The spectacular tale of a stranded circus—and its great escape from Honduras

Decades of daring feats couldn’t prepare the Segovia Brothers Circus for the most challenging obstacle yet: the coronavirus lockdown.

By Nina Strochlic
Published 28 Jul 2020, 13:12 BST
Photograph by Tomás Ayuso

Eduardo Segovia was eating at a restaurant in a small coastal town in Guatemala when he met Telma Nineth Segura Coronada. He thought she moved like an angel. He told her so, and invited her to leave her waitressing job and join his travelling show, the Segovia Brothers Circus. She knew instantly that it was her destiny. She was only 18 that day in the late 1980s, but she wanted more from life than working and dying in Puerto San José. Her parents weren’t so sure. She left anyway.

Telma became a dancer, drawing gasps and laughs on the floor under the big top. She gave birth to a daughter Lilian, who grew up to be a hula hoop dancer with a son of her own. Three decades since that day she met Eduardo, his son, Alejandro Segovia, now leads the circus. Telma retired from the stage to sell concessions, and she’s never regretted leaving home.

“I believe there is such a thing as circus blood. You have to be indomitable; you have to yearn for liberty,” Telma says. “And that’s what the circus is: liberty.”

The performers are a motley crew who live in small cabins in the circus trailers. Some, like Lilian’s mother, Telma Segura, joined the show when it landed in their hometowns. All traded their small towns, relationships, and day jobs for the circus lifestyle.

Telma, left, stands with her son, David, daughter, Lilian, and grandson, Gabriel, on the outskirts of the circus grounds. The three generations of performers trace their circus lineage to a day in the late 1980s when Telma, then a waitress itching to escape her small town, met Eduardo Segovia.

But under the coronavirus pandemic, the circus became a prison. For four months, Telma and the 35-person troupe were trapped in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, a six-hour drive over two mountain ranges from the border of Guatemala, where they live. Unable to draw crowds, cut off from investment, and running out of food, they didn’t know if they would ever get home. And even if they did, would the circus—and Alejandro’s 136-year-old family legacy—survive?

The grand tour begins

Last September, the troupe eagerly anticipated the start of their year-long tour through five countries in Central America with their new “Circus Extreme” show. Such international trips are big money-makers. The convoy of four semi-trucks, a fleet of smaller trucks and trailers, and the performers and crew set off for Nicaragua, where they toured for two months. During their next stop, in Costa Rica, a circus truck and Alejandro’s mobile home were impounded because of permit issues. Without time or money to fight a legal battle, Alejandro and the troupe left for Honduras with the intention of returning later.

By then news of the coronavirus had reached them, but China seemed a world away. When they arrived in Tegucigalpa, on March 6, they set up the red-and-yellow big top in a lush field, “Segovia” strung up in bold letters above the tent, encircled by glimmering red semi-trucks and trailers.

After years of setting up and breaking down the circus in a new town every few weeks, the crew can do it in 12 hours. “You don’t just work in the circus,” one Mexican technician said, as he unrigged the tent, “it’s a whole way of life.”

After years of setting up and breaking down the circus in a new town every few weeks, the crew can do it in 12 hours. “You don’t just work in the circus,” one Mexican technician said, as he unrigged the tent, “it’s a whole way of life.”

Travelling circuses are wildly popular in Central America. They offer wholesome family fun, and also, in the under-served cities of Honduras, a welcome reprieve from the stress of high unemployment, punishing inequality, and political instability that wear down the average citizen.

The costumes, sets, and performances of the Segovia Brothers Circus are a grade above many of the other travelling shows in the region. On opening night, the air is always electric. Guests flood into the big top, their faces illuminated by bright spotlights. Backstage, performers put final touches on their costumes until the announcer blares, “Five minutes to showtime!”

The audience watches one death-defying stunt after another: trapeze jumps, motorcycle flips, balancing acts. “We’re the biggest news in town for a single day,” says Telma, “and that feels good.”

Leticia Nájera hovers above the stage, suspended only by her teeth. Few modern circus performers still perform this act, known as the Iron Jaw, due to its difficulty and dangers. Leticia, who grew up in her grandparents’ circus, has been doing it since she was 12.

Lilian is a hula hoop dancer who dreams of having a strongman act. Her son also performs, as a clown. “I want to show the world how strong I am,” she says. “But with my own feminine touch.”

Lilian washes dishes in the improvised kitchen area next to their living quarters. The performers sold their personal belongings, like phones and minifridges, to buy food and water.

But not in March. Only a quarter of the seats were occupied at their first show. After two more, they realised no one was coming. When the authorities told Alejandro to shut down after the third show, they snuck in a grand finale. The big top was nearly empty. On March 15, the government declared Honduras under lockdown. Since then, Honduras has had more than 35,000 COVID-19 cases, including the president, Juan Orlando Hernández. (He was released from the hospital in early July.)

At first the troupe thought of lockdown as a two-week pause—almost like a vacation. But it stretched on. The stillness was unnerving. The circus “is a home for misfits and runaways,” says Alejandro. This was the longest many of them had stayed in one place in years. In their trailers around the big top, they refer to non-circus folk as “stay-at-home” people. Suddenly they, too, were stay-at-home people.

The circus’s investors, who were supposed to front money for room and board, stopped answering their phones. The troupe ran out of food and supplies almost immediately. There was no money to get home. By early April, the kids were complaining of hunger. As potable water ran out, they washed their dishes in puddles. Telma sold her phone, her cake pans, her mini fridge. Others did the same. They used the money to buy food and barrels of water. April, everyone agreed, was the worst time they’d ever experienced in circus life. It became known as “the bad month.”

Stuck after 136 years on the road

Alejandro’s father founded the Segovia Brothers Circus in 1987, but their roots under the big top run much deeper. His family has been in the business since 1884, when a Mexican businessman named Ignacio Navarro founded Guatemala’s first modern circus. Growing up, Alejandro learned each aspect of circus performance and production. He trained as an acrobat, a stunt motorcycle rider, a magician. He could do it all. But he’d never been up against a global pandemic.

He needed to get his circus over the border as soon as possible. His license to own a business that operates overseas would expire in July, after which he would have to pay to import everything back into Guatemala. And his wife, Vany López, was due to give birth at the end of July. If the baby was born outside of Guatemala, it wouldn’t have citizenship and might not be allowed to enter the country. Nearly manic, Alejandro petitioned the Guatemalan Embassy and the Honduran Chamber of Commerce for help. He called in every favour he had left. He visited local circuses for advice. He slept three or four hours a night. He cried, but only in private.

When morale and money hit rock bottom, Alejandro came up with a plan. He sent the performers to the roadside. As drivers rushed home to meet the city’s 5 p.m. curfew, the women did dance routines to blasting music. Motorcyclists rode in 360-degree loops inside a giant cage known as the globe of death. In temperatures that reached over 110 degrees, they held signs and donation jars asking for help. Telma was a great saleswoman, but she’d never had to beg for money before. She was embarrassed.

It worked. Passersby brought donations of rice, beans, flour, oil, and soap. Churches set up water tanks and handed out masks and hand sanitiser. “The people of Honduras didn’t let us starve to death,” Alejandro says.

Once they’d exhausted the rush hour crowd, they travelled to the city’s richest neighborhoods. In his booming voice, Alejandro told the story of his circus and how they came to be stuck, then the dancing and tricks would begin. Each day he added £30, maybe £50, to the escape fund. It was nowhere near enough to get them back to Guatemala.

At a busy intersection in Tegucigalpa, Lilian accepts a donation from passing cars. After running out of food and supplies, the performers took their acts to the streets. Most had never had to beg before and felt embarrassed. But the Hondurans responded warmly with donations of food, water, and soap.

Shortly before leaving Honduras, the troupe went to a wealthy neighborhood of Tegucigalpa called Lomas. In full costume, they hoped to raise enough cash to allow them to travel home to Guatemala.

Alejandro Segovia, the owner and ringmaster of the Segovia Brothers Circus, distributes donations to the performers and crew. Alejandro feared the lockdown would spell the end of his family’s circus. It would be huge loss for their heritage, he said. “To know the circus is to know humanity.”

Alejandro knew he had to choose between saving the physical circus and the people in it. So he began selling off Segovia Brothers. He returned three rented semitrucks and sold the one he owned. Pretty soon, the only thing left was a generator his dad bought in the ’80s. Alejandro recalled that he couldn’t afford it then, but Eduardo had told him that sometimes you have to take risks to be successful. Eduardo died three years ago, and Alejandro refused to sell it. He’d already lost so much; the performers marvelled he still had the hair on his head.

It wasn’t enough. Alejandro worried that this might be the end of the Segovia Brothers Circus. When a member of the circus dies, their casket is put in the centre of the ring. The troupe gathers under the big top for a ceremony, and the ringmaster says a few words. The next day they perform as usual. But what if the circus itself dies?

“If the virus kills the circus,” Alejandro says, “humanity would lose one of the oldest spectacles in our history. Egyptians had circuses and even the Maya did tumbling like they still do today. Circus is storytelling, and that’s what people have always done.”

For many of the performers, it’s impossible to imagine living outside the circus. They’re drawn to the impermanence: A different city every week, a different country every month. Always moving.

Growing up in the circus, Telma’s daughter Lilian Segovia (her father is Alejandro’s brother) has never known another life. “The normal and mundane never called to me,” she says. “The adventure and the travel have always been in my heart. The circus was always meant for me.” She worked hard to earn her place as a hula hoop dancer, honing her strength for what she really wants: a strongman act. Her son, a six-year-old whom everyone calls Gabo, has started performing with her as a clown.

If the circus shut down permanently, Lilian and Telma would have to get regular jobs. The thought made Telma shudder. A schedule, a commute, a sedentary life. No “Five minutes to showtime!” to fill her with anticipation.

Not all are saddened by the thought of transitioning into a stay-at-home person. Leticia Elizabeth Nájera Morales’s act has many names: the Iron Jaw, aerial dental dancing, the Human Butterfly. With only her month clamped around a rig, she’s lifted high into the air, spinning and twirling. Her teeth support her body weight.

It’s a circus art few perform anymore. Leticia learned it at age 12 in her grandparents’ circus. After 11 years, she’s had close calls: Once a pulley dropped her mid-air, nearly ripping her leg in half. It’s not uncommon for performers like her to lose their teeth. She’s proud of what she can do, but she’s exhausted from life on the road. She dreams of being a stay-at-home mum. Her family moved around so much she never got the chance to finish school. She doesn’t want the same for her four-year-old son, Dylan.

An unlikely savior

Finally, on Sunday, July 12, Alejandro decided they’d raised enough money to begin moving to the border. There was no telling what awaited them there—rumours had reached them of fines, bribes, health checks, and lines that stretch for days. Alejandro’s friend loaned him a semitruck to shuttle one container at a time to the border. The tent came down, and the remaining equipment was packed. The rest of the circus waited on the edge of Tegucigalpa, where they might still be able to raise some cash or receive a Western Union transfer.

Telma’s grandson, Gabriel, and her son, David, play video games in her cabin. After three decades with the Segovia Brothers Circus, Telma says she’s raised hundreds of other young circus members who’ve filtered through the big top.

In mid-July, thanks to intervention by the Guatemalan president, the circus began to pack up. The big top came down, without having hosted a show in four months. The rest was packed into shipping containers and moved by rental truck to the border to await customs.

That’s when their plight came to the attention of Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei.

Giammattei had been driving down a boulevard in Guatemala City when he saw a circus troupe begging for money. He decided to act. At the end of June, the president convened a group of circus owners to find out how they were dealing with the lockdown’s economic fallout. Among those invited to the meeting was Alejandro’s father-in-law, Francisco López, also known as the clown “Cepillín” and the scion of another circus family. López delivered a letter to the president explaining the Segovia Brothers Circus’s predicament.

Soon after, Alejandro received a surprise call on FaceTime. It was the president. Giammattei offered Alejandro fuel vouchers for his trips from Tegucigalpa to the Guatemala border. Publicly, he announced a monthly stipend for circus employees of around £100 per month until the circuses can resume operation, as well as a loan program with low interest rates to help owners rebuild.

Alejandro took as many containers to the border as he could afford, and then crossed into Guatemala in late July with his wife and four daughters. The relief was overwhelming. Once home, he met with the minister of sports and culture, who gave him funding to bring the infrastructure and Guatemalan members of his troupe back home.

Once the tent was packed, the only thing left was a small improvised kitchen where they’d cooked their meals for four months. Before leaving for the border, Lilian and Leticia’s families threw a small going-away party on the empty circus grounds.

Early in the morning of July 23, Alejandro dropped his wife off at the hospital in Guatemala City and drove to the border to greet his circus. A row of five semitrucks hauling bright red containers with the Segovia logo drove through the blue-and-white border gates. They made it with just a week to spare before his business license expired. Accompanying the trucks were 10 circus members to join the eight who’d returned with Alejandro the week before. Ten more remain in Tegucigalpa, unable to enter Guatemala during lockdown with foreign passports.

The circus remains closed indefinitely. They will set up the containers on a small plot of land in Guatemala City, where the performers can live. Like they did in Tegucigalpa, they’ll take their talents onto the streets to earn a living. Alejandro will juggle and clown and his daughters will perform at stoplights. They’ll do this until he has enough to buy back everything he sold in Honduras.

As the trucks rolled into Guatemala, Vany, Alejandro’s wife, gave birth to their daughter. She was quickly swaddled in a plush, star-covered blanket with a pink hat plopped on her head. They named her Aleangela. She’ll be, Alejandro says, “the newest star of the Segovia Brothers Circus.”

Tomás Ayuso is a Honduran photographer who focuses on Latin American conflict.
This work was supported in part by the National Geographic Society's COVID-19 Emergency Fund for Journalists.

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