ROSWELL – Israel Portugal pivots on the slack wire with catlike confidence, catching the small balls tossed to him by his brother Aldo, who is standing just below the sagging cable.
Now, Israel is juggling. The balls rotate rhythmically above his head as he retains his precarious perch several feet off the ground.
Israel, 16, and Aldo, 20, members of Do Portugal, a 40-member traveling circus from central Mexico, are rehearsing on a recent weekday in the show’s purple and white striped tent on the grounds of the Eastern New Mexico State Fair. The circus has been marooned here since mid-March when coronavirus restrictions shut down New Mexico.
When that happened, a troupe not accustomed to staying in any one place for more than two weeks was faced with no place to go and the harrowing possibility of no place to be.
“Luckily, the state fair came to us and said we could stay here as long as we need to and use the fair’s electricity and water,” said circus manager Damian Portugal.
Leslie Robertson, assistant office manager for the fair, said that there was never any question about that.
“From (fair) board President Larry Hobson on down, the Eastern New Mexico State Fair is about community, family and children,” Robertson said. “There was no option. They had no place they could go. Now, the circus is part of the fair family.”
Lucky to be here
“We practice all days except Sunday,” Damian, 25, said. “We do it in the morning before it gets too hot.”
He is sitting inside the circus tent on the skeletal framework of bleachers without seats as this day’s practice winds down. The unforgiving glare of Roswell’s midday sun crawls beneath upraised sections of the big top, providing the only light within.
Damian said the circus had received all the necessary permits and green lights on March 13, a Friday, and was set to do its Roswell performances when later that same day the coronavirus crisis turned all plans into puzzles. He said the circus was fortunate to be in Roswell at the time.
“We were supposed to go from Odessa to El Paso, but there was some confusion and problems and that got canceled,” he said. “We booked here at the last minute. I believe everything happens for a reason. We are lucky to be here. Harvest Ministries and Roswell (Community) Disaster Relief and people from the community bring us food and help us out.”
The Do Portugal Circus is a fifth-generation family operation. Most of the members are related to each other – mothers, fathers, siblings, cousins, children. There are four kids, ages 5 to 11, with the troupe. For many years the circus has traveled throughout Mexico and Central America and last year it branched into the United States – Texas, New Mexico, Colorado. After Roswell, the circus had been scheduled to perform at Albuquerque’s Cottonwood Mall.
There have been no animals with the circus since 2014, but there are trapeze acts, high-wire acts, clowns, dancers, jugglers, acrobats and a Globe of Death motorcycle spectacular.
Outside of a yard and a warehouse in central Mexico, the circus has no headquarters. The road is its home. Do Portugal travels 11 months out of the year in a convoy of 14 RVs and nine semi trucks.
“We traveled 10,000 miles last year and we were supposed to do 30,000 miles this year,” Damian said. “December is normally our only break because everybody (the public) is busy with Christmas. When the coronavirus happened, we thought we would be here two weeks, a month maximum. But then it was two months, three months, now five months. They even count us in the Roswell census.
“The hardest part is not traveling. We are used to traveling.”
Harvest Ministries in Roswell provides food for those people in the area who go hungry or struggle with food insecurity.
Maria Nease, Harvest Ministries volunteer coordinator, said the organization learned of Do Portugal’s plight when a woman called and said her daughter was with the circus, which was stranded and had nothing.
“We have provided them with whatever we have – fruits and vegetables, canned foods, pasta, meats, eggs, dairy products,” Nease said. “We will continue to give as long as our donations hold out, and they have been holding up (during the pandemic). People know there are people out there in need.”
She said members of the circus are super nice, super friendly and really appreciative.
“They wanted to give back, help out,” Nease said. “We provided some fabric and they made more than 80 (protective) masks. They made masks until the fabric ran out.”
Enrique Moreno is the founder and director of Roswell Community Disaster Relief Services, which brings together the skills and experiences of local volunteers to respond to man-made or natural disasters.
Moreno said his organization has been supplying food and toiletries directly to circus members and helping others get supplies to the troupe.
“We are trying to provide anything they need,” he said. “They are really, really humble. They try to be as independent as they can and not be a burden. It is really hard for them to take anything. They have volunteered to help us put together food packages. They said they know what goes in them because they have been getting them.”
Moreno said he has never been to a circus and when he heard Do Portugal was coming to town, he looked into getting tickets.
“But then COVID hit and everything shut down,” he said. “We have a thrift shop that shut down.”
Moreno came up with the idea of a virtual circus performance and started working with Do Portugal and members of the community to make that happen.
It did happen. The two-hour performance, presented in a mostly empty big top with all the pizazz and drama of a show done in front of a live audience, streamed live on Aug. 14. It was free, but viewers were encouraged to support the circus troupe with Go Fund Me contributions, and those in the Roswell area could drive by the circus tent to purchase curb-side concessions.
“It was definitely nerve-wracking,” Moreno concedes. “I was thinking, ‘What if no one watches, no one contributes.’ But the last time I checked it had raised more than $6,000. That’s not counting the concessions sold.”
People can still watch the show and make donations by going to Do Portugal’s Facebook page, www.facebook.com/doportugalcircusoficial/.
‘Face of amaze’
The virtual performance raised morale as well as funds.
“It cheered us up a little bit,” said Damian , who is part of a trapeze act as well as the show’s manager.
Everybody with the circus has a role, some may be behind the scenes but many of the troupe members are performers.
Damian’s cousin, Aldo, is a trapeze artist and a clown. Aldo’s brother, Israel, performs on the slack wire and juggles, and Aldo and Israel’s older brother, Yani, 23, is a clown.
The thing Aldo likes best about circus life, something missing in the virtual performance, is engaging with his audience.
“I have been to about 20 countries, Mexico, countries in Central America and now the United States,” he said. “I love to meet people. This (the shutdown) has been tough. I have been calm, but I am used to interacting, to getting something back from an audience. Sometimes they have the face of amaze, this look of shock. I love that. It is like part of my diet and for five months I have gotten nothing.”
Performing without an audience is harder on Aldo the clown than Aldo the trapeze man.
“I think the clown is the hardest work because getting people to laugh is the hardest thing,” Aldo said. And that’s when there are actually people there to laugh.
But Aldo is grateful to the people of Roswell, those he has met and those he has not, because of their generosity and support.
“They have been nothing but amazing,” he said.
Some of the Do Portugal troupe, such as Damian and Aldo, speak excellent English, but circus dancer, choreographer and aerial artist Susan Vance’s English is exceptional, although distinctly accented. The accent is Scottish. Vance is from Edinburgh.
It turns out all the troupe’s dancers, normally eight women, are from Scotland and England. Four have gone home to wait out the shutdown, but Vance and three others hunkered down in Roswell and were a major part of the virtual performance.
Vance has been with the circus for six years.
“Before I joined the circus, I did shows in hotels,” Vance, 30, said. “All my best friends think we (circus performers) are crazy. They are doctors and the like. When we go home at Christmas they are always asking ‘When are you going to get a real job?’ This is my job. I love the traveling and learning new circus skills like aerial silk and aerial hoop.”
While the circus is stalled in Roswell, Vance has been making money by teaching aerial techniques at a Roswell tumbling gym. She started off instructing young girls, but then some of the girls’ mothers and one man got interested.
“I teach eight classes for about 30 people ages 8 to 40,” she said. “This is a really nice community. We are very grateful to have ended up here.”
With the exception of lodgers tax revenue, Robertson said the Eastern New Mexico State Fair is self-sustaining. The fair earns its way with money derived from its annual fair week, scheduled for Oct. 5-10 this year if coronavirus mandates at the time make that possible, and from renting fair facilities to the public.
“We are not funded by taxpayers,” she said. “We have only a handful of paid employees. Most are volunteers.”
That being the case, the fair’s decision to provide a safe haven for Do Portugal Circus was its to make.
“We feel like it is part of being good neighbors,” Robertson said. And she said circus members have been good guests, mowing the grounds and keeping it clean.
No one knows how long the circus will remain at the fair. At some point, it is hoped, the show will go on.
“We will be sad to see them go,” Moreno of Disaster Relief Services said. “But we will be happy, too, because they will be doing what they are meant to do. They are great entertainers.”