The shelter is the Port Allen Community Center, a structure that looks more like an oversized high school gymnasium. There is green grass and trees on either side of the building, some tall shady trees, with various gatherings of peoples outside. Two army MPs at the entrance are relaxing with several shelter residents sitting in chairs near by. A little cigarette magic with a woman who is about to light up brings up a gentle humor that is shared by all. Inside the structure everything seems a little crowded. The beds, and cots take up almost the entire space of the center, there is no children’s area, and the shelter manager, Judy, sits at a table right inside the entrance.


No problem my doing a show although she is not sure where. I talk with another of the shelter volunteers who is trying to organize a football clinic outside for the youth. We discuss possibilities for doing a show. I mention the lack of space, Judy, who obviously has had about all she can handle – at several moments during our conversation she says that the tensions are reaching the breaking point. I can tell from her expression that this breaking point has been reached in the past days. Judy explains that all the space is very territorial, and that basically I can do a show wherever I can figure out a place to do it.


I mention the lack of space to which Judy gives an exhausted affirming nod. She mentions that she is hopeful that a certain belligerent and demanding extended family of 40 will be leaving soon and that should ease things considerably. She points with a nod of her head to the area immediately to her left as the folks she is talking about. There are several kids in the mix amongst the extended family sitting on their cots, so I walk over and start blowing bubbles for them aiming to ease the tensions a bit. Some smiles emerge, then a thirty something man who appears to be a focal point calls me to come over to him in not too friendly a manner. A younger man nearby pipes up that ‘he just wants to rob you’. I notice that the whole scene is being watched by one of the friendly MPs I was joking with at the entrance. We exchange smiles, and knowing looks that tell me that there has been trouble and that they will respect his presence. I don’t go to the man calling me over and focus back in on the kids, his presence vanishes from my existence. I would have loved to bring him into the game, but it is instantly clear that he is beyond my reach.


At this moment, a young girl, Alexis, who has been participating in the bubble activity becomes my instant friend and tells me ‘ you’re Jiminy Cricket’ and wants to know where my magic wand is.


I tell her that I am looking for a place to do the show, and she takes my hand over to where a few kids are watching cartoons on a TV that is placed on a snack bar counter over on the front side corner of the room. Earlier while I was talking to Judy about show possibilities, a woman with a yellow t-shirt on stating in big black lettered ‘Scientology volunteer minister’ had been handing out snacks to a line of people there (sugar sugar sugar in it’s many advertised forms). Now the space had cleared up a little. Alexis reaches up to turn off the TV and sits down. The other kids watching don’t seem to mind, and more who have been alerted to my presence come over and squeeze into the dozen or so brown folding chairs. There is some jockeying for sitting space as I begin to play. It is clear by the way the kids decide who sits where that tensions and territoriality exist between them as well as the adults. Several small kids share chairs, but some won’t go near other kids.


There is absolutely no extra space, we are squeezed in-between the snack bar counter and cots. One ten year old boy decides to sit on the cot right behind the second row of chairs, and almost immediately a man appears behind me telling the boy in angry words to get his butt off his cot. I try to smooth over the incident, and the kids adjust their seating arrangements to make room for the boy on the chairs. The man recedes but keeps an eye on us from his sitting spot against the wall.


I have about 10 square feet of ‘stage’ space, for me and my suitcase of props, I have this little intimate show with the kids that ends as I let all the kids try to juggle my cigar boxes. They watch each other and cheer the few who manage a little success. I leave wishing that I was prepared to offer them a circus workshop.


There are quite a few yellow shirted Scientlogy volunteers at this shelter, and one of the Red Cross volunteers is deeply suspicious about their motivations and activities. He tells me they have set up a large open tent outside and that he keeps seeing them counseling refugees out there one on one. He tells me that he is just a volunteer and does not feel in position to question their activities. An elder catholic nun comes in to the shelter as I am packing up, and it is announced that she is there to give communion to any Catholics wishing. I am headed over to the table to thank Judy when I realize that Judy is taking communion, a very deep moment between her and the nun. I wait until it is over. Both the nun, who has a surprisingly strong handshake, and Judy thank me, and tell me that my presence really made a difference.


I head back to Baton Rouge and Red Cross headquarters to see if I can do any more shows that day. By the time I am talking to Judy it is dinnertime, too late for more today, and time for me to start driving back towards Houston. In the midst of discussing what might be possible in the future, a conversation that gets cut off after a minute or two by several urgent matters and a meeting that she has to get to, she fields a call from ABC who wants to go distribute teddy bears to shelters, no doubt they have cameras in tow she says to me afterwards. I don’t doubt it either. I offer her a clown nose in case she feels the need to break through some tensions. She tells me that she will probably be using it before the end of the day.

September 10,2oo5

It is the strangest of situations to say the least, sitting and eating in an upscale Mexican-American restaurant amongst the clatter of dishes and glasses and conversations. What creates the incongruities is that here in Baton Rouge, Louisiana there are also over three hundred shelters operating amongst an army of Red Cross staff and volunteers. Life appears close to normal, stores are open, people are shopping, however the streets are jam packed with traffic as this city of 200 000 has swelled by some estimates to close to 500 000. Taking a side street to avoid a huge traffic jam headed north on airline highway, I travel in my rented car past neat lawns and peaceful houses, no sign of distress there. The Red Cross center is another story-first encounter with any sense of the tragedy, as there is a small grouping of people outside the low brick edifice with army soldiers at the door. A soldier accompanies me from a small processing spot set up on the lawn to the front door where another soldier stands duty. I wait with him while my escort goes inside to ascertain that indeed there is someone inside who might want to talk with a representative of Clowns Without Borders. Everyone is courteous yet there is an edgy sense that pervades, no doubt brought on by the past ten days of crisis management.


I am coming in virtually blind to the situation with only a phone call with a government liaison telling me to come to Baton Rouge. The man said that he is familiar with our organization and that we are certainly needed down here, and so I jump a plane to Houston and rent a car to drive the 250 plus miles to Baton Rouge. I think that I am pretty smart having googled the Baton Rouge Red Cross center at home, and printed a mapquest map to the center. Indeed I find it no problem, however it turns out that this is the local chapter, and that the crisis center is now housed, as of today, at an old Wal Mart in the Coronado shopping center up the highway. I talk to the local director and one of his staff in his office, it is clear in his eyes and his body posture that he hasn’t been sleeping much these past 10 days. He calls the operations center and gives me the names of whom might be able to help me at the center, Dianne who is in charge of shelters is his best suggestion, Nancy who is running the place is probably beyond reach. So is Dianne as it turns out, although she does thank me for coming down before turning me over to her assistant.

My stories seem rather pointless as I read through stories of tragedy in the New York Times, on the internet at CC’s coffeehouse in some nicer neighborhood of Baton Rouge. The stories are about being caught in the flooding of New Orleans. I read sitting besides a large-scale photograph of the French quarter in the rain. The caption of the photo says ‘Eye of the Storm’, the irony of the moment strikes me hard, although the university students and workers in matching hats, shirts and headphone sets seem to be going on about life as usual. I performed in a shelter this afternoon in a Baptist church. I played for about 50 to 75 of the folks staying there. The assembly hall was darkened and wall-to-wall cots and beds. The people had done their best to make it as homey as possible, quilts on the beds and everything looking pretty neat. I set up in the children’s room, which when I entered had groups of young kids huddled around two television sets playing video games. There were toys strewn around everywhere, and a tired volunteer keeping an eye on things. A woman, a local piano teacher, played the grand piano, offering soft jazzy music that helped to create a calm atmosphere in what used to be the choir practice room. The church had given the space over to the Red Cross for the next three months.


The show was well received, the kids getting into it, and the adults that came enjoying yet sitting back, a more than slight defensive attitude that was hard to break through. The Red Cross staff were far more responsive, and very thankful that I had showed up. It was the first time since the shelter had been set up that there had been any type of group activity that brought the children together. The cultural divide is huge. Almost all the displaced folks at the shelters are black, and almost all the relief workers are white. One of the main Red Cross workers at the shelter told me that there is definitely an initial lack of trust, that you can’t just walk up to someone friendly and expect them to respond.


At the operations center I talk with a woman who just finished a stint as part of the mental health crew at the airport. The 50 something woman, from Missouri, told me that the experience helping /talking to the refugees had been the most rewarding experience in her life, bar none. She also told me that the Red Cross had been evacuating people from Baton Rouge to other areas but the operation had ceased yesterday signaling that they had evacuated all those that they are planning to evacuate. There are hundreds of shelters, a few very large housing thousands, others much smaller. While I was talking with Micki, Dianne’s assistant in the shelter area of the operations center, a woman came up to ask how do they notify the red cross of new shelters being set up independently of the red cross. It would seems that there are many small centers being set up independently by churches and other community groups, thus without direct access to the Red Crosses services, which are extensive on all levels. There is no lack of goodwill to be seen.


The Red Cross volunteers are sleeping in shelters as well, often without any access to showers, in some cases running water or electricity I am told. There are no hotel rooms in the city or in the state, and that is just Louisiana. Mississippi and Alabama I am told are in the same situation even though they are not getting the same media attention as New Orleans, the devastation along the coast is huge. I will probably sleep in my rented car tonight although I am going to check out the shelter where I performed today, they said that they would set up a cot for me. Tomorrow more shows, just how many I am not sure. Micki who is my contact is more than busy, and had time to jot down the address of where I should go tomorrow morning. After that I will contact her to see if she had a chance to look down her list. Another worker told me that it is only today that things have calmed down a little for the red cross staff, that they are beginning to have a handle on the situation. When I asked how long the shelters would be operational I get different answers mostly in the 12 to 18 month span. It is hard to imagine families living side by side in big open spaces for that long, but one person pointed out to me that a lot of those who would remain in the shelters have no choice, they are the poorest, and they have no money, and no place to go to.


There are more stories for sure but I have run out of steam, and so I will see what tomorrow brings.



Itinerary – South Africa 2004

We flew into Johannesburg from New York and Dublin, rehearse for two days at Jamie’s grandfather’s house, and then head northeast to Mpumalanga, a province north of Swaziland and west of Mozambique. In Malelane, we were joined by South African based performer, Garth, at Amazing Grace Children’s Home, an orphanage for 55 children from all over Southern Africa, and conducted a successful workshop on juggling using stones found outside in a field. Then our team headed for KwaZulu/Natal where we worked with Ingwavuma Orphan Care in the highlands north of Durban, the Sibusisiwe Orphan Community Project in Ntandabantu – an area stricken by drought for the past 2 and a half years, St. Philomena’s Orphanage in Durban, Pietermaritzburg Child Welfare Society, Howick Hospice in Mphophomeni township, and the Woza Moya Project. In Ntandabantu, we led a brief workshop on creating the sound of rain with our bodies which amazingly culminated in a brief shower as we drove away. Our time in the Mphophomeni was especially memorable with home stays in the township with members of the community. After KwaZulu/Natal, our mission took us to the Free State – a bastion of Afrikaneer culture and the Sotho people. We briefly visited Lebone Land in Bloemfoentein performing for their preschool graduation and then to Ficksburg where we performed an exhausting five shows in one day including a visit to a children’s ward at a hospital in Lesotho and at a fancy dinner party for members of the local Rotary Club who were our hosts. Finally, we had a long drive to Cape Town for site visits with Beautiful Gate in Crossroads and Muizenberg, Baphumelele Orphan’s home, and the Homestead Street Children Project. Then, we hauled our donated Nissan Sentra (which was packed to the brim and on its last legs) back to Johannesburg where the team dissolved after an exhausting but thoroughly blessed expedition.

Nov 18-19 Arrive in Johannesburg

Nov 20 Nelspruit, Masoyi Home Based Care, 900

Nov 21 Malelane, Amazing Grace Children’s Home, 55, workshop

Nov 22 Ingwavuma, Ingwavuma Orphan Care, 600

Nov 24 Ntandabantu, Sibusisiwe Orphan Community Project, 150

Nov 25 Durban, St Philomena’s, 200

Nov 26 Mphophomeni, Howick Hospice, 200

Nov 27-28 Weekend off

Nov 29 Ixopo, Woza Moya Project, 200

Nov 30 Pietermaritzburg, Pietermaritzburg Child Care Society, 200

Dec 1 Ixopo, Woza Moya Project, 200
Dec 2 Drive to Free State

Dec 3 Bloemfoentein, Lebone Land, 150

Dec 4 Ficksburg, Sunshine Organization, Lesotho Hospital, Rotary Club, 500

Dec 5-6 Drive to Cape Town

Dec 7 Crossroads, Beautiful Gate, 150

Dec 8 Khayelitsha, Baphumelele, 150

Dec 9 Muizenberg, Beautiful Gate, 12

Dec 10 Cape Town, Homestead Street Children Project, 40

Dec 11 Return to Johannesburg


Zuzka’s Journal Chiapas 2003 

Coming from the States, a place of much fear and apprehension at this moment, proved to create an interesting perspective on this tour for me.

Getting past the country tranquility and steep geography of this highland region was a welcome respite from newspaper headlines. Arriving in our first village, Acteal, we descended into it via a steep staircase leading from the road above, well-guarded by elders in traditional white dress and the owners of the stores along the road. We had a huge audience that watched quietly and with great attention, being roused only when we ventured into their midst, typical of many of the audiences we encountered.

Afterwards we were invited to stay in an unoccupied house, and we slowly moved our belongings from the community building, where we had set up, into our room. At the same time, a lecture had begun under the tent in front of the chapel. In the last rows sat the old women and women with babies, and I snuck up and crouched behind their benches, out of my curiosity. One shrunken, toothless grandmother was laughing and pointing at me. She was the image of my clown character, La Abuelita, and I heard her say as she winked in my direction “look, she is just a girl!”

In front, a Christian pacifist group was teaching about other communities in struggle in the world, a map of the world spread out on a whiteboard. The subject: Iraq. Some of questions: How far away is it? What culture do they have, what language do they speak? What religion do they belong to? I thought I could hear the people listening trying to translate their lives into the desert landscape.

In the evening I visited La Tienda de Mujeres with Heather Pearl, which was the village«s store of handmade wares. One of the smaller purses had this embroidered phrase: Tierra sagrado de los martires. There was also a book printed in English about the massacre, whose majority of victims were women. The woman serving us in the store showed us a photograph of her sister in the book and she told us they don«t know where the bodies of the dead are.

That night we all spent a little time socializing with another group of extranjeros (foreigners), about five young men from France, who were travelling through the region acting as observers in these villages. I understood that having foreigners present is an important component of protection for these places. They are the manifestation of a connection with the world as well as providing communication with other communities of the world.

Moving on!

Nuevo Yibelho is a town carved out of a brown slope, dusty and hot, and I was taken out of my shyness by a man, an uncle, who embraced me upon sight. We were immediately treated to food in the house of a newly-made mother and given a room in a hut to rest in afterwards. The performance was a play of two strange looking groups enjoying the sight of each other. Rudi, in his schoolboy suit and wrecked black felt hat, pulled red hankerchiefs out of the ears of jug-shaped women covered in rainbow thread. Que« extra–o!

The only show we had scheduled that wasn’t so well received was a contradiction in terms. The village of Los Platanos (or “The Bananas”, not “Bahamas”, but “Bananas”) was a very conservative town with its community life strongly focused in the activities of the church. The building of the church stood high on an outcropping of the slope where this town was located, and we were invited to change and rest in the brothers’ quarters, a small separate building off to the side. Looking out the window facing away from the church I saw it was all downhill from there. Heather and I made up a patty-cake song for a girl peering into the barred window (Clau-Dia!)as we waited for the church service to end, as we were performing in the open area en frente de la iglesia (in front of the church).

Our spirits were very high and Rudi and I threw ourselves into the pre-show warm-up with much butt-kicking, but I was distracted from Rudi’s magic by the spectacular sunset playing right behind a part of our audience. Because of the smoky atmosphere from the fires burning in this unusually dry season, the sun was a neon orange, and it was framed by a cascade of almost vertical slopes topped with blunt nubs. Long story short, in this otherworldly place, we took an opportunity during the show to sneak into the church and disappear into its cool darkness with giggles and clown glee. We closed the doors and waited a moment, only to emerge with nothing to show for our actions. We were told later, after we ended the show early, that most of the people didn’t like the performance, because it was “of the world”. So the bananas rode out of The Bananas with food for thought and a forlorn cry: “Adios! Los Platanos!”

Rudi’s Log


April 22, Acteal 300 A powerful place to begin the tour, as the Pillar of Shame statue stands above the community. The statue was erected after the 1998 massacre where 40 people were killed by Paramilitary. I noticed that near the statue of twisted, agonized faces and bodies, there was always a few men spread along the one road watching. They were not armed, unless they had their machetes, and most were in the traditional clothing. They were there, purposefully watching. This sums up my observations about the situation in Chiapas at present. The Indigenous people live by subsistence farming on steep mountain plots, in a lifestyle not unlike they have for hundreds of years. Yet, they know how fragile their existence is, and that not only their lives, but their town, their culture, their language, could be wiped out in a snap. They do not want to sell out to progress. They are strong, self-determined, and committed to staying on their land. They are watching-literally, everyone who comes and goes carefully. They want to be visited by those who support them.

The Payasos were very welcomed in Acteal, as our bringing laughter to them is an exchange of resistance and an affirmation of their staying on their land. The more connection to groups who care and see them, the more chance of their survival. And to have a wild group of clowns chasing each other and spitting water is a very well received joy. And since Payasos Sin Fronteres have been visiting Acteal for years now, there is that exchange: we are watching you Acteal for your safety, and you are watching us to laugh and feel the love.

April 23, Nuevo Yibeljo 150 Having played here before, Rudi made the choice to not perform on the basketball court below where the audience sits on the hill above, but in this small area between the little church and house. The audience filled the areas around us into the tress and along all sides. It made for a wonderfully intimate scene, with the chases into the crowd and trees quite wild. Rudi’s volunteer who puts the hat on blinding himself won the longest to stand there award. Hysterical! As most places, there were many young children really curious about our preparation, peeking into where we were changing. This pueblo was relocated to here a few years ago and is looking more like home than when Rudi visited last time.

April 24 AM El Bosque 350 Our first, but far from last entrance from a church! I enter first on the stilts, and then the other clowns enter through my legs while the opera blares. I feel like I’m birthing them, and often notice the older woman smile at me. The crowd in front of the blue church is excited, as Don Vicky has been announcing “Los Payasos” on the loudspeaker all morning. The Payasos have a reputation here and we had a rocking show with some fun improv with an old man crossing the playing area.

PM San Pedro 450 A first time for the Payasos here, which made it very exciting form the moment the car entered the town area and everyone looked and the children started to follow, til the same reaction on the way out, but with bigger smiles. Because we were such unknowns, and because hardly any outsiders come to this town, everything in the show seemed heightened! The children swarmed away if you got too close too quickly, so when we started the chases in the audience it was wild. I noticed some of the biggest smiles from the older woman here, sitting on the benches in front of the church. It was a magical sunset show watched by the entire town, including the military on the roof of a nearby building. This was the show Rudi decided Michael should stuff the entire orange he has just peeled into his mouth-so Rudi helped him out with that feat. After the show in our playing with the kids, they would touch you and run a bit. Then braver ones where standing closer as we played and the kids 2 or 3 kids back would push and then there would be a mini mosh pit on the ground in front of us. Then the kids would all laugh and stand back up. Really funny.

April 25 AM Florencia 100 On the “road” to Florencia we stopped to talk to a number of men cutting up a large tree we later learned and then saw, were beams for the reconstruction of the church. One of the men was our contact, but was surprised to see us. “I thought you were coming the 25th”, “It is the 25th”. So it goes. There were fewer people than there might have been , but we gathered a good number, including a cow, and did our show under two large trees next to the basketball court. The houses are spread out in this area, and the pueblo tiny, so the joy was in bringing what we had to them. They are not too small a place to be important enough for the clowns to come, is how I felt. Lots of big smiles under that beautiful tree, where the children seemed a bit poorer than other places, and where I met Victor, a small boy who made the most hysterical, fabulous faces as we played outside the house where they fed us a delicious lunch of Mayan tamales.

PM Los Platanos 200 The audience was loving it, we were having a blast, but the conservative Hermanos of the church were uncomfortable with the show…We skipped to the end after our contact Gloria asked us. This is the mixed bag of going to towns through the church I suppose, but it is their town, and if the dancing and slapstick are not what the church men want in front of their church, than we respect that. They still asked us to stay for food. It was a quiet dinner and a wild ride home in the back of the truck. We were all moved greatly by Gloria, the Hermana from El Bosque who set up the shows in San Pedro, Florencia and Los Platanos, as she smiled and moved so gracefully through what might have been an even more awkward situation. She said a prayer after dinner which made most of us cry, and feel so thankful to be doing the work we are doing.

April 26 Oventik, 200 I was grateful to go to Oventik, not so much because there was an audience there dying to see us. There weren’t that many people around, and some were too busy to come see the show. But what we saw there in the Zapatista stronghold, was a 5 on 5 full court woman’s basketball game. Barefoot, dresses, almost all in the same traditional shirt, sprinting up and down the court, playing a really good game of hoops! And at the same time, I saw some men over at the water washing clothes. The people who fought for liberation, were living some forms of it.

The audience was largely teenage boys and then some of the basketball woman arrived. We started the show for 2 people and so really were playing to have fun ourselves and we sure did. The audience was on a hill which I was up and down ten times, and loads of other wacky things happened which left us laughing perhaps even longer than them. Was that the show Rudi hit the woman in the head with the banana piece?

April 30 AM Albarrada organic farm 300 This farm is a trade school for young adults from all over Chiapas. Alianza Civica brought Michael, Zuzka and I there to stay in their guest cabana. The place was so amazing and we were thrilled to get to do a show for them. A group of 50 school kids were visiting the farm at the time too, so they joined the young adults and we had a beautiful audience. The farm not only teaches young people trades which they then take back to their communities, but they raise some animals and grow medicinal herbs and have a radio program in Spanish and two of the Indigenous languages.

PM Santa Ignazia 400 This wasn’t a scheduled show for us, but Alianza Civica was doing a puppet show there, and asked us to come do a short show while they set up, and then we were going to watch their show. There was a big crowd there celebrating Dia del Nino so Rudi and Zuzka did their newspaper routine and then Michael and I did our dance acro routine…and then before the health lady finished talking and the puppet show began, and after the small boys had pulled my skirt off, it started to RAIN! We helped move the puppet stage and sound equipment into the church, and Rudi starts a hat routine in this crowded church where now they have to reset the puppet stage. The lights couldn’t be turned on because no one had the key to that room so the back could barely see the front, so I started doing some acro and then magic in the middle of the church. At one point I noticed Michael on the side playing to those 50 people. A beautiful impromptu moment. Then we were off to our last show of the day.

PM El Bario Relicario 150 We played on the basketball court to the neighborhood, who weren’t sitting there waiting for our arrival, but knew we were coming, and came out when we arrived. It was like a magic trick in itself. The kids and adults seemed thrilled to have this oddity of weirdness and joy arrive on their doorsteps.

May 1 Bario el Cerio 250 This audience was an interesting mix people in the square, street kids and workers with the street kids organization Melel. Our audience was in the round under these huge beautiful trees. There wasn’t the timidness of the rural kids here, and they let the laughter at the slapstick and crazy schtick rip! This show Heather finally sprinted in the chase after a week of being caught, and even jumped in a taxi in her attempt to escape the long-legged Rudi.

PM Colonia altejar 100 Thunder, lighting, and incredible rains blessed San Cristobol that afternoon and we thought the show would be off. Then…the sun came out and we rallied to weave through the streets and find the neighborhood. Only there was no one there at the church. Our spirits were high and energy strong, so Zuzka and I hit the streets to drum up the audience, and Michael started to play with the couple who was having a romantic moment before we drove up. Rudi hit the bench and played director for the show, which we recast as we went along, and had a hilarious time doing each others parts. Life doesn’t get much better than that. Many wide eyes watched that show, as that anything can happen energy was high and we were funny! The surprise of a clown happening was certainly very appreciated in a tucked away neighborhood of a small city in the mountains. “Get in” were Rudi’s last directions of the show as he opened the trunk. Michael and Zuzka got in the trunk and we drove away with the opera music blaring.

Final thoughts

This expedition was a great mix of nurturing relationships by returning to communities CWB has been to, and taking the laughter to communities further off the main road, where CWB has not been before. When are you returning? is the question we heard from young and old, organizer and grandmother. The beautiful thing was that because of Rudi and others dedication, we could often answer, next December, or next April. The ongoing nature of CWB in Chiapas is very powerful and important.

Afterward from Moshe Cohen

All the shows were very well received. The shows on april 24 and 25 around El Bosque were in communities that are only accessible by walking, well off the road. We have been trying to go to these communities and they proved to be the highlight of the tour. The community of Acteal has expressed a strong desire to create workshops in the future. Cancellation of workshops by San Andreas and Oventik was due to more pressing needs of the community.

Although the performers were glad to say that tensions in the regions they visited seem to have calmed, that the military has refused to participate in forced expulsions of certain communities from their lands, there are also reports in the news that there is pressure from paramilitary and others still pressuring numerous communities. Also the Plan Pueblo Panama to create a free trade zone in the whole Chiapas area threatens the existence of many communities.
CWB-usa remains committed to bringing joy and laughter to the communities and towns of Chiapas.


The situation

Despite the rapprochement of the Zapatistas and newly elected president Fox, tangible reforms and passage of an effective indigenous law replicating the 1996 accords in San Andreas. Congress did just pass a new indigenous law but took most of the key provisions such as territorial rights, community jurisdiction and mineral rights out of the law. Watered down to the extent that opposition (PRD) deputies walked out of the Congress during debates in protest.

There are still military in the beautiful hills around Acteal. On our drive up there we passed no military or immigration checkpoints, however we did see one convoy with minitank, humvee and solierfull truck doing a perimeter convoy. There was a military base set off the main road as you plunge down a steep rocky road that leads eventually to the displace community of Yibelho. They are playing soccer and volleyball and I scout way up in the hills a weight training rack set up in the shade of hillside tree canopies.

Unhappily, there is still conflict in Chiapas. There was a massacre of 7 campesinos the day that I arrived in Mexico. No other killings were reported during our stay. One area was too hot to go to meaning that paramilitary activity is too dangerous. A Norwegian peace keeper told us about 5 people from Yibelho beeing beaten up by drunken paramilitary as they walked from the paved road (very close to Acteal) to their community. Not only is there a military base nearby but the security police also have an encampment.

The situation in Chiapas is in a state of limbo as the situation concerning indigenous rights is churning in the wheels of Mexican politics. The Zapatour was a great success with over 3 million Mexicans reported to have rallied with it’s passage through 14 states. Fox is struggling to establish a strong identity with the PRI still entrenched in congress. The situation remains difficult.

A disturbing conversation concerned a newly proposed plan for the Puebla to Panama Zone, a little heard of globalization ploy that we were told to fill the whole of central america with low wage factories and other ‘enterprise’. We were told by reliable sources of indigenous communities refusing access to their lands for uranium mining, all part of this scheme.

Our tour was full of laughter and smiling eyes. The kids were in seventh heaven and so were we.

Kosovo 2000: Log


By 4 pm it is dusk this time of year in Kosovo/a. It is Kosovo in Serbian and on the maps, but Kosova in the hearts of the Albanians, 90 % of the country’s inhabitants. The roads are full of white SUVs, Military vehicles, tons of European luxury cars, often without license plates (stolen), tiny farm tractors pulling wooden trailer beds, sometimes horses pulling. The driving is a little calmer than last year when there was no police force out, but there is still something of a destruction derby attitude dominating the local drivers’ actions. The UNMIK police, in their red and white SUVs are now setting up radar traps on the major roads and fining people 80DM (German Marks-the currency in use) for failing to wear seatbelts. They are cracking down on drivers without licenses. Vehicle owners are being forced to register their vehicles and somehow the UN is registering most of the stolen vehicles and giving them new license plates.

We enjoy good weather the entire time although winteresque temperatures start appearing late during our stay. Our apartement, rented from an Albanian woman, faces what is called the “Confidence Zone” in Mitrovica, a strip of land on the South side of the bridge with several highrises that are mostly full of United Nations and UNMIK offices. The bridge is heavily guarded with checkpoints and zig zag barricades. We show ID’s to the camouflaged flack-jacketed French Marines whenever we cross, first upon entering the confidence zone, then a more scrutinous check when one arrives at the bridge checkpoint. Strangely they want to see your Humanitarian agency ID badge more than a passport, yet all the humanitarian agencies laminate their own badges. So much for security. Our Clown badges have a PSF logo clown face instead of our photos, but only once during our stay does a soldier even notice that.

The first show that we play is in the House of Friends, right near the bridge in Mitrovica, run by a staff of 4 Albanians and funded by the AFSC. This is a gathering place for Albanian kids living in the North, a lot of whom live in 3 20-floor round high-rise apartement buildings just on the other side of the river. The kids are transported in KFOR armored bus to school at 7am and back home at 7pm. So they spend the time out of school at the house of friends.

The shows are a little rough theatrically speaking but the kids don’t notice and there is plenty of laughter and excitement. There have been several rehearsals at Tortell’s house near Barcelona a few weeks earlier. We have put together a Ukulele/ Saxaphone version of my ‘I’m Going Down the Road” song as well as an adapatation of the Colombiani’s Shakespeare routine. Tortell plays Mark Antonio and I play Julius Ceasar. My crown is a huge funnel, my cape a towel and my sceptre is a broom. It is a funny routine with Tortell spraying water in my face when I ask him how is the weather. It is raining, he says, ‘Shum shi’ in Albanian. We get volunteers to play the roles, and then we reverse roles and the whole thing ends up with us shooting spurts of water at each other.

Wednesday, Nov 8

Working with Julien from Enfants Du Monde, we travel to two collective centers, one in a Northern Serbian province:Leposavic, housing a group of Hashkali refugees; and one in the Albanian South: Plementina, where a a large group of Roma people live. We have been told how they are disliked by both sides. The Serbians consider the gypsies as second class citizens and the Albanians believe that they collaborated with the Serbs, and some did. In any case they are sequestered and living in refugee camp conditions. The first show we play in the local cultural center for both the Hashkali kids and the local schoolkids. Later after the show the Hashkali kids are the last to leave, only a small fraction of the 500 plus crowd and I go down and shake all their polite hands amongst earnest smiles.

We decide to eat lunch in Leposavic and tumble into the neverending country cafe wait that has us on the road at two for a three O’clock show with more than an hour’s drive ahead.

Plementina collective center, a real refugee camp right past the Norwegian KFOR headquarters, is on a small country road nearing Pristina. Just before the camp we pass a village of destroyed crumbling houses. These are where the people in the camps used to live. For some reason, mainly because they are gypsies, no one is rebuilding these structures. We arrive to an already assembled crowd waiting in a temporary schoolroom. Tortell has brought a Taraf de Haidooks (Romanian gypsy) CD, and rushes into the room where he puts the music on the CD player. They are all excited by the music. We get ready to do the show. We play this schoolroom, a darkened low ceilinged box. There are a good 250 kids and adults behind the schooldesks, a sea of faces glinting out of the dark. Electricity cuts are frequent in Kosovo and we play that show with the light of one outdoor halogen light powered by generator. We are very well received. The real show though took place in the tiny one-desk Enfants du Monde office that Tortell and I turn into a dressing room. Juggling prop preparation, costume changing and no electricity. Tortell has the miner’s lamp backpacker’s special, I’m using a taped mini-mag flashlight held in my mouth until the emergency fluorescent lamp thankfully shows up. Apart from a few tiny kids who get scared by Tortell’s makeup, the show is magical. A parent thanks me afterwards telling me that it is the first joyful activity to reach them in the 16 months that they had been there.

Thursday Nov 9 and Friday Nov 10

Working with Phillipe from Triangle Generation Humanitaire for two days. The first in the towns of Cabra and Skenderaj. This area is the birthplace of UCK movment and thus suffered greatly under Serbian repression. Indeed, the village of Cabra (pronounced Chabra) was not only burnt down but then bulldozed to the ground. There are no remnants or bare skeletons of former houses, everything has been leveled. We see maybe ten new houses in varying phases of construction, red brick and cement, two story houses eventually with tile roofs. All across Kosovo/a the landscape is full of houses in various stages of reconstruction.

This is the show we play in the lot inbetween the two temporary classrooms. We share the stage (actually a dirt lot where Tortell puts down a large circle of red and white striped tape on the ground to define the playing area) with a whole production of local talent and a local girl’s folkloric singing group; 20 girls in traditional white costumes with brocaded gold vests. The local schoolkids have learned songs. There is a dramatic performance involving five actors who thrust the microphone between them like relay runners with the baton.

The afternoon show in Skenderaj is in the cultural center theatre, one that holds 500 people. We play however to an overcapacity crowd, stacked and squished standing room both on the main floor and the balcony. The show is open to the public and has been well advertised. Like this morning, local kids will perform after our show. The stage is frenetically full of mostly jittery high school kids all preparing their cool moves for their big moment on the stage. There is a constant frenzy to the backstage that makes it more than difficult for us to concentrate getting ready for the show. It is a wild one as far as crowd energy, so many people and most of them teenagers. Tortell and I keep tight reins on the audience making sure that there is always enough momentum to keep the ship rolling. It is relatively smooth sailings and there are some incredible outbursts of laughter. Tortell does his flea jumping into the bag routine, a classic routine where audience members throw the flea to him on stage where he catches it in a plastic bag with a big snapping sound. He finds the flea on my head as I end my sponge ball and volunteer magic number. He keeps going into the audience with the flea than rushing up on stage to catch it. About the fourth time it does’nt make it and Tortell goes rushing into a hair inspecting lazzi searching for the flea. In Skenderaj they are just wild to want to throw the flea and when it gets lost and Tortell starts climbing over people in the audience it is that wonder roar of laughter lighting up the whole place. By the Shakespeare number though we can sense that hormone excessiveness reaching it’s capacity and we are quick through the routine and turn the stage over to the local kids. The traditional singing group from the morning are backstage too and adjust into a long wait stance as a lipsycnch number gets started. A big chance to express for the local teens and cheering friends..

The next day we switch sides to play in Serbian Zubin Potok, in a separate Northern Municipality, only ten minutes and a big fat roadblock from Cabra. We play in a well kept Cultural Center theatre. It took Phillipe over ten months to negotiate the use with the CC director. Phillipe has since made an unused part of the Cultural Center into an extremely popular youth center. This is the second event that he has organized there. We are honored by the presence of Rade Radovich who is one of Serbia’s most famous musicians, who has written many of the popular melodies and turns out to be a great accordion player. He has come back to his native town to help out as the music teacher. Tortell plays his Sopranino sax with Rave as I do a preshow butoh dance improvisation warm-up, a nice cultural injection into the theater. Tortell invites Rade to play music for us with the phrase “Please Maestro.” WE do both shows together and eat lunch along with the UN head of culture, Svetlana Pancheva, a warm Bulgarian woman who insists that if there is one thing that we must do before we leave Kosovo, we must see the nearby lake. We never get the chance.

Saturday Nov 11

Mette, from Danish refugee council takes us to perform at the school in Klina, near Pea, an Albanian area of great destruction and rebuilding. The town is full reconstruction projects, of KFOR and UNMIK vehicles and activity. We perform behind the school but as it is Saturday, school is not in session. Due to miscommunications and a lack of informed public, our afternoon show becomes more of an informal session on a small stage in front of the cultural center.

Sunday Nov 12

We receive a copy of the e-mail that the director of the Pristina theater sent to Leo. How the steps are blocked by the demonstrators and that our show on Sunday night will be canceled. Leo and Maria will be traveling from Pea to visit us anyway. Phillipe from Triangle that evening offers to take us to perform instead up at the Rom camp in Zitkovac, right next to the lead mines north of Mitrovica. We welcome the opportunity and are actually glad to be playing there instead of the theater. We play in a lot facing this huge white inflated WFP tent the size of a small airplane hangar. Woman with transparent jerrycans are constantly filling up water from a spigot and transporting it back over to the grouping of UNHCR winterized tents that were issued before the last winter.

We started the show with almost no one watching. Eventually we performed for some 75 of the Rom who did enjoy the show.

We perform from for a very enthusiastic grouping of 70 or 80 with a graveyard of rusted buses as our backdrop. At 3pm the sun is already dipping behind the nearby mountain peaks and the air is turning frigid. Many kids are barefooted and few have warm clothes in evidence. There are signs of malnutrition in the kids skin and Maria says that she saw several infants with distended stomachs. After a great show we are surrounded by kids, grateful but all asking me for money, for marks. They have seen me throw a grouping of coins into a line and then snap them out of the air. They are 50 Escudo pieces, worthless here, but the kids are driven by need. We are told that the World food Program rations are far from enough to survive on. Everything that is given to them they sell on the open market for food.

These are the roughest conditions that we encounter. Tortell and I find it difficult to stomach and leave a little shell shocked and quite surprised. They live all of ten minutes away from the cafes of a well stocked humanitarian economy. The next days we are telling every humanitarian group that we encounter about their situation.

Monday/Tuesday Nov 13-14

WE are sunk into the demonstration quagmire that grinds our operation to a halt. It turns out that the Danish Red Cross’s security procedures are about the strictest in Kosovo and when we meet with our contact on Monday morning, it is only to hear that we cannot go to the two schools where we are to perform. The boss of our contact Sevin has ordered her right back to Pristina. They are concerned that the we will get stuck by demonstrations and that the vehicle will be unable to return to Pristina by their 5 pm curfew. We are dismayed, and take a very long walk through Mitrovica. We stop by Triangle to create alternative plans for tomorrow in case the demonstrations continue and the Danish Red Cross cancel again.

Indeed the Danish, although we only meet their Albanian representative Sevin, pull the same stunt the next morning travelling up to Mitrovica only to return immediately to Pristina. We are quite frustrated, especially since we hear from other sources that people were able to move around the day before and it was relatively easy to get around the demonstrations. We are caught in the bureaucratic web of the larger humanitarian circus. Luckily with Triangle and Phillipe we have set up an alternative plan to play at another Hashkali Collective Center in the North. We expect him at 1pm and spend the morning visiting several other Humanitarian organizations setting up contacts for a potential return expedition to Kosovo/a.

We spend a good part of the afternoon waiting for Phillipe, held up by police power play shenanigans in Zubin Potok (trying to recover an impounded truck that they had been using to transport heating wood on a Saturday, illegal on the weekends due to the proliferation of clandestine logging). He never shows up and we spend a good part of the afternoon simmering in our frustration.

The first day of our house arrest we watch the demonstrators move their site of protest to the bridge crossing. KFOR has beefed up the bridge and the 1000 strong crowd is met by crowd control fencing, a line of soldiers with guns, a second platoon of military with transparent riot shields, and then a solid line of tanks with platooned soldiers backing it all up. The confidence zone has become instantaneously fortified. There are scanning men in a command post on the top floor of the UNMIK highrise, and men with binoculars on the first floor balcony of the police station. Everyone is calm, both the military and the demonstrators. The crowd stands there for some fifteen minutes and then disperses headed back to the town’s main intersection where we had seen the burnt Russian vehicle the night before.

Wednesday Nov 15

Mette from DRC comes to take us to Pea where Maria and Leo are working, to perform our last two shows. It is uncertain if we will be able to play the afternoon show in a school as the 12-3 demonstrations will probably close down the school.

After two days of waiting, Tortell and I are a little skeptical about everything and do not really believe that we are doing a show until Tortell has marked out(with the red and white striped tape) the a part of the grass field that surrounds the center where all kinds of youth activities take place. Then upstairs in the poetry room that has become our dressing room, we laugh at the circumstances that have been surrounding our stay as we get ready.


Volunteers: Carlos Loarca, Betsie Miller-Kusz


The Payasos Mural Project in Guatemala lasted 3 weeks, and during this time, we worked at three different locations: El Refugio and Nujuju (homeless street boys shelters, administered by Casa Alianza) and el Basurero (the dump, working with Cuarto Mundo, a human rights organization) in Guatemala City. We created 5 different murals with the street boys and children of the dump in this sort time. This is an incredible amount of painting, but can be justified because it filled the need for a healthy and expressive activity for these children, the poorest of the poor, who had such a strong desire to paint.

It was amazing to watch these kids work. When they were painting, they were totally absorbed in what they were doing, oblivious to their terrible surroundings. Our mural process was that we met the first time to orient them as to what we would be doing. We showed them the video ‘Anatomy of a Mural’ and explained how we would be making the murals, and followed with a discussion of possible themes for the mural walls.

The second time we met with each group was a design session. We distributed paper, crayons, marker, pencils and chalk, and asked them to draw whatever they wanted. We then used these drawings to organize the mural design, using a grid system (‘Dynamic Symmetry’) to place their drawings in the overall composition. All of the murals reflected the common elements in their drawings: mountains, trees, houses, fields, airplanes, and in the children of the basurero, people. This composition formed the basis for each mural design.

In the third session at each site, we began work on the walls: cleaning and scraping, priming the walls with white, transferring the lines of the design, painting the murals, and the final varnishing of each wall. The kids helped with all of this as we provided the orientation for the process, working alternate days at the different sites.

The conditions in each place were different, because of the different situations of the participants. El Basurero was the most difficult; the wall was at the end of the dump, at the boundary where the garbage is brought in, and it rained almost every day. The foul smell, the mud and filth, the dogs and vultures and tons of garbage; it was difficult to believe so many humans could live there, and to reach the wall, we had to walk through the pestilence of their living quarters. These were filthy dwellings, shacks made of wood, cardboard, corrugated metal and junk from the garbage. At the entrance were squatters and women reading to some of the children. As we progressed in, we would pass old men and teenagers, addicts to the ‘pegamento’ or ‘goma’, the heavy glue, which they sniffed day and night to deaden the pain of their surroundings.

The exciting beginning here was when the kids made their first drawings, and the first day they painted on the wall, making the same images which children paint everywhere in the world. We also included the teenage addicts in the project, and though they were difficult to work with, the Cuarto Mundo group was a very great help in approaching and controlling them. On one occasion, one of the teenagers climbed the ladder to paint his design, and then realized that both his hands were occupied, one with the paint, one with the pegamento. Surprising all of us, he chose to drop his glue and keep his paint, and he worked, totally involved, for about 15 or 20 minutes. This was his choice!

We worked with about 25 young children, and about 15 teenage addicts. One of them, Carlitos, about 4 years old, wanted to paint, so we gave him a brush and before we knew it, he was jumping up with his brush, to paint on the wall, over and over. He will stay in our minds forever. The last time he appeared to say goodbye, he was walking with his own, terribly oversized shoes, but they were each on the wrong foot, and it was hard to even call them shoes.

Another child, Gladis, wasnít allowed to paint at first, because of her sore toe, her foot wrapped in a filthy rag. She sat and watched, and the next day, was back to participate. After that, we couldnít stop her as she created houses and trees and helped with the mountains. Another boy, Oscar, painted an entire landscape, ìel campoî, the countryside of his dreams. They painted airplanes and cars, and trees and grass, all the elements missing from their own poor lives. And, of course, the teenagers included some tags and gang insignia, but it was generally pretty mild. They were equally interested in painting the mountains and the sun, and making their own little houses and cars.

The Basurero mural, a great accomplishment, was about 15 feet high, and about 60 feet long, painted with mural paint on cement. The result is a richly colored, beautiful wall, visible above the mounds of trash and garbage, created by the community of the Basurero. Even the mothers and fathers came to talk with us, and we were serenaded by an old man, singing romantic songs composed for us as we worked.

The mural at Nujuju was probably in the most ideal surroundings, a farm for the Casa Alianza boys, located near Antigua, in the beautiful countryside. Here we could work with more leisure, as there were fewer boys, and all of them interested in painting for hours and hours. One of the boys, Juan, was extremely frightened at our first drawing session, not knowing what to draw. He said he wanted just to do a design, which was a very abstract square, cut in 4 parts, and surrounded by curved lines. Once he began to paint on the wall, he painted the same design, and then we suggested he add a tail and a string , to turn it into a kite flying in the mountains. He surprised us with his request to paint another one, so there are two beautiful kites, flying in Nujuju and in Juanís mind. This boyís body was covered with cigarette burns when we first met him. He couldnít smile and would barely talk, but by the end of the project, he was hugging us, laughing and talking, and painting endlessly.

Two brothers, the Paredes boys, also painted and painted, as did Oscar, another young homeless boy. They treated us with great respect, and also showed great affection for us as the days passed. The ìeducadoresî (caretakers) at Nujuju watched all of this with interest, and finally requested that we allow them to do another wall, so we began the process again, working with another group of boys, and teaching the educadores how to organize such a mural and paint it on their own. We also left many jars of paint and brushes with them, in hopes they would continue.

Our murals at ìEl Refugioî, a street boysí shelter run by Casa Alianza, were also a great challenge. There were about 40 boys, from several different shelters, who worked with us on three murals.

The first mural was located in the dining room, on a large wall with a fireplace. Using this in our composition, we created the shape of a Mayan pyramid, with mountains and countryside passing through it, and the hearts of all the boys as a border. Again, we designed the mural, cleaned and primed the wall, transferred the design lines, and then had them paint in their own ideas; houses, cars, trees, lakes, roads, mountains, sky, clouds, and the hearts. It was incredible to see these boys work with such interest and expression; at times you could not hear any noise, they were so involved. (And usually these boys ran through the Refugio, kicking, screaming, shouting, playing in a completely undomesticated manner.) We were upset, however, that several boys were not allowed to participate because they were being punished. We felt this project was a form of emotional therapy for them, and should not simply be used as a reward for good behavior.

In el Refugio, we worked with a 15 yr. old boy, Marlon, who immediately expressed his interest in the Mayan culture. We assigned the central area of the fireplace for his designs, and he became very territorial. Marlon was disabled, and couldnít climb or walk easily, but he was very tough and very proud of his work. Walter, on the other hand, was not allowed to paint, as he was assigned extra chores for bad behavior. We spoke to the educadores and he then painted every day with us, eagerly awaiting us at the locked front gate. Oscar offered to copy the logo of Payasos Sin Fronteras, with a magnificent result, and another young 8 yr. old copied the Casa Alianza logo, giving it vivid new colors. There were many, many successes with these boys, and again, they treated us with great respect. We included all their names on the wall, but most of them couldn’t read or write, so we traced the letters and they copied their names.

The second mural in el Refugio was painted in the hallways surrounding the entrance patio. Here we didn’t need preliminary drawings, just the indication of the mountains and landscape, and the boys went right to work. We could see they understood what they were doing, and by this time, they were very famiar with the materials and process.

Our final mural was painted out on the street, on the walls at the main entrance. Here we used our own design, painting a ‘tree of life’ and human protector figure within it. Leading into the tree, the boys painted their own hands, using bright colors for the outlines and backgrounds. The owners of the restaurants and businesses across the street were very impressed, first, that we would actually work with such boys, and secondly, that we were training them to do something they could use for their own future. They thanked us, as did many of the passers-by on the street, as we were working.

Since all of the projects spanned a period of three weeks, we could gauge the progress of the boys as they worked. The final week, there were some newcomers to el Refugio, and we could see the difference in terms of their painting skills and imagination. It was difficult to incorporate them at the same level as the other boys, and they seemed kind of lost.

The final day was a talk to summarize what we had done and why. The boys were very receptive and attentive, and they added their own comments about the project. They were all extremely happy at what they had accomplished, and hoped there would be future projects soon.

As muralists of these projects, we felt they were a complete success. Both of us as muralists had worked with children for many years, and so we knew they would love strong, bright colors. We gave them the benefit of our own best experience and knowledge, as well as firm, yet kind, discipline, and we used the best mural paints available, so that the murals will last for many years.

Our strongest impression, (and in that society, the most shocking) was that these were kids, human beings like kids everywhere. They were smart, streetwise, and attentive because of their own past lives; they learned very rapidly and their eyes and hands were always moving. They treated us with respect because that is how we treated them. We did not see them as criminals or outcasts, but as the essence of humanity. This was for all of us an experience of great moments and remembrances, which will stay in our hearts forever.



Laughter covering a trail of tears. Luckily this didn’t seem to be the case in Chiapas, but definitely it was Laughter covering a trail of fear and intimidation. The situation has changed little it seemed to me since my last visit a year ago. Although I didn’t get much of an opportunity to receive a detailed analysis of what is going on in Chiapas, the general word was of little change. The government still doing everything in their power to undermine the Autonomous Indigenous movement still expanding the military presence in the region if my sources are correct. Despite an extremely strong showing by the Zapatista referendum on March 21st, those in power are conceding where they seem forced to but acting as if it were their own initiative. One friend said that this is the pattern and it will remain. They will not lose face and simply reverse their position and implement the San Andres accords of 1996.

This year’s “Dia del Nino y de la Nina” Chiapas tour was expanded by the wonderful presence of Rudi Galindo and David Lichtenstein, both clown performers from North America, Arcata , Ca and Portland, Or. Together with Moshe Cohen, they created a show combining pieces from individual performances with group play and improvisation. The show was well received and full of good laughing moments. David and Rudi continued their collaboration sans Moshe Cohen who left to work in Japan on April 28th.

On a Clowns Without Borders logistical scale, Chiapas continues to provide it’s challenges. Both of my main contacts, Pablo Romo and Alejandra were unavailable, Pablo having been transferred by the Dominican Order to another post in Geneva, and Alejandra on her way to Seva meetings in California. Pablo had made arrangements with ‘Melel’, the commmunications office of the Dominican Order and they proved to be very helpful in realizing our dreams. There were several misunderstandings which had led them to plan only 5 shows for our stay, two of these to be in San Cristobal. ‘Melel’ works a lot with the street children of San Cristobal, many who sell candy, little Zapatista dolls or who shine shoes Or…’Melel’ also works with children who are part of displaced families, some of whom live in settlements around San Cristobal. A quick rearranging of the schedule created a productive tour (11 shows planned/9 performed) and ‘Melel’ provided the transportation, a 1984 Chevy Pickup that took us up into the mountains, Los Altos, several times. The day I left, the pickup not available, a Volkswagen Polo was available.

Transportation remains the biggest obstacle in moving the show arround and we were very fortunate to have the strong backing of ‘Melel”. The short scheduling process did create some problems as far as miscommunications with communities forcing us to play earlier than they expected at San Antonio Brillante, a community about halfway between Oventik and El Bosque. It was heartbreaking to see several groups of communities arriving just as we were finishing our show. The kids were all there as we played at the school and we did have this huge contingent impatiently waiting the show. Still the school teacher who had assured us when he arrived that he had contacted all the communities about the change in time-they thought that it was at 2pm even though we had said 11am….we waited until about 12:30 then started because we didn’t want to be too late for Oventik which was told 2pm. We later found out that they expected us only at 4pm. I was kicking myself for not knowing better and not waiting a little longer before starting the show as we knew that not everyone was there yet.

I did a short seven minute bit for the latecomers which was well received. The high pitched Chiapan howl of laughter sunk straight into my heart.

Several shows had to be cancelled because the communities proved to be two hours walk from the road and this was not planned into the schedule, Xoyep, April 29 and Union Progresso, April 30. We had known about the walk in to Xoyep, (a large community of 2000, 1000 of which are displace from the Acteal area.) and Melel had tried to arrange for community help to carry the props up and down the steep mountain, but they were not there. We had not known about the walk into Union Progresso.

Some type of mishaps are to be expected on this type of expedition. We encountered no lack of military checkpoints, as well as one run-in with the immigration authorities. They however did not create any big problems and we felt generally blessedGenerally we remained vague about our actual destinations, using town names rather than communities, as this might be perceived by some attempt to support the autonomous movement. We did however tell both the military police and immigration that we were clowns going to do shows. The immigration were quite friendly meaning that either they knew that we were coming and the decision to let us pass was already made or that they were genuinly OK with Clowns travelling the interior. The main opinion though was that as Zedillo had declared April to be the month of the child, the immigration was not about to kick out the clowns. We will see what happens this December.

Still it is no fun to have to deal with nearly illiterate Military personnel carrrying machine guns but who have a hard time finding your birthdate on your passport or figuring out from that just how old you are. To get to San Andres, one goes through one checkpoint at the turnoff just before the town. To get to San Antonio El Brillante, one had to go through two more, at one the officer in charge behind sunglasses was nervous sweating and high strung, this did not make us feal at ease and wheen the head schoolteacher thanked us for coming and spoke to us that it was not easy these days to be living there, we could understand. There is a large military post just up the mountain from them.

Speaking of San Antonio El Brillante, one rarely has the opportunity to experience such a beautiful spot, two thrids down the mountain into a beautiful valley with bananas and coffee and corn growing on every available acre. We were stunned by fields on mountain slopes that seemed to have a 60° angle tilt. We played on the basketball court as was often the case and Rudi and David played a fair bit of basketball while we waited for the communities to arrive. We also fooled around quite a lot with various little tricks that each of us had up our sleeves.

San Andres

About a week before I arrived in San Cristobal, The mayor’s office occupied by the PRD(left leaning party) was overrun by the PRI(ruling party) supported by the Security Police and the Army. The next morning, 3000 people assembled at the edge of the city and marched in to reclaim the office. The official PRI election victory due to elections boycotted by the majority autonomous movement. One can see a ray of light in the fact that no shots were fired. When I arrived at San Cristobal, I was encouraged very strongly by the organization KINAL to go there to do a show as soon as possible. And so I did. When I returned three days later (as promised) with David and Rudi, we performed to what seemed a completely different audience. When we performed a day later to almost no one in Oventik (which is very close to San Andres), it became apparent that there was a well organized rotation of community occupation of the town to maintain the peace.

Future Plans

As mentioned, early plans are now being made to return to Chiapas in early December. Padre Gonazalo and ‘Melel’ have promised to help us and provide transportation if at all possible. Rudi and David reported that the brothers at El Bosque church offered to take a group on a walking tour as many of the communities are so far from the roads.

We concentrated entirely on the Los Altos area this trip not venturing south into the Ocosingo area or to AltaMirano or the Palenque area, all which are supposedly rather ‘hot’ these days.

As always, and we are always happy to hear people ask us to come back, to bring others to Chiapas. The rewards are great indeed, some of the most beautiful people and country on this planet, and the most innocent audiences ready for clowning.

One cannot help but wondering about the constant state of strife in so many parts of this planet but one can only feel good about contributing to peace and harmony. We tried to joke and to magic tricks for the army officers whenever possible but we saved our smiles for the communities.

Women in Chiapas, 1996

The Laughter Was Generous

CWB – USA founder Moshe Cohen (aka Mister YooWhoo) returns to Chiapas for the fourth time in three years. He finds the political situation to be greatly deteriorated since his previous visit, but that laughter is as available, and needed, as ever. 

Moshe Cohen

Thursday, April 23rd: Mexico City 

Past a large concrete stadium, under grey smog skies and heavy belching traffic, and opposite a trash-littered parking lot, is an enclosed not-so-grassy knoll with several tarp covered, shaded areas. Groupings of people mill around—some are seated, standing, talking, reading newspapers. Eduardo explains that they are members of the ejido to whom the land belongs. The government built the stadium on their land without their permission and has yet to pay any rent. Eduardo tells me that they have been in litigation for over 20 years. We pick up the paper from a street-side vendor to see many more stories in La Jornada about Chiapas than last year: A German woman has been deported, she overstayed her visa; Confrontations and a peace march at the new autonomous zone, surrounded by 1000 military folks and 500 PRIistas, and many peoples locked out from their homes; There’s still a great deal of tension around Acteal, where the massacres occurred; Paramilitary activities, threats, cars following people home in the black of night…It doesn’t sound like the most welcoming situation.

Saturday, April 25th

The plaza in front of the cathedral is packed, maybe 5,000 people have gathered from over 40 communities to make a peligrinage (pilgrimage). Each person has a piece of paper pinned to their shirt, identifying the zones that they have come from. The colors of traditional dress flourish in the bright sun. Many participants hold green palm fronds in their hands and they sway with the wind. A sea of green moves softly as people listen to a series of speakers and prayers, transitioned by the bright playing of a marimba band. Some people eat popsicles while others sit on the ground, no doubt tired from the long travel to be here today. The Parque Central is full of double-parked buses and passenger trucks and pick-ups. Many of the pilgrims hold up signs, banners, Mexican flags. Many of the banners are painted with slogans, often blessing the bishops, Samuel Ruiz and Raul. The feeling is peaceful, there is no sense of agitation. This is not a war party, not a grouping of trigger-happy hands. One can sense the yearning, the prayers to let them be. Give us our rights, not your riches.

Monday, April 27th

I perform a show in the afternoon for about 50 kids displaced from three communities near Chenalho. I hear stories about discord among the families, that there’s no clear leadership among three disparate groups living communally in a barn like structure. After the show the kids are treated to popsicles, and they all line up one by one to tell the young boy working the ice cream cart what they want. There us great excitement as the piñatas are strung up. The kids are separated by age group and each group rings around their piñata strung up over the branch of a large tree. Faces squirm and explode with each stick swing, miss, hit and then scramble on the ground in a big cloud of dust when the piñata breaks. A couple of social workers try to infiltrate the scrimmage to calm the fury of hands scooping candy, but it’s impossible. A huge bag of cheap plastic toys is distributed, and the kids are looking happy.

Earlier in the day, I talk with Pablo Romo about what’s going on. We meet a community leader from Polho where between 8,000–10,000 refuges live. He has come to the Human Rights Center to denounce an action taken by the military that very morning: The Pastors for Peace caravan was stopped and turned away from Polho, even though they have Observer’s visas. We talk about my going there and doing a show for the kids. He is all for it, but also mentions how tired the men and women are from maintaining a cinturon around the community to keep the military out. I see a photo in the paper of a confrontation between indigenous women and military men, the women successfully blocking the men from entering their community where they want to set up a military post. A photo of the military siege of Tanniperlas (where the military invaded last week to stop the forming of a new Zapatista autonomous zone) shows huge rolls of barbed wire fencing and scores of military men drenched in gear. It would seem that there are over 5,000 troops in Chenalho, one for every six residents.

Meanwhile global warming may be affecting the spring rains again this year. The rainy season starts in the middle of May but the first rains should have already started. There is strong concern that the cycles are truly out of whack, which will certainly affect the corn plantings and harvests next winter. If the corn is planted too late it won’t have time to grow enough by harvest time, after which it gets too cold for the corn to continue growing (if I’ve understood correctly…).

There is also great concern about the communities being able to plant at all, due to fears of paramilitary activity in the area. One of the women working with the kids today, Pat, tells me how some families only have enough corn to last until Wednesday and she is not sure how things will work out. She is trying to work out an emergency plan with Caritas.

Tuesday, April 28th

I perform two shows today, the first in a tiny communtiy, Coralito, where Alejandra takes me since she has to make a delivery.  The second show is in the Casa Juventad Del Bosco, a suburb of San Cristobal, where three displaced communities from around Acteal are living. By the time I get home to bed in Alejandra’s house, at 10pm, I’m rather exhausted—and tomorrow is an even bigger day. I will go with Rosario form Melel Xojoval (the organization that works with street kids and kids from displaced families) to Acteal where the massacre took place four months ago. I will perform in Acteal Autonomo (Zapatista) and Acteal Abejas (neutral) and then go to Polho.

It will be the first time that I will pass through an immigration post, and one that has recently expulsed 30 foreigners and ‘invited’ many more to leave. Being expulsed has been my principle fear. The danger of being in Chiapas at this time is that the government is making a strong effort to empty the region of observers. After talking with many people, it seems that the most likely worst-case-scenario is that they will take away my tourist visa and give me a piece of paper saying that I have to leave Mexico within a certain number of days. Then my name will be put on the list , which means I am in immigration enforcement’s database, and likely to be given a hard time, including a very limited stay, the next time I try to come to Mexico.

The chances of something worse, such as being arrested or accompanied directly to the airport would seem to be pretty non-existent. Perhaps if I were engaged in some political activity or my visa was expired, but hey, I’m a payaso. The man from Polho who I spoke with on Monday explained that the kids were getting sick, too hot in the day and too cold at night. I hope that I can take them out of that reality into their imagination and have some fun.

I did today, especially by singing “Yuba” in a crooning style, getting on my knees in front of one of the community women. It’s a bit that I did once last year, and this year’s audience had the same great laughs and warm feelings, as the embarrassed woman hides her head in her shawl and laughs deep inside. At the end of the Del Bosco show, my repeat of several coin sneezes for some of the latecomers brings on those high howling ‘hiiiis,’ their unique vocal form of glee that is such music to my ears.

Wednesday, April 29th

Exhausted is a word that barely begins to describe my physical being. The day begins at 7am and ends after 9pm. The taxi driver who takes us up to Acteal might have made pole position at the Monaco Grand Prix based on the way he takes the multiple curves as we fly through the semitropical mountainous pathway to Acteal.

We encounter one military checkpoint but no immigration controls, to my great relief. The military are rather seriously equipped and are checking all identities and vehicles, searching for weapons and who knows what. They’re happy to hear that I’m a payaso, and a couple of coin sneezes smooth us right through. On the way back, I find myself disappearing coins for the entire chain of command. Luckily they don’t ask me to juggle. On our return journey I had just finished my third show for the displaced peoples of many communities.

The first show at Acteal Autonomo is in full mid-day heat and humidity, the air smoky from all the crop burnings going on. Some 200 kids and community members are present. We’ve brought multiple piñatas for after the shows, and while the kids are swept up in the game, I hear Conches being blown. Next door at the Abejas community, there’s an interfaith celebration happening. A group of Aztec dancers have made a pilgrimage from Mexico City and have just walked from nearby Polho to do a ceremony. They wear big feather headdresses and bells on their feet, carry smudgepots, drums and an out of tune mandolin, strummed furiously by a long-haired hippy type. They have shown up unannounced and are climbing down the narrow mountain path to the gathering.

An hour and a half later, they are still dancing, lost in their ceremony of repetitious dances, constant drum pounding and occasional ritual moments. I have lost interest quite some time ago and the experience has turned into a zen-full wait, so I can perform. I am not the only one who has lost interest but the community is full of respect, so I watch kids play marbles back behind the “Peace Camp” building.

Finally they finish up and head down to the church and cemetery to continue their ceremony, at which point I am asked to start my show. It’s a little strange, since a portion of the 600–800 Abejas are watching down the steep grade toward where the Aztec dancers are still blowing Conch horns. The kids, however, are totally focused on my entrance and more rush to come sit down. With the first laughs, as I try to stand on my suitcase, the rest of the community leaves the Aztec dancers to do their thing and turns to see what is going on. Some strange white guy with three hats on his head is trying to get on top of a suitcase on totally uneven ground, a nearly impossible task! I do succeed for a short while, and the energy of the audience is huge, the laughs explosive, and the focus complete. I whirl into the YooWho journey greatly rewarded by many smiles and laughing moments from all sides.

Thursday, May 1st

I take a May Day bus ride up over the mountains and back to Tuxla for the plane ride home. From Tuxla to Mexico City to Guadalajara, it’s a day dazed in airplane haze as I drift back to yesterday’s shows: the first for the street kids of San Cristobal, in the cupola of the park behind the Santa Domingo church. The kids are tough, not easy to laugh, but I manage to find a few avenues to fun. The piñata proves to be a great struggle for the Melel volunteers who try to maintain some semblance of order. These kids, the shoeshine boys, the Chamulan girls selling the little homemade Zapatista doll (so well made for so little money) have their strong sense of independence. There are some 200 kids expected but only about half show up. Today, the Dia del Niño (Day of the Child), is too great a day for business to be watching a show. It’s kind of ironic that this day meant to celebrate would be too good to waste…on a celebration.

The women from Melel Xojoval tell me how the shoe shine boys want to set up their own organization to protect their rights. There is also demand to set up a savings bank. I eat lunch with Pablo Romo whom I meet at Freyba (Centro Derechos Humanos Frey Bartolome). He is being interviewed by a team from Televisa (national TV). There is an interviewer, a cameraman, a soundman and a communications man—or so he would seem, since he has two cell phones that keep ringing as if in a comedy show. At the end of the interview, the interviewer takes a long phone call after which he says something to Pablo that causes him to shake his head in disbelief. It turns out that a Lieutenant Colonel from Guadalajara has killed 12 soldiers and wounded seven others in Comitan, a town on the way to the Guatemalan border. The official version is that the officer ran the victims over with a truck but Pablo tells me that they were gunned down with a machine gun. We are eating lunch at “El Teatro” a nice French/Italian restaurant, a short excursion into a world of wider luxuries. Pablo tells me that you can’t eat at just any restaurant, because many of them are staffed by waiters with very large, informant ears.

During Pablo’s interview, the cameraman scans to where several human rights workers are conferring with Corinne, a Swiss coordinator. The TV story is about accusations against Freyba engaging in the illegal act of inviting foreigners to supposedly engage in forbidden political activities, so naturally the TV people want images of foreigners. The camera pans to me and I place the large envelope of photos I brought for Pablo between myself and the camera. I sense the camera is still there, and pull out one of the photos for the camera eye. It turns out to be one of children parading and wearing clown noses—appropriate, I figure. Then I stick my nose and eyes out between the envelope and the photo and sure enough the camera is still on me. Well, if they use the footage, hopefully it will create some laughter.

The afternoon show is at La Primavera, a school on the edge of San Cristobal that’s being used as a refugee camp for displaced communities. A good 300 people, mostly kids, watch the show. They have great fun and don’t seem to notice my state of exhaustion, which really sets in toward the end. I left my cane in Polho so I use a big stick instead. My voice is shot and when I try to yodel “YooWho,” a raspy broken sound comes out of my mouth. The kids are asking for more and so I pick up my ukulele to try the same stunt as in the morning, when I got the street kids to sing along with me as I made up a gibberish song. The kids recognized and welcomed the improvised nature of the moment, and became enthusiastic about what I could make up next, repeating all the phrases as best they could and breaking into laughter as the phrases became more and more ridiculous. But I am unable to repeat the mornings success as neither my voice nor my creative process are willing to cooperate. I break it off and thank the kids who follow me in my retreat, crowding around me as I collapse on one of the playground’s large cement sit-down squares. To my surprise, Rosario gets all the kids to sing a song for me, and they even add a verse about the funny man with the colored tie.

Going Home

Slowly, the bus descends toward a vast cloud canopy, toward the infinite horizon of diversity. Two days ago, high in the Chiapan Sierras amongst thick banana-like leaves reaching well over my head, I watched a boy scramble down the nearly vertical slope of the Acteal mountainside to recover a marble that escaped their game behind the Campamiento Civil por la Paz. To my amazement, he came back up with the marble and the boys resumed their game in the red soil.

Acteal Abejas was surely the highlight show, with the community gathered for the interfaith celebration, an altar with candles, and green needles covering the ground amongst simple hand wrought benches. The laughter was generous and I brought out  playfulness, eager to delight this town that had known such tragedy. During the show, I glimpsed several military trucks full of soldiers passing on the road above. I didn’t try to imagine what it must be like to live there, with all the hidden paramilitary pressures weighing so heavily on these people.

I did not go visit the church where the actual massacre took place. It was an unconscious decision. I wondered where it was, and the sound of the Aztec dancers’ Conch shells told me it was a little way down the mountainside. Perhaps it was better that way, allowing me to bring in fresh, untainted energy. Just what is the role of the payaso? I know my feelings run deep for these humans, people who don’t seek luminous power, but rather a simple life. I hope that the rains come soon.