“Payasos!” a young boy yells down the valley. The hills, so dense with madrone and manzanita they seem canopied in green, echo back. Payasos!-Clowns!
The white pickup truck sways and rolls dangerously down the narrow, muddy embankment to the valley below. The mud is deep and slippery, the road little more than a ledge along the precipitous slope. Moshe Cohen, head clown, is driving as slowly as he can. In back, Bernie the Boobysattva puts on his red nose and looks over the edge at the chasm below, then at the children congregating excitedly on the other side of the road, waving and yelling down to the others that the clowns are here.
We’re in Yibelho, our second to last stop on the payasos’ trip sponsored by the international organization Payasos Sin Fronteras, or Clowns Without Borders. We landed in San Cristóbal de las Casas, two hours south of Yibelho, six days ago. Yibelho is the payasos’ fifth show, with another one scheduled that the afternoon in the town of Acteal, just above Yibelho. Three years ago a right-wing paramilitary unit entered Acteal, home to a displaced community of Abejas, pacifist Mexican Indians who refuse to take sides in the conflict between the Mexican government and the EZLN (Zapatista Army of National Liberation). They entered the church and killed 45 Abejas praying inside. The massacre took several hours. The army, based just outside Acteal, did nothing.
Now we pass that army base and wave to the soldiers. They don’t smile or wave back. Not so the young boys of Yibelho, who gaily pick up the payasos’ heavy valises when the truck finally stops midway down the hill (it can’t go down any further!) and haul them down to the town, two boys to a valise. Wearing mud-stained pants and little else this cold morning, they look no older than 7 or 8 as they run barefoot in the mud.
Yibelho too is a displaced community of Mexican Indians who arrived in this valley just five months ago, exiled from the land they’ve owned for centuries by paramilitary groups who killed some and terrorized all. So far all the Indians have managed to put up are huts made of boards crisscrossed haphazardly under corrugated roofs, with lots of space for cooking smoke to go out and for the wind and rain to come in. In other more prosperous communities, families have one hut for cooking and another for sleeping, but not here. In fact most of the shelters are actually tents made of plastic sheets under corrugated roofs. Unlike other communities, too, there’s no basketball court to serve as a kind of village plaza, just an expanse of dry mud at the bottom of the hill enclosing a gigantic puddle.
Bernie looks down and says to the others, “I guess this is where we do the show, right?”
“Right,” says Moshe.
They have no place to change. Bryan Welch, aka Smedley-O, a San Francisco clown, is dressing right in front of eight gawking young boys: long black pants and jacket, a red bow tie, and a grey fedora under a black top hat. Moshe Cohen, or Mr. YooWho, is already dressed and is coming carefully down the slope trying not to slip in the mud, but you know he will from the unlucky look on his face. He’s wearing a madras hat, plaid women’s slacks that go down only as far as his shins, and a plaid jacket with two drooping flowers in his lapel. He’s the epitome of someone dressed to kill but getting the colors and size all wrong. He has the best schlemiel expression on his face that I’ve ever seen and a matching laugh: heh heh. He’s also the coordinator of all activities of Clowns Without Borders in the United States and has appeared in Chiapas at least a dozen times.
And then there’s Bernie, aka Roshi Bernie Glassman, a well-known American Zen teacher. He’s wearing a Hawaiian shirt and jeans held up by black suspenders with red hearts, and a white cone-shaped hat that Moshe brought him from Kosovo.
Bernie started his clown apprenticeship under Moshe Cohen several years ago after an introduction by his friend, Wavy Gravy, but didn’t really take up the practice of clowning till 1999, when he hit upon his persona, Bernie the Boobysattva. He took several trainings with Moshe and the two began to co-lead workshops in America and Europe entitled Clowning Your Zen.
Chiapas is a different kind of apprenticeship for the Boobysattva. Here he’s the schlepper, carrying the valises and sets for his teacher and Bryan, the two professional clowns, in return for performing during parts of their show and receiving their critical feedback. Right now he’s busy blowing bubbles which the young boys are batting with tall sticks up in the air.
“Como està?” I’m asked. I look down at a boy about seven, barefoot. He tells me that his name is José Luis. His baggy yellow shorts, splattered with mud stains, come down over his knees under a dirty red and white shirt emblazoned with the initials NBA, as big as a tunic. He wears a colorful striped rebozo holding his younger sister and will carry her for as long as I see him at Yibelho. That doesn’t stop him from happily carrying boards up the slope to create makeshift seating with the rest of the boys. As usual, the girls, wearing white blouses with pink and green stripes, sit apart from the boys. The older women wear white and red embroidered shawls. One dark brown man wearing a large sombrero is perched on a small wooden chair smack in the middle of where the payasos will perform, and he moves only reluctantly.
Out they come, first Bryan daintily carrying one small red-lacquered box, followed by Moshe struggling with two big old valises and the phonograph, instantly walking into a tree. Everyone laughs. Moshe stumbles around for about ten minutes, getting more and more lost before he finally finds Smedley-O, and then the two take turns pushing each other off the erect suitcase on which they’re attempting to both sit. The Indians nod laughingly at this familiar script. There’s the boss and there’s the worker. The boss carries one small red box and wonders why the worker, struggling with everything else, doesn’t arrive sooner. The boss has a newspaper to read, the worker doesn’t and tries to read over his shoulder. At some point Smedley-O even puts a kerchief on YooWho’s head and on its surface pours himself a leisurely glass of champagne.
YooWho finally rebels and the two push each other around. Smedley-O falls over, his feet wiggling up in the air, and Moshe covers his crotch with the folded newspaper. Everyone laughs. But Bryan gets the bigger laugh when he knocks off Moshe’s hat, revealing his balding pate. The place explodes. The Indians, with their long black hair, find baldness very funny. The kids whoop out loud, the girls and women giggling behind their hands.
The two continue to play tricks on one another–stealing hats, hitting each other with the rolled newspaper, taking turns falling on the ground-all to old jazz music from the 1920’s and ‘30’s, mostly Duke Ellington. Their routine is about people and emotions: power, authority, trickery, befuddlement, anger and revenge. Best of all, there’s a chase. The audience loves it.
Bryan begins his pantomime, and that’s Bernie’s cue. Sitting anonymously in the crowd, he gets up, takes out a red balloon, blows it up, then lets the air out in sporadic farting sounds. The audience laughs, forgetting about the two payasos in the center. Moshe glares angrily, Bryan makes a fist, the two stomp angrily over to Bernie and Moshe grabs his balloon away from him. Bernie sits down, chastened, but not for long. As soon as they resume their performance he gets up once again, this time creating an even greater disturbance with the aid of noisemakers and balloons. Once again the two payasos take away his balloon, and once again Bernie tells them he’ll be a good boy and sits down, only to jump up again as soon as they’re not watching.
The two payasos finally give up and pull the Boobysattva by his suspenders into the center of the circle, where all three get out their balloons. Bernie starts blowing his red one and the other two blow theirs. But as hard as they try, they can’t get any air into theirs. Their balloons remain wimpy and small while Bernie’s red balloon gets bigger and bigger as he blows harder and harder. The two payasos glare angrily at Boobysattva, who is immensely proud of himself. He blows harder and harder, everybody laughs in anticipation, and the balloon busts with a big bang right in his face. He screams in fright and throws up his arms, and the two payasos start chasing him up and down the muddy slope. The children are doubling up with laughter, pointing at each other gleefully as the clowns knock their noisemakers on their little heads as they run past.
Finally they capture the Boobysattva and haul him back to the center of the circle by his black and red heart suspenders. He’s reluctant, pulling back, his mouth a big O, and Moshe gets him all entangled in his suspenders. Finally, with a big show of courtesy, they invite him to sit down in a special chair. He sits and the chair collapses on the ground, causing him to fall with his buttocks up in the air. The audience roars. The Boobysattva walks sadly away, and for the moment at least, the show goes on without him.
The first time Bernie fell with the collapsing chair he fell hard, hurting himself. He’s had to learn how to fall (on the other cheek, so to speak), not just to avoid getting badly bruised but also to get his buttocks high up, thus getting more laughs.
For the six days of the payasos tour, he’s practiced falling. The white pick-up truck has delivered the payasos to one community after another, sometimes at the end of remote, unpaved, bumpy country roads, often in the company of a dozen Indians seeking a lift to the village. They sit on the rim of the back of the truck, laughing and joking in their native tongue of Tzotzil while holding on for dear life. Their dusky brown faces are deeply lined and tired, but I’m struck by their high spirits, their humor and dignity. “Who are you?” someone asks us in Spanish. “Payasos sin fronteras,” Moshe explains. “What does sin fronteras mean?” the first man asks. “Todo el mundo,” a fellow Indian replies. Everyone.
On our earlier trips we’re joined by Zapatista coordinatores who have arranged for the payasos show as part of their own program, where they visit and educate Indian communities about the effects of the immense Puebla-Panama free-trade zone that has already been signed and agreed to, stretching from Mexico down to Panama.
“The indigenéos live in collectives,” one of the coordinatores, a woman in her mid-twenties, tells me during the long bumpy ride to a remote village called Huixtan. “All the land is owned by the collective-it’s been this way for years-and then divided up by families and given to each family to plant. Mexico’s constitution has always protected the rights of collectives, but it’s now being changed because they say that it does not comply with NAFTA.“
NAFTA, the North America Free Trade Agreement, took effect in Mexico in 1994. It helped trigger the Zapatista revolution, though the uprising had been planned and organized for 10 years beforehand. The coordinatore talks about the displacement of entire communities that have been terrorized by paramilitary groups into leaving the land they have owned collectively for centuries.
At Huixtan we are invited after the show for a lunch of freshly-baked tortillas, beans, cactus and avocado, accompanied by sweetened corn syrup and water. In Chaolin we spend the night in bunk beds in a school dormitory where the children sleep two to a bed to make room for us. At 4:30 in the morning I go out and see the open door of the cooking house with the fire going in the hearth and the women beginning to make tortillas. I go back to bed and wake up to see a dozen children around my bed, waiting patiently for me to get up. Everything fascinates them: how we fold away our sleeping bags, how we comb our hair, how I write my notes, our clothes, my pocketbook. At some point one girl stares fixedly at my arm, then stretches out her own reddish-brown arm next to my white one. The others exclaim.
Chiapas is being watched all over the world to see how the rights of indigenous people will be protected in the middle of the new Puebla-Panama free-trade zone. Will the Mayan Indians abandon their self-sustaining native crops in favor of export crops whose prices will be determined by the erratic ups and downs of a world market? Will they choose to work for 30 pesos a day in factories that take the place of hillside farms and remote collectives? The clown teacher and the dharma teacher talk this over in the white pick-up truck as they drive to yet another community.
“About 70% of the population of the highlands of Chiapas are Indians who still live in communities where people hold on to traditional customs and relationships, a mixture of Catholic and Indian festivities and certain healing traditions,” Moshe says. “They may be poor by our standards. Many don’t have electricity or even running water, but they’ve been mostly self-sufficient for generations. The challenge is how they can hold on to these values and way of life in the face of all the pressures caused by globalization.”
“For me it always comes back to the One Body,” Bernie says. “We think of the One Body as One, but it’s also a million different things, each of which is the One Body. It’s important to realize Oneness. It’s also important to honor each individual part of the One Body as the One Body. When we say that we’re global, when we say that we’re all One, do we also recognize the differences? Do we also allow for needs of different cultures, traditions, countries? Some people don’t see the One Body and just honor one part, the part they’re comfortable with. Other people want to honor the One Body at the expense of its parts. The challenge is to honor each part as the One Body and not to exclude anything.”
Moshe YooWho Cohen squints pragmatically at the road ahead. He has been coming to Chiapas for a long time and has friendships all over the place: with villagers, human rights activists, Zapatistas. For him clowning is not just a profession, it’s a practice. He’ll tell you that discovering one’s own clown world causes a shift in perspective. You may be a business person, a housewife, a teacher or a farmer, but when you enter your clown world you see things differently. And when you clown with other people, you help them see things differently. He’s the head clown teacher at Wavy Gravy’s Camp Winnarainbow north of San Francisco and has performed before refugees not just in Chiapas but also in Kosovo and Nepal. He travels all the time, and he worries that so many of us in the West have no idea where our food, our clothes, our cars, or our computers come from, how they’re made, and at what price.
He comes to Chiapas to make children laugh, to cause women to giggle behind their hands, and to bring smiles to young-old weatherbeaten, wrinkled faces. In short, to awaken everyone around him. And he’s bringing more clowns to join him in this work, like Smedley-O and the Boobysattva.
Yibelho is by far the poorest of the communities we visit, for the people have only been there for five months and the despair of displacement is still etched powerfully on their tired faces. To make matters worse, it’s raining, creating mud and mud-stained clothing. In most of the other communities the payasos visited the ground was swept, clothes were clean, hair neat, and the Indians wore colorful sandals rather than walking barefoot. There is more wretchedness at Yibelho, but this seems to cause the payasos to work even harder, to coax more laughter out of José Luis and his young friends. So they do sleight of hand with red foam balls that disappear and reappear, that replicate into smaller balls or else increase in size inside the tightly-gripped palm of a young, nervous volunteer. Moshe picks up his ukelele and croons a Linda Ronstadt song to the nearest old Indian woman, whose face disappears in wrinkles of smiles.
But the finale is the best. YooWho and Smedley-O are juggling white pins, throwing several back and forth at the same time, when Bernie the Boobysattva shows up out of nowhere, a big Churchill cigar in his mouth, and starts walking between them nonchalantly. The white pins are thrown all around him. I recall Moshe’s words to Bernie from the morning: “You need not just more expressions on your face but also more gradations in the expression. So when you walk between us as we juggle you start off being arrogant and completely sure of yourself, and then in the middle I want you to get scared. But not immediately; play with it. First you start getting nervous, then really nervous, then you’re actually scared. That contrast between how you start off all sure of yourself and the final panic when you find yourself in the middle of all this-that’s what’s funny!”
So now Boobysattva saunters between the pins like it’s a sunny day in Santa Barbara, not a care in the world, the big cigar perched complacently in his mouth. He crosses between the two payasos again and again, and then, suddenly, he’s in trouble. His eyes veer from side to side, then stare fixedly ahead. He’s afraid to move. The cigar trembles in his mouth, he turns white, and now he begins to quake with fright. The children and the adults are laughing louder, some slapping their sides. He shakes even worse, the cigar going up and down convulsively, and now he’s truly frightened. The payasos throw the pins in the air all around him, catching and throwing, trying to get one closer and closer to his cigar. They’re trying to strike the cigar from his mouth but they can’t get close enough, only it doesn’t matter because the audience is laughing harder and harder. And just when Boobysattva is so convulsed with fear and panic that we’re sure he’ll make a run for it and get hit by the white juggling pins, one pin hits the cigar cleanly and it jumps out of his mouth. The place collapses in laughter. No applause, just laughter that rolls on and on at arrogance brought low. José Luis jumps up and down with his baby sister in his rebozo while his friends rush down the slope to get closer to the payasos.
“Payasos sin fronteres!” Moshe bellows out from their muddy stage in the gray drizzle: “Smedley-O!” Bryan in his undertaker’s suit takes a bow. “Boobysattva!” Bernie has recovered his Churchill cigar and pantomimes flicking off the ashes while he waves broadly. And “Yoooo-Whoooo!”
We walk up the hill to the truck. Ahead of us is still Acteal this afternoon, the final performance of the trip. But we sense that it’ll be hard to beat the show at Yibelho. The boys are once again carrying the payasos’ heavy luggage. We pull off in the white pick-up and some start running after us, barefoot in the deep, oozing mud, yelling: “Payasos! Payasos!” The truck at first climbs slowly and they can easily keep pace. But then it reaches level ground and starts speeding off and the boys stop with a final wave, except for one who runs and runs. He’s 12 or 13, and his black hair blows in the wind as his eyes focus hard on the axle of the white truck, trying to stay with it. We’re so startled at how fast he’s running that we forget to wave or shout goodbye. Moshe hits the accelerator and after a few minutes we leave him behind, but the young racer won’t give up. Even when we reach the highway and turn right towards Acteal, a last glimpse reveals he’s still running.