Author Catriona Rainsford ran away with the circus in Mexico, living and performing with an itinerant, fluid group of unicycle riding jugglers and fire “spinners.” We offer an excerpt from her memoir, “Urban Circus,” and an interview that provide fresh insight into Mexico.
If you’ve ever dreamed of running away with the circus, here is a story for you. Catriona Rainsford, a young writer and traveler who grew up in the UK, spent two years roaming Mexico with a group of malabaristas (street performers) and saw a side of the country few have ever experienced. From small rural villages to drug cartel-ravaged cities, Rainsford lived and eventually performed with an itinerant, fluid group of unicycle riding jugglers and fire “spinners.” After her full immersion into this subculture, where creativity is prized, loyalties are fierce, home is the last town you hitched a ride to, and caguama (beer) drinking is as essential as breathing, Rainsford returned to London and wrote The Urban Circus (Bradt Travel Guides, 2013, paperback) a superbly realized memoir of her experiences. Here is chapter one, followed by a Q&A with the author.
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We watched the second Creel massacre on a grainy surveillance video replayed in a truck-stop diner somewhere in Jalisco. I’d been facing the other way, gazing idly at the truck driver we were hitching with as he stirred tablespoons of instant coffee and sugar into his mug of boiling water. A surly waitress clattered crockery at an adjoining table. Trico jerked his head at the news bulletin playing on the TV screen above my head.
‘Hey Cat, look,’ he said. ‘It’s where we met.’
I craned around to watch as the cameras followed the men’s progress through Creel. The footage had been taken at dawn, the men’s long black shadows etched across the gold of the streets. They snorted handfuls of cocaine from clear plastic bags before approaching a house, firing several rounds through the front windows and then crashing through the front door with AK-47s tucked under their arms. We sat and looked until our driver heaved himself to his feet, brushed off his moustache, and lumbered out toward the truck with a sigh of ‘De verdad, Mexico está perdido.’ Truly, Mexico is lost.
We drained the last of our coffees and followed him outside. And I thought of Creel the way I had seen it, seven months before, the day I met Trico.
The first time I saw him, he was riding a unicycle along a wall. This was not unusual for Trico; he saw the entire world as a complicated arrangement of surfaces to ride unicycles on. But at the time I didn’t know that, and stopped walking for a few seconds to watch him.
The wall marked the edge of a raised plaza in the centre of Creel – a village tucked between the mountains of the Sierra Madre Occidental, just before they fracture into a labyrinth of yawning canyons that make the territory all but impassable and conceal any number of people who don’t wish to be found. The street alongside the plaza was wide and lined with low-slung buildings, revealing a fringe of pine trees above the line of rooftops. It was the sort of street that looks lonely without horses in it. There were no horses in it – only a couple of parked pickups with cold sores of rust over the wheels and a few men in shapeless brown trousers wearing the expressions of people who didn’t know the time and rarely needed to.
Behind the unicyclist, his companions milled around in the dappled shade under the trees on the plaza, idly twirling juggling clubs or beating slow rhythms on djembe drums, their belongings in tattered bundles at their feet. It was the final day of a small festival that had been held in some caves nearby, in that after-party hour that hangs heavy with spent adrenaline, when those that have homes hurry back to them, leaving those that don’t to linger dazedly behind. Like them, I was adrift and disoriented after the festival and perhaps my lost expression invited a gesture of solidarity. Calling me over, they offered me a swig of their beer.
They were travelling malabaristas – itinerant circus performers who wandered the streets of Mexico, hitchhiking from town to town and surviving by whatever donations of spare change or food the local people would give for their impromptu shows. You’d see them at traffic intersections all over the country – strange, jester-like figures who would skip out in front of the vehicles as they waited at the red lights, give a quick display of juggling or fire spinning, then collect any coins the drivers handed them as the cars moved off on either side.
I had seen them before, and pitied them. Not them precisely, but others like them, drowning in the flood of seething city traffic, gasoline-stained hands thrust out for a couple of spare pesos. I had read about them as well, never more than a couple of sentences in the middle of some rumination on Mexican poverty: another symbol of desperation in a country where almost half the urban population worked on the black market, and men joined the drug gangs because they saw no other way to make a decent living. They would be grouped in the same category as the boys who jumped on car bonnets as they waited at traffic lights and started frantically cleaning the windscreen, hoping that guilt or gratitude would inspire a tip. Or the children with huge black eyes like Japanese animations who wandered between the lines of cars, choking on exhaust fumes and reaching up to the windows to hawk small plastic packets of chilli peanuts. Just more impoverished kids trying to scrape a living off streets that were already overworked.
I might have gone on believing that, if it hadn’t been for Trico.
Trico was one of those born showmen whose star turn is themselves. Possessed of a frenetic energy, he did everything with quick, jerky little movements, like a clockwork toy wound up too tight. The vibrantly clashing colours and patterns of his clothes and chiselled planes of his face were crowned by a topknot of wild black dreadlocks, exploding with multicoloured braids. Sawn-off bits of plastic tubing kept the piercings in the lobes of his ears stretched to a width of several centimetres. Taken as a whole, the effect was one of carefully calculated insanity.
There on the plaza, he was the only one not limp with fatigue. Perched absurdly atop a unicycle with coloured beads on the spokes of the wheel and a tyre that appeared to have come off a mountain bike, he rode round and round us in dizzying circles. Weaving between the trees and even attempting the few steps down to the main road, he called out to the near-empty square –
‘Arre arre arrrrre!!! Bienvenido-o-o-s aaal spec-tac-ulo-o-o!’
Glancing around to assess his potential audience, he caught sight of a couple of Tarahumara girls, about six years old, watching wide-eyed from under the trees. Their feet were bare and they clutched bundles of bracelets made from grubby twisted string. The Tarahumara of the Sierra Madre are among the poorest indigenous peoples of Mexico, and often young children are expected to help bring home a few extra pesos by selling handmade trinkets to the tourists in the villages. The little girls wore dresses with the unique shabbiness of hand-me-downs, stained with elder sisters’ accidents and elder cousins’ dinners. Pedalling the unicycle over to come to a rocking equilibrium in front of them, Trico drew three fluorescent orange juggling clubs from the bag on his back and pointed exaggeratedly to his eye to indicate that they watch. He delivered a brief but enthusiastic display, embellishing the basic juggling patterns with tricks and flourishes. On finishing he gave them a bow, and they giggled in delight and hid their dirt-smudged faces behind their hands with childish coquettishness.
When he pedalled back over towards us, I complimented him on his performance and his unicycle.
‘Thanks’, he said. ‘It’s been with me two years. Good model. Terrain unicycle.’
‘A terrain unicycle.’ He spoke with the laboured patience of one sadly accustomed to such ignorance. ‘Thicker tyre, better grip. Good for off-road riding. Mountains, deserts, that kind of thing.’
‘Your whole life is a circus, isn’t it?’ I asked. He laughed. His features were dramatic and clearly defined, as in carvings of the Aztec warriors, and deep dimples bored into each side of his face when he smiled.
‘The whole world is a circus,’ he said, riding a further circle around us in reverse. ‘And all of us are the clowns.’
Despite his exuberance – or perhaps because of it – there was something curiously unreadable about him. It left you wondering what was spontaneous and what was rehearsed, how much was personality and how much persona. He embodied what captivated me most about Mexico: the impossibility of knowing where reality ended and fantasy began.
Malabarista. Most dictionaries will tell you it means ‘juggler’, but it’s broader than that. It describes a specific type of circus performer: one whose skill lies in the manipulation of objects. And beneath that it carries a note of ambiguity, a hint at something darker. I have heard that in Chile, it can also mean ‘trickster’: one whose skill lies in the manipulation of people.
Although I had always loved the fluid syllables of the word, it had never occurred to me to become a malabarista. It wasn’t an obvious career choice for someone with little natural coordination. But that day was one of those aimless ones when, freed from the blinkers of any particular plan or direction, you see the world as a kaleidoscope of possibilities fanning out around you. On such a day, just as a newly hatched duckling will adopt the first thing it sees as its mother, any chance encounter can lead you into an unexpected and unlikely future. I had been planning on leaving Creel later that evening. Instead, hearing that Trico and his friends intended to stay on to explore some of the surrounding area, where the road west led into the rugged backcountry of the Sierra Madre, I checked into a hotel room on the outskirts of the village and promised to see them again the next day.
One of their group had unearthed some distant relative who had a house in the village, where they set up camp on the veranda using a couple of elderly tents and a large sheet of tarpaulin. By about 11 every morning they would be on the plaza, and over the following days I got to know them a little better.
There was Sandra, tall and dreadlocked, with a childlike vulnerability in the way her lips parted over two buck front teeth. She was originally from Ciudad Juárez, the crime-torn border town to the north, notorious at the time for being the most violent city in the world. She had been living on the streets around Mexico for the last two years. When I asked her why, she said simply, ‘Because it’s better than living in Juárez.’ She told me a story of having gone once to a party at the house of a man she didn’t know, an acquaintance of a new friend. A man had welcomed them on arrival, offered them a drink, and informed them offhandedly that they should stay away from the locked room at the end of the corridor as he had a kidnapped man in there. There was no knowing if it was true or not, but it was the sort of thing that in Juárez was well within the bounds of possibility.
Sandra appeared to have no need for food as long as she had a continual supply of beer, which she had come up with an ingenious method of obtaining. She would search in rubbish bins until she found an empty aluminium can, which she would take a pair of scissors to and, with a complicated system of folds and cuts, turn into a pretty little model flower with tear-drop petals and a fringe of silver curls. ‘Arte reciclado’, she called it. She would then go to the nearest shop that stocked alcohol and swap the flower for a can of beer. When that can was finished, she would use it to make a new model flower, which she would take to a different shop and swap for another can of beer. It was an impressively self-sustaining system. The only trouble with it, she conceded, was that it forced her to constantly keep moving, as she could never go to the same shop twice.
‘Are the shop staff always willing to swap a beer for an aluminium flower?’ I asked.
‘Oh yes,’ she assured me, ‘almost always. The women because they like the flowers, the men because they understand the need for beer.’
Then there was Luis, who was toned and coffee-coloured with a sensitive mouth and stiff little curls on his brow, like a carved hero on the centrepiece of a Renaissance fountain. He would have been extremely good-looking if it weren’t for the pitted chickenpox scars up the side of his face and a wolfish way of looking people up and down, as if deciding where to take the first bite. Bernardo warned me about him that first day on the plaza, indicating him with a slight inclination of his head and whispering in my ear:
‘Don’t trust him.’
‘He’s crazy. He stabbed a guy a few days ago, after a party in a town not far from here.’
‘He said that he had a good reason.’
He gave no indication whether the good reason was defence of his life, or revenge for some imagined insult.
‘Was the guy alright?’
He shrugged again and gave that most Mexican of answers, that could mean ‘yes’, or ‘no’, or ‘I don’t want to tell you’, or ‘I don’t know’, or almost anything else. It’s the equivalent of the famous head wobble in India: a nationally recognised code laden with delicately nuanced meaning to those who have grown up with it but infuriatingly, almost maliciously incomprehensible to anyone else.
‘Quién Sabe?’ Who Knows?
Bernardo was tall and seemed to walk with his centre of balance located somewhere behind his feet, as if his upper body were leaning back against a wall even as his legs kept striding forward. It suited him well, as he also looked out at the world with a wall-leaner’s air of ironic detachment. As far as I could tell, he had only one goal in life, which took up so much of his mental energy that he had little time to think of anything else. This was to make hair braids. Specifically, to make a hair braid for every woman he came across, in every place he went. Hair braids were Bernardo’s way of marking his territory, of establishing himself as the alpha male of the surrounding area. He kept a careful mental list of women he had braided, in the way that lesser men might collect notches on their bedposts, and every time a sweep of black hair crossed the street tagged with one of his signature flashes of colour, he would smile to himself with a little nod of satisfaction. The first time he spoke to me it was to ask if I wanted a hair braid, and when I declined he promptly offered to make me one for free. This was about more than money; this was about conquest.
Only I called Bernardo by his real name. I never heard anyone else call him anything but chilango, the generic name for anyone from Mexico City. This was always spoken in a tone that hovered between affection and mockery, the non-chilangos’ contempt for chilangos being matched only by the hilangos’ contempt for them. Luis had warned me about him, later that day on the plaza, indicating him with a slight inclination of his head and whispering in my ear:
‘Don’t trust him.’
‘He’s a chilango.’
‘What’s wrong with that?’
He looked momentarily confused, having apparently expected the statement to require no further explanation.
‘They . . . they think they’re better than everyone else. But they’re sneaky. They . . . ‘ He seemed to be struggling to find the right words to impress on me the full sneakiness of the chilangos and finally gave up with a small shake of his head. ‘When you’ve been in Mexico longer, you’ll understand.’
For a brief moment, I considered asking him about the alleged stabbing, but thought better of it. I had a feeling this would turn out to be another one of those things that until I had been in Mexico longer I just wasn’t going to understand.
At the time, I wasn’t intending to stay in Mexico much longer at all. After several months of travel through Mexico and Central America, my bank balance was dwindling rapidly. I had come up through the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua on my way to California, from where I was to fly home, find a job, and consider my next move. I was unsure what the future held, but I imagined the next few months of it would include morning alarm clocks and presentable shoes and subservience to the whims of shift supervisors and assistant managers and (worst of all) those belligerent 9 a.m. customers who don’t quite know what they want, but know it’s your fault they didn’t get it. The thought gave me no pleasure.
Travel is an addiction. Anyone who has been on the road for an extended period of time knows that. Freedom is a drug. But as with any drug, the doses that got you high at first come to feel rather tame after a while. And as with any drug, a hardcore freedom addiction can end up enslaving you more effectively than your old life ever did.
First you become a slave to the calendar, compulsively checking how many days you have left until your return ticket and wasting hours, pencil in hand, working out how you’re going to fit in everything you want to do and see before that dreaded day comes. Then, once you take the addiction to the next level and no longer buy return tickets, you become a slave to the budget. Now the pencil is dealing not with dates but with figures, as you start penny-pinching ever more stingily and chastising yourself for your every unnecessary expenditure. Eventually, you start taking odd jobs along the road in bars and restaurants and, although you congratulate yourself on having found a way to never have to go home, a treacherous voice in the back of your head keeps whispering that if you wanted to spend all day working in a boring job, you could do it in your own country, where at least the wages would be better. At this stage, the ‘freedom’ of long-term travel can start to feel a little hollow.
‘Freedom costs money,’ my father would sigh when he was in one of his more cynical moods. ‘In this life, there is always someone trying to control you. Employers, banks, politicians . . . they all have the power to tell you what to do, how to live. Freedom is having enough money to tell all of them to fuck off.’
Slowly, reluctantly, I had started to suspect he might be right.
This was the stage I had reached at the time I met Trico and his friends. Over the following days in Creel, I watched them with increasing interest. They had arrived at the festival with very little money and left with nothing at all, yet through a combination of street shows, selling hand-made jewellery, and good old-fashioned opportunism, they always seemed to have enough to eat and – more importantly – to be at least slightly drunk. This, it seemed, was their definition of freedom.
After a few days, they announced they were going to camp for a night in Recowata, a series of hot springs nestled in the mountains about 20 kilometres to the west. I checked out of my hotel room and joined them for the trip.
We hitched a ride in a battered pickup to where the track to the springs forked off the main road, our jackets pulled over our heads to shield us from the cold drizzle that had been falling all afternoon. From the turning, we carried our packs several kilometres through the pine forest, emerging on the lip of a canyon from where a steep track zigzagged down to the cluster of volcanic pools at the bottom, cradled in the rock above a narrow river which lay grey in the dusk rain.
As night fell, the rain eased off. By the time we got down and set up camp on the edge of the pools the sky had cleared enough for tiny stars to start struggling through the clouds. Fireflies flashed like spells among the trees. Before long Sandra had a small fire going, coaxing a sulky lick of flame out of the damp wood and poking with a stick at a pot of coagulating rice. Up to his neck in the steaming water and swigging from a plastic bottle of Florde Caña, Trico gazed around him in beaming satisfaction.
‘Ay, qué rico,’ he announced to no one in particular, leaning back to survey the sweep of star-speckled sky framed between the walls of the canyon.
‘Notenemos ni un peso, pero somos milionarios.’ We don’t have a single peso, but we are millionaires.
It was that sentence that made me go with them.
A Q&A with Catriona Rainsford, author of “The Urban Circus”
Peter Handel for Truthout: Your book, The Urban Circus, is a remarkable account of a world few have any conception of. Did you get the idea to write a full book about it as you traveled around?
Catriona Rainsford: I had the idea within days of meeting the malabaristas. But it wasn’t until much later when I met Hilary Bradt, the cofounder of Bradt Travel Guides, that I started to believe it could happen.
What took you to Mexico in the first place?
A conversation in the pub. I had recently returned from India, where I had been hoping to make a life for myself until an accident forced me to return to the UK. I was talking with a friend who had recently returned from Guatemala and was also longing to go back. We were exchanging stories of our new favorite countries, and questioning how we could be so sure where to live when our experience was still so limited. After a few beers, we decided that the only way to find out was to “swap” countries and see how it went. We shook hands on it, and the next day I booked a one-way plane ticket. Flights to Guatemala were too expensive, so I ended up in Mexico instead.
Were you aware of the subculture of the “malabaristas,” or street performers before being in Mexico?
No. I really had no idea what I was doing when I arrived in Mexico. But I didn’t have much money, so it was natural for me to gravitate towards communities that lived hand-to-mouth and could teach me how to earn a living on the road.
What does a “malabarista” performance include?
It depends. The simplest shows are the ones at the traffic intersections – a 50-second display of unicycling, juggling or fire spinning in front of the cars waiting at the red lights. Shows in plazas or street parties can be longer and incorporate several different types of performance, such as clowning, drumming and acrobatics. They still tend to be fairly impromptu though, feeding off the energy of the audience rather than having a fixed routine. The most professional are shows at private parties or hotels, when people have hired you in advance and often have an idea of their own of what they want to see. Those are much more likely to have elaborate costumes and choreographed stage shows. If the venue has the facilities, it is sometimes possible to include elements of aerial circus, such as silks or trapeze. But of course, it depends on the skills within the group at the time. Most collectives tend to be quite fluid – people come and go, and the show has to change accordingly.
You traveled throughout the country for two years with your banda. How did their lifestyle change your perspective on your own life?
I think I was much more self-centered before I went. I thought a lot about myself and how to achieve the future I wanted. The banda taught me to value each day for what it is, and to count every meal as a success. More importantly, they taught me that the best investments are the ones you make in other people. If you are the sort of person who shares everything you have, there will never be a time when you have nothing. Because even if you lose everything, there will always be people prepared to share what they have with you.
You were frequently in areas of Mexico that have been devastated by drug cartel violence. How often did you feel threatened?
There were perhaps four or five occasions when I felt in immediate, personal danger. But what was most draining was the constant feeling of intimidation that made ordinary people afraid to talk freely or go out on the streets. That was why the malabarista lifestyle came to mean so much to me and why I developed so much respect for those who live it every day. It takes a huge amount of courage to keep clowning around on streets where murders and kidnappings are everyday occurrences. In an environment where gangs consolidate their control through violence and fear, being silly is an act of conscious defiance. It’s beautiful to see that, even there, it’s still possible to make people smile.
In what way is the ‘war on drugs’ failing Mexico?
The premise of the war on drugs was to bring in the power of the Mexican military against the cartel lords. The army is claimed to be the only institution with the power to combat organized crime, not only because of its superiority in training and resources, but also because it is seen to be less plagued by corruption than the police force. But the militarization of the conflict has led to a huge escalation of violence on all sides, with methods becoming ever more extreme. Cartels are compelled to become ever more brutal to remain in the game, increasingly losing any distinction between ‘legitimate’ and ‘illegitimate’ (i.e. unconnected civilian) targets. Meanwhile, Mexicans have every reason to be wary of more power being placed in the hands of the military, which has its own long history of human rights abuses. During the ‘Dirty War’ of the 1960s-’70s, it played a central role in the violent suppression of student movements and left-wing insurgency groups – the massacre of students at Tlatelolco in 1968 being the most famous example. Recent cases of excessive force being used against social protests and striking workers as well as numerous reports of forced disappearances have led many on the left to speculate that the war on drugs is being used as a pretext to further institutionalize the military as a force to repress dissent. Thus, demands for more progressive policies to combat poverty (thereby tackling organized crime at its grassroots) are being silenced.
What are the implications of the drug trade for the consolidation of Mexico’s democracy?
It is difficult to see how Mexico can ever have a meaningful democracy while the illegal drugs trade continues to play such a central role in its political economy. For the 71 years after the Revolution, Mexico was ruled as an effective single-party state under the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party). The election of an alternative candidate in 2000 – Vicente Fox of the PAN (National Action Party) – was hailed as a turning point for Mexican democracy. But the subsequent 12 years have been disastrous, with the cartel wars claiming over 60,000 lives. The long connection been the PRI and the cartels has been well documented. Although widely condemned, the network of corruption tying the ruling party to organized crime was part of what enabled the government to keep cartel behavior under control for several decades, with the major cartels mostly restricting their operations to their own established territories. The PRI losing power was a disruption to this network and is speculated to have been one of the major factors contributing to the disintegration of the pax narcotica and the escalation of violence. The return of the PRI to power in 2012 largely reflects popular disillusionment with the ability of alternative parties to maintain order in the country.
What have been the effects of NAFTA on ordinary people?
From my perspective, spending a lot of time working among the street vendors on city traffic intersections, the most obvious effect was that of rural-urban migration. The biggest losers from NAFTA were rural smallholders, unable to compete with the sudden influx of subsidized US agricultural products, particularly corn. Many have been forced to move to the cities in search of income, swelling the already-sizable informal urban economy. NAFTA has allowed Mexico to make use of its comparative advantage in cheap labor, so there has also been a lot of job creation, particularly in the maquiladora industries along the border. But there are nowhere near enough jobs to go around; hours are long and working conditions poor; and competition from other centers of cheap labor such as China prevents regulation being enforced to protect workers. The result is a huge surplus of people in the cities, many of them either unemployed or working in exploitative conditions, resentful and disillusioned. It’s easy to see how so many get drawn into organized crime. Whether the overall growth of the Mexican economy will eventually be enough to counteract this effect remains to be seen.
Do you remain in contact with any of your companions? Are you at all aware of how their lives are going at this time?
I’m in contact with all of them, and have seen many of them again since. I saw several of them when I went back to Mexico for a month last year, and some of them have even made it over to Europe to play shows here. One was living on my sofa in London for a month. I still count them among my best friends.
What was the high point of your travels during the period the book is about? The low?
There were huge alternations of ups and downs throughout. It’s in the nature of hand-to-mouth travel that you constantly veer from wild exhilaration to utter despair with very little in between. But probably the most idyllic was the time we spent playing shows on the beaches of Nayarit, and the most desperate was the time I spent in immigration jail, awaiting possible deportation and wondering if I would ever see my friends or my boyfriend again.
You mention in the book you had been – and received your first tattoo – in India. Where else have you been in your travels?
I spent a year moving around India, Nepal and Bangladesh, and then two and a half years in Mexico and Central America. I tend to travel slowly, making friends and working along the way. I’m much less free now that I’m at university, but I still go hitchhiking around Europe in my holidays. I spent most of last summer in Italy, the Balkans and Romania.
Do you plan to continue writing travel narratives? Any new adventures on the horizon?
I finish my degree in June, when I have a commission to write a travel column for a British newspaper. The concept is very low budget and immersion travel – hitchhiking everywhere and exchanging work for hospitality with families, farms and communities along the way. I’m excited to learn as many languages, skills and traditional techniques as possible, and explore other ways to live freely yet still give something back. I would love to write another full-length travel narrative, but don’t have any concrete plans for one yet. I think that if you go out with a definite idea of what you want to write, it risks becoming too contrived. I prefer to wait until I find a story worth telling. There are plenty out there.