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Chiapas 2002

The Payasos presented 16 shows over 12 days in three different regions of Chiapas. The tour was well organized by the Alianza Civica with contacts and crowds ready for our arrival in every town.

The Clowns are Chiapas veterans David Lichtenstein, Rudi Gallindo and newcomer Rock. It’s the family trip as David is traveling with his two children, James, 10 and Lela, 9, who clown a little with David on his solo shows. Rudi has his 15 year old man-child, Izzi, who helps with music and sound effects and clowns with us quite a bit on some shows. All six of us and the show gear are all packed in one small rented car on those beautiful but tortuous mountain roads.

Our audiences are dirt poor Mayan Indians who live on subsistence farming on tiny plots of steep mountain land in Chiapas, Mexico. These people have fought to survive and preserve their culture since the arrival of the Spanish 500 years ago. Tens of thousands of refugees from violent conflict in the last 8 years exasperate endemic poverty.

In a few of the larger towns we play much of the crowd speaks Spanish well but at most of our shows the people speak only their Mayan languages, in the areas we worked mostly Tzotzil and Tzeltal.


Tues., March 26, Mercado Benito Juarez, San Cristobal – David solo -100 people
warm-up show intended for children in the Indigenous market

Wed, March 27 San Andreas Larraizar – David solo – 200 people
show held in the courtyard of the church, intimate and well received

Lela and friends in Yashgemel
Lela and friends in Yashgemel

Thurs., March 28 Acteal, Chamula – David solo – 120 people
The dirt poor mountainside village where 45 campesinos were massacred by paramilitaries in 1997. Many people are elsewhere so the crowd is small. Lorenzo, a community organizer with the Abejas, (The Christian Indigenous leftist organization in Chiapas )arranges for us to go to Yashgemel where more people are gathered

Yashgemel, Chenalho – David solo – 300 people
Another abeja village in the Acteal- Polho area, at the end of 12 km of bad road. This far off the beaten path the audiences are very shy. They literally sprint away when I move toward them to try to get a volunteer. James and Lela have a hard time being watched and followed by the indigenous children wherever they go but they start to play with the kids a little. Lela spends her 9th birthday sleeping in a barren shack surrounded by animals and coffee bushes. We spend a while helping to sort coffee beans.

Lela, Plum, and the women who cooked for us in Yashgemel (Papa, how come there’s never anything except black beans and tortillas?)
Lela, Plum, and the women who cooked for us in Yashgemel (Papa, how come there’s never anything except black beans and tortillas?)

Fri., March 29 Chenalho – David solo – 400 people
Chenalho is a larger Municipio town and a PRI town. I get to chase some state military police in a jeep with my lasso at one point.

Thank goodness the other clowns arrive. Doing hour long solo shows in the tropical sun at 2200 meters (7000 feet) high in the mountains is grueling. Though they come straight from two days of flying after working hard at home we have them scheduled to start driving at sunrise to get to two shows the first day.

Sat, March 30 La Laguna, Jitotol – All Clowns – 150 people
Now we are in a pine covered region with Tzeltal speaking people. The whole population of this tiny lumbering village turns out to view us on the grass and laughs like hyenas. There is lots of good improv; the three clowns have never worked together before.


The Town Square at Laguna Jitotol. The bench is empty because they got up and ran away when we got this close.
The Town Square at La Laguna Jitotol. The bench is empty because they got up and ran away when we got this close.

Jitotol – All clowns – 600 people
We have a huge, laughing crowd in front of the cathedral after the evening Mass. The people are laughing very hard and the clowns are put up and very well fed at the house of Dr. Severo Hernandez.


The kids who made it backstage at Carmen Zacatal
The kids who made it backstage at Carmen Zacatal

Easter, March 31 Carmen Zacatal, Jitotol: Rudi, David, Rock – 450 people We cover 12 km of bone-jarring road standing up in the back of a jeep borrowed from the church to get to this tiny village. Everybody from that village and the neighboring areas is there. The characteristic high pitched shrieking laughter of these mountain Indians is ringing loud and often. At one point a drunk heckler charges into the crowd, screaming and swinging a machete wildly. He is corralled and put into the village jail while the show continues.

The village jail at Carmen Zacatal
The village jail at Carmen Zacatal


In Mexico school is only compulsory through sixth grade. A village leader tells me that his son is attending high school in the regional Municipio town of Jitotol and only comes home once every month or two. It’s only 12 km (7 miles) away but that is a hot four hour walk or an expensive truck ride.



Pueblo Nuevo Cathedral All clowns 400 people
Clowning on the altar, with the priests, on Easter, no less. First of two nights staying at the Pueblo Nuevo convent perched at the lip of a canyon.



Mon., April 1 Pueblo Nuevo Convent All clowns 30 nuns
Since the convent is cloistered and las hermanas are not allowed to go out to see us (Even in the town cathedral where we played last night) we did a shortened show for the sisters. All the church people in this area hosted us very generously and are eager for us to return for more shows in more communities.



Tapilula all clowns 800 people
That evening we drove down through the clouds to Tapilula where Father Israel Bernal awaited us. There was a huge crowd outside the church which sits on a hump in the town. Partings in the constant cloud cover revealed large mountains towering all around. Izzi does opening Vivaldi clown improv with us. After the show I try to take the kids to buy chocolate eggs for their reward for such hard traveling and working, but masses of kids follow us wherever we go so we can’t buy fancy candies. As we dine and talk in the church kitchen a boy starts practicing balance and comedy tricks and all the clowns give him ideas that he tries out with a broom and a chair and a hat.

Tuesday April 2 Simojovel All clowns 500 people
A long grueling ride to a show in the high noon sun followed by another grueling ride to pull in exhausted to “home”, Alexandra’s beautiful house where the vibes are always relaxing.

Wed, April 3 San Cristobal Rudi and David 350 people
A quiet hour in the city center. Many street seller kids are there. These kids are not shy like the village kids. Several rowdily make trouble across the stage while a few others accurately pea shoot me in the neck from behind throughout the show. It’s still a very fun show. Our Alianza civica sponsors are in the crowd along with other relief workers and a few tourists. Rock stays home sick and watches the kids.

handling the street kids
handling the street kids

Thurs., April 4 Las Margaritas Rudi, Rock and Izzi 350 people
A two hour drive towards the Guatemala border. Alianza Civica would like us to make a tour in the future to the wild hinterlands beyond Las Margaritas. Contacts are hard to make in the isolated indigenous villages.

The boys fly home after an exhausting 8 day whirlwind.

Friday, April 5
All of us are exhausted and Lela is sick. I turn back in the middle of a long terrible road and miss a scheduled show in San Jose La Nueva. We head for luxury lodgings at the Rancho Esmeralda in Ocosingo and rest up and let the kids play before a long drive for the last two shows tomorrow.

Sat, April 6 Petalcingo, Tila David solo 500 people
We can’t find the contact or anyone who speaks Spanish. The kids and I follow an old man up and down tangled foot paths, across ravines, going house to house looking for our hosts. We finally find them and they feed us. My kids complain that there is never anything except black beans and tortillas. I try to explain that one of the reasons I brought them here was to experience that.
It’s a great show and afterwards we are mobbed and followed to our car in greater numbers than ever. In these villages the show is never over until you drive away. The kids say now they now how it feels to be the Beatles.

Yajalon David solo 500 people
Our wonderful contact, Juanita Lopez brings us to a swimming pool before the evening show. This valley has a river, unusual in Mexico. The crowd is large but too far away in the large square and it is pretty dark. This time we play only two of the “larger” towns but Juanita is eager for us to come back and play the smaller refugee communities. This beautiful valley has a larger population of displaced people than any other in Chiapas or Mexico.

Sunday, April 7
We start the drive home. Lela finally actually throws up from car sickness. We have two days to do the 12 hour drive back to the Cancun airport. Along the way we have a two brief Mayan ruin visits, a swimming stop at our favorite Palenque lodging and a fantastic sunset beach swim. After I get home I will have two days of mad packing and business catch up before heading out on nationwide tour with Brooks and Dunn. I will not recover from my tiredness for weeks but, yes, for the unique experiences of me and my children it was all worth it.

No child without a smile!

Driving away from Carmen Zacatal. It's a 10-mile walk to school or market.
Driving away from Carmen Zacatal. It’s a 10-mile walk to market or to high school.

The Chiapas Political Situation, 2002

There has been a slight improvement on the ground in the two years since I was last here. There has been very little violence in those two years and a small portion of of refugees have successfully returned to their original villages.

In the last two years the federal government of Vicente Fox made a few cosmetic concessions of good will to the Zapatistas, taking down most of the military road blocks (which makes travel easier for us clowns) and removing two conspicuous military camps. The Zapatistas came out of hiding, put down their guns and staged a well publicized caravan to Mexico City to pass an Indigenous Bill of Rights and to ask the government to abide by the St. Andreas accords. Despite massive rallies of support, the bill of rights was gutted by old line PRI politics in the Mexican congress and the Zaptistas came home empty handed.

The Chiapas government is still hard line PRI and the military presence in Chiapas is still very heavy.

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