Clowning in Mexico with Lalo – Cuernavaca, Mexico

Clowning in Mexico with Lalo

Cuernavaca, Mexico

The company where I am Senior VP of Creative Operations is called Frank Mayer & Associates, Inc. We have a strategic partner, APTO/FrankMayer, in Mexico City. In 2001, our President, Mike Mayer and I attended a special, 10 day business class at the Cuauhnahuac Language Institute in Cuernavaca, Mexico to learn politeness and etiquette in Latin American client meetings…in my case, a little Spanish too.

When I went to the trip orientation, I knew straight away, we would have the opportunity to visit an orphanage. It is an annual tradition with the Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC) group we were traveling with. I checked with the group leader about any potential cultural road blocks. She was ecstatic about having a “payaso” (clown) to entertain the children. I didn’t hesitate to volunteer but the idea of a first time trip to an orphanage was frightening. As it turned out, I had a second opportunity to clown at a community center for poor children.

I started clowning with my family in parades, something cool to do with my kids and wife. We did our own thing with our faces for a while. Our first attempts at faces and characters were naive if not a little scary, but heart felt. I roller skated the first few times so no one could get a good look at me. It wasn’t long before we decided to take a makeup class. Ultimately, we discovered Clown Camp in La Crosse, Wisconsin where we stayed for an entire week studying parade technique, physical humor, props, designing our faces, discovering our personalities and much more. I consider my clown activity a hobby but I take it seriously, it’s a big responsibility.

I have to say a few things about being a clown. Something happens when you put on the suit. I can’t tell what exactly but suddenly everyone that sees you smiles, language, race and culture are not barriers and spontaneity becomes the order of the day. I’ve done things physically and expressively that are totally unplanned and difficult to explain. The magic does happen when you make yourself susceptible. While in costume, even going to and from a performance you must stay in character. You never know when a child may see you, so I won’t take off my costume till I’m at home.

Cuauhnahuac Spanish Language Institute is perched along the flanks of a large ravine. The administration buildings are across the upper edge with a pool and student commons in between. With the quaint cinder block classrooms covered by corrugated metal roofs across the lower reaches in an organized queue. The curriculum ranges from our 10 day program with language and cultural experiences through 6-12 months of complete immersion into the language. I found the atmosphere totally relaxing until I went to classes. I had irregular verbs in the morning and conversation in the afternoon, just myself and the instructors, no other students to shield by ignorance. I hadn’t been in school for 27 years. Horror comes to mind as I recall the instructor saying, “Eduardo, no ingles,” but by weeks end, I could begin to converse in Spanish. The instructors were very patient with me and I can only imagine what I could have learned from an extended stay in such an enabling environment.

The Community Center
When we arrived at Cuaunahuac they asked for volunteers to visit a community center for poor children. I had enough gear to do it, so about 12 of us took a few cabs over to the center after classes. I was one of the last ones to come in and when the kids saw me I heard “payaso, payaso” in hushed tones. I have a mock camera with stickers in it that say, “I met a clown today,” so I took everyone’s picture and gave them a sticker before we handed out some gifts.

Lalo Disrupting the Class at the Community Center
Lalo Disrupting the Class at the Community Center
As our group gathered with all the children, there were about 30 people sitting in a large circle. There was an open desk between some kids, so I went for it. It took me two or three minutes to get into the seat. I kept getting stuck or slipping off and the children went wild. I had never done that bit before, I’m sure I was inspired by Buster Keaten or Stan Laurel. I continued to disrupt the class even after I sat down. Debbie, our group leader, did an outstanding job of playing into the situation. We basically goofed off with the kids the rest of the time we were there. The Cuauhnahuac group split up and played songs on guitar, helped with English lessons, colored with crayons or played catch. I think the children enjoyed the afternoon as much as we did.

The Cab Ride
My performance continued from the window of the cab as we drove across Cuernavaca. The cabby was elated to have a clown on board, (he received a sticker too). I had my head out the window the whole time waving at anyone who saw me. Everyone smiled back, especially at red lights. It’s interesting to note that most cabs don’t stop for red lights or for any other reason in Mexico, but our driver got into the spirit of the situation. I have no doubt he talked about this particular fare for week’s afterward.

The Orphanage
Part of the educational experience included in the Cuauhnahuac program is staying at a Mexican home. Because we were business men, we had the honor of residing with Senora Rosalba and her family who normally don’t take young men. We weren’t exactly young (sorry, Mike) and were both beyond rowdy youth. When Senora Rosalba realized I was going to clown at the orphanage, she asked if she could watch me (disfransarse) become the clown. No english was spoken in the house, so I used my conversation class to prepare descriptions of the 45 minute process as I applied my auguste style face. (There are three styles of classic clown face; white face…no skin showing, auguste…some skin showing and the tramp).I know she appreciated my efforts to speak the language and the significance of the mission.

We had two busloads of people from our MATC group, and the language school who wanted to spend time with the children. I was the only one with big shoes and orange hair, but everyone who participated were all heroes to me.

Casa San Salvador (house of salvation) is a large walled complex. The wall is not to keep the children in but to protect them from the outside. There were 350 kids living there. All of these children were abandoned somewhere along the line and they were lucky enough to find their way to this place. All of the children stay there till they are 18 years old. No children are adopted out so the “family units” stay together. I was not sure how I would feel about this place. None of the children had seen a live clown before.

I’m told I looked like the Pied Piper.

We saw three groups of kids, a total of about 90. The first bunch was mixed ages between 9 and 14. The younger ones collected the rest of my camera stickers while our group spread out with the other kids and played basketball, drew with chalk on the playground or played games. Most teenagers on the planet will shy away from clowns. They occupy that zone between myths and reminisce and I’m cool with that. The eyes in a crowd will tell me in a blink where to focus my attention.

The second group of kids we saw had received the 50+ stuffed animals we had brought with us from the USA. Politics and red tape prevented us from shipping the soft toys directly to the orphanage so many of us volunteered to take an extra suitcase through customs. People coming into the country are checked at random. We all wondered what to say to the customs agent about a suitcase full of stuffed animals but I had a secret weapon. Our partnership in Mexico enabled me to meet Adrian Fernandez, the famous Mexican race driver. I placed the photograph of the two of us on top of the stuffed animals in the suitcase. When the customs agent saw the picture he let me pass without questions.

The kids all ran up and wanted to have me balance their new plaything on my hat. It was great fun and I even understood some of their questions and could answer. It felt like ten minutes but we had really been at the orphanage for over two hours so our time was coming to a close. I said goodbye to all my new friends and hugged every one of them. As we all crossed the large courtyard we would turn and wave.

We had all done a great job but my mind was saying, “I wish I could have done more for these kids.” “How can I do better next time?” Suddenly, a young man ran up to me and said, “Please, senior, you must come back, there is one more group of children expecting to see the payaso and they have been waiting…” I could see the group of kids peering from around a corner about 120 yards away. They were the 5 and 6 year olds. I looked at our group leader who had overheard the plea. I held up my hands and gestured I wanted to return. She understood and held up ten fingers. With a sudden unexpected rush of adrenaline I jumped and spun around in a huge motion. It felt like I’d left the ground by 6 feet. Understanding in an instant that the kids could see me and I had to make the time I had left count. I began to leap across the courtyard in gigantic steps. I felt like Tigger and I have never been able to repeat what I did physically that day. The kids saw me, of course, and emptied out from behind the building. They were yelling, “payaso, payaso” as they surrounded me. There must have been 20 kids.

There is a saying; “the eyes of a clown are the windows to his soul”. It went threw my head, as I’m looking into the beautiful, inquisitive eyes all those children. The only things these kids wanted to know was my name and if I was real. (Cual es su nombre? Es usted verdadero?) I got down on one knee and they all gently touched my nose, hair, and hat and shook my hand. I made sure I had eye contact and acknowledged all of them. The outpour of affection from these kids stunned me. They weren’t looking past the suit at the man, I was a real clown. The first one they had ever seen. In that moment clowning was no longer a hobby; it was a gift to these children that they will probably never forget. I did my best to be a good steward of the responsibility. It was time again to say farewell, I did one of my silly clown walks backwards until they were out of sight.

I strolled back to the bus alone with my thoughts and feelings, proud to have been part of the MATC tradition with my fellow students and of the joy we brought to the children. As a clown I wished I could have given even more to these kids who have so little. I was humbled by the divine assistance I received to perform as I did and quietly wondered if I was worthy. I was glad that professionally applied makeup doesn’t come off with tears on it.

The word of my antics spread among our Mexican friends. They had always called me Eduardo, the Spanish word for the English name, Edward. That’s the way it works, I’m an American. But after Casa San Salvador, they started calling me “Lalo” which is the very Mexican way of saying Eddie. It is a simple gesture by which I am truly honored.

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