PUEBLA, MEXICO — In 2000, Darina Robles Pérez of Mexico City told a teacher from the Russian Circus of Moscow she wanted to become a clown. He immediately discouraged her.
“He personally told me, ‘You have [breasts], and the audience is going to see your body; they are not going to see how funny you are,’” says Robles, whose speech is often punctuated with laughter.
To the teacher, women could not be clowns, a common belief at the time and one still pervasive today.
Now Robles, 46, makes people laugh.
A member of Llaven Nü-Riendo Juntes, a nomadic intercultural festival that performs in migrant homes, Robles is part of a growing movement to subvert long-held norms that clowning, a popular source of entertainment in Mexico, is not for women.
A strong network of female clowns has made this movement possible, allowing women to access opportunities that wouldn’t have been available to them before, Robles says. The Red de Payasas Mexicanas (Female Mexican Clown Network), which promotes the work of women clowns, has 100 members. For many, laughter offers a strategy to confront damaging stereotypes against women.
This is particularly important in Mexico. It’s the second most dangerous country for women in Latin America, after Brazil, according to United Nations data on 2019 femicides. In June 2020 alone, Mexico’s National Public Security System reported 92 cases of females killed because of their gender.
Protests last year over the increasing violence against women were met with force and stigma by authorities, according to a report by Amnesty International, an international human rights nongovernmental organization based in the United Kingdom. Women were arrested, subjected to sexualized language by the police and threatened with sexual violence, the report says.
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Nubia Alfonso, a member of the Mexico City-based theater company Sopa de Clown, says she draws her humor from women’s daily experiences. In one of her performances, Nuby, the clown Alfonso plays, catches a reflection of her nose in the mirror. She is displeased by it, so she shapes it with a vegetable grater to make it more appealing.
Alfonso, a reserved elementary school teacher and an actress who rarely laughs outside her performances, says it’s a commentary on the unattainable beauty standards placed on women.
Immigration is at the heart of Robles’ activism. During her performances, she transforms into the Migrant Hen, a clown she invented to explore the immigration crisis in Mexico. Onstage, she wears a white hat with feathers, old shorts and colorful socks.
To most of her audience, the immigration issue that informs her humor is familiar and painful. Still, for the length of the show, they laugh at the absurdity of a migrant hen, and the character’s clumsiness on stage.
For other female clowns, performing is a way to heal from personal tragedies. Laura Rocha López, 51, known onstage as Doctor Meatball, says her performances are a tribute to her late husband, who died in a road accident in January 2020.
“I really like to make people laugh,” says Rocha, who laughs easily and listens attentively. “I feel as if I’m renewing myself.”
Before becoming a performer, Rocha was a nutritionist earning a good salary and benefits at a health center. Now, she alternates between selling disposable utensils, working as a dance therapist and performing as a clown.
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Juan José Adán, a 40-year-old man who often attends Sopa de Clown’s performances, says these shows have forced audience members to reflect on their macho behavior.
“Very close friends who have also seen this work suddenly say, ‘Wow, it’s very strong to realize that at some point you were that person, that character that they present and that looks absurd,’” he says.
Despite the strong network, female clowns still have to prove their expertise, particularly when confronting complex themes, says Vanessa Nieto Terrazas, a member of Llaven Nü-Riendo Juntes. Most of the clowns are also independent artists or founders of their own companies, which means they don’t have much in terms of resources or infrastructure.
Staging performances hasn’t been easy during the coronavirus pandemic either. The government suspended public events in March 2020 due to the pandemic, and Robles’ group had to cancel a performance for girls and adolescents who had experienced sexual exploitation.
“That really broke my whole scheme, my heart, everything,” she says.
Most performances have shifted online, cutting a direct connection with the audience that Robles likens to communion.
She hopes her growing network will ease the challenges for the next generation of women clowns. As for Robles’ own plans, she would like to use her audience to apologize to the environment on behalf of humans. She wants to ask nature, “How can I make you laugh to at least give you a little bit of something in exchange?”