Latin American Times: Mexico City

Send in the clowns - urchins get their show on the road to earn a living
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The Independent US

Stop lights mean show time at the junctions of Mexico City's broad boulevards, when thousands of urchins come out to play in the traffic. Day and night the competition for handouts is fierce. Teenagers such as Quique and Chucho Perez have perfected their act. They haul a stepladder into the intersection at dusk and mount it while expertly juggling blazing torches.

Timing is everything. Linger too long and the light will switch to green, forcing a scramble to dodge fierce traffic, with no time left to collect from a tailback of admiring drivers. Often the roads are up to six lanes across, so it's no small feat to hustle across to the opposite intersection in the brief interlude of an amber light. Some would say it is downright suicidal, with the likelihood of distracted bus drivers running the stop light. Respiratory complaints from breathing in the fumes of the revving cars, compounded by swigging petrol to expel fire plumes like a dragon, are an accepted hazard in this line of work. Off duty, street kids often sniff glue or petrol to dull their hunger pangs.

Chucho, face blackened from soot, has a fetching snaggle-toothed grin as he passes his hat down the lane. Rarely will the pair collect more than 5 pesos (30 pence) for each brief performance. Drivers often ignore the jugglers who bound up, caps in hand. Quique is used to insults and does not waste time pleading for payment.

Months of effort were needed before they earned the right to stake out this relatively lucrative corner near Avenida Universidad; windscreen washers still come up with spray bottles and squeegees, even mime windscreen washers who promise not to smudge any car windows. And at weekends, the organ grinders create a cacophony alongside boom boxes and car CD players blasting out salsa, techno or ranchera tunes.

Just past the corner, in the second most prominent spot on this block, there is some serious clowning. Lupita Martinez, a skinny seven-year-old, pads out her trousers with an outsize rump and turns to acrobatics. She cavorts on the shoulders of her brother, Pepe, aged 13, who in turn is supported by a cousin, Foncho, 17.

It is down to Lupita to look winsome enough to tug the heartstrings of the drivers. Wide eyes work better than a fake grin under the smeared greasepaint; she is learning.

Pepe says: "For us, this is work, not entertainment, but we get enough to fill our bellies." They bring in about £25 on a good day, but must pay for their face paint out of the takings. They do not sleep rough, but go home to a roof provided by their mother and aunt, who clean offices at night. Their lot is much better than the 5,000 street kids who huddle beneath underpasses or in makeshift shelters in this capital city of 18 million residents.

Foncho has been painting his face, somersaulting, and putting out his hand since he was aged six. "Street work is really tough because we must earn a living off grumpy people who lock themselves in their cars and are stuck in traffic," he says. "I can't imagine being one of them myself, even if it did get me a regular wage."

Sometimes brassy women roll down their windows, not to hand over coins but to tongue-lash the boys for exploiting Lupita. Pepe shrugs off such criticism. He put in plenty of years at the top of the pyramid. Clowning is a traditional calling, introduced by the Spanish to Mexico more than 200 years ago and taken up with gusto by the unemployed and extrovert. There are an estimated 2,000 clowns working the Mexico City streets in fine weather.

They are considered a cut above the blank-faced boys who sprinkle glass shards on a tarpaulin and roll around on them. Most drivers tend to pay these performers, lest they fling the splintered glass on the road and cause punctures.