Choosing to stop in this town seemed like a strange choice. Outsiders are mostly frowned upon or even feared. I asked my 27-year-old neighbor, Abby, if she planned on going.
“Only bad people hang out there,” was her only response to that.
I decided that I wasn’t going to let unfounded fears hold me back from not just seeing the show, but going further under the tent to see what the life is like of a Central American circus performer. One Saturday afternoon, I saw a boy I didn’t recognize from the school sitting on a park bench. Deciding to take a chance, I sat next to the kid and pulled the classic Nicaraguan icebreaker: I started talking about the weather. After a few minutes he told me his name was Eric and he was a juggler for Circo Zuary.
Eric was born in Honduras, and has been with the circus his entire life. All of thirteen years old, he has traveled all over Central America performing alongside his entire family.
“The best thing about being in the circus is when you do your act really well, the people cheer for you.” He said. It just might be the most honest response I’ve ever received.
After a short time, I asked if I could talk to some of the others in the circus. He only said, “yeah sure,” in a sort of “It’s your neck” kind of way. I decided to take a different approach. I rode my bike around to the back of the trailer caravan. There I saw an older gentleman resting in a hammock. I gave him a friendly wave and he returned. I knew I had found my in.
His name was Ricardo, and like Eric, he had been with the circus his entire life as well. He was the son of the founding couple in Mexico. Each of his brothers and sisters had taken a branch of the original circus off in a different direction and they all circulate Central America.
Being an English teacher I wondered how the kids were receiving an education. I asked Ricardo.
“We’re sitting in their classroom right now,” he said with a laugh and pointed to the door turned on its side and set on cinderblocks that we were using as a table.
All the primary school age kids that live and work in the circus receive classes, one room school house style, from a hired teacher that travels along with them.
“The kids study here with only notebooks and a personal teacher. When it’s time to move up to the next grade, they take a test with the kids in the primary school of where we are, and then we just save the papers that say what their grades are.”
Later when I returned to work, my counterparts confirmed that not only do the students pass the exams, they normally score much higher than the local students.
At this time I asked, “who’s in charge around here anyway?”
Ricardo waved for me to follow him to the biggest trailer.
“Ok, this is my sister,” he told me, suddenly very serious. “She’s older and a woman of few words. If things start to go wrong just say excuse me and get out.”
I was officially spooked, but I wasn’t backing out after having come this far into sometwhere so few get to see behind scenes.
Ricardo then ducked into the trailer to the matriarch. After about 20-30 seconds he reappeared with his classic clown grin and waved me to enter.
There I met Mama Celeste Ponse. At first glance, she gave off the aura of a real motherly persona, befitting of her title among the “cirqueños” as she called her people.
I had learned that a good body language technique for communicating with older women in my community was to find a way to sit down lower than them so that I look up to them like I might be one of her grandchildren ready for a story.
The change of expression on the plump old lady’s face showed that I had made the right move as she beamed down at me and she began to regale the history of Circo Zuary.
Her father, a Mexican artist and her mother, already a “cirqueña” formed the first generation of their circus.
When she was born, along with her brothers, they became the new performers in the show. She insisted on using the word “art” and “artists” to describe what the cirqueño does and lives by. Looking at her old black and white photos of her brothers and her performing on high wires, balancing on balls while singing and playing guitar, I saw the circus in a new light. They really were a giant family of artists, each with their own part.
“I’m 67 years old,” Mama Celeste said. “I’ve done my part. It’s time for my sons to focus on their art. I manage the circus so that they don’t have to be distracted by the business side of Circo Zuary.”
Mama Celeste said that she was so happy that she had sons since daughters tend to leave the circus to live with their husbands where as men bring their, usually artistic, wives along with them. This is how the circus grows.
I went to the show that night, Eric, Ricardo and others all performed to applause. Still many people would only describe the cirqueños as dangerous degenerates that can’t be trusted.