I wouldn't have met Piti if it hadn't been for a chichigua.
To translate chichigua as a kite does not do justice to these beautiful creations of Dominican folk art. When I was a girl growing up in the Dominican Republic, chichiguas made their appearance in the skies above us in the spring, windy season, just in time for Easter.
Chichigua soaring high in the Haitian sky
We often made them at home, out of whittled bamboo sticks and colorful waxy paper. We needed string; we needed scissors and glue; we needed rags to tear up for the long, whirling tails. We needed someone with patience of an old person and the soul of a child to help us cut and paste the paper on the frame just right so our chichigua would fly. But we children were in charge, becausechichiguas, as the core of the word implies, were for chichís, little kids like us who needed to soar above our small, cramped place in a world that belonged to the adults.
Semana santa, the week before Easter, when school was out, we drove out to my grandfather's finca to fly our chichiguas. We did not have to worry about telephone wires or electricity lines. We'd race across the open fields, trying to stay out of each other's way. This was not the competitive activity described in the novel Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini, whereby kids "fight" their kites, trying to cut off another kite flyer's string. We did compete, but only to see whose kite could fly the highest. Sometimes I lost hold of my string, and off flew my chichigua, taking a little part of me into that high blue mystery. I'd burst into tears. "For heaven's sakes, it's just a chichigua," Mami would scold. Just a chichigua! Back then, my mother did not have the soul of a child.
But my favorite part of flying chichiguas was the messages we would send up to God. I don't know if every Dominican kid did this, but in our family, we wrote messages on pieces of paper, poked a hole in the center, and sent them skiddling up the string of our chichiguas into the hands of Papá Dios.
Because I became a writer, you might think that I penned something creative. I'm afraid that most of my missives were petitions for toys like the ones my richer cousins owned. But since we could send as many messages up as our string could bear, I usually preceded the request with an introductory note:
You still see chichiguas for sale on street corners in the Dominican Republic in the spring, but they are made of plastic, printed with superheroes and Disney characters, like advertisements sent up to litter the spring skies. They are as close to a real chichigua as a boxed grocery store cake is to a homemade confection.
So you can understand why, one spring day twelve years ago, when I spotted a boy with a homemade chichigua, I asked Bill to stop our pickup. The boy was a young Haitian, living with other undocumented Haitian migrant workers in a barracks on a neighboring farm to Alta Gracia. The boy spoke no Spanish, and I, no Kreyòl, but when I pointed to his chichigua, he grinned and offered it to me.I wasn't about to part a boy from his chichigua, but his kindness sparked up a friendship.
Eight years later, and six months after the earthquake, I traveled to Haiti with this same boy, now a man, Piti. We had driven to his home, far in the northwest, to check on his family. A heavy rain started coming down. Out in a barren field, three little boys were crouched under an umbrella flying a chichigua. Bill pulled the pickup over so we could watch. When the boys realized they had an audience, they tugged at the string, making the chichigua dance in the cloudy sky. I was sure the heavy rain would bring it down, but that kite stayed aloft! (See page 227 of A Wedding in Haiti for photo.)
Now that I'm as old as the old people of my childhood, I know that the only reply I'm likely to get to the question, God, are you there? are moments like this one.
©2012 Julia Alvarez. All rights reserved.
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Books mentioned in this post
Julia Alvarez is the author of A Wedding in Haiti