Poki balances on Ania's shoulders, in front of a large outdoor audience

Zip Zap

CWB – USA embarks on a three-year partnership with Diyar Theatre, a Bethlehem-based dance company. During the first week, CWB clowns Michael O’Neill and Ania Upstill lead workshops for artists interested in developing their clowning skills. 

In this blog, Ania learns something entirely new about Palestinian slang. 

It’s interesting, teaching in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language. We’re lucky enough to have a student in the class who is bilingual, and has graciously agreed to do the extra work of translating. We’re adjusting too: we talk more slowly, more animatedly, and demonstrate frequently. But there are some things that you just can’t anticipate.

On our first day teaching, we introduce the well-known and well-loved game, “Zip, Zap.”* The students pick up the concept pretty quickly, despite the language barrier, sending a Zip more or less continuously around the circle. There’s some giggling, but we both assume they’re laughing at minor mistakes made as the game goes on. “Zap,” sending energy across the circle, goes even better. We finish the game and move on.

During our next break, one of the students grabs the translator and comes up to Michael. She explains that “Zip,” in Palestinian street slang, actually means “penis.” The giggles we heard weren’t simple joy at the game. Instead, they were laughing at everyone saying “penis” over, and over, and over. Retrospectively, Michael and I agreed they had actually done really well, given that they were being asked to say a dirty word repeatedly, and with enthusiasm.

The next day we changed the name of the game to “Zik, Zak,” to great success!

*There are actually so many ways to play “Zip, Zap” that, although popular, you can never assume a group of new people are all about to start playing the same game!

Robin Lara's head is inside a giant balloon as she performs in a rural refugee camp in Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe Tour Diary: Part 3

Robin Lara writes about performing in both intimate and colossal spaces, and the need to show up with an open heart no matter what. 

September 28, 2019

Today we’re in Harare, Zimbabwe, performing in a children’s cancer ward. But you’d never know it unless you were told. This is the most intimate show on the tour so far, performed in a patient room that has been cleared of equipment and then filled with 16 kids, their families, and doctors. There would normally be more kids, they said, but the doctors are on strike right now and they had to send a lot of kids home.

We don’t always receive much information about people’s personal situations when we arrive at a performance site. Sometimes we know general things, like they’ve lost their homes in the cyclone, or they’re orphans, or they’re struggling with cancer. But we don’t know their individual backgrounds, or what kind of energy and trauma they’re showing up with that day. So we tread lightly, and focus on play and human connection. What we find is that when we pull people into the world of clown, they’re so full of lightness and joy.

September 29, 2019

We have our last two shows of the tour today. There are  3,000+ people at the second show, and wowza can they scream. I start each show by warming up the crowd with a bit of balloon magic. They’re very quiet at first, unsure what to think of this rag-tag group of clowns…a thing that doesn’t really exist in Zimbabwe. But when I eat the magic balloon ball, and then fart it out, it’s the first huge audience reaction of the show. It starts us off on exactly the right foot: Kids double over in laughter, moms and teachers shake their heads and laugh at the same time. I’m learning what works here and what’s different.

After a show, people will often say their favorite part is when I juggle on my unicycle, or balance it on my face. But when it’s happening, they barely react at all! One major exception was a show we did at one of the Chimanimani cyclone camps. The audience was mostly comprised of moms, and they started cheering me on right as I was about to juggle. I was so touched that I stopped what I was doing and thanked them. I’m blown away by the connections we’ve made here, and while I’m incredibly grateful for the memories I’ve made on this tour, I’m so sad it’s over!

Robin balances her unicycle on her chin surrounded by a huge crowd in Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe Tour Diary: Part 2

Robin Lara writes about breaking the ice with kids, even when you stand out like “chingua” (white bread). 

September 18, 2019

We have been singing songs in Shona, the native language here. It’s so different from what I’m used to that it takes me a long time to remember the words. I learned new types of sounds in order to get the pronunciation right.

When we show up at a school today, the kids are singing a song to keep them occupied until everyone is seated. One of our clown acts is about a dad and a mom (the two male clowns in our group) carrying water and babies. We use it to talk about gender roles, which are very cemented here.

In fact, a lot of things are strict. We spent the last two days at the immigration office because we found out that even if we’re volunteering, we still need to pay $500 for a temporary work permit. That’s a lot of money. And since you can’t get cash here (there’s a shortage and none of the ATMs work), or use a credit card in most places, I have my fingers crossed I was sent with enough cash for the rest of the tour.

September 21, 2019

Part of my pre-show routine involves putting a black dot above, outside, and below each eye. Today, I’m preparing to perform at a refugee camp with 13,000 residents. I’m so exhausted in the very best way! Recently, we had a ton of time between shows so I played with the kids nonstop. We did nothing and everything. Sorry-not-sorry for starting to teach them how to juggle their own shoes! I’m going to sleep well, with the sounds of their giggles still bouncing around my head.


We’re having so much fun today! There’s a huge population of folks in this camp, and it’s very spread out. I’m actually surprised by the amount of open space. To adapt, we move around and do shows in lots of new spots in order to reach as many people as possible.

One of the camp leaders heard people talking about how they’re going to follow the show around, since they’re having so much fun. And one very old man told her, “I never thought this could happen in this camp. I’ve only ever seen this on TV!” Word spreads and the audience fills up well before showtime.

I’m having a lot of fun pushing myself to be a pre-show clown for an uncomfortably long time. A core tenet of clowning is to see what’s around you and find the game in it. I’m getting a lot of practice in a place where there’s an overwhelming amount of plain old dirt. This means that I’ve made up a lot of “magic” tricks for the kids, which prompts them to invent their own. I’ve learned hand-clap games and traditional dances from them, improvised new juggling routines, and balanced just about everything on my face. It’s wonderful to have such an engaged audience. I feel like they’re truly with me. It doesn’t hurt that I’m an inherently weird and interesting person to them, since I’m the only white person in town.

September 27, 2019

Right before leaving the rural areas of Zimbabwe most damaged by Cyclone Idai, we perform at an elementary school. Often, kids here are timid about seeing me and unsure how to react. Understandable! These kids are especially jumpy, so I make it into a game and spin through their playground until they scream, giggle, and scatter. Once I break the ice, they follow me everywhere, touching my hair, my tattoos, and asking me questions in Shona—the same things kids do anywhere. I’m so happy and grateful to bring a bit of clown magic to these little ones.

All the clowns make funny faces at the camera

Zimbabwe Tour Diary: Part 1

Robin Lara writes about the culture shock of navigating Zimbabwean rules and regulations, and the universal joy of thousands of laughing kids. 

September 15, 2019

Our first two shows in Zimbabwe are tomorrow! There are four of us clowns: two Zimbabwean, one South African, and me! We’ve spent three days in intense rehearsal, creating tons of new material for kids here in Harare. 

On Tuesday, we begin a long journey to the far reaches of the eastern border. We will spend four days and 8 shows in a refugee camp that currently houses 10,000 people, and will perform in small rural villages along the multi-day drive each way. So far, I’ve loved learning beloved songs in Shona, the language here. Apparently the crowds are going to be very tickled when they see a white lady speaking Shona, and I can’t wait to share their laughter. 

Things are very different here, more so than any other place I’ve been. Africa lives by its own rules. Over the past few days, I’ve had to learn an entirely new and precarious system of using money [At this time, Zimbabwe does not have an official currency]; been woken up at 6am by the hostel telling me I have a phone call, which turned out to be someone trying to lure me to a fake meeting; completely broken my leaf blower charger, which is essential to our show; and spent three hours this morning in intense, vomit-y abdominal pain from my anti-malaria pill, which I have to take again when I wake up. Tomorrow is a new day, and even though it’s been up and down, the ups are so so sweet I genuinely can’t wait to find out what the day has in store.

September 17, 2019

I love my clown name this trip! It’s Chingua, given to me by one of the Zimbabwean clowns. In Shona, the language they speak here, it means “white bread.” It suits me well! Everyone laughs when they hear my name, and after the show they call it to get my attention.

Before our second show, we come up to a long wall of classrooms with big glass windows. As soon as the children see us through the glass, there’s no chance of the teachers holding their attention. I smush my face and body up against each window, classroom by classroom, and the whole school is in chaos. 

As we test our barely functioning speaker in front of one of the classrooms, the kids pour out and it turns into a dance party. The minister of our partner organization even joins in! His wife can’t believe how much he’s cutting loose. 

After we set up at our second show, I walk through the school grounds and find 1,000 kids in orderly lines, on their way to the performance. They’re silent, walking with their hands behind their backs. Much to their teachers’ chagrin, I start making faces and weaving through the lines, saying “excuse me,” over and over. Now they’re much less orderly, and definitely giggling. 

We start the show and They. Are. Ready! There is something completely unreal about a collective scream of delight coming from 1,000 children, all at once. I feel it throughout my entire body and am pulled so fully into the present moment.

It’s been hard these first few days. We’ve had to work through so many obstacles and it’s easy to complain, which I’ve done a lot. But right after the first show I have a moment of realization. These kids—the ones who rush us for a group hug, who are so excited that they yell out a repetition of everything we say onstage, who are breathing in dusty red soil all day with none of the daily conveniences we take for granted—they’re why I’m here. I’m fully reminded that I come on CWB – USA tours knowing it’s going to be difficult and uncomfortable, and I’ll be tired, grumpy, and sore. But I don’t feel any of that in this moment. I only feel joy, and I know that I would do anything to be here. 

We’re the first group to come and offer this type of work as a humanitarian effort in Zimbabwe. There are aid workers who bring food and medicine, but the idea of bringing joy as a healing service is brand new. What a great opportunity to show how impactful this work can be! 

Little boy points at Melissa as she makes a funny face

From Cocoon To Butterfly

Melissa writes about the good, the challenging, and the transformative moments of emotional negotiation while on tour in Brazil. 

A Rough Start

We have a strange start today. In the early morning, one of the slats from this awful bunk bed I’m sleeping on decided to tumble down, slamming onto the floor and landing on Ana, our intrepid project leader. She woke up screaming and yelling in Portuguese, while I stared at her dumbly from my bunk, not knowing what to do. Our two other clowns came running through the door, looking around in desperate confusion. When Ana was finally able to talk again, we determined that nobody was dying and went back to our beds after a good laugh. Ana and I are both now sleeping on the floor, having abandoned the treacherous bunk bed. It was the most comical moment I’ve had in ages. We’re all still laughing about it.

However, I was in poor spirits last night, and out of sorts today, feeling very, very emotional without knowing why. The weather cooled and there was a heaviness in the air. Farmers had attacked a retomada last night, in this area, and it was on everyone’s mind. Retomada is the term in Matto Grosso do Sul for the land that indigenous families are living on and reclaiming. The situation is very unstable for them, and there are many attacks and burnings in these disputed areas. Our first show is at an indigenous CRAS [Centro de Referência de Assistência Social] center for social services in Dourados. I’m grumpy and fairly unfunny, even muttering mean things under my breath when the parade leaves without me—not my best show, though still enjoyable.

Today at lunch, I suddenly ran from the table in tears, and took a few minutes to gather myself before going back and letting the clowns know about my emotional state. They’re very supportive of me. Our second show is a 25-minute drive from our home-base, at a school on indigenous lands. The school is called Panambi, which means “butterfly” in Guaraní­, one of the languages spoken by the local indigenous people. We’re swarmed with excited children from the moment we arrive, and they follow us as we unpack our gear. Some of them grab props to help out, while some just follow and chatter away.


I know the show is going to be good. Ana tells me to sit the show out if I need to, but I want to perform. It’s not the first time I’ve smiled through my tears as I don my nose. We parade out together, accordion playing, whistles going, clowns marching, and the energy feels so light and spirited. The kids are grinning and laughing from the beginning, and we amp up the clown energy to get them clapping, screaming, stomping, and giggling.

After the show, the children swarm us with so many hugs that it’s heart-melting and almost overwhelming. Apparently, the kids had been excited for the show all day, jumping up every few minutes to check and see if the clowns had arrived. I feel completely at peace after the show, and the sadness that overwhelmed me earlier has disappeared. I got to experience the transformative power of joy, thanks to the children, my fellow clowns, and the teachers at the school.

The wonderful place the clowns are staying is a cultural center called Casulo, which is “cocoon,” in Portuguese. The show today was in the indigenous land of Panambi, which means “butterfly.” And somehow, my sadness transformed to joy, as a cocoon transforms into butterfly.

Faebel squeezes through a chair as children laugh

Laughter In Our Bellies

CWB – USA joins Palhaços sem Fronteiras Brasil (PSF-Brazil) to perform for indigenous Guaraní communities in Mato Grosso do Sul, where they are displaced and threatened by loss of lands, deforestation, and export-agriculture. Faeble Kievman writes about the Guaraní people’s strong sense of place and identity. 

We perform our first shows in Brazil at the Lacu’y school on the indigenous lands of Aldeia Bororo. It’s a joy to share laughter with this audience. In this region, there are a group of people who call themselves “The Clowns.” They cause trouble, so we’re delighted to be introduced as “Real Clowns” and share the magic, awe, curiosity.

In Dorados, on indigenous land, the earth is red. The people say that the earth has been colored by the blood of their ancestors. We sing a local song together, which says that laughter comes from the earth.

They believe that every child is born with a good soul bird and a bad soul bird. The bad soul bird might lead us off track, but the good soul bird can center us in our bellies. This community is dealing with suicide and drug abuse, and we’ve been told that the soul bird is lost in the sky—not connected to our bodies, hearts, minds, and bellies. The bad soul bird is lost, flying in many directions. I try to imagine a world in which their way of life is free from the dogma and demonization they now face.

So far, we’ve come across two prayer houses that have been burned, while there are over 100 churches in this area. In some ways, the churches help a lot of people get out of intense addictive behaviors and suicidal tendencies. On the other hand, I’m learning that the traditional, spiritual path has a lot of beauty to it. Today, a ceremonial dancer tells us that a lot of people are returning to the old ways. They seek education in school, and return to the ceremonial space for questions and answers about life.

I think it’s important to consider what “education” really means. Do we accept that everyone must live in a society that caters to industrialization and consumerism? If so, is education something that that everyone has to pursue?

When will this industrial giant will learn its lesson. Without indigenous ways, there is no life for humans. When will we make the choice to love where we come from, to cherish connection with the land? When will we touch our hands and feet to the ground, thank our mama and embrace the red earth beneath us? We live in a world of contradictions and opposing views. The more I think I know, the less I actually know. I but I do know one thing: Laughter comes from the red earth at the center of our bellies.

ClownEncuentro participants gather for a family portrait, dressed in their outrageous costumes.

Hearts Wide Open

Hannah Gaff represented CWB – USA at the 2019 ClownEncuentro in Cali, Colombia. 

Prepping For The Show

Following the three-day workshop, we’re invited to perform our show at a home for girls in protective services. We created the show during our workshop, and it was a quick, CWB-style experience. Many of the clowns from my workshop are anxious—they’ve never performed in a social clowning context before. What does it mean to perform for someone in a vulnerable state? What is your responsibility as a clown entering this context? How can you do no harm? What are the boundaries?

I definitely don’t have answers to these complex questions, but I do know that the way in which you enter into someone’s space, the manner in which you engage with them, is key. I respond to my students’ fears with the intentions I set for myself on this trip: presence, listening, connection, and the ability to be flexible as things inevitably change.

Reflecting Back

Following the performance, we circle up to reflect back on our experience. Students are blown away by the simplicity of the exchange, and the depth of play and connection achieved in a mere 30 minutes. They’re amazed by the amount of energy and love the girls gave back to us. And, they’re also completely in love with each other. The space we created during our ClownEncuentro workshop prepared us for our intense connection with the girls. It left our hearts wide open and bonded together. I’m looking forward to seeing the ripples from this experience over the next several years, as collaborations and projects are born from this group. In fact, I’m on a WhatsApp group with all of my students, and they continue to message and share their clowning experiences from afar.

A Mini Tour

On Tuesday morning, the day after ClownEncuentro wrapped up and all the beautiful clowns traveled home to continue their work, we make another show. In just four hours, four clowns from Cali Clown join me to create a 45-minute performance. We plan to tour to marginalized communities in Cali, including Colombians who are internally displaced due to armed conflict, and Venezuelan refugees seeking safety in Colombia. That same afternoon, we set off into Cali to perform together for the first time.

On the way to the first show, the clowns explain that we’re headed to a library. This library is in the middle of gang-owned/run territory. Its boundaries are monitored by opposing gang members, and if you unknowingly cross the boundaries, your life is in danger. This library is a space where people can cross those invisible boundaries and gather safely in community. And wow, do they gather! We have a huge audience. The connection is evident as kids buzz around us, jumping, playing, and laughing after the show. Parents shyly hand us their kids for a photo, and thank us for the laughter. Groups of people stand chatting and laughing, and no one is in a hurry to leave.


Five clowns make silly poses on a hill in Cali, Colombia

A Deep and Lasting Bond

Hannah Gaff represented CWB – USA at the 2019 ClownEncuentro in Cali, Colombia. 


ClownEncuentro is a magical clown gathering that takes place in Colombia every two years (or so) and has five major objectives: learning and artistic development, dialogue, research, networking, and cultivating new audiences. It’s a truly great clown community gathering, one of only a few similar events taking place around the world. It provides an opportunity to be in community and connect with other passionate clowns, to have necessary conversations about the art of clown and its purpose in present-day culture, and to forge relationships and connections. These are seeds that will grow into fruitful collaborations, bringing more clown-goodness to the world.

My role at Clown Encuentro (as representative of CWB) is multilayered. Clowns Without Borders has a long-standing and wonderful partnership with Clown Encuentro (since 2010) and with Cali Clown, the humanitarian clowning organization that hosted Clown Encuentro this year. I’m here to deepen our relationship in a variety of ways. I’ll lead 12 hours of workshops to share tools for creating a CWB-style show, culminating in a community performance at the festival. We have partnered with our colleagues at Cali Clown to tour the show to marginalized communities in Cali—all of this in six days, and with my very remedial Spanish-language skills. Whooohooo!

Setting Intentions

On the flight to Cali, I spend some time choosing my intentions for the trip. Of course, it’s my intention to represent CWB well and to run a great workshop for the 20 students who signed up. I want to guide the creation of an impactful show that brings joy and resilience, and to fulfill all of my responsibilities successfully and with grace. I decide that my major intentions, underlying all of that, are to be present, listen, connect deeply, and to be flexible as things inevitably change. What a treat to be thrown into this cauldron of clowns!

So far, my deep take-away is how essential connection is for every human, everywhere. I’m experiencing reverberations of connection, shared experience, and community from everyone I meet. The desire to connect, to play, and to be seen is huge!

The several hundred clowns who travel from all over Latin America and beyond, despite a variety of barriers, arrive in Cali to be in fellowship with other clowns. They’re hungry to be in the same space and to share their experiences. The 19 students in my CWB workshop, Physical Comedy for the Social Clown, meet each other early on a Friday. Three days later our group has formed a deep and long-lasting bond.

Moshe walks with a smiling kid

Meditating In Guatemala

CWB – USA founder Moshe Cohen taught various workshops throughout Guatemala during his March, 2019 tour. He was surprised and delighted to find out that meditation, which Moshe brings through his Zen background and training, was a huge hit with artists and educators. 

Returning to Guatemala

Celio and his taxi are waiting for me at the Guatemala City airport as planned, on a late night in early March. He’s there as promised by Ricardo, the Payasos Sin Fronteras (Clowns Without Borders Spain) logistician who organized a twelve-day project in which I’ll teach five workshops and create a collaborative show with local clowns. My ultimate destination is Escuintla, where the Volcan de Fuego erupted last year. Celio whisks me off to the Hotel Panamerica, a stately downtown hotel. It’s certainly a step up from the cement floors I slept on with Desastrosus Cirkus, when we played the Bhutanese refugee camps back in ’97. Then again, I’m not sure if there even was a hotel in Damak, a town that the Lonely Planet Nepal guide only dedicated one paragraph to. Escuintla, a trucking town on the Transamerican highway, has plenty of hotels, and innumerable long-haul trucks rumbling through. It too is probably overlooked in the guide books––there isn’t a gringo in sight during my four days here.

Immediately after the 2018 eruption, Clowns Without Borders was invited on a performance tour for those displaced by the lava flow. We also did a number of workshops for the first responders, and teachers from those communities. My trip is a follow-up visit, as CWB received numerous requests to return with more workshops. Some of the workshops will take place in Guatemala City, first with Procuraderia Derechos Humanos (Provider of Human Rights), and then with local clowns. We’ll have a show-creation day with several of the clowns, after which Celio will drive me to Escuintla. There, I’ll offer several more days of workshops: one for health care workers and one for teachers. After that, the clowns come join me to perform two shows in the school, and one for the community. Of the 4,800 people left without homes (and community) by the eruption, 1,200 remain displaced.

Lucho, Sayda, Noemi and Stef formed the 2018 Guatemala team, so I had a long talk with Sayda before coming down. I quizzed her about the workshops they offered, trying to determine what I could offer that would be useful. “We played games (theater games, clown-based play) all day, and the participants absolutely loved it,” Sayda told me. I have no doubt the games offered needed opportunities to laugh together, to let off steam, tensions, and trauma due to the disaster. The lava flow ran right through a number of communities, completely decimating their homes, and perhaps more importantly, growing fields and livelihoods. 

“Yes, Please.”

When I arrive at my first workshop with health care workers in Escuintla, certain tensions are palpable. I had encountered similar energies with the human rights workers (psychologists and social workers) in Guatemala City. They support clients facing every kind of abusive situation you might imagine. Listening to them in the opening circle, I had a strong wish to lighten their loads. I had an agenda: fun and funny trauma/stress release exercises, vulnerability affirmations, enjoying frustration, reactivity/response games and more. Ultimately, it made sense to come in not knowing, and hear what they wish to work on.  

Before sending the talking stick around the circle in Escuintla, I offer a menu of possibilities for the day, and ask what resonates, what wishes do they have? To my great surprise, relaxation exercises (Feldenkreis based practices) are high on everyone’s list. When the talking stick comes back to me, I add another possibility: Zazen meditation. To my surprise, the response is quite enthusiastic; in fact, all five workshop groups are of the same mind: “Yes, please.”

I had hesitated to mention Zazen, figuring that meditation might be a little too far outside their comfort zone. Yet there it was, and so with rings from a small Burmese bell, sitting in straight-backed chairs, we meditate for short stretches, several times in each workshop. The practice is well received. I take it a bit further, introducing the possibility of three breath practices as a way to shift one’s state of being when one becomes aware of stress.  

Mischievous Aftermath

With the teachers, I wonder if they might try to bring that quiet into their classrooms. A video shared with me the day after our workshop suggests otherwise.  It’s a short clip of a teacher trying out the monster/victim exercise with his classroom. The practice, developed for a CWB Myanmar project, offers the kids a chance to have great fun reacting in playful/funny fear (enjoy being afraid!) to a supposed monster scaring them. 

In the video, the teacher has taken on the monster role and the kids are fully enjoying his absurd monster-like attempts to scare them. They scream in playful fear, followed by collective gleeful laughter. Then as the students transform into monsters, switching roles according to the game’s design, their eyes fill with mischievous delight. As the posse turns on the teacher, the video suddenly cuts off! Uh oh! What kind of mischief did I instigate?  

Only the nose knows.

Mi Razón de Ser

In March, 2019, CWB – USA toured to Tijuana, on the U.S./Mexico border. This was a “secret” tour, which we did not publicize ahead to time, in order to respect the safety and dignity of the migrants. Darina Robles Pérez, founder of humanitarian clown organization Llaven nü, tells her story about a visit to a migrant house. The lead photo is from our 2018 Migrant Caravan Tour. 

A Clown Without Borders

I’m a Mexican clown, and what I love most in life is making people laugh. When I play as a theatrical clown, I feel very happy if someone tells me they laughed until they cried. Once, Wladia, a Brazilian clown, told me: “I really enjoyed your show because I entered your wonderful world, and when the show ended I did not want to leave your world.” That has been a very important comment for me.

Every time I perform as a social clown, I confirm my reason for being. I’m a clown without borders. I thank laughter for the relief and hope it offers, and the human bond it generates. I know it has been a good performance if I’m talking with someone in the audience and he thanks me for the laughter. We share a moment of joy, and also the sadness in his heart because of his story. This is the case in Tijuana, on tour with Clowns Without Borders USA.

Our second performance is in a house for migrant families. I meet Norma, a young girl from Honduras. I ask her if she liked the show and she says she did. She says it was good for her soul to laugh, and she’s grateful to have us there. I tell her that I appreciate her laughter. And that’s how we start talking. She trusts my clown listening, and begins to tell me her difficult story as a migrant. She left her country because of death threats. When she finishes, I tell her that I’m grateful for her trust, and that I wish everything in her life will be better. The other clowns are calling to leave, so we say goodbye. I see that Norma is crying, so we hug. It occurs to me to ask if she misses her country, and she says yes, especially her mom. I wish I could do more for the migrants, but as a clown I can share laughter and beautiful humanity. To my heart, that seems good.

Thank You For Being Clowns

As it happens, we accidentally took the megaphone from that migrant house. We return it a few days later, and have the opportunity to talk to some of the other migrants. I ask for Norma, but she’s not there. I find Bertha, who sees me without my clown costume (a migrant chicken). “My little clown,” she says in a happy voice. We hug. Marisol, one of my fellow clowns on the tour, approaches me, and Bertha tells us that she came from Honduras to look for a job so she an send money to her daughters and her mother. “I have gone through very difficult things,” she says. “We are very poor. You can’t imagine what it’s like to be this poor.” She goes into her memories, and we remain silent until some children arrive to talk to us.

Before leaving, a Mexican family approaches us. They thank us for the show and tell us that they’ve become migrants overnight. Their grandmother saw the mafia kill a young man, and they threatened to kill her for being a witness. The family now waits for U.S. authorities to allow them to live with a family member in the United States. We say goodbye, commenting that we would like to help more, but we are only clowns. They thank us for being clowns, and as we leave, Marisol and I say to each other that we’re happy for the opportunity to return the megaphone and talk with the affectionate migrants.

We Can Change the World

On the way to another migrant house where we will play, I remember a comment I heard from Lydia Cacho, a human rights defender. She says that criminal networks are small in comparison to the millions of people who are experts in human rights, ethics, legislation, and the defense of the law. “We can change the world,” she told me. “I am absolutely convinced, and that is why I continue to do my job.” I tell myself that I’ll continue doing my work as a social clown, because I know that we can build a world in which everyone laughs.

Here’s the end of my story. Thanks to those who made this project possible, thanks to those who are empathetic toward migrants and fight for a better world for everyone. Thanks to life for opportunity to be a migrant clown!

Darina’s blog en español:

¡Hola! Me llamo Darina Robles, soy mexicana, soy payasa. Lo que más amo en la vida es ser payasa y hacer reír. Cuando doy función como payasa teatral, siento mucha alegría cuando alguien me dice que rió tanto que lloró de la risa. Una vez, Wladia, una payasa brasileña me dijo: Disfruté mucho tu espectáculo porque entré en tu mundo maravilloso y cuando terminó la función no quería salir de tu mundo. Ha sido un comentario muy importante para mi.

Como payasa social, cada vez que doy función confirmo que mi razón de ser es: Ser payasa sin fronteras. Agradezco a la risa el alivio y esperanza que ofrece, y el vínculo humano que genera. Siento que di una buena función cuando, por ejemplo, al terminar platico con alguien del público, me agradece las risas y así compartimos el momento de alegría y también la tristeza que trae en su corazón cuando me cuenta su historia. Esto me ha sucedido también en Tijuana, en el proyecto con Clowns without Borders USA.

Después de nuestra segunda función, en una casa para familias migrantes, conocí a Norma una joven originaria de Honduras; le pregunté si le había gustado la función y me dijo que mucho, que le había hecho muy bien a su alma reír y que nos agradecía el haber estado ahí. Le respondí que yo le agradecía sus risas. Así comenzó nuestra plática. Ella confió en mi escucha de payasa y comenzó a contarme su difícil historia como migrante. Tuvo que salir de su país por amenaza de muerte de las maras. Cuando terminó, le dije que le agradecía la confianza, que le deseaba que pronto en su vida todo fuera mucho mejor y le conté un mal chiste pero reímos juntas.

Nos despedimos porque los otros payasos me estaban llamando para irnos. Estaba diciendo adiós a otros migrantes cuando miré que Norma estaba llorando, me acerqué a ella y la abracé. Se me ocurrió preguntarle si extrañaba su país y me dijo que si, que sobre todo extrañaba mucho a su mamá. Sentí que me gustaría poder hacer más por ella y por los migrantes pero como payasa había podido compartir risas y hermosa humanidad, y a mi corazón le parecía bueno.

Sucedió que días después, los payasos sin fronteras, regresamos a la misma casa migrante porque sin querer nos llevamos su megáfono y fuimos a devolverlo. Tuvimos la oportunidad de platicar con otros migrantes. Pregunté por Norma pero no estaba. Mientras buscaba a Norma encontré a Bertha que al verme sin mi disfraz de gallina migrante, me reconoció y me dijo con voz contenta: ¡Mi payasita! Nos abrazamos. Se acercó Marisol, mi compañera payasa del proyecto, y Bertha nos contó que venía de Honduras y que estaba buscando trabajo para enviar dinero a sus hijas y a su mamá. “Yo he pasado cosas muy difíciles, somos muy pobres, no se imaginan lo que es ser pobre pobre”, nos dijo Bertha, su mirada triste se fue hacia sus recuerdos y nos quedamos en silencio; en esto llegaron unos niños que nos reconocieron y platicamos con ellos también.

Antes de irnos se acercaron a nosotras una familia mexicana. Nos agradecieron la función y nos contaron que se habían convertido en migrantes de la noche a la mañana porque la abuela de esta familia había visto como la mafia mataba a un joven y la amenazaron de muerte por haber visto el asesinato. Estaban esperando que las autoridades estadounidenses les dieran el permiso de vivir con una pariente que tienen en Estados Unidos. Nos despedimos también comentando que nos gustaría poder ayudarlos pero que solo somos payasas, nos agradecieron el ser payasas. Nos fuimos. Marisol y yo comentamos que había sido muy bueno llevarnos el megáfono para poder regresar y platicar con nuestro afectuoso público migrante.

En el camino para otra casa migrante donde daríamos función, me acordé de un comentario que escuché de Lydia Cacho, defensora de los derechos humanos; en el que dice que las redes criminales son pequeñas en comparación a las millones de personas expertas en derechos humanos, ética, legislación, en la defensa de la ley y del estado de derecho. “Podemos cambiar el mundo. Estoy absolutamente convencida y por eso sigo haciendo mi trabajo”, dice Lydia Cacho. Entonces pensé, también yo seguiré haciendo mi trabajo de payasa social porque sé que desde la sociedad podemos construir un mundo que todxs lo rían.

Aquí termino mi relato. Gracias a los que han hecho posible este proyecto, gracias a los que son empáticos con los migrantes y luchan por un mundo mejor para todxs; gracias a la vida por el oficio de payasa migrante.


Tour Diary: March 26–March 31, 2002

David Lichtenstein writes from the road, during CWB – USA’s 2002 tour to Chiapas. The clowns visited many Mayan villages over the course of 12 days, and were happy to see a small decrease in violence since our most recent tour to the region. 

David stands next to a small woman in a nun's outfit

Tuesday, March 26

Mercado Benito Juarez, San Cristobal. I perform a solo show for 100 people.
It’s a warm-up show, intended for children at the Indigenous market.

Wednesday, March 27

San Andreas Larraizar. I perform another solo show, this time for 200 people.
It’s in the courtyard of the village church—intimate and well received

Lela and friends in Yashgemel
David’s daughter Lela and friends in Yashgemel

Thursday, March 28

Acteal, Chamula. I perform a solo show for 120 people. Acteal is a very poor mountainside village, in which 45 campesinos were massacred by paramilitaries in 1997. Many people are elsewhere today, so it’s a small crowd. 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.

We arrive in Yashgemel, at the end of 12 kilometers of bad road. This far off the beaten path, audiences are very shy. They literally sprint away when I move toward them to try and get a volunteer out of the group of approximately 300 people. My kids, James and Lela, have a hard time being watched and followed by the village children, but eventually they start to play a little. Lela spends her ninth 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?)

Friday, March 29

We’re in Chenalho, a larger Municipo town, and a PRI town. I chase some state military police in a jeep with my lasso.

Thank goodness the other clowns arrive. It’s grueling to perform hour-long solo shows in the tropical sun, at 2,200 meters (7,000 feet) up in the mountains. Though Rock and Rudi came straight from two days of flying, after working hard at home, we’re scheduled to start driving at sunrise to get to two shows on our first day as a three-clown team.

Saturday, March 30

Us clowns have never performed all together before our first show in La Laguna Jitotol. We’re in a pine-covered region where the people speak Tzeltal, and all 150 members of this timber-harvesting village come out to view our performance. They laugh hysterically, and we have lots of good improvisation. Later in the evening, we perform for a huge laughing crowd in front of the cathedral in Jitotol. Us clowns are well fed by Dr. Severo Hernandez.

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

Sunday, March 31

We arrive in a tiny village of Carmen Zacatal, after 12 kilometers of bone-jarring travel, standing up in the back of a Jeep borrowed from the church. Everyone from the village and the neighboring areas is here. The characteristic high-pitched laughter of these mountain people 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 attends 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.

We spend the rest of Easter Sunday closing at Pueblo Nuevo Cathedral. We perform on the alter, with the priests! It’s our first of two nights staying at the Pueblo Nuevo convent, perched at the lip of a canyon.


Women Have the Moral Authority

Marisol Rosa-Shapiro writes about the situation on the ground in Tijuana. The 2019 Tijuana tour was unlike any CWB – USA has ever done. The team performed at the border, as families waited in line to learn who would be granted interviews. 

Marisol Rosa-Shapiro

Samuel’s Introduction to the Migratory Landscape in Tijuana

Having absorbed a few clownish detours and delays, Derrick and I finally arrive in Tijuana on Wednesday afternoon, from San Diego and Seattle, respectively.  We orient ourselves to the house, eat some snacks that Molly has prepared, and sit down for an orientation talk with Samuel, our local contact and “fixer” for the dual Clowns Without Borders/Hearts of The World project.

Samuel brought the world’s most delicious guava cheesecake (yes, clowns love dessert before dinner!), and takes time to provide us with a detailed account of the recent history of migration in Tijuana. He starts by noting that Tijuana is currently ranked as one of the top five most violent cities in the world, primarily due to a high homicide rate linked to drug trafficking. Into this dangerous situation, he explains, vulnerable migrants from southern Mexico, Central America, Venezuela, Haiti, and even some Middle Eastern countries, arrive on their way to seek refuge, asylum, or opportunity in the United States. Simultaneously, Tijuana receives deportees from north of the border.

In the chaos and desperation of the migrant or deportee experience—including poverty, violence, seemingly interminable wait times, and seemingly insurmountable odds—many migrants may die at the hands of traffickers, become addicted to drugs, or otherwise “disappear or disperse” into the local population.  Samuel explains that the city’s mayor, as well as some other officials and local residents disparage the vulnerable migrants despite the fact that Tijuana “is, and always has been, a migrant city.”

Since several migrant caravans have arrived in Tijuana in recent months (most notably in October/November of 2018), a huge number of non-profit organizations have spring up to provide services that the government is not providing to these new arrivals, including shelter, food and water, safety and security, medical care, psychological counseling, and legal and spiritual support. Ninety percent of these NGOs, he notes, are religious institutions that have opened their doors and converted themselves into shelters.  “In the midst of the darkness we have seen light,” Samuel tells us. “The people with the least give the most…And the women are absolutely leading the charge—they have the moral authority in this town.”

Meanwhile, additional service organizations have appeared to help coordinate the shelters and services that already exist.  That’s where Samuel’s Borderlands and Global Immersion Project come in. These organizations advise both the service providers and volunteers about how to most effectively connect for efficient, mutual support. Recent efforts include researching and implementing innovations towards sustainable solutions for supporting migrants in precarious shelter situations—innovations like solar power and harvesting rain water. “The funny thing is, there are plenty of U.S. citizens living here, illegally, too,” Samuel says. “But they are ‘snowbirds,’ while Central American migrants are criminalized.” At the end of his charla, Samuel reminds us of the long game: the therapeutic impact of our arts-based, resiliency-building work will not be seen immediately, but will reveal itself overtime. He compares it to the value of a cocoon to a butterfly’s transformation.

The following morning, we begin building our clown show on the roof of our lodging, as hundreds of migrating butterflies flew north, seemingly dancing to our ukulele strains.

Songs and Sounds, Strings and Strains of CWB

I’d wanted to purchase and learn to play the ukulele for several months, and finally got my hands on one just days before our Tijuana project began. I love the way that live music can support a clown performance. Even something as simple as a few ukulele strums can really give breath, life, playfulness and a special kind of aliveness to an act. My plan was to learn up to three chords that I could play comfortably enough to accompany some of the nonverbal acts in the show. So far, I’ve only used one: good, old reliable C major. Using just one strong little chord on four willing little strings, I can play my way through acts in each of our parades and performances.

If you want to hear more songs that are essential to the CWB Tijuana tour, check out “Somos Migrantes” by Polache and Nilo Espinal, “Viajera” by Luis Arcaraz, “I Like to Cha-Cha” by DRAM…and, of course, listen for some laughter.

Colorful balloons are laid out on a cement surface

Sharing Love

Darina Robles is the founder of Llaven nü, a social circus program in Mexico, and frequent CWB – USA collaborator. She writes about meeting a special little boy during the Tijuana tour, in which CWB performed for migrant families at the border between the United States and Mexico.

Our Clowns Without Borders tour arrives at a house for migrant families. Today we’ll give a workshop and performance. The children, mostly between three and six years old, gather on the patio of the house. We ask them their names and make a name game. Then we play duck and goose. Miguel, a four-year-old boy from Guatemala is Goose, and I see tears coming from his eyes. He wipes them away with his little hands, and makes an effort to stop crying, but I’m very aware of him. We change the game, and Miguel lets himself cry for no apparent reason. Later, one of the mothers explains that Miguel arrived with his father the day before, after walking for 10 days. He speaks almost no Spanish, and his father had left for work that day to take care of them both. 

I go to an old piano that doesn’t work and start singing and pretending to play it. Miguel follows me in silence, and I recall a time when I lived in another country. The sounds of nature were the only things that were familiar to me. I invent a song for Miguel, with animal sounds that he might recognize. At this point he’s no longer crying, but calm and playing with me—now I have to hold back tears! At one point, a hummingbird comes and stands in front of us, on the branch of a tree. We stop playing the piano and look at the hummingbird, amazed, as it hovers in front of us. In my culture, the hummingbird signifies love. I’m so grateful to have shared love with that beautiful child. 

Darina’s blog en español

Llegamos los payasos sin fronteras a una casa para familias migrantes, para dar un taller y después la función. Los niños de reunieron en el patio de la casa, la mayoría tenían entre 3 y 6 años. Les preguntamos sus nombres e hicimos un juego de nombres. Después jugamos pato y ganso. Entonces le tocó ser ganso a Miguel, un niño guatemalteco de 4 años. El juego siguió pero yo noté que a Miguel le salían lágrimas de sus ojos y se limpiaba con sus manitas. Dejó de llorar, como que hacia esfuerzo para que no le ganará el llanto, yo estaba muy pendiente de él. Cambiamos de juego y Miguel se soltó a llorar sin razón aparente. Yo entonces lo cargué y una mamá me explicó que Miguel había llegado el día anterior a la casa de migrantes con su papá, después de un largo recorrido, que habían caminado durante diez días antes de llegar a Tijuana. Que Miguel casi no hablaba español y que su papá había salido por trabajo y se los había encargado pero que Miguel estaba muy sensible.

Entonces yo lo llevé donde había un piano viejo que no servía, las teclas no emitan sonido  pero se movían. Entonces yo empecé a tocar y cantar, y él me siguió en silencio. Me di cuenta que Migue pensaba que los sonidos venían del piano y no de mi canto. Me acordé cuando yo viví en otro país donde casi lo único que me era familiar eran los sonidos de la naturaleza. Entonces inventé una canción con los sonidos de los animales para Migue, pensé en animales que él pudiera reconocer. Él ya no lloraba, estaba tranquilo y jugando, pero a mi me costaba contener las lágrimas. En un momento un colibrí llegó y se paró en una rama de un árbol, enfrente de nosotros. Yo le dije a Migue que mirara el colibrí y el dejó de jugar con el piano  y se quedó con la mirada fija en el colibrí sin moverse. Yo igual. El colibrí se acercó a nosotros y se quedó varios segundos volando ante nuestro asombro, después se voló hacia el árbol y finalmente se fue. Migue y yo continuamos con nuestra música.  Para mi cultura el colibrí significa amor. Entonces quedé muy agradecida de haber compartido amor con ése niño hermoso.

All the clowns squeeze inside a wooden picture frame. They are performing outside, in Palestine.

In Their Own Words

CWB – USA actively collects feedback from project partners and hosts as part of our commitment to ethical work. During our recent tour to Palestine, we asked our audiences to describe their experiences and interactions with the clowns. These conversations originally happened in Arabic and were translated by Rami Khader

Teacher at Aida Camp, Bethlehem:

“Our children are used to tear gas every day from the Israeli Watch tour. They don’t get a chance to laugh, even in their houses, schools, and community. You have brought laughter that is much needed.”

12 Year Old Girl, Obedieh Village:

“I am so happy. I don’t remember being happy like this for a long time.”

Teacher in Jericho Sira School:

“There is one child who never attends any event and is not comfortable in a large group. We expected that he would leave the group when the clowns started the performance, but he stayed and was enjoying the performance. It is the first time he has stayed for a whole event.”

Teacher at Ein Sina School:

“I am speechless. The faces of our students tell so much about your coming here.”

Boy at Khan Alahmar Beduin Community:

“Can you come back often?”

Mother at Nablus Circus School:

“It is so important for them to have more frequent performances like this one, because they speak laughter from the heart.”

Rami Khader, Diyar Theatre:

“We had never thought about clowning as a performance or as an art. We always thought of it as something small, for a few kids, not to connect to all of the people. The adults would come with the intention to take care of the kids, and then they would leave their kids to watch the performance and enjoy it. The adults were so engaged. We all learned that clowning can be an art for everyone to share.”