Festival Malabarero

ChurchJust down the street from a classic Spanish cathedral, nestled close to the base of a desert-y hill, which juts straight up in the middle of a large dry valley – there is a park.  Across the street, a popsicle store sells mouthwatering popsicles made of nothing but fruit and cream – mango and coconut are my personal favorites.  Down the road about five blocks is a bustling shopping hub displaying the popular fashions, electronics, and of most interest to me, earrings, sunglasses, and brightly colored eye shadow.

HermosilloAs you enter the park, the first thing to catch the eye, is a water fountain.  Every hour, this fountain plays the same four songs as it erupts into an artistic, cascading display, brightly colored with lights in the evening hours. The second thing to catch the eye, are the smiles – of children playing around the fountain, families out for an afternoon stroll, couples sitting close and talking in whispers on park benches.  Depending on the time of day, there are a myriad of activities taking place – martial arts, Zumba, cheerleading, volleyball.  Old leathered men sit alone in silence, watching the passers-by and random happenings of the park.  And on one particular afternoon in March of 2014, four of these old men sat and watched as I rehearsed my routine for the Gala show, happening the following night in the center of the large metropolis of Hermosillo, Sonora, México.

ParkThis park was the primary venue for the 4th Annual Festival Malabarero, which I had the pleasure to attend as a guest performer and workshop instructor. Nine months previous, Cali Gonzalez, the festival director, had approached me at the Periplo festival in Guadalajara to propose the idea.  He emphasized his hope that my presence would inspire the ladies of the Hermosillo club to become or progress as jugglers, saying most of them were immediately drawn to hooping, and he’d like to see more advanced female jugglers in his community.  I was honored by the invitation and proposition, and thus we worked together for the next several months to make it a reality.

Upon arriving in Hermosillo, I quickly realized a couple things.  First, after nine months of not practicing my Spanish, I could neither understand, nor speak the language.  Once again, I regressed to being a person of silence, listening and struggling to catch words and phrases I could comprehend, and being grateful for the many fluent English speakers of México. Second, I saw a noticeable difference between the culture of Hermosillo, and that of other Mexican cities I have visited.  Located just three hours from the US border, directly south of Arizona, Hermosillo’s culture is influenced heavily by the United States.  I have witnessed similar things in places like New Mexico and Arizona; they too reflect the close proximity to the boarder by having a strong Mexican influence in the culture.  Cali explained that there are many chain stores and businesses from the US and much cross-boarder business interaction, which has led to Hermosillo having a less traditional Mexican culture.

The venue for the festival included various locations.  The park was the central hub, where jugglers and circus artists congregated and played.  A majority of the workshops were held here, and by the middle of the first day, the south east side of the park was teeming with circus artists and their props.  There were two other indoor venues nearby that also housed workshops, a school and a venue I only heard about, but never saw.  The Gala Show was featured as a community event in the government district of the city – the road was closed, and a large stage built.

I met my hostess the first evening, and she took me to her lovely home in a gated community about a 15 minute drive from the park.  Here I stayed with Ricardo Lopez (aka Richi), a fabulous club and cane manipulator from Guadalajara, Chema and Jorge of Conejo Lunar from Toluca, and, new friend, Jorgelina Vasquez from San Luis Potosi.  The first night, it was only Richi and I.  Richi speaks very little English, so we did our best to communicate through juggling and laughter.  I eventually broke out my iPad to use an online translator for assistance.


In the morning, more performers arrived and we were whisked off to breakfast at an American-ized all-you-can-eat buffet.  I sat in silence for the most part, doing my best to re-absorb the language.  Once at the park, I got to meet the members of the club, and see various friends I had met at previous festivals.  Immediately, I was impressed by the number of high school age kids at the festival, as well as their skill levels.  I quickly learned that this group of teens was super tight knit, often performed together, and had been given the nickname “Polvorinos,” or dusty kids.  There was some inside joke around this name, as there are with most nicknames in México.
Ring Man
These teens quickly took me under their wing.  They came and sat around me, speaking in English, helping me translate, talking about “selfies” and bombarding me with questions: “Do you miss your home? Do you have a boyfriend? Do you miss your boyfriend? How do you like Hermosillo?” I kept telling them, “Just give me two days, and I will be able to speak Spanish again,” but they didn’t believe me. This group seemed to take it on as their personal duty to make sure I had a good time, always had company, and felt welcome.

Many jugglers and circus artists from throughout northern Mexico attended the festival.  There were a wide array of circus workshops offered, including your classic juggling workshops, as well as aerial, Chinese pole, clowning, contortion, hooping, unicycle, slackline and more.   Workshop leaders included some of Mexico’s greats: Juan Mendez, Yazmin Glez, Adrian Torres (aka Niño), Hector Torres, as well as all of my roommates.  I was the only workshop instructor and performer from outside of Mexico, as far as I could tell. Cali asked me to teach a workshop specifically for lady jugglers, and I titled it after the Facebook group and IJA video series – “Ladies Malabaristas.”   We talked about the history of women jugglers in various cultures around the world, myths and legends, modern day social construction, and ways the gender dynamics of juggling are rapidly changing.  We watched Part 1 of the Ladies Malabaristas video series, and then broke into a skill workshop so the ladies could ask questions based on specific skills they were working on and wanted to achieve.  A common desire among those present was to learn 5 balls.Ladies Malabaristas

There were various notable differences between Festival Malabarero and other circus and juggling festivals I have attended.  First, the festival only happened from mid-afternoon through evening.  Most of the festival organizers went to work or school all day, and only after these did the festival take place.  Having been a festival organizer myself, I was impressed with the director’s multi-tasking abilities.  Another unique aspect, was that it occurred outdoors in a popular public park.  This led to many members of the community getting involved with the event, that may not have otherwise.  Whether it was people taking workshops or kids stopping to stare at the large display of talent, it was obvious that this festival aimed to involve the local community as much as possible.

This goal of community involvement was evident in the Gala Show venue as well.  As opposed to having the show in an indoor theater, they arranged for a street to be closed down in an area of the city with a lot of foot traffic.  A large stage was built, and I would assume a lot of local promotion was done.  The number of people in the audience was impressive.  The entire street was filled with the public, and it only became more packed with passer-bys as the evening progressed.
After a circus parade leading to the venue, the first half of the show, titled “Hermosillo Presenta,” commenced. It featured local circus artists – showcasing impressive juggling, staff spinning, hooping, artistic ribbon, and contact juggling. One of the crowd favorites was an act done by the Polvorinos and their coach, Hector Torres.  The teenagers dressed like lions, fabulous face paint and all.  Hector’s mother had just finished sewing all the costumes the previous night.  Hector was the “Lion Tamer” and they had a choreographed comedic routine involving synchronized dance moves, multi-handed and  in-synch juggling patterns, and all kinds of lion-type movements, sounds, and facial expressions.  The audience erupted in appreciation throughout their act, and I, personally, could not stop laughing.

Nino  Liones

The Gala, featuring the festival’s invited guests, took place after a short intermission.  Highlights included Jorgelina performing a sassy and innovative club swinging routine to swing music, a comedic Chinese pole act by Niño – dressed and acting like a monkey, a complex and polished club routine by Conejo Lunar, Juan with physical comedy that had the audience roaring with laughter, and an emotive and captivating club and cane act by Richi – I can only think of one other juggling routine that has brought tears to my eyes.  As a performer, I was elated by the warmth and response of the audience.  Following each of the routines, the performers were interviewed.  As the chairwoman of the International Jugglers’ Association, I was questioned regarding my perspective of the Mexican juggling and circus scene.  It was my honor to share how impressed I have been with the skill level, the rapid progression of skill, and the united circus community in México, as well as the overarching Mexican culture.

FoodA large street party followed the show.  A DJ set up and blasted high energy Latin music through the streets, and thus ensued one of my favorite parts of a Latin American festival – the dancing! A fire dancing performance capped off the show for the audience, and the masses congregated in the street and danced for hours.

ComidaThe juggling, the circus, the hospitality and friendliness – all of these were memorable – but none of them compare to the memorability of the food of Hermosillo.  When I first arrived, Cali said that everybody who came to the Hermosillo festival left 5 lbs heavier.  After eating a ridiculous amount of incredible Mexican cuisine….including Mexican-ized hotdogs….Cali can be proud that I returned home 7 pounds heavier.

And for all those doubters, who didn’t believe I could speak Spanish when I arrived – by the time I left, I could once again both understand and speak Spanish….or at least “Spanglish.”



Full video coverage of Festival Malabarero has been donated as an IJA member benefit.  Watch here!

Erin Stephens currently lives in Burkina Faso, Africa and is performing with Yennega Circus. She has been an active organizer within the IJA for over 10 years, having been a founding member of the IJA Regional Competitions, Tricks of the Month video series, eJuggle, and has spearheaded the IJA social media platforms since 2012.

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