Behind the Mexican Circus with Young Explorer Emily Ainsworth

“Blood, Sweat, and Sequins: behind the Mexican Circus”

By Jhunehl Fortaleza, Media Intern

As a journalist, anthropologist, and dancing circus princess, Emily Ainsworth has spent the past few years capturing the hidden lives of performers who’ve tantalized audiences for decades. Emily somehow manages to capture the color and texture of their everyday lives, using a camera lens to uncover what lies beyond the circus veil.

We only ever get a glimpse at them under a bright spotlight, but through the National Geographic Young Explorer’s Grant, Emily gives us a unique window into what she calls a world of “blood, sweat and sequins,” where most performers have “generations of circus blood pumping through their veins” and many artists “die in the ring, rather than of old age.

Photo: Emily Ainsworth

With the help of NG, Emily was able to work with seven different circuses around Mexico City—Circo Hermanos Vazquez, Circo Atayde, and American Circus to name a few.

With more than 200 circuses in Mexico, traveling with them gave Emily an opportunity to see Mexico from a different perspective, from the eyes of those growing up outside of mainstream society. Emily says that this project had particular significance for the performers. NG magazines are sold on every street corner in Mexico, so their lives being featured in association with NG gave them confidence that their culture was valued.

Life as a Performer

When Emily was performing with the circus, she lived in a trailer like everyone else. Though the days often passed in a sleepy haze, night brought the entire world to life. The close-knit, hierarchical culture Emily became a part of was just as riveting as the shows they put on every night.  Even the circus had its social order—performers associated with performers, riggers with riggers, the two rarely mixed. But all ran high on adrenaline during these performance nights.

“You really feel part of the community,” says Emily. “People truly look out for you. Many performers have seven generations of circus blood, and most who are born in the circus can’t imagine a life outside the ring. If you’re not born into the lifestyle, it’s a difficult community to infiltrate; I was very lucky to get that insight into this world.”

Being a circus performer, Emily says, is an exclusive birthright. Talents and tricks are passed down through generations. Parents often train and imagine futures for their children in the ring, even before they start to walk.

Backstage, the animals live as family members; even the elephants get to break bread at the dinner table. Owners are keen to ensure that they pitch their tents on land large enough to allow the animals to ramble around with a fair degree of freedom, and animals often receive better treatment than performers.

Photo: Emily Ainsworth

Making a Name for Yourself

Emily says that Mexico claims to host more circuses than any other country in the world. Some tiny, family-run circuses are comprised of four or five performers. Others are much more grandiose, like travelling villages. Those circuses usually take about 50 people (usually local boys in their late teens willing to do some very intensive labor for a bit of extra cash) to transport overnight. It’s easier to travel in the middle of the night rather than get stuck trying to move an elephant around in daytime traffic.

Some of the richer, more successful circuses travel all over the continent. But since there’s not much money in the industry now, circuses can’t afford to transport all of their equipment or animals abroad. Many individual performers, however, do go overseas, generally performing under a family name. For example, performers from the Vazquez Circus would take their name with them when going abroad. Emily has worked with individuals who’ve performed in more than a hundred countries over their lifetime.

“In other countries,” says Emily, “people would watch them perform and think, ‘Oh, they’re from Mexico? How exotic! They must be really good if they traveled halfway around the world just to be here.’”

Photo: Emily Ainsworth


A Second Home

Despite reverence for their talents, and even though many of them set the standard in competitions like the Monte Carlo World Championships, the lives of the  artists remain an enigma.  Because they travel and often don’t set down roots, there’s a lot of distrust between the locals and the performers.

The fact that they are looked upon as outsiders means that performers experience considerable prejudice. The public attacks they face are vitriolic, damaging and false: performers are regularly accused of being lascivious and dirty, stealing family pets, having head lice, or seducing married women.

Despite these accusations, Ainsworth feels a deep connection with these people and plans to go back as soon as possible. “I really want to be part of that community even when I’m seventy,” says Ainsworth. “I still feel like a part of that world.

Photo: Emily Ainsworth

Four years ago, when she first joined the circus, it was difficult to stay in touch across the continents – very few performers had access to phones, and no one had an email account. Each time she returned, the reunions felt miraculous and emotional. Now that Facebook and Skype have become standard, it is much easier to feel connected, and to know what’s going on.

Emily is also working on another grant proposal to submit to National Geographic. She wants to document the slums in Delhi, India—where many traditional performers and magicians live—before they are demolished.

Learn More

Explorer Bio: Emily Ainsworth


Changing Planet

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