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  Featured Article: Going To The Circus In Mexico

"Olguin Hermanos Circus, Another Mexican Delight"
Story and photos by Hank Duckman (copyright 2002)

It was during the rainy season a number of years ago. The Olguin Hermanos Circus was performing in a small Mexican village. Although the daily downfalls had been heavy, the tent and rigging were up and the show was going on. It seemed to Rafael Morales Alvarado that the water level in and around the big top was a couple of inches deep. As he came into the ring to perform the knife-throwing act he had been perfecting for years, he saw spectators sitting with their feet in deep puddles of water. Some of the lights had shorted out and the sound system was working erratically. He had given his hands an extra dousing of alcohol for its drying effect so as not to lose control of the knives and axes he hurls towards a large disc-shaped wooden panel with his wife attached to the middle of it whirling around in a circle.

Daredevil highwire act
Julio Alfredo Piner works the high-wire

There were no accidents that day. The audience gave him one of his biggest ovations. He says that one of the rewards of being a circus performer is knowing the people in the audience are eager to see what the circus has to offer and receiving their demonstration of appreciation.

Rafael is a true "cirquero", having been born into the circus. He is forty-eight years old but looks younger. He is about five feet seven inches tall. When he comes out to perform he appears taller with black shoulder length hair that flows straight down the back of his neck over a headband, reminiscent of U.S. native American style. His parents and grandparents were also "cirqueros".

He met his wife twenty-five years ago in a small village where he was performing with the circus and they started a courtship. She was not of the circus. After they married, she went off with him and has been with him and the circus for the last twenty-three years. In addition to being part of the knife-throwing act, she sells snacks and trinkets before the circus begins and during the intermission. Three of their children also perform with the circus. Rafael, eighteen years old, and his younger brother Jesus, eleven, are trampoline artists. Their sister performs a gymnastic contorsionist act.

Rafael, senior, emphasized his constant encouragement of his children to continue improving and refining their talents. He appeared to be choosing his words carefully: "the children must get to be better than the parents and this must continue if the circus is to survive." His oldest son is presently performing in a circus in England.

Rafael helped teach his sons the art of the trampoline. Rafael had costumes made for his knife-throwing act based on a magazine photograph he saw of a "native American" from the U.S. When he performs in the U.S., he wears an Aztec-style costume.

Knife throwing circus act
Rafael Morales Alvorado, knife thrower par excellence

His greatest satisfaction as a performer has come when he has been able to coax a volunteer from the audience to stand on the revolving wooden disk while he hurls his knives at him. The drama inherent in such a situation, he states, is compelling for the audience.

Has he ever had an accident with the knives? "Yes, a few�not awfully serious�some of them had to be taken to the hospital for stitches." My questioning in this direction went no further.

Eighteen-year-old Rafael, his next-to-oldest son, stands out when one first sees him because he has an atrophied left arm which occurred at birth. Once he launches himself into the air on the trampoline, his shrunken arm is forgotten. He soars into double and triple somersaults and flips of varied configurations with an ecstatic smile on his face in a world of his own.

When his brother Jesus, eleven, dressed as a clown, comes running into the ring to join him, Rafael's mien becomes intensely serious, reflecting the responsibility he feels for his younger brother. He spots Jesus from the side of the trampoline and they alternate their tricks on it. During one performance, Jesus lost control and went hurtling towards the edge of the apparatus. Rafael caught him before he could crash into the metal frame.

According to one of the owner-managers, the Olguin Hermanos Circus is not one of the more successful Mexican circuses. They only have fifteen performers, several doing double and triple duty. They live with their immediate and extended families in their own trailers. They have eight trucks to transport the tent, chairs, bleachers, animals and other paraphernalia from place to place throughout Mexico.

The manager told me that when the Mexican economy took a sharp downturn years ago, the circus was penniless, and they almost disbanded it completely. There were days when they could only afford one meal and had to sleep on the ground under the tent. They took day jobs to be able to buy food. But they didn't want to give up circus life, and kept striving to recover. They saved every centavo they could get their hands on. Gradually, the circus made a comeback.
taming the circus lion
Julio Alfredo Piner works with a lion well
within reach of the creature's massive paws

One of the reasons for my enchantment with Mexican circuses is because of the way every performer is willing to expand his or her itinerary for the sake of improving "the show". I saw this when the clown, Pablo Fernandez, did a "Simon says" type of pantomime with volunteers from the audience one night, the crowd loving it. The next night he instituted a completely new and different act, an amusing and moving scene in pantomime. Pablo told me he constantly tries to take the pulse of the audience, modifying his acts accordingly. Once a trapeze artist, a fall, which failed to be impeded by a net, caused permanent injuries to his back. That's why he became a clown.

The worker "playing" Pablo's foil in the pantomime scene is Julio Alfredo Piner, an engaging young man in his twenties. Other of Julio's supporting roles include setting up the microphone and speaker system at the start of each day's performance and tossing and catching hula-hoops to and from the young lady who spins them around her hips and legs in her act.

Julio proffers that he is not a true "cirquero" as he was not born into the circus but had family members associated with circuses. He finally left home a couple of years ago to join the circus full-time. When I first interviewed him, I was sitting in the tent waiting for the manager to send me more interviewees. Julio meandered in and said hello. Although I had seen the full circus the night before, he didn't look familiar. He was about five feet ten inches tall, athletic looking, with short-cropped dark hair wearing wire-rimmed glasses and a jogging suit. He spoke softly and intelligently and had a friendly smile. We chatted for a while and he told me he worked for the circus. I couldn't help thinking that the manager was having trouble corralling performers to come for interviews and had just collared the first person available. Somehow the conversation got around to the animals and I told him I'd really like to talk to the lion-tamer. He modestly muttered, "Oh� that's me".

That night, I sat in the audience again. A very good high-wire act began. The performer was introduced with an unfamiliar name and as hailing from Argentina. The artist projected a commanding air of confidence. His smile was vaguely familiar. He was wearing a bandana on his head and a gold hoop earring in one ear. He looked like a pirate. After each part of the act he stopped and clapped his hands once sharply signaling to the audience that he was ready for applause and to move on to the next stunt. As his finale, he walked across the wire blind-folded and hooded with the big top lights completely turned off, throwing the inside of the tent into pitch-blackness.

Jesus Morales has a performing father &
two performing brothers to look up to
Circus clown

The next day when I ran into Julio while standing outside the tent during intermission, he greeted me warmly asking if he could bring me a drink or something to snack on, perhaps some "palomitas" (popcorn). This time as I looked at him I could see the familiar face smiling down above the audience. To reassure myself, I asked him who the high-wire performer had been. With a humble shake of his head, he said, "That was me".

Later he told me he is working to improve his acts. He has only been working with the lion and on the high wire for two years. Both his high-wire act and his lion act are exciting and professional. Julio does the animal act with the lion on a long chain. He gets the massive cat to tread across a narrow bridge a couple of times. Then the animal sits up on his haunches on a small platform and paws at Julio's long leather crop. Julio stands facing the impressive creature within striking distance of the massive paws. He never hits the animal with the crop.

His grandfather taught him to work with the lion, who was born in captivity on an exotic animal breeding farm in Toluca some seven years ago. The lion looks healthy and well cared for. However the tip of his tail is missing. Julio says the lion himself did this. A veterinarian specializing in exotic animals was called in and felt it was because of a rare form of dermatitis and not for psychological reasons.

The Olguin Hermanos Circus also has two pairs of miniature ponies and an ostrich. which are incorporated into another animal act.
Aerial circus performance
Sandra Yrsenia Martinez doing her high-rings act

Two lovely sisters, Sandra Yrsenia Martinez and Erica Martinez Campos, twenty-four and twenty-one respectively, do some high apparatus work and a gymnastic contortionist act. Sandra is breathtakingly beautiful. She has a magnificent figure nourished by natural endowments and perfected by the exercise associated with her work. Her acts are thoroughly professional. In person, she is sweet and unassuming. Her sister, Erica, gave birth to a daughter just one month prior to this interview. During her pregnancy, she fell from the high rings but wasn't hurt severely and her baby is normal. "When one has an accident like that, it is important to get back as soon as possible, to prevent fear from taking command", Erica assured me.

Mexican circuses fascinate and thrill me. It's not the types of apparatus nor the variety and daring of their performances�what stirs me are the people of the circus, their passion, sincerity, warmth, and unwavering humility.

Author's note: My college professor of Shakespearean Drama once told me that a true sophisticate loves circuses. Mexican circuses have a unique quality that sets them apart. They are simpler and less ostentatious than "world class" circuses and retain the ancient tradition of being family run and operated. Because of their special nature, they provide a font of real-life drama. Since first attending a traditional Mexican circus in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, Mexico in 1972, I have looked forward to the day when I could see more of them. Since living in Morelia, I have been fulfilling this desire by attending and photographing Mexican circuses, and interviewing the owners and performers.

Editor's Note: You can reach author Hank Duckman
Do you have a unique story about Mexico, it's history, culture or your own travels that our readers might enjoy here on If so we'd be happy to read it and consider it for inclusion into our Feature Stories section. Just take a look at our writer's guidelines for more information and how to send us your story. Let's hear from you!

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