My first approach to the Maroma was in 2008. I was member of Otro Circo and Circo Atayde Hnos invited us to a gathering with a group ofmaromeros that were taking part in the newly created Laboratorio de Acrobacia Indígena (an indigenous acrobacy laboratory inCumbre Tajín). Strong relations were built from there between the Zapotec maromeros from Santa Teresa, Veracruz and both Otro Circo and Circo Atayde Hnos. Before the end of the year, we were performing together in their patronal feast. By 2011, I was briefly a member of Transatlancirque, a cross-cultural project directed by Charlotte Pescayre, that combines European-school circus with indigenous Maroma.
A circus-kind of spectacle with a strong ritual component, Maroma’s mestizo origin finds its roots in pre-Columbian Mexico.
During the patronal feastsof some rural villages,maromeros companies perform their shows. Indigenous and mestizos tight-rope walkers, aerealists and clowns compose these companies, including artists with different grades of professionalization that are usually also farmers. The style and elements of the show vary from one region to another but tight-rope (the maroma) and swinging rope (or trapeze) are characteristic. Maromeros jump on the tight-rope while the brass band plays the typical music for the occasion. Normally there is also a clown reciting verses, bringing laughter both to young and old even if the true sense of the words might be only perceived by the adults.
This type of clown remind us of the versifying clowns that used to be popular in the nineteenth-century Mexico, and that are certainly their predecessors. We can also track an older antecedent. Federico Serrano-Díaz, a mexican researcher mentions the so-calledcuecuechcuicatl (naughty songs), a humoristic style from the Mexican culture before the Spanish conquest:
“Great chief, I arrive: I come to laugh.
I’m naughty face, flower is my song…
Different flowers I’m spreading,
I come to offer songs, exhilarating flowers;
I’m naughty face and I come from there where the water arises,
I come to offer songs, exhilarating flowers…
They are some, they are my songs.
I’m the naughty face, I’m red-throated thrush and my singing yells:
But not only the clowns in Maroma have remote predecessors. Swinging rope and tight-rope are described in textes and images from the 16th century as native activities of the indigenous population. There are several documents that testify the diversity of the ritual-spectacular-acrobatic practices of the pre-Columbian Mexico. These practices, as everything linked to“pagan”religions were censored by the Christian conquerors. But they re-emerged in different shapes, turned into“innocuous”games and shows, with a new bi-cultural identity: Mestizos.
We don’t know the exact date in which the first itinerant performers arrived from Europe to Nueva España. We also ignore the moment of the creation of the first bi-racial acrobatic company. Nevertheless, the Catholic Church´s records give us an interesting fact, the first miracle of Cihualpilli (Our Lady of San Juan de los Lagos) took place in the year of 1623. With a modest height that barely passes 30 cm,La Sanjuanita is is the second most visited religious image in Mexico (after La Virgen de Guadalupe). In 1633, the Catholic Church was ordered to investigate a widely spread rumor of a miracle performed by this virgin. The report, with testimonies of eyewitnesses, was presented in 1634 and narrates what was to be known as ‘The first miracle [of Our Lady of San Juan de los Lagos]’:
“It was the year of 1623 when a family of acrobats who had trained goats that also took part in the show, arrived to the town of San Juan Bautista Mezquititlán. Once the show started, the fast pirouettes peformed by the skilled volatinerosmade the amazed audience shout and clap. When the turn came for the younger daughter, the audience was wondering if she would be able to achieve her feat over a long row of sharp knives. Everyone waited silently. But the small girl lost her balance and fell down, getting sticked by the sharp blades that awaited her, she layed in pool of blood. With the resignation of someone that believes everything lost, hearing the begging of the neighbours, the fathers of the dead child accepted to shroud her and take her to the chapel in order to hold a vigil for her. Once there, the lady in charge of the chapel, native Ana Lucía, asked the fathers of the deceased permission to put the image of the holy Virgin on the corpse of the dead girl. They agreed in tears. After four hours of praying and tears, the girl suddenly opened her eyes. The color came back to her cheeks as if she was awaking from a pleasant dream. Once they took off her shroud the only thing she wanted to do was to hold the Virgencita [little virgin]in her hands.Whileeveryone was crying: Miracle! Miracle!”
With this first miracle, la Sanjuanita didn’t only become the patron saint of the volatineros (and later the circus people), but she also left a left a trace of the presence of itinerant companies of performers in colonial Mexico from the early 17th century. In La fabulosa historia del circo en México (a monumental book by Dr Revolledo Cárdenas, co-edited in Mexico in 2004 by Conaculta-Escenología A.C.) there are several references of the Maroma companies that toured our territory during viceroyalty times. These companies grew along the colony, taking a clear and prolific shape by the last third of the period. There exists an extended documentation of the activities during that time:maromeros used to perform in public squares, bullrings and especially in the patio de maroma (these patios were the courtyards of neighbourhood buildings known as vecindades).
A show in a ‘patio de maroma’ would typically include verse-reciting, the presentation of an exotic or trained animal, clowning, acrobatics and rope-walking (where the name maroma comes from).
The arrival of the modern circus to Mexico, by hand of the Englishman Philip Lailson in 1808 with his Real Circo de Equitación, set the beginning of a new era for the show business. Incapable of satisfying the new preferences of urban audiences (whose interest had turned towards the newly arrived European show and its glamorous acts),maromeros were pushed to the suburbs and from there to smaller towns.
In 1841, José Soledad Aycardo founded the first Mexican circus, the Circo Olímpico. By the end of the 19th century, circus was all over the country. Some of the circus families that still exist nowadays were born in that time (like Suárez or Atayde). Mexico City had the amazing Circo Teatro Orrin, a circus-building with capacity for over 2000 people (and electric light!). Circus was completely incorporated into Mexican culture.
But Maromadidn’t disappear, it remained rooted in peasant and it persisted in certain villages– being taught from one generation to another until today. Today we find maromeros in some regions of Oaxaca, Guerrero, Puebla y Veracruz. Although until a few years ago the groups from different regions remained unrelated, initiatives like Correspondencias Maromerashave been useful to create bridges and to permit interchanges, enriching their work and helping to spread it.
Besides Maroma, there are other spectacular acrobatic expressions of ritual and festive origin in our country, like the Zancudos de Zaachila or the famous Voladores de Papantla…But that will be subject for another occasion. For now I invite you to watch the video of the 3rd Correspondencia Maromera. Enjoy!
The author and a circus performer,Rodrigo Hernandez specializes in Perch balancing (www.duocardio.com) and is a collaborator at the Mexican Centre of Circus Documentation Dokucirco(www.dokucirco.org) Pescayre defines herserlf as ethnofunambulist, and her anthropological research is essential to understand the phenomenon of Maroma, of which she’s not only the main researcher in Mexico, but she has fueled its development through the creation of Correspondencias Maromeras (national gathering of maromeros). Maroma shows are not exclusive of the patronal feasts, though these celebrations are their most frequent stage. The word maroma comes from arab-hispanic mabruma and it means rope. To walk on the maroma means literally to walk on the rope: funambulism. Like it happened with many other speciatilies, the word maroma was quickly used to refer not only to funambulism but any circus-kind activity. Nowadays, in Mexico we say maroma when we talk about floor acrobacy. [Translated from Spanish] Cantares Mexicanos 1532-1597, foja 67. This fragment was taken from Serrano’s article Antecedentes del Payaso en el México Antiguo that is published inwww.dokucirco.org Volatineros, titiriteros, maromeros, are actually different specialities, but the names were used indistinctly for any traveling performer. [translated from Spanish] From the“Breve historia de la Virgen de San Juan”published in the website www.visitasanjuandeloslagos.com
Feature photo courtesy of La Marmota Azul