Udai Olivares does outreach for a program that helps Dane County families learn about healthy eating.
Veronica Esquivel preps food in a Waukesha restaurant kitchen and spends her off hours advocating for immigrants.
Miguel Ángel Vargas works a full-time job in construction and picks up extra painting jobs on the side.
These three Wisconsinites have three things in common: They grew up in Mexico. They’re parents. And when they get the call, they put on makeup, pull on wigs, slip into giant shoes, and fulfill their calling as clowns.
The U.S. has had a complicated relationship with clowns, with many finding them scary rather than funny, a hysteria fueled in part by clown-centered horror movies like “It” and “Clownhouse.” But for many of the country’s more than 60 million Latinos, especially those who are immigrants, clowns bring only joy.
In Mexico, clowns, called payasos, draw crowds in town squares and are a fixture at children’s birthday parties when parents can afford them. In Panama, clowns have a union; in Mexico, they have a guild. In Venezuela, when oil exports left the country with funds to spend, the government hired clowns to perform for impoverished kids.
In Mexican cities like Morelia and Mexico City, hundreds of clowns parade through the street for Clown Day each Dec. 10, while clowns in El Salvador march on their own national holiday each December. Clowns have even played a visible role in the movement to stop the violence that has plagued Mexico, marching en masse to call for trading “the bang bang for the ha ha.”
And when Ricardo González Gutiérrez, the Mexican who played the beloved clown Cepillín (“Little Toothbrush”) on TV shows and music albums for 50 years, died in March, generations across Latin America grieved the loss.
The United States is a clown desert by comparison. Even in Madison, less than an hour’s drive from circus hotspot Baraboo — a key starting point for the Ringling Brothers’ circus and home to Circus World Museum — clowns are far from mainstream.
Those who think that a party’s not a party without a clown have learned to seek them out among friends and neighbors. Just as immigrants in every community have started businesses to provide the things they miss from their home countries — chicharrón-filled pupusas, say, or tamarind sorbet — a handful of local Latinos have decided to take on second or third jobs making children and parents laugh.
But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Wisconsin, it turned the clown business upside down. For some local clowns, that meant pausing their clowning work, turning down the few requests they got. For one, it meant using his clown persona to convince people to skip the parties for now. And for another, it meant finally deciding to put the wigs away for good.
A clown is born
Udai Olivares grew up in Río Bravo, Tamaulipas, just across the border from McAllen, Texas. His city, like many Mexican cities, had a clown, and as the oldest of three children, Olivares would see him at least once a year. “You could say I was the spoiled one because I had birthday parties every year,” Olivares said.
In 2008, at 17, Olivares moved to Reedsburg to finish high school. There, he stayed with an uncle who kept a collection of wigs and a bag of magic tricks and would dress up as a clown for fun.
Olivares moved south to study at Madison College. In 2013, he was 21, working at a McDonald’s in Middleton, when a Latina co-worker mentioned she was planning a party for her niece. She asked Olivares if he knew any clowns.
“I was like, ‘Not really, but I could do it,’” Olivares said. He’d shown up as a clown once before, for a college friend’s birthday, so he knew how to prepare.
Olivares borrowed his uncle’s clown bag, painted his face and asked a friend to run the music. He was nervous, but soon the two-bedroom apartment filled with laughter.
“From there, somebody who was at the party said, ‘Hey, would you do my birthday party?’” Olivares said. “And I was like, ‘Sure.’” With that, Payaso Coco was born.
Soon, Coco had his own Facebook page and business cards. Mostly, Olivares gets calls for kids’ birthday parties, where he adapts the party games he remembers from childhood. He doesn’t do magic tricks and uses few props, save for an inexplicably funny giant comb.
“This is the one that gets the kids,” Olivares said as he lightly combed his rainbow wig.
Coco typically performs all in Spanish, but if he notices a kid who he thinks might not speak Spanish, he explains in English too. And it’s not all birthdays. The clown has three times been a special guest at the Goodman Community Center for the annual celebration of Children’s Day, and he once got a request from someone looking for a clown for a bachelor party.
Even after he got a job with the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Dane County Extension teaching children about healthy eating, Olivares kept moonlighting as a clown. Coco is like an alter ego, he said, noting that he always feels nervous when he first gets to a party. Once he gets his makeup on, though, “it’s not me, it’s just the clown.” Before the pandemic, he was doing 10 to 15 gigs in a typical year…