September 21, 2023

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A Traveling Circus and its Great Escape

Decades of daring acrobatics, spectacular motorcycle stunts, and mind-blowing magic tricks couldn’t prepare Central America’s oldest-running circus for its most challenging feat yet—how to get home during a pandemic. Photographer and National Geographic Explorer Tomas Ayuso encountered the Segovia Brothers Circus stranded in Honduras amid the coronavirus lockdown, and then chronicled the performers’ rollercoaster journey back to their native Guatemala–and the surprising circus fan who ultimately came to the rescue.

TOMAS AYUSO (Photographer): So as I was driving around, I just noticed the big red- and-yellow big top in the distance in the middle of an essentially paralyzed, frozen-in-time city. And when I saw it, I thought to myself, Well, I wonder what they’re doing.

GWIN (Host): That’s photographer Tomas Ayuso. He was on assignment in Honduras, covering the effects of COVID-19 on the country’s capital—Tegucigalpa. And that’s when he spotted something he didn’t expect.

AYUSO: It looked like the ruins of the circus because at this point, they’d been like four months into it. So things were pulled down in different states of packing. So I just approached them and asked, so what are you guys doing?

The Segovia Brothers Circus had come from Guatemala. They often perform all across Central America, and they were on tour when the coronavirus hit and left them in Honduras without an audience to perform for.

And without ticket sales, they didn’t have enough money to buy fuel for the trip back home.

GWIN: So it’s a Guatemalan circus that’s stranded, effectively, in Honduras.

AYUSO: Anyone who is not Honduran and shouldn’t be here is stranded, like it happened in the rest of the world. They just so happened to be traveling with Ford trucks full of circus gear.

So the Segovia Brothers circus decided to do what circuses do—put on a show, make people laugh, and hope for the best. I’m Peter Gwin, and this is Overheard at National Geographic: a show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have here at Nat Geo and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world.

This week, the story of a circus caught in a foreign country during a global pandemic and their strange odyssey back home.

[Recording: ALEJANDO SEGOVIA, translated from Spanish]: Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, welcome to the Segovia Brothers Circus. We hope you enjoy the show that you are about to see.

OK, so that’s the ringmaster—Alejandro Segovia. He comes from a long line of circus performers and owners. And he’s the guy who’s responsible for getting everyone home safely. His circus is old school—not one of those giant Ringling Brothers, three-ring affairs.

There are less than 40 people total—who set up the big top, sell the tickets and concessions, perform the acts—everything. And they’re all crammed into a convoy of trucks driving from town to town.

They were on a Central American tour when COVID started. And by the time they arrived in Honduras, the virus had made its way around the globe.

AYUSO: So when they arrive, they hear that the coronavirus is coming. You know, increasingly like it stops being like it’s something that’s just happening in France and Italy. And you get signs that it’s in Colombia. And at this point, I think New York was being overwhelmed. And then it jumps from being just a faraway thing to cases in Honduras and Guatemala

GWIN: They can see it coming.

AYUSO: Yes, exactly. So they had a first night, like a premiere, so to speak. It went well. Opening night, incredible. Second night, less people. A third night, almost no one. Fourth night, nothing. Wow. Because the public was starting to get scared.

Then on March 15 Honduras announced a total lockdown.

AYUSO: Hysteria was at its peak and paranoia what it was at its peak. No one was getting close to anyone, you know. Everyone was seen as a potential vector for infections. So, you know, it was bad. And that’s when traffic really completely stopped.

The circus cancelled all its performances. The problem was their last leg of the tour hadn’t been so profitable, and Alejandro was counting on making that money back in Honduras.

AYUSO: And so that was the plan. So when they get here, with not a lot in the tank, they get hit by corona. So they’re stranded, not because just the virus came but because they just have no money.

Like any small business, a traveling circus relies heavily on cash flow, and the Segovia Brothers were counting on upcoming performances to keep going. But suddenly without ticket sales, they didn’t have enough to pay for fuel to drive all the way back to Guatemala. And it didn’t take long for the situation to get worse.

AYUSO: So, you know, they had nothing to eat. They had nothing, you know, food supplies started to dwindle, water—for all the different reasons you need potable water—were just dwindling. And Alejandro being, you know, the boss man, he had to make decisions and figure out what to do.

Alejandro had teamed up with some partners to put on the circus performances, but they were facing their own struggles.

AYUSO: His business partners turned their back on him and just like abandoned him; they cut their losses and said—the Honduran business partners said—you have to figure it on your own.

And if all that wasn’t not bad enough, he had to get back to Guatemala ASAP. His business license was about to expire—which meant that if he tried to get back into the country without a valid business license, he’d have to pay import duties on all his equipment.

But there was something else—something even more pressing. Here’s Tomas:

AYUSO: I should mention this—that a big issue that also was weighing on Alejandro was that his wife was very pregnant.

Yeah—so there’s that. Alejandro’s wife, Vany, who does everything from choreography to concessions to costumes—and also comes from circus royalty herself—was due to give birth in a couple weeks.

AYUSO: And if they didn’t leave by mid-July, the baby was gonna be born here. And if the baby was born here, she was going to be Honduran. And therefore, not being eligible to cross the border.

So the circus is basically camped on the side of the road, waiting for Alejandro to come up with a plan.

AYUSO: And you could feel the pressure. You could feel the tension in Alejandro and everyone. It really felt like if it was a movie, you could see, you know, title cards in between scenes like two days left, three days left.

Alejandro is sleeping maybe three or four hours a night. He’s spending all his waking hours trying everything he can to raise enough money to get back home—calling in favors, visiting local circuses to ask for advice, posting on Facebook to spread the word, contacting the Guatemalan embassy, the chamber of commerce—anyone he can think of. But everyone is dealing with the pandemic and has their own problems.

SEGOVIA: And that’s when in the middle of my despair and anguish that I came up with the idea to just cart out the Globe of Death and the trampoline to the side of the road and start performing for donations.

GWIN: I like it. When all else fails, break out the Globe of Death. What could go wrong? More after this.

GWIN: So you should know traveling circuses like the Segovia Brothers may not be Cirque du Soleil, but in Guatemala, their performers are famous.

AYUSO: To the point of that, some of their cast members are proper celebrities, or at least very well known enough to kind of like, I know, I suppose I could—in the U.S., you have Bozo the Clown that everyone knows. You know, in Guatemala, they have Cepillin. And it’s just, he’s a known guy, a known clown, rather.

GWIN: The most famous clown in Guatemala. Wow.

And this famous clown is actually Alejandro’s father-in-law. Because remember, Alejandro’s wife, Vany, actually comes from another major circus family in Guatemala. Kinda like Romeo and Juliet, except they’re circus performers, not star-crossed lovers. So yeah, circuses are a big deal in Guatemala.

AYUSO: They’re just known. Everyone knows them. And they have a huge following on social media and everything. And I think that that bleeds through into the other countries of Central America.

GWIN: So what does the circus culture mean in Latin America?

NINA STROCHLIC: Well, the circus is huge in Latin America.

That’s my colleague Nina Strochlic. She covers culture for National Geographic and reported this story with Tomas.

STROCHLIC: So the Segovia Brothers Circus would be sort of a middle ground, you know, fairly well produced, beautiful sets, beautiful costumes, theatrics, no animals— sort of a middle-ground, contemporary circus. But they’re also still circuses with animals, circuses that sell out huge stadiums. And so there’s everything in between. I think it really kind of covers the breadth of it.

Many circuses in Central America travel throughout the region, stopping in little towns for a few days and big cities for up to a few months.

STROCHLIC: And, you know, as Tomas described in Honduras, it’s a distraction. It’s wholesome family fun for anyone. And life there is stressful. And there’s violence, and there’s high unemployment, and there’s political instability. And all of these things just build up. And people want something fun and entertaining to watch. And the circus comes to town, and that’s it.

And though they’re not the biggest circus in Central America, the Segovia Brothers have been at it longer than almost anyone else. Since the late 1800s.

STROCHLIC: The Segovia Brothers Circus is one of the oldest circuses in Guatemala. It was founded in 1884 by a Mexican businessman named Ignacio Navarro.

The circus ended up moving to Guatemala and evolved over the years. It was eventually passed down to Alejandro’s father, Eduardo, who in addition to running the circus, served as its ringmaster and performed with Alejandro’s mother.

The circus life is all Alejandro’s ever known.

GWIN: What were the roles that his mother and father played in the circus?

SEGOVIA: When they were young, they performed the Globe of Death. Both of them.

The Globe of Death is an act where performers will ride dirt bikes around the inside of a spherical metal cage. They’ll go 360 degrees around, at speeds that make it seem like they’re defying gravity. And he’s talking about his parents doing this.

SEGOVIA: Actually it was three of them. My uncle Rafa, my dad’s brother, and they would do it at the same time. And they would dress up—my uncle as Batman, my dad as Robin, and my mom as Wonder Woman.

Alejandro learned how to do everything from acrobatics to juggling. He also learned what it takes to keep a circus running: how to fill seats, sell concessions, use the equipment. In the 80s Eduardo bought a generator to run the lights and music. It gave the circus more flexibility about where they could perform. It was a game-changer for the business and a huge investment.

He could barely afford it, but Eduardo told his son that sometimes, you need to take risks to be successful. Alejandro took over the circus in 2009 and his father died in 2017.

But every performance, Alejandro dons his ringmaster costume and steps into the spotlight powered by that generator.

AYUSO: But it was his father’s inheritance to him and has emotional value to Alejandro. Because that’s in this bizarre way that makes this very cinematic: His father used the generator across his life, across Alejandro’s life, to just teach him how to be a circus ringleader, a circus manager, and a man ultimately.

Another lesson Alejandro picked up from his father was how to hire people for this unique way of life.

A. SEGOVIA: For us, it’s like a big family in one community. We might not have the same last name, but the electricians, technicians, and the artists—in the end, we are all part of a big family. I have realized that for those who joined the circus, basically that’s why. they like and yearn for that family feeling. Maybe they didn’t have that at home or didn’t feel that way with their own blood relations. But in the circus, they feel protected and they feel like they’re not alone.

And in this circus, they’re not alone. There’s Jon from Colombia, who’s pushing 60 but still rides his bike around the Globe of Death.

Then there’s Leticia Najera, who’s from Guatemala. She performs an act called the Iron Jaw, where she hangs from the ceiling in sparkly leotards using—you guessed it—her jaw.

AYUSO: That’s when you hang from your mouth and do pirouettes by chewing on a leather strap of sorts.

AYUSO: As far as we know, she’s one of the last remaining in the world who does it because it’s incredibly dangerous, as you can imagine. For the sake of keeping it PG, she mentioned some horror stories that I think you can imagine where it goes.

PETER: And then there are Segovia family members like Alejandro’s niece, Lilian Segovia, who’ve essentially grown up around the circus.

She was 14 years old when Alejandro asked her to join.

LILIAN: It was wonderful for me when my uncle came to get me and, well, being here in the circus, it’s my life now.

Lilian started off doing hula hoop acts. But as she grew older and spent more time in the circus, she started learning acrobatics—stunts like jumping off a huge seesaw that catapults her into the air—and other aerial stunts.

GWIN: So if you couldn’t be in the circus, Lily, what would you do instead?

LILIAN: What would I be doing? I imagine I would still be studying and working. Truthfully, I’ve never thought about it.

OK, so back to the roadside in Honduras–and all these people are depending on Alejandro. By that time, the circus had been performing roadside for weeks.

AYUSO: As time went on, you know, morale was lowered. I think in April, we had a horrific heatwave and a lot of forest fires. So it was just very inhospitable to just be on the street. And just getting ground down because they had no real—any horizon to look forward to.

Not to mention, Vany’s belly was growing bigger by the day. Alejandro knew it was up to him to decide what to do next.

SEGOVIA: Each day I was thinking, every day as I woke up I was thinking, Are people going to keep helping us today, are they going to keep giving us food, how am I going to get back to my country, what am I going to do for my wife with the hospital situation? Because as time went on, I heard on the news that hospitals were beginning to fill up, that they were crowded with infected people. Yeah, those days really were some of the most stressful and nerve-wracking days of my life.

But local people in Honduras recognized their plight and tried to help as best they could.

SEGOVIA: People began to help us, to give us money, to give us food, sometimes prepared food, they would bring us pre-made lunches and give us rice and beans.

Each day, Alejandro added 50 dollars, maybe 75 dollars, to the escape fund—

these were generous donations considering the circumstances in Honduras, but it wasn’t enough to pay for the fuel to get everyone home. So Alejandro decided he needed to start selling off parts of the circus.

GWIN: You mean like, circus equipment or like supplies, or what’s he selling?

AYUSO: So, yeah, whatever he can that isn’t critical to keep the circus going.

Alejandro sold the one truck he owned. Members of the circus started selling personal items like phones. Pretty soon, all that was left was his prized generator.

AYUSO: So when this guy who wanted to buy it came around, he really struggled because if he could sell it, that was it. That was the golden ticket out, and he could get out of Honduras and remain everything intact without having to sacrifice much. He just kept telling me, I just can’t do it. I can’t do it. I know this would be—this would solve everything, but I can’t do it.

Little did Alejandro know that there was a Plan B taking place. Back in Guatemala, the president of the country, Alejandro Giammattei, was on the highway, when he saw another circus doing the same thing the Segovia Brothers was doing: busking for money on the road.

He decided to get a group of circus owners together to hear how he could help. And it just so turns out that Alejandro’s father-in-law—that famous clown named Cepillin—was going to be at that meeting.

SEGOVIA: And so, I got the idea to ask him for a favor. If I wrote a letter asking for help, could he give it to the president. Maybe there was something I didn’t know, and maybe he could give it to the president.

And then the remarkable happened. After months of being stranded, Alejandro got a call. It was from his father-in-law, who passed the phone to the president of Guatemala.

SEGOVIA (translated): And the president said, yes, I have your letter. I’ve read it. Don’t worry, we’ll help. We’ll do everything within our power to get you home.

The president sent Alejandro fuel vouchers. He also announced that all circus employees in Guatemala would receive a monthly stipend until they could perform again, plus access to a low-interest loan.

Finally, Alejandro could go home. And he had to do it quickly, because his wife, Vany, was about to give birth. So he asked his father-in-law to take her to a hospital in Guatemala City, while he transported the rest of the circus across the border.

SEGOVIA: In case, for whatever reason, she gave birth early, she would already be in Guatemala, right? So we made an appointment with the doctor for a checkup and to give her a possible date for when she might give birth, you know?

Alejandro returned to the border to transport the last of his equipment from Honduras to Guatemala.

SEGOVIA: And at the exact same time, the trucks were—I was at the border bringing the trucks from Honduras to Guatemala when they gave me the news that my daughter had been born. I was nervous, happy, I even wanted to cry. In fact, I did cry tears of joy because, after all that happened to us, all that we lived through, you know, I felt such great happiness. With all this news, you know, knowing that almost at the same time and on the same day, my daughter was being born and I was bringing the circus back to Guatemala.

His newest daughter, Aleangela, is healthy and back in Guatemala. I asked Alejandro if he wants her and his other two children to perform in the circus someday.

SEGOVIA: So I’ve thought about it and I’m going to support them in whatever they decide. But my greatest hope is that they will continue the tradition that we inherited from my great-grandfather and that continues to this day, you know?

GWIN: That is, if the circus survives. When we last spoke with Alejandro, he said they were still performing roadside in their home country, Guatemala. And literally roadside. Sort of the circus version of a drive-in movie. But it hasn’t been enough to pay the bills, and Alejandro’s had to get creative to make ends meet.

SEGOVIA: I’ve already had to sell shrimp. Now I’m selling cartons of eggs. I get them at a cheaper place and then I go out and resell them.

He hopes one day, he’ll make enough money to buy back everything they had to sell in Honduras. After everything Alejandro’s been through, he wants to help other circuses should a situation like this ever happen again.

SEGOVIA: My future plans include looking into creating a foundation. Because I would like to have a way to help my circus members if another situation like this arises in the future, to have some way to be able to send them supplies, food, or medicine. I would also like to create a circus school, because there are a lot of children on the street. I think many of them are orphans. I would like to create a circus school for those children, teach them to be circus performers so they have a home, have a family, and can earn a living as a performer.

Until that day comes, Alejandro says he’ll find a way to keep the Segovia Brothers together. Because that’s what circus people do. Again, Tomas Ayuso:

AYUSO: They don’t pursue this life for the money. They do it because this is just their way of life. They travel, they live fully in the places where they established residence for the temporary time that they are there and give it all to entertain people that come to see them. They are motivated and energized by their clapping and laughing of the different faces that they see across Guatemala and Central America.

When this pandemic is behind us, we’ll all need the circus more than ever. More after this.

If you’d like to read the Nat Geo article that inspired this episode, you can find that in our show notes. They’re right there in your podcast app.

And there, you’ll find another story from Tomas Ayuso. It’s about the impact coronavirus has had on migrant families applying for asylum in the United States.

And if you’d like to read more circus coverage from National Geographic, check out our story about traditional tightrope walking in remote Russian villages.

And for subscribers, check out a recent National Geographic magazine feature on COVID-19. It takes the work of photographers in five countries and compiles it all into one photo essay about how the pandemic became a painful shared experience around the globe.

That’s in the show notes, right there in your podcast app.

Overheard at National Geographic is produced by Laura Sim, Jacob Pinter, and Brian Gutierrez.

Our senior editor is Eli Chen.

Executive producer of audio is Davar Ardalan, who also edited this episode.

Our fact-checker is Michelle Harris.

Hansdale Hsu composed our theme music and engineers our episodes.

Special thanks to Dawnielle Jacobsen and Garrett Bradford, who helped us with the Spanish for this story.

This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners.

Whitney Johnson is the director of visuals and immersive experiences.

Susan Goldberg is National Geographic’s editorial director.

And I’m your host, Peter Gwin. That’s all for this season, but Amy and I will be back soon with more new episodes. Thanks for listening.

If you’d like to read the magazine article that inspired this episode, you can find that in our show notes. There, you’ll find another story from Tomas Ayuso – it’s about the impact that coronavirus has had on migrant families applying for asylum in the United States. And, if you’d like to read more circs coverage from National Geographic, check out our story about traditional tightrope walking in remote Russian villages.

And for subscribers, check out a recent National Geographic Magazine feature on COVID-19. It takes the work of photographers in five countries and compiles it all into one photo essay about how the pandemic became a painful shared experience around the globe.