Chiapas.98. Clowns Without Borders Report (from the Archives)

Acteal Abejas. 1998.

December 31st, 2019. San Francisco

This photo just popped up in a bit of ‘last day of the decade’ clutter removal.  It’s one I took in Acteal, Chiapas, Mexico, in the middle of a solo Clowns Without Borders tour doing shows to relieve tensions caused the  low intensity conflict. The tour was timed to coincide with celebrations for the Dia del Nino (day of the child). Pablo Romo, a priest with the Centro Derechos Humanos Frey Bartolome (human rights),  Alejandra Alvarez (Tada, Seva) and Melel Xojolova organized the tour and had this spot on the schedule due to the big massacre in the church that had taken place months earlier. I wasn’t sure what the energies would be like and when I arrived it was heartening to encountered a warm embrace and a community ready to  celebrate the day.

Below is the whole report from that tour. The funds were raised at a benefit at cell space featuring local artists. I just hunted for the flyers, however no luck there, perhaps victims of a previous clutter removal project.  I believe Wavy Gravy mc’d, and the artists included Sara Felder and the Clown Conspiracy…


April 27 INI, St Cristobal 50 Children from 3 displaced communities
April 28 Coralito 40 Women and children from the community
April 28 Del Bosco 100 Children from 3 displaced communities
April 29 Acteal Autonomo 200 Community Members
April 29 Acteal Abejas 600 Community Members
April 29 Polho 1500 Members of Displaced Communities
April 30 St Cristobal 100 Street Children
April 30 La Primavera 300 Children from Displaced Communities

Here is a not so brief report of my Clowns Without Borders expedition to the troubled state of Chiapas in the very south of Mexico where tensions and conflict continue. This is my fourth trip to the area in three years to perform for the children of the many indiginous communities in the region. My expedition follows that of the Circos de Manos in December (13 women and a child from the US in a schoolbus-18 shows in 18 days) and the project organized by the Saltimbanqui in Mexico City –a ten person expedition in March. Unlike last year where I was able to travel extensively and perform in quite a variety of communities and towns, this year I stayed close to San Cristobal, mainly to avoid the threat of being expulsed by the immigration authorities. The ‘migri’ has greatly expanded their presence in Chiapas and are very actively trying to expulse as many foreigners as possible. It seemed unreasonable to me that they would see a clown as a threat to national security but I was not about to argue.
I am glad to say that the dreaded encounter with the ‘migri’ never took place. I am sorry to say that since my last visit there has been an explosion of displaced communities, thus internal refugees, and I did not need to travel very far to find a lot of people in need of some laughter release. The shows were all wonderful ranging from an intimate show for a very small community in their ‘salon’ (community hall in Coralito) to using an entire basketball court as my stage and playing to a terrassed hillside ampitheater full of people (Polho). Mister YooWho was very well received and laughter was quite generous. I based my show on one word “Tzotz” which means strong in Tzotzil and used the word liberally and often. Generally I would comment “Tzotz” following some nerdish move or before running scared from frightened dogs, small children and larger strong men. As has happened in the past, the most effective humor was based on human interaction, simple slapstick and the unexpected. Repeating jokes on latecomers( such as disappearing a stack of coins then sneezing them out my nose) brought howls of laughter from the rest of the audience.
As in the past my performances were facilitated by Palbo Romo from the Centro Derechos Humanos Frey Bartolome and Alejandra Alvarez from Tadas and Seva. My main support came from the organization Melel Xojoloval, a new branch of the Human Rights Center, created to work with street children and children from displaced communities. A wonderful byproduct of this collaboration was that most of my shows were followed by joy and glee as the kids pummeled at numerous pinatas and munched on candies provided by Melel. My many thanks go out to this group, as well as Pablo Romo and to Alejandra and her family(Pedro, Maru and Indira) who not only housed and fed me but provided me with a sense of home.
I am glad to have contributed some positive infusion of spirit into the region and I can only say that a great great deal more is needed.

The Situation
It is very difficult to feel optimistic about the situation in Chiapas at this time. Compared to my visit last October and following the massacre in Acteal Abejas in December, the tensions in the region have escalated sharply. The low intensity war by the Mexican government continues at an increased pace. There are some estimated 30 000 army troops in Chiapas now and I am not sure if this number includes the blue jumpsuited Public Security troops of whom I saw many truckfulls patrolling during my short stay in Chiapas. The army has set up many command posts inside and outside communities and in remote areas as well. Paramilitary activity continues unabated and many communities have left their fearful of more Acteal type actions. The numbers of refugees in Polho is estimated to be between 8 and 10 thousand. The Mexican government and their office of immigration is actively trying to expulse as many foreign human rights workers and observers as possible. Some 33 have been officially expulsed and a much larger number have been ‘invited’ to leave.
This campaign against foreigners is backfiring to some degree as many more young foreigners are coming into Chiapas to volunteer to stafff the ‘Campamentos Civils por la Paz’. My stay in St Cristobal coincided with the arrival of the Pastors for Peace caravan (I saw two schoolbuses and a truck). They brought in food and medicine for the displaced communities. Even though they were armed with official ‘human rights observer’ visas (and not simple tourist visas like myself), the army turned back their convoy on the way to Acteal Abejas (where the massacre occurred)-one cannot argue with machine guns.
The large divide between communities and community members favoring the ruling party (PRI) and those favoring the Zapatistas and the opposition (PRD) or neutral parties (Abejas) continues to be the main focus of tension with the military stepping to favor guess which side. The government continues to bring all kinds of social educational and other aide to the PRI communities while ignoring the needs of the rest. The weather patterns in Chiapas continue to be abnormal with no spring rains as of yet and unusually hot temperatures in the mountains. There is fear that due to El NIno/Global Warming the rains might not come as usual for planting season (mid-may). fear of paramilitary activity might also affect community members willingness or ability to plant. Any resulting food shortages will greatly favor the ruling parties strategies.
The latest phenomenon was the army and security police’s invasion of the community of Taniperlas when they tried to declare a new autonomous Zapatista zone. This occurred before my arrival and received international media exposure as 12 foreigners were explused accused of actively participating in a political action (forbidden by the constitution). As I understand it they were sleeping when the military action took place. During my stay I saw newspaper photographs of Tanniperlas which is literally in a state of siege. The photographs showed many well equipped army officers in front of a barrier of very large extended rolls of barbed wire. The community members were unable to retuirn to their homes(which had been looted) blocked out by the army. A three thousand strong caravan had marched to Tanniperlas to try to force open the gates but as far as I understand they were unsuccessful.
President Zedillo came to Chiapas for a two day visit during which he asked the Zapatistas to make their demands known and that he was ready to negotiate. He promised that the conflict will be resolved this year without a war. The next day (May 1st) another community was surrounded and invaded by some 1250 troops and 43 were arrested. There was no reason other than there was supposedly an arrest warrant out for one community member. I read this on an internet report upon my return. This event did not as far as I know reach the international media, as no foreigners were involved or expulsed. During my stay some 5000 communitiy members from all over Chiapas took part in a pilgrimage to San Cristobal de las Casas for an open air mass in front of the cathedral where many speeches were made and many prayed for peace.

Photos from Chocolat Exhibit in Paris 2016

I had the good fortune to be in Paris when the movie “Chocolat” came out last February (2016), which portrays the famous turn of the century clown duo Chocolat et Foottit. To celebrate the release, there was an exhibit on the duo at the Maison des Metallos. here are a few photos I snapped.


There is a lot written about the duo. John Townsen has a great post about them on his fabulously extensive blog, All Fall Down.

Dominique Jando also has written an excellent introduction to the Duo’s work in Circopedia..

Not as well known is the fact that Chocolat is perhaps the true father of Hospital Clowning. Although not the first circus clown to go visit children in the hospital, he  was the first to visit regularly going to the children’s ward at the hôpital Hérold in Paris twice a week for many years starting in 1908….

Chocolat at the hospital circa 2010.








©Photo M.-L. Branger. Roger-Viollet.

Musing on the nature of humor and clown

Not long ago I wrote a post on constructive versus destructive humor focusing in on if the humor was at someone’s expense or globally uplifting. This was before the whole creepy clown phenomenon exploded into the mediascape, internet waves telegraphing the concept to disparate corners of the western cultural world. I still hold faith that in some cultures, people will recognize the creepy clown simply as a creep with a mask who is too scared to show his or her real face. The media coverage is stunning, raking in front page coverage in the journals de repute.

It would be semi-OK if these cowardly acts were confined to the prankster mode that generated it in the first place. According to the history one article compiled, the first sighting of a creepy clown in the woods was a publicity stunt for a low budget horror film. Somehow that has now escalated into a stabbing in Sweden, weapons brandished in Germany, definitely not a prankster matter.

It’s not as if the clowning world didn’t have enough on it’s hands already with the new modern phobia of coulrophobia, scared of clowns. Thanks Ronald, Bozo, It….

When I quizzed a gaggle of middle school theater students, they described their fear: “we don’t know who they are” “we don’t know why they are hiding.” Yet in the annals of many a clown teacher’s notebook, one will find notes to remind the students that good clowning comes from within, not from what you put on. Clowns don’t pretend, they don’t act, they have fun, they humorize their reality, they put their audiences above them, they embrace their mistakes and failures.

In response to the creeps, a few journalists have re-explored the historical nature of clown, jesters, fools, those with permission to criticize the powerful, dating all the way back to the pharaohs. A few have ventured into a less visible yet very real world, that of the sacred clown, the wise contrarian, the disburser of crazy wisdom that keeps the community in balance, a part of indigenous communities across time found in just about every culture.

There are no lack of responses from the clown community themselves, with a number of wonderful articles reminding folks of all the great reasons clowns are vital.

I’m musing on the nature of humor, the principle tool of the trade. After all, humor is a sense that we all possess, a part of our expressive nature. Yet few of us have capacities of this nature, and, outside of a few physical theater and clown schools, where does one develop this ability? It’s not that we lack the capacity. It’s just not recognized as a significant player in the general currency of the realm.

If I were to generalize, I would suspect that most people, associate their sense of humor with the receiving dial. I would also suspect that this is because most people assume that in order to share humor, you need to say something funny. That humor is most naturally expressed non-verbally is not widely known.

I have always found it rather Funny that humor is referred to as a sense, yet it’s not in the pantheon of the five, or even of the mysterious sixth. Does that mean it’s the unspoken seventh?

Is humor a sense? some form of feeling? Has that question ever crossed your mind? Allow me to quote no greater authority than Startrek, more specifically, Saavik, the Vulcan officer in training in the second movie, Wrath of Khan,

“Humor, it is a difficult concept, it is not logical.”

Indeed humor is generally speaking, not a logical, nor a rational thing. Humor is generated by feelings and heart. My take: it’s one of the flows of energy that we channel in life; a channel on the Joy frequency spectrum, one that is deeply intimate with our Original Nature.

Could it be that our original nature offers humor as a pathway to celebration, as an appreciation, an affirmation, a joyous expression? That’s my take. Then I consider how our human nature twists that sense of humor towards fear, the whole making fun of people, the mean stand-up comics and how this also makes people laugh. In a way, bringing us full circle to the creepy clowns. Is humor a double edged sword? One that can be swung in any number of ways? Or is it that if one considers that humor is generated from joy, one needs to consider what is en-joyable. If a person finds en-joy-ment in making fun of others, in scaring others? If they find this fun, or funny how does one consider this? My first impulse is to demonize them, until my Zen master buddy Nocando reminds me: “Who are the creeps?  If they’re the guys I sit with in jail, they’re just seeking connection/attention in the broken ways that have been beaten into them.”

In the midst of my creepy clown reading, I read a piece that differentiated joy and pleasure, pointing out that pleasure is most often a self-centered happiness, whereas joy is shared happiness. Putting aside the veracity of the statement. If one applies that analogy to humor, more specifically, to the motivation of the humorist, it offers some perspective to the discussion. In the creepy scenario, it’s pretty clear what’s motivating the action hardly suggests the intention to celebrate the space we share? Rather than seeking to bring people together, it seems destined to separate them apart.

Even if one can explain the negative connotations that clown is attracting these days, how to resolve it? How to differentiate between those seeking to help bring the world into balance, and those looking to stir up chaos, between the poseurs and those embodying humor. A brain exercise I engage in frequently, looking for another word for clown, for the funny people we love to love…the world sure needs them.

Scary Clowns Take 3. Terrorist Clown Ring Arrested !!!

The Latest Headline in the Santa Monica (CA) Observer:

Terrorist Clown Ring Arrested in Alabama

Clown Fears Have Spread Across the South in Recent Weeks

Flomaton, Alabama police have taken one adult and two juveniles into custody in connection with a threat that put four local schools under lockdown, and they may be able to link the trio to some of the other malicious clown activity that has frightened communities over the last few weeks…

For more of that story here’s the Observed link.

Scary Clowns Part 2. It was all a hoax!

For those of you following the news of scary clowns in the Carolinas, you can now breathe a  collective sigh of relief as the WXII.12 news reports:

Winston-Salem police said Friday that they have determined that a report of a suspicious clown trying to lure children into the woods last weekend was false. A man was arrested on suspicion of falsely reporting another clown sighting hours later.

The first incident was reported just before 8:30 p.m. Sunday in the 1200 block of East 29th Street near Claremont Avenue and Piedmont Park. Police said in a statement they determined the report was false after conducting in-depth interviews ….

Click here for more on this, and a truly scary mugshot without make-up….

Positive Humor Helps !