On September 18 of each year Chile marks its independence with couples dancing cueca, games played on horseback and copious mixed grills washed down with local wines, beers and chicha. Hundreds of brightly colored kites soar above the festivities from dry Andean Valleys to lush southern pastures.
A Santiago workshop
Boris Prado is the third in a family line of kite makers, using the same techniques employed by his grandfather and great uncle before him. With an Exacto knife and careful, easy fingers he cuts brightly colored tissue paper into geometric patterns and glues them delicately together, bending fine wooden reeds into simple skeletons to support the translucent squares of patterned paper. When he finishes, Prado slides the decorative kites into an architectural frame of glass, wood and metal, which he builds (also by hand) according to a design developed by his grandfather. The most complex of these kites can take days to assemble.
Competition kites, built to be flown rather than displayed, use a similar technique, though they are larger, with thicker reeds and generally (though not always) simpler in design. In September, the most popular month for kite flying, Prado makes as many as 100 such kites. When the thin paper begins to tatter and tear, he removes it in order to reuse the sturdy frames.
An ancient tradition in modern Chile
Prado is one of relatively few people left in Santiago who still builds his kites entirely by hand. The tradition of kite flying, Prado says, arrived in Chile with the first Spanish monks in the 16th century, but began long before in China and Tibet, where it was practiced amongst Buddhist monks as a meditative and philosophical endeavor. “For them, kites were part of life,” Prado says. “For us they are part of a game.”
Over the centuries kite-flying spread from missions and monasteries to the general population. Easy, cheap and readily available, kites became a common form of entertainment throughout the country.
In many places, and particularly in urban centers like Santiago, kites are becoming a less common sight as many find alternative forms of entertainment. “Today there is a great deal of technology and games are changing quickly. Kids are interacting with their computers, for instance,” says Prado. Increasing urban density has also effected the tradition negatively.
Because kites remain cheap Prado sees them as more common for less wealthy populations, but, he says, “it can be difficult for them too because they don’t have cars to leave Santiago.”
But Prado and other kite enthusiasts keep the tradition alive. He builds his competition kites for members of kite clubs throughout Chile, and offers workshops on kite building and flying in several schools around Santiago. Once each year Prado participates in the Universidad Católica’s International Traditional Artisan’s Show, an event for which he prepares 30 to 40 pieces.
Keeping kites afloat
In his Ñuñoa workshop, Prado keeps boxes of completed designs, flimsy, translucent squares of geometric and organic patterns, as yet unstructured with frames. No two are quite the same, with each pattern of blocks, squares, stripes and circles designed originally by Prado and never repeated.
Stored under a couch is a large wooden case of used competition kites, larger than the decorative ones, with simpler color-schemes sun-bleached from hours in the sky. Lifting them from the box one by one, he fingers their tattered edges and battered frames. “They are delicate but very resilient,” he says.
He might well be describing the entire tradition. Kites may be a less and less frequent sight amidst the high rises of Santiago, but Prado’s worn specimens are no museum pieces—they are a testament to a pastime that continues to capture the Chilean imagination.
For more information, contact Prado at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This post is also available in Spanish