Kate Kilpatrick Award-winning reporter, editor and cross-platform journalist917-741-7034
kathleen.kilpatrick@gmail.com

Mexican Street Clowns

Augustin and his family.

Seriously Funny

DAZED & CONFUSED (MAY 2007)
TEXT AND PHOTOS BY KATE KILPATRICK

Download PDF here.

In Mexico, clowning is big business—but street clowns are seen as little more than bums and hustlers. We travel to the 14th annual Convivencia de Payasos Populares Callejeros, where they explain they are real artists, bringing culture to the poor, and speaking uncensored truth about society.

Augustin’s mangled right hand has only three fingers and is a tangle of scars. He sits on a rock in a grassy trash-filled road junction in Mexico City painting the faces of his three daughters. The eldest gets lavender eyes. The middle daughter is given a huge white grin. The youngest little girl, a matted red afro wig covering her long black hair, gets a smudged black moustache. On his own face, striking for its round eyes, high cheekbones and wide mouth, the humble softly-spoken father paints a goofy pink tongue flapping down over his chin.

In Mexico, clowns are everywhere but they generally go unnoticed. Last October, the capital hosted the Latin American Clown Convention, which attracted 700 mostly Mexican clowns to the city. They even appear on TV: a clown named Brozo (a play on “Bozo the Clown” and la broza—slang for rowdy working-class people) hosted a hard-hitting morning news show for two and a half years before his wife/co-producer died in 2004.

There are two classes of clowns in Mexico: the caras blancas (“white faces”) who sport crisp costumes and big red shoes and who perform at circuses and children’s birthday parties; and the payasos callejeros (“street clowns”) who mime and dance at busy street corners and tell jokes on crowded buses. The caras blancas are well-respected—they represent the middle class and aremore educated and refined, and in class-driven Mexico, it’s no surprise that they look down on the street clowns as a collection of bums, drunks and hustlers. The callejeros wear simpler costumes and their pleas for pesos are more earnest. Often they’ll paint black teardrops on their faces to represent their impoverished and marginalized existence. They speak to adult audiences, often indulging in bawdy humour, bad language and biting social parodies.

“The clowns tell the truth with jokes, criticizing government, they system, inflation,” says Ivan Vega, who performs as “Bobo Pelo de Escobeta” (Bobo Hair of Bristle), “to give the public an uncensored message.”

During the week, Augustin grows corn and carrots in the fields near his home, a small town about a two-hour bus ride from Mexico City. On the weekends, he brings his three girls to the city to raise money for his eldest daughter’s school bills.

The family huddles together on the concrete median, sharing a bag of corn chips and a two-litre bottle of Coke. When the traffic light turns red, they take it in turns to entertain the distracted drivers. The oldest girl races out into the street and turns to face the cars. She jumps up and down, dancing for the oncoming traffic. “I’m hungry and I need something to drink,” she mimes by rubbing her belly and lifting her thumb to her mouth. “Don’t be greedy,” she communicates by tapping her elbows and wagging her finger back and forth. (In Mexico and parts of Latin America, to be “codo“—the word for elbow—also means to be stingy.

Is it really any wonder Andre Breton called Mexico City the last surrealist city in the world?

“I’m a clown … I’m intelligent!” bellows acting coach Oscar Rodríguez Esqueda, as he slowly paces the upstairs room of a community centre.

The lights are off and a dozen or so payasos callejeros lay spread across the floor with their eyes closed. Esqueda’s voice builds to a crescendo as he continues with the self-affirmation and relaxation meditation. “I’m an artist … I’m important to this city!” he booms.

clown_heartThese clowns have paid $25 to attend the 14th annual Convivencia de Payasos Populares Callejeros, a three-day convention for street clowns held every year in Toluca, an industrial city two hour outside the capital. Acting, voice and mime coaches assess their costume, make-up and performances, offering advice on everything from diction and voice projection to body language and how to put together monologues. Events likes these, held throughout the country, aim to elevate these clowns to the same status as other performance artists.

“Street clowns have been the target of a lot of aggression and discrimination by other artist communities,” Esqueda says after the workshop. “So the aim of my message is to motivate them so they can appreciate themselves as ‘artists.'”

Despite suffering cultural discrimination, street clowns are, Esqueda says, firmly rooted in Mexico’s urban panorama, alongside other popular and indispensable characters such as traveling salesmen, boleros, prostitutes, mariachis and other musicians who perform for public audiences.

“The street clowns bring culture to the poorest and most marginalized people in the country,” says Rene Lopez Flores (aka Payaso “Tachuelon”), who helped organize the event. “And it’s at no cost except for the applause of the audience and a small donation of a few coins.”

An estimated 2,000 street clowns work at busy road junctions around the country, with many concentrated in the capital. While large numbers come from nearby cities like Toluca, Pachuca and Puebla to work, there are also clowns from los cinturones de pobreza, the poverty belt or expulsion zone of destitute slums in the hills that surround the capital.

In recent years, Mexico’s street clowns have begun to get better organized. Besides the workshops and conventions, nearly 200 callejeros—in full costume and make-up—make an annual pilgrimage to the Basilica of Guadalupe to thank the Virgin for her help and protection throughout the year.

According to Tachuelon, dedication to the profession is what distinguishes true street clowns from pseudo clowns—those who sloppily mimic the actions, plagiarize routines and do it solely for the money “and not for the love of being a clown.”

But Vega sees things differently.

“Both exist, those who are artists and prepare for their role, traveling to Europe and other countries where there’s very good street theatre and clown art, and they learn to be great artists. Then there are those who are clowns because they’ve painted and dressed up and they work to earn some pesos so they can eat,” says Vega. “I believe the art of being a clown is so noble that it includes all these people.”

In Mexico, popular arts are held in high regard, and most Mexicans tolerate and even appreciate the humble street clown. Even those who see it as more of a hustle at least recognize that it’s an honest and creative one, and after all, everyone has to eat. As the callejero slogan goes: “Venga a ver lo que hace el hambre (Come see what hunger makes).”

There are also people who see the callejeros as urban heroes or cultural warriors. They perceive the street clowns as artistic revolutionaries who bring heart, sweat and spirit to every performance, people who fight daily for sustenance and the space to express their art. Every day, these clowns fight to keep the poor man’s circus alive. They fight to sustain the spirit of a city that has become overstressed by pollution, traffic, crime, corruption and people. And despite the tears that mark their faces—symbols of the sadness and humanity lurking beneath the painted grins—they fight to distract, if only for a few minutes, fellow citizens from their troubles.

“Mexico is a very festive country,” says Vega. “We have many parties; we’re accustomed to fun and laughter. And with so many economic problems, the laughter is a distraction for the people. Laughter cures problems—social, political and economic.”

clown_pollitobusMe puedo hechar un palomaso (Can I do a show)?” asks Santiago Aviles Ruiz, aka “Pollito Pistolas” (Little Chicken Pistols), wearing a metal pot on his head as a combat hat. The bus driver nods yes and Pollito hoists his weary 58-year-old body up the narrow steps and onto the bus.

Ruiz has been a clown for nearly 40 years and has never wanted to do anything else. Years ago when he visited his daughter in Chicago, he carried the street clown tradition with him. His daughter translated all his routines into English, which he then memorized and performed in parks and plazas. He knows several clowns who’ve crossed the border illegally and now work as callejeros up north.

Although these days he performs at parties and even government events, he still clocks hours riding the crowded microbuses—the green and white public buses seen everywhere in Mexico City. A typical day for a payaso de microbus consists of hopping on and off between 60 and 100 journeys. Ruiz says all his costumes are homemade including his vest, which has a sequined yellow chicken on the back. A knitted pouch that hangs at his hip contains a small collection of squeaky horns, whistles and other noisemakers. Unlike many street clowns, whose performances carry a heavy dose of sexual innuendo, Ruiz keeps his routines clean.

Standing towards the back of the jostling bus, he tells a quick joke. Most of the passengers stare straight ahead, refusing to be engaged. But time is precious in this hustle and he moves along unfazed, pulling out a worn-out red and green fan and waves it in the air.

“What are you looking at?” he asks the man beside him, slapping him on the shoulder with the fan. The man ignores him.

“Ah, you broke my fan!” Ruiz shouts.

The man turns and looks at the fan, which has split in half and droops pathetically. He gives in and laughs quietly. Others scattered around the bus also relax into smiles. Ruiz then flicks his wrist to show a magically mended fan and walks up and down the aisle, playing some notes on his harmonica, doling out balloons to those who will take them and collecting pesos from those who offer them. He thanks the entire bus and hops off—three streets down from where he boarded and 17 pesos richer.

Reply