MEXICO: Acrobatics for At-Risk Children

  • by Emilio Godoy (mexico city)
  • Inter Press Service

'At first I was nervous, because I was afraid, but I got over it quickly,' Padilla, a student in her first year of secondary school, told IPS. She attends a workshop held by Machincuepa Social Circus, a non-governmental organisation (NGO), in the Ampliación Las Águilas-Tarango neighbourhood on the west side of the Mexican capital.

Machincuepa, which means 'arms turn around' (a pirouette, or a somersault) in the Nahuatl language, has been working with at-risk children and young people in this community since 2002.

The organisation is a partner in the Cirque du Monde Social Action Programme, which was created in 1995 by the Canadian Cirque du Soleil company and is active in 50 cities around the world. In Latin America, the programme is also at work in Brazil, Chile and Honduras.

'We developed our own methodology, which is focused on prevention and the capability to respond ahead of high-risk situations,' Juan Hernández, director of the Machincuepa Social Circus and one of its founders in 1999, told IPS.

The institution's workshops have a capacity for 170 children and adolescents aged eight to 17, and have trained 1,400 youngsters so far.

Social circus combines educational approaches, psychology and community intervention, and is derived from 'nouveau cirque' (contemporary circus) developed in the 1970s in Europe, which fuses traditional circus skills with theatrical techniques to convey a story or theme.

Las Águilas-Tarango, home to 4,600 people in the delegación (borough) of Álvaro Obregón, one of 16 boroughs in the Mexican capital, is a crowded impoverished neighbourhood in a valley that has high crime rates and few parks or recreation areas.

It is a rough neighbourhood, where only 18 percent of teenagers finish secondary school and barely four percent make it to the university.

Fifteen-year-old Héctor Moreno, a third-year secondary school student, has been in the Machincuepa programme for two years. His sister, 14-year-old Sonia, also attends.

His specialty is walking on stilts. 'At first it was a bit difficult, but I learned how to control them. Now I can get around much faster,' he told IPS.

Machincuepa instructors give two-hour classes on acrobatics, balancing, juggling, high-wire skills and clown routines, three times a week, in facilities loaned by the local government.

Each session begins with a welcome and introductions within the group, followed by a warm-up and physical training. The third stage is practice of a specific technique, and the session ends with a closing conversation and a clean-up of the premises.

'One important thing is that the project helps young people learn about gender issues,' Jorge Domínguez, an instructor and coordinator of the gender programme within the project, told IPS.

Machincuepa carries out training programmes in other organisations, as well as workshops, private performances and academic services, including a diploma in social circus involving 120 hours of course work divided into five modules.

Mexico has a strong circus tradition, but it was not until 2008 that the government's National Council for Culture and the Arts formally recognised circus as an art form, giving circus projects access to public financing.

Machincuepa's annual budget of 240,000 dollars is met by the sale of materials, fees for presentations to companies, public funds and private donations. Cirque du Soleil contributes one percent of its annual income to the global programme Cirque du Monde, which partners the Machincuepa project.

'We have seen positive results in the young people's behaviour, in terms of the way they relate to each other, how they make the programme their own and how they participate in and share it,' said Hernández.

One of the organisation's loose ends is follow-up of the programme's students, to find out what happens in their lives after their experience with the social circus.

'Machincuepa needs to find a way to close the cycle that has lasted over eight years, and to support the strengthening of the community by ending charitable patronage and stimulating community organisation, so that the workshops have a deeper, more significant impact,' said Sarya Luna, a Mexican student, in her final dissertation for the Faculty of Psychology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

Participants' experiences are narrated in the book 'Jóvenes comprometidos en América' (roughly, Committed Young People in the Americas), edited by Norma del Río and Nathalie Coutu, which contains the accounts of young people from the Machincuepa project who went on to get involved in social programmes in the region.

In 2005, Machincuepa was a prizewinner at the Development Fair organised by the World Bank, and the same year it was selected by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) to join its global initiative on education for children at risk.

In 2006 it was a finalist in the Visionaris Social Entrepreneurship Awards presented by the Swiss bank UBS and Ashoka, an NGO.

Today it also contributes to an innovative circus school for indigenous people, as well as the renowned Circo Atayde Hermanos and the organisers of the Cumbre Tajín cultural festival, held every year in the southeastern state of Veracruz.

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service