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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.

chiapas028

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.”

Clowns Without Borders leads a workshop for Palestinian children

Workshops for Kids

Our project partner, Diyar Theatre, offers classes to youth and adults. As part of this tour, CWB led a few workshops for Diyar Theatre’s students. Ania Upstill and Matthew “Poki” McCorkle share their experiences leading a workshop. 

Ania

Clowns Without Borders leads a workshop for Palestinian childrenToday we teach two workshops to children at Diyar Theatre (with a rehearsal in between). The first group comes in from a local school, full of energy and bursting with ideas. They love the more physical games, like throwing an imaginary ball and racing around during “friends and enemies.”
They even make up their own way of playing “friends and enemies” that I’ve never seen before. Instead of trying to stay close to one “friend” and keep that “friend” between them and an “enemy,” little groups form to protect each other from all enemies by sticking together like glue. It just proves the variations are endless! At the end of the class, their teacher—an artist himself, we find out—says that the workshop helped him see them as people, not just students. There are sides of the kids he had never seen.

Poki

Kids are such natural clowns. During a game of “Bus Stop” one girl sits on the windowsill waiting her turn. In giving the instructions, I hadn’t thought to specify that it would be less distracting if everyone sat on the floor together. Oh well, it’s probably fine. She gets more at home, kicking her feet, looking around the sill. She notices a red clown nose on a string, next to her. We haven’t introduced the nose yet, and it was waiting there for later in class. She looks up, and we make eye contact. She quickly looks back down at the sill, pretending not to notice me. She kicks her feet. I look back towards the bus stop game.

At the next pause in “Bus Stop,” I look up and she has the nose in her hands, moving it back and forth. We make eye contact again. She shares a mischievous smile, and puts the nose down, as if that was her plan all along: pick it up, play with it, put it down. I nod in agreement and look back to “Bus Stop.” The next time I look up I’m eye to eye with a clown in red nose. She smiles
a big smile, knowing that she was discovered. Doing the best I can to not crack up I give her a disapproving head shake and motion to put the nose down. It’s the first time I’ve asked a kid to take off a red nose! She loves this. Now it’s a game. And a great exercise in clown duo relationships: Me playing the Joey, the Straight-clown, the Number 1; Her playing the August, the funny-clown, the Number 2. “Bus Stop” continues, unconcerned.

Ania

The second group is from an after-school program with Diyar Theater, some of whom have been working with their teacher for more than two years. They’re incredibly engaged in the workshop and all the exercises, including some astonishingly generous, non-violent, and creative play in the classic game “Bus Stop” (also known as “Park Bench”). What impresses me the most, though, is their clown work. We do a simple exercise that Poki calls “Seeing Seeing,” in which the clown enters, sees the audience, moves into the center, looks each audience member in their eyes, and then exits (saying “Goodbye,” right before they exit). I’ve seen many adults struggle with this exercise because it’s challenging to have all of those eyes on you. These students take it right in stride! They’re engaging and connected, it’s incredibly inspiring. Many of them were at our performance on Monday evening in Bethlehem!

Poki

Clowns Without Borders leads a workshop for Palestinian childrenThese kids are awesome! They’re attentive, imaginative, physical, and full of play. They took to clowning with ease, openness, and hilarity. Later in the workshop we play a game called “Flocking,” in which we all move around the room as if we’re a flock of birds or a school of fish. Each member of the flock mimics the movements and noises of their neighbors, changing directions and leaders without saying a word. I love this exercise because once the framework is established, we can all play together as equals, unified as one organism moving in the space.

 

Four clowns fit into a picture frame

Working in Translation

The majority of CWB – USA performances are free of language, however language (and translation) are often essential for our clowns to travel and create their show. In multi-cultural teams, the artists adapt and learn how to collaborate with each other. Matthew “Poki” McCorkle and Ania Upstill write about how they embrace translation (or lack thereof) in the rehearsal room.

Ania

Osama, one of our team members, has been absent for the past few rehearsals. He not only runs his own tour business and volunteers for Diyar Theater in his spare time, but he’s getting engaged this weekend! In Palestine, apparently, engagements and weddings are a big deal. Rami tells me, “Everyone in Palestine who has gotten married knows how to organize a festival. Here, weddings are festivals.” There can be up to 500 guests at an engagement party! Even though Osama said his engagement will be small, it’s still clearly an important occasion. We were all prepped for this as a team, and we’ve been able to get a lot done in his absence—but it has been an interesting time working in translation. Our other team member, Ahmad, speaks much less English than Osama (although far more English than we originally thought). Luckily, clowning is a highly physical art form and I, for one, hardly ever speak as a clown.

 

Poki

When we share the rehearsal room with Ahmad, we’ve learned to pick up on a few non-verbal cues:

  • Roaring laughter, jumping, and a high five → YES!!! Put this in the show!
  • Blank stare → Talk slower or try a different description.
  • Staring into space → You’ve been speaking English for too long.
  • Impromptu Arabic lesson → A humbling reminder of how hard learning a new language is.

I suppose all the same cues apply for English speaking clown partners as well!

Ania

Perhaps the most important lesson I’m learning is to allow time and space for play and trust-building. This is important in any ensemble, but in a group where language poses a barrier, simply playing can be magic. And it’s fun!

Overall, it’s such a joy and privilege to work with both Ahmad and Osama. Our collaboration proves, for me, that laughter does transcend boundaries and can truly bring people together.

Here are some of my tips for working with a multi-lingual group:

  • When explaining, speak slowly! New York has definitely changed my speech patterns to go fast fast fast. This is not helpful.
  • Clear eye contact, not surprisingly, IS helpful, both to check if someone has understood and also to make sure they’re looking where you’re pointing or indicating.
  • Doing is better than describing. It’s a theater-making truism, and all the better when there’s a language barrier.
  • Use other people to show what you’re doing. Okay, still obvious, but also helpful. I.e. (pointing) Say, “Poki is you” (and then do the action with Poki).
  • Be patient. Sometimes it takes a while to “say” a thing, but you know what? It’s worth it.

Poki

One of my favorite things we’re working on is a mirror bit with Ahmad. An empty picture frame is held in between us, as if it’s a mirror. First, I fall asleep standing up (only in a clown show) on one side of the mirror. Ahmad, as the trickster, reaches through the frame and taps me on the shoulder. I awake, yawn, and groggily look in the mirror. He plays my reflection through the picture frame, mirroring my every move, tricking me into thinking I’m looking at a reflection of myself through the empty frame.

Two clowns look at their reflection in the mirror

This is a trip for me, for two reasons. The first is that we have similar appearances, including our mustaches, funny hats and our height. I feel that if I squint hard enough, he could very well be my reflection! This is a sensation that must be experienced to be fully understood, and it’s downright trippy. The other reason this experience is strange, is that Ahmad and I are about as opposite as it gets. He’s an Islamic Palestinian who grew up in a refugee camp. I’m an American Jew from California.

This inherited privilege plays out in so many ways. Of particular relevance? As a Jewish person I have an Israeli government-issued “right to return,” a right to immigrate to Israel. In other words, I have the right to literally move into the very land that Ahmad’s family was displaced from and forbidden to return to.

Staring at Ahmad in the mirror, I reflect on how unjust the distribution of privilege is, and the many terrible ways it plays out around the globe. This is a whole other level of trippy.

 

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

Negotiating Borders

Our name, “Without Borders,” speaks to the ethos of our organization, but in many ways is a misnomer. Often, negotiating borders, visas, and checkpoints takes a significant amount of time on each tour. For many of our audiences and collaborators, these borders are a routine part of life. Matthew “Poki” McCorcle and Ania Upstill reflect on navigating borders in the West Bank.

Poki

Life is a tangled web of rules here in Palestine. Rami Khader, the director of Diyar Theatre and our project organizer for this tour, tells us about the different zones we pass through during a 15-minute drive in Bethlehem. First is Zone A, an area of Bethlehem under Palestinian jurisdiction. Except at night, that is, between 12am and 7am, when there’s a switch and the Israeli guards come in. “The night belongs to Israel,” Rami says. Next, without any visible marker, we drive into an area designated as Zone B, which means it’s under Israeli jurisdiction but everyone who lives there is Palestinian. We arrive near his house and Rami points out a clearing between two buildings. “That over there is Zone C, a confiscated zone,” he says. “Palestinians are not allowed to go there.”

Ania

When I got a ride from the airport, my driver pointed out Ramallah, describing how the road cuts through two parts of Palestine. “The Israelis wanted to build a road from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. So they took the land for the road and built tunnels under it for the Palestinians to use. Palestinian vehicles aren’t allowed on the road,” he tells me. The whole highway is surrounded by tall fences coated in barbed wire. I’m struck by the bizarre nature of not being able to use the best road going through your own territory. No wonder Palestinians speak about how long it can take to get to other parts of Palestine—even on a good day.

Dustin stands in front of the group of kids at IIOM

Each Person Is an Individual

Dustin J. Allen reflects on his participation in the 2019 Balkan Route Tour. He writes about the need to see people as individuals, with their own aspirations, fears and dreams. 

My tour with Clowns Without Borders USA is all wrapped up. I’m dwelling on the memories of 2,150 audience members, 20 shows in three weeks, and endless hours spent driving through the winding roads of Romania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Serbia. I happened to be with the perfect clowns to guide me through the experience, and feel incredibly fulfilled. But there’s also something heavy. There’re still thousands of people in camps, with no end in sight, and tens of thousands more fleeing war-torn countries, staking their lives for the small chance of freedom. And soon they’ll be placed in these same camps.

Each person I met is an individual, not “just” a member of  a religious or ethnic group. I want to encourage people to take a step back and reconsider the rhetoric they might have heard about refugees and migrants. We met men, women, and children—doctors, engineers, truck drivers, musicians, barbers, accountants—who wait indefinitely in terrible conditions, who lost homes, careers, families, and friends. Many of them told us that the situation they left, as well as their experience in these camps, is “not life,” or “not living.” The people I talked to told me they want safety for their children, opportunity to grow, learn and succeed, and the peace of mind to leave their home without fear of being killed by extremists or oppressors.

This heaviness extends to all marginalized groups we met, not just migrants. Deep in rural Romania, one Roma community we played for faces a plight seemingly grimmer than that of refugees and migrants. They live in a shanty town, up against the constant hatred of their neighbors, denied education and work opportunities. 

I hope to put the red nose back on and do it again sooner rather than later. Until then, as usual, I have a lot to say. If you want to meet, or just message me to ask about any element of any of this work, let me know.

Palestinian Clowns

Welcome To Palestine

Matthew “Poki” McCorkle and Ania Upstill are in Palestine for a two-week collaboration with Diyar Theatre. The tour started with workshops for Palestinian clowns. Ania shares their first experience of the workshop.

First Workshop

Teaching our first clowning workshop in Palestine is amazing! Rami, from Diyar Theater, is passionate about bringing workshops to some of the many performers in Palestine, and the group he brings today is an absolutely delightful group. From the get-go they’re so willing to play and be silly—it feels like we can provide the container and they fill it with fun. They’re also very fluid in their hips, which you don’t always see from a group of men!

When we come to a logical time for a break, in the first section of class, all our students applaud and then say, as if in a chorus, “Now it’s time for a coffee break!” I really appreciate their polite directness. With both of us teachers still on U.S. time, we’re jet-lagged and confused.

Clowning in Palestine

It’s fascinating to hear about the work these artists do and why they wanted to come to our class. Two of them work together as a puppetry duo. They travel all over Palestine, from Bethlehem to the Bedouin settlements and refugee camps, entertaining children. They show us a photo of the two of them running in the Bethlehem marathon with their puppets in wheelchairs, each puppet carrying a sign that reads: “Look at the human in the chair, not the chair.” It’s inspiring to think how much they travel and how hard they work to bring laughter to children. They’re also hilarious to have in class. During an exercise where the clown comes into the room and discovers an (unknown) object, one of them put himself into the center to be “found.” Hilarity ensued.

At the end of the day the artists from Nablus, who drove two hours to get to the workshop, ask if we can do another workshop with them when we take our performance tour to their city. To me, that’s basically the biggest compliment you can receive. Poki and I both agree without hesitation!

Welcome To Palestine

A last side note: When we buy our groceries at the local market, I make the mistake of choosing an old garlic bulb rather than the new, fresh one. The vendor brings over a fresh garlic bulb for us, and then gives us our two artichokes and the garlic free of charge, saying, “Welcome to Palestine. Enjoy your time here.” If that’s not a beautiful welcome, I don’t know what is!

 

Molly Rose and a local partner touch pinkies in Friendship Park

Ojala Que Nos Vemos

During CWB – USA’s recent tour to Tijuana, the team performed at the border as families waited in line to learn who would be granted asylum interviews. In this blog, team logistician Molly Rose writes about the difficult living situations and slim chances faced by asylum seekers, as well as the moments of joy.   

Waiting to Hear Your Number

Our first show is at a small shelter in Zona Norte, near downtown Tijuana. It’s just a five-minute walk to the pedestrian border crossing, and the plaza where people gather every morning for la lista, the unofficial/official list asylum seekers use as they wait to plead their case for asylum. 

Newly arrived asylum seekers register with the list to receive a number that allows them to begin the legal process of requesting asylum. Then, they wait in Tijuana for their number to be called—an average wait of three to four months. Legally, anyone who presents themselves at a point of entry has the right to ask for asylum and be immediately received for processing. In reality, the United States and Mexico border patrols created the list system to delay the process. 

The physical notebook that holds the list is managed by the asylum seekers themselves, blurring the lines of culpability for the authorities. Each morning, the notebook is delivered to the “list managers,” along with the numbers of asylum seekers who will be accepted that day. Sometimes, a list manager hears their own number, and they pass the notebook along to someone else further down the line. After the numbers have all been called, the authorities take the notebook back for safekeeping overnight. 

Creating a Home

This tour is for the families who are on the list. A man shares his family’s story with me after our performance this morning. Rodrigo* watches our show with his small daughter in his lap. She’s too young to really understand what’s happening, but it’s clearly a pleasure for him to share the show with her. Rodrigo’s family has been in Tijuana for 22 days so far, and are about 120 numbers down on the list. They live in a cavernous, concrete warehouse, alongside 30 other people (though the numbers fluctuate as new people arrive and others take their turn on the list). 

The lower level of the warehouse holds supplies and chairs used for meetings and organizing. There’s a makeshift kitchen, still under construction. Colorful couches are arranged in a small corner, near a window, to create a living room. A paper design, drawn by members of the community, decorates the wall above the couches. The main living area is accessed up a flight of outdoor stairs. Bathrooms with hot water have just been installed. Our show takes place on one side of the space, which is also used for eating and playing. The other side, separated by a tarp used as a door, is a dormitory where everyone sleeps. Bunk beds line the room and it feels like the most private space available. We only enter it to retrieve lost juggling balls and hoola hoops.

 

The Only Choice

Rodrigo is grateful for a safe space with beds, and hot water for washing. He opens our conversation by saying (translation): “I didn’t make this journey for an ‘American Dream.’ I never wanted to leave my home, my country in Honduras. I’ve slept with my babies and my wife outside on the streets, in the cold, and I never wanted this for them. But there was no other choice.”

In Honduras, Rodrigo worked as a vendor with an elote cart, selling food in his city. The gang approached him and asked to use his cart to carry drugs and guns. When he said no, they told him that he had 24 hours to change his mind, or they would kill both of his children in front of him. “The gangs don’t make threats that they don’t intend to keep,” Rodrigo says. That day he and his wife decided to leave, and started walking to the United States. It wasn’t an easy decision, but the alternative, having his children murdered, made it the only possible choice. He worries about his parents and siblings in Honduras.

Sitting on plastic chairs in a dusty warehouse, he seems relaxed. His child is happy, giggling and pointing at the colorful characters in front of her. His older child runs around, wrapped up in the games that the clowns are leading, playing ring toss with plungers (props!). Rodrigo thanks us for sharing this time with them, but honestly, it feels like the very least we can do. We left with a hug and ojala que nos vemos al otro lado [de la frontera]. 

Only fifteen percent of asylum seekers pass their credible fear interview. Sometimes only one parent passes. Of those who pass their credible fear interviews, only thirty-five percent ultimately gain asylum. 

*names and some details changed to protect Rodrigo and his family
A little girl peaks sideways as she watches the clowns perform

Balkan Tour Diary: Part 2

CWB – USA board member David Lichtenstein is on tour with Clown Me In founder, and longtime CWB partner, Sabine Choucair, and Dustin J. Allen. The three are traveling along the Balkan Route, walked by migrants from North Africa and the Middle East who seek refuge in the European Union. David’s tour diary gives a day-by-day sense of what it’s like to interact with migrants risking everything for safety and security in the EU. 

March 12, 2019

Our final show in Serbia is at a large and intense shelter near Sid. The men and few families laugh really loudly. Many people here are Afghans or Kurds, and everyone has a story. Some people have made it as far as Slovenia or Belgium. One person ran a barbershop in Switzerland before getting deported and and trying the whole journey again. A 14-year-old Afghan boy, with scars on his head, looks very serious before the show. He left Afghanistan two years ago, and is alone.

March 14, 2019

We have two and a half great shows today, and then a seven-hour drive. It’s been 15 years since I last received a traffic ticket in the United States, even though I drive all over the West. But in two weeks here, we’ve gotten three speeding tickets! Two on me in Bosnia, and one on Sabine in Romania. And we’ve been driving slowly! #ClownsWithoutSpeedLimits

March 16+17, 2019

We have two shows over the next two days for Roma communities deep in the Romanian/Transylvanian countryside. These audiences are some of the rowdiest, loudest-laughing groups I’ve ever experienced. We parade through town, gathering a group despite the slight drizzle. We thought there was an indoor space, but the group just stops at a muddy intersection at the center of the community, and says, “Here!”

The rain lets up, and people laugh and yell so loudly. These people really know how to have fun and give back, and local musicians join us for some of the performance. It’s so much fun, but it’s not easy. The crowd is always in flux, and despite having a deep circle of audience members, a few cars and dogs push through. When we go to play with people at the edge of the circle, they all laugh hysterically and play right back. A town drunk repeatedly wanders onto our “stage” and so we keep guiding him off. We see a kid steal a large plastic beer bottle from his back pocket and heave it away into a yard. The kids are lovely and super fun.

We spend the night in between each show with a wonderful Roma musician family. They put us up in their big house and serve us wonderful food. They tell us that everybody in the community, except them, is unemployed. They live off the meager food they grow in their yards. They all speak Romanian, Hungarian and the Roma language. One of the musicians speaks French as well, and that’s how we communicate. The non-Roma people there, who are Hungarian, hate the Roma people and won’t join them as audience members. It’s quite an experience.

March 20, 2019

I’m on my way home, processing all the amazing Clowns Without Borders USA experiences in Bosnia, Serbia and Romania. Hundreds of immigrants live packed into a stinking warehouse, or squatting in an abandoned farmhouse. There are so many stories: “We left Syria 18 months ago”; “I’ve been turned back 15 times but I’m sure I’ll make it to Europe eventually”; “The Croatian police beat us and destroyed our phones”; “You see this awful warehouse? It’s still better than living in Afghanistan.”

We performed 20 shows for over 2000 refugees, and two shows in Roma communities. Our typical audience members were people fleeing Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, as well as other countries. Most of them have been on the road for a year or two prior to our meeting. These people spend their time trying to cross numerous borders, or resting in refugee camps (formal and informal). We clowned for toughened young men in their 20s and 30s, and teenagers traveling by themselves. They laughed like crazy. We did family shows for kids who spent the previous night in a police van. The Roma kids laughed so loudly, and aid workers told us they hadn’t seen the kids laugh like that in a long time. It feels very special.

 

Group photo after Moshe's workshop in Guatemala

Meditation, Resilience and Clowns

Clowns Without Borders USA founder Moshe Cohen is in Guatemala leading workshops for social workers, mental health professionals and educators. Moshe has a long history of clowning in Guatemala, starting in 1996! Today’s workshop is held in Guatemala City, and the participants are excited to try meditation. They specifically request tools for resilience. 

“When I talk to Sandra after the workshop, to ask how it went, she tells me she has never seen some of the participants smile before, let alone laugh. I hadn’t considered that possibility earlier in the day, though I did note a few faces that were slow to thaw into humorous expression.”

–Moshe Cohen

Inviting Informality

Sandra, the coordinator from the Procuraduriá of Human Rights, is super happy with how today goes. The workshop starts quite formally, with the director and the head-of-staff each giving short speeches at a podium, with a microphone. A videographer records the event, but once that person disappears I waste no time in breaking down the rules of formality.

Perhaps inviting informality is the most revolutionary aspect of the workshop, though I doubt it. Waking up humorous expression and empathetic human connection is a surprising exploration for most of the participants. Most are willing, but as one might expect, there are more than a few who’re apprehensive. That being said, they all take on the challenge, plunging into exercises that demand a combination of fun and mindful concentration. This experience is a far cry from my colleagues over on the Balkan route right now, driving umpteen miles to small, forgotten refugee centers, performing and inviting laughter into places where it’s desperately needed to defuse despair and desolation. My first impulse is to discount the work I’m doing here as relatively unimportant.

Yet then I consider the “clients” of these psychologists and social workers. The workshop participants sit behind their desks (for the most part), receiving and interacting with victims of human rights abuses of all kinds. The director uses her short speech to remind everyone how isolated their Procuraduria is from most other government agencies; how they’re not very ‘popular’ with the establishment. In this country, with a long history of human rights abuses, these folks are often on the wrong side of the table in the government’s eyes (so to speak).   

That thought brings up memories of the Zapatista conflict in Chiapas, Mexico, during their uprising. In St. Cristobal there were actually two human rights centers: the official government agency and the Centro Derechos St. Bartolomé de las Casas, run by the Catholic church. The people at St. Bartolomé were the only ones truly interested in human rights abuses, while their government counterpart was far less effective.

Clown Tools

In the workshop today, I steer the group towards developing tools of expression to defuse tension in subtle ways. We work with energies of frustration and fear, and practice infusing those energies with lightness. It’s a way to better connect with clients. I’m a bit surprised when, during the opening circle, one person asks for tools of resilience—I hadn’t expected the participants to think a clown has anything to offer in that sector.

In fact, we do. Resilience is one’s ability to deal with difficult situations and emotions. It starts with an awareness and acceptance of those emotions, such as fear, frustration, and anger. The journey for a clown, or anyone really, is to inject humor and lightness into those feelings. Resilience requires just that, to accept that we all carry those emotions—unless perhaps you’re something of a saint, and even then, those emotions aren’t really outside or beyond you.

As we close the morning session, I ask the group what they want more of when we meet again in the afternoon. They request more relaxation exercises, more meditation, and how to work with frustration. I had teased that final option as a possibility, unsure if they’d be interested. The request for meditation is unexpected! I hadn’t planned on doing it, but when I mention it, there’s a surprising level of enthusiasm to try, and total agreement when I suggest it as the final exercise of the day. Yes, please. Well, I guess this old clown is still capable of learning new tricks. 

Thank you to Ricardo Bámaca for the photos and the logistical support on this tour!

Silhouetted against the sun

Balkan Tour Diary: Part 1

CWB – USA board member David Lichtenstein is on tour with Clown Me In founder, and longtime CWB partner, Sabine Choucair, and Dustin J. Allen. The three are traveling along the Balkan Route, walked by migrants from North Africa and the Middle East who seek refuge in the European Union. David’s tour diary gives a day-by-day sense of what it’s like to interact with migrants risking everything for safety and security in the EU. 

March 3, 2019

Today we’re in Bosnia, in a town on the Croatian border. It’s filled with migrants from Algeria to Afghanistan—many of whom have already crossed at least three national boundaries, with a few more to go before they achieve their goal of reaching the European Union. Nearly all the migrants are men in their twenties or thirties, whiling away the day until they make another nighttime attempt at crossing the border into Croatia.

We talk with a pair of tall Berber men who have been on the road for four months, and an Algerian man who spent eight years working in Greece before trying to get to Central or Western Europe. He has already tried 10 times, once making it as far as Slovenia before getting shipped back. A Syrian man has been on the road for a year and a half, with his wife and small child. His body is filled with shrapnel and he needs surgery. His medical needs were refused in Greece, so he’s trying to get to Germany.

The very first show the three of us do together is a huge hit with all the young men and the three children at the camp. It’s a rowdy and engaged audience, who especially love the “border crossing” part of the performance. Makes sense, since it’s the life they’re living.

March 4, 2019

The kids at this camp are wild! After the performance, they show us how they sneak through the forest when they’re playing “the game,” the word migrant people use to describe crossing borders in the EU. They tell us how they tried to hide from the police, but then were rounded up at gunpoint and taken to a van. The van didn’t have enough air, and some of the kids vomited as they were driven back to camp. Apparently this happened the night before our show! No wonder they’re so wild!

March 5, 2019

We perform for about 500 men, and a handful of women and children, outside a giant, depressing shelter. Most of the men were pulled out of forest camps and deposited here a little further from the border. It’s not a happy atmosphere, but we have a great show. A shy, young Iranian man joins us on guitar. The audience loves when we pull volunteers into the performance!

March 7, 2019

I slept with my clown nose around my neck last night. Today we have a show at another large, difficult camp outside Sarajevo. Hundreds of young men and a dozen children attend our show, laughing the whole time. We wind down a little early, after a near-fight among a few of the younger men in our audience. The show is nearly 90 minutes long when we do the whole thing, so it’s just as well.

Afterward, we wait for the bus and play with Roma children for about an hour. Right now, we’re traveling with a group of Belgian high school students who are learning about the migrant crisis. As we cross the border into Serbia, in a bus with 30 people, we start taking bets: Whose passport will cause the biggest problem? Afghan? Moroccan? Lebanese? Or, American?