Circus! Circus! Tough Life on the Road
©Tara A. Spears
Harking back to a less sophisticated time, small family circuses live a nomadic life driving on the rural serpentine, two lane highways throughout Mexico, pitching their tents in dusty fields in small towns. It used to be a BIG event: something out-of-the-ordinary, excitement for the sleepy, isolated villages that welcomed any entertainment besides walking down main street on a Saturday night. But in the age of satellite TV and internet, the traveling circus pales compared to the high tech movies now available right at home. Presently, the once glamorous life of a circus performer is just a lot of hard work to barely make ends meet. This original ‘reality’ entertainment is a dying art.
But the circus tradition still touches audiences: to young children even an ordinary llama, camel or monkey is a delight. This week La Penita was home for not just the Continental Circus but the Ponderosa de Venezuela Circus. The audience was mostly families or grandparents with children-look at the anticipation in the girls’ eyes as they waited in line to attend a recent circus performance While an adult sees a threadbare, home-made costume, a child sees the glamorous outfit of a real-life Barbie doll.
The children cried “Ohhhhh!” as the acrobats performed overhead amid the spotlights-it was Spiderman live! While a pony might be ordinary if grazing in a field, tricked out with feathers in its halter, bathed in colored spotlights and accompanied by upbeat music with a handler in sequins, it is a magical creature. The slap-stick antics of the clowns needed no translation- it’s comical in any language. A modern act, two cousins who ride motorcycle in the Globo de la Muerta (Globe of Death) defy gravity as they flip upside-down within a metal cage on growing machines.
Although these traveling circuses are small family operations, the two hour show flowed smoothly with excellent sound system music and professional performances by all entertainers. It was a shame that less than 40 people were there to appreciate the effort.
The Show Goes On:
The small family circuses travel around Mexico in a two-year circuit, having obtained permits for each locality in advance. Unlike the larger circuses that perform in medium to large cities which promote themselves with posters, media reports, and a circus caravan featuring its entertainers and its “trained” animals that parades through town, the Continental circus arrives with no advance notification. They live a nomadic life on the back roads from town to town, moving everything they own via rickety transport trucks, the performers living out of small RV trailers, gear and animals on flatbed trailers.
At each new town the tents go up, pegs are pounded into the ground, power hijacked by dangerous and dubious methods from hydro lines, water found, animals and people fed. The roustabouts spend the day publicizing the show by driving along dusty village streets, a few animals in a cage behind the truck, a loudspeaker blaring out slogans about the spectacular circus. Locally, there is rarely enough business to keep a circus in town for more than three nights. The light attendance barely covers the cost of animal feed and gas to get to the next town. All of the performers have multiple roles-not only three separate acts but selling souvenirs and treats when they weren’t in the ring.
They must love their job to keep smiling and put so much effort into the show for such a small audience and such low gratuity! To a ‘townie’ it seems to be such a lonely, difficult lifestyle, that without having a family heritage and devotion to the concept of circus entertainment it is a thankless job. There are young performers that are barely 5 years old, surely the grandchildren of the owners and children of the main performers-there is no way that they are attending a traditional school. They might be exceptional at their act but unskilled for any other job. So the traveling family circuses manage because they do not pay salary to the majority of circus staff, and perpetuate the circus tradition by every family member training for some type of role.
As the sun goes down, tickets and snacks are sold and the curtain parts as the Mexican family traveling circus performers dream of a packed house and enough ticket sales to pay for truck repairs-yet just for this night, they believe in the magic.