow pedestrian shopping streets downtown, normally a respite from the choking bus fumes but recently the site for roiling conflict. Hawkers selling campaign buttons, for the first time in 15 years, do a steady business. To hedge their bets, most sell both those of the Yes and the No.
Both the Yes and the No campaigns, naturally, have turned to kites in their propaganda campaigns.
The Yes organization bought 4,000 kites from Francisco Espinosa, a craftsman who has turned his hobby into a small business.
"I would have done it for either side," Espinosa pointed out. "It was purely a business arrangement."
Aerial Guerrilla Theater
The No campaign supporters also have sent aloft kites emblazoned with their stance, and the two sides are said to have joined battle in symbolic kite fights, or to have staged symbolic battles with a sure winner, a kind of aerial guerrilla theater.
But to purists like Espinosa and Alfredo Ahumada, who is president of the Chilean Kite Fliers Assn., that approaches heresy.
The association has 300 members, from laborers to architects, who gather for four hours every weekend day from August to March. Their fervor borders on fanaticism. And they don't discuss politics.
Divided into 16 teams with names like the Vampires and the Scorpions, the league charges dues of 100 pesos a month, or about 40 cents, per person. As in European soccer, there is an honor division and second division, depending on performance, and the competition includes both team and individual play. One contest involves five members of one team battling five from another at the same time, with diving, bobbing and spinning kites racing back and forth until one side cuts down all of its opponents' kites.
Fingers Taped Against Cuts
This is no picnic in the park. Competitors tape their fingers to guard against burns and cuts from the string, which must be pure white cotton, according to league rules--no nylon filament allowed. However, Sergio Sepulveda, a gynecologist and kite devotee, said the string is dipped in baths of glue and glass powder to give it cutting strength, a process similar to that used in Asian countries, where kite fighting is also popular.
Often two men work one kite. The competitor plays the string with his hands, coaxing it up, down, right, left, in and out with the grace of a fly fisherman. His second whirls a wooden spool a foot in diameter with up to 1,000 yards of string, permitting great speed.
All ages compete, from a 10-year-old boy to 66-year-old Segundo Rodriguez, who has been at it since childhood.
Benedictine monks brought kites to Chile in the 18th Century, and made it an upper-class hobby. Kites are celebrated as a cultural treasure in Chile's literature. As golf and tennis took hold in recent decades, the well-to-do have turned out less often. Commercial kites, sold by vendors on street corners around the city, cost just 30 pesos each (12 cents). Their ruins cling to trees and power cables all over Santiago.
Kites Flat and Square
Unlike the diamond-shaped or boxlike American kite, Chilean kites are flat and square. For competition, they must be between 16 and 20 inches square. Crossed reeds cut from Chilean bamboo shoots, one of them gently bowed, form the frame for the kite, which must be of paper, but in an array of patterns delicately cut and glued, not painted, that can be an explosion of color on a string.
There are no tails on these kites; that would reduce their mobility. They are maneuvered with the hand alone, in twirling, lazy arcs and zinging sprints toward the foe. Depending on the wind, kite fliers use softer or stiffer reeds, balancing strength against speed. Three short strings are tied to the kite and then to the main string, allowing more finesse.
Sepulveda, the gynecologist, demonstrated the two methods of downing an opponent's kite: the violent attack, shooting sideways and in with a taut string, and the soft attack, in which the kite lazily plays out, embraces and severs the other string.
"This is a significant part of our folklore, as much as the cueca (a dance) or empanadas (small pies, usually of meat or cheese)," he said. "There are professionals here, architects and teachers, and laborers. It cuts across all class lines."
Kite Flying 'Therapy'
Ahumada, the association president who retired from submarine duty in the navy in 1976, was happy to get back to his outdoor sport.
"This is therapy," he said.
With so many kites aloft at once, it is difficult to know who is controlling which kite. The non-league kite fliers take part in an afternoon-long free-for-all, in which all kites are considered fair targets.
One kite was molesting Ahumada's during a recent competition. "Take him," a friend urged. Ahumada casually chopped the string of the intruder, sending it tumbling.
The association has also put on kite theater, telling a story of smog in which dark gray kites cut down kites with human faces, and then green trees rise up and defeat the smog.
Promotional Logos on Kites
Lately, promotional logos on kites have become popular, providing a business boom for craftsman Espinosa.
In his modest workshop, Espinosa, 44, said that his father, a barber, introduced him to kiting. A year ago, he began producing competition-quality kites full-time, as well as making commercial sales. Now business is so good that he cannot meet all his orders. He won the individuals' championship last year. Espinosa said he is for Pinochet for having brought calm to Chile.
A kiting friend, Ramon Segundo Alarcon, stopped by. He said he was for a No victory because working people are suffering. He and Espinosa both insisted, however, that their political differences do not translate into animosity--discord is the politicians' problem--and that they are concerned about the months after the vote.
"It could get much better for the people of Chile," Alarcon said. "Then again, it could get much worse, too."