From left, clowns Marcelo, Trompo Trompito and Piskachin.
From left, clowns Marcelo, Trompo Trompito and Piskachin. Jonathan Coumes

On a recent day in front of the Conchero, a statue of a dancing Chichimeca in downtown Querétaro, about 130 miles northwest of Mexico City, two clowns were moving through the opener of their show. At one point, a boy in a blue vest tells them he’s from Mexico City; in response, the clowns shriek and hide their money, before invoking Mexican slang for a Mexico City resident to explain their fear. “Last time a chilango came to the show, he robbed the Indian!” The shorter one, Piskachin, said. “It used to have clothes. A blue vest, if I remember…”

Cue laughter, as the boy goes wide-eyed looking down at what he’s wearing.

Piskachin’s joke—a charming throwaway in a routine that he has been refining with his partner Trompo for years—goes a small way toward explaining the appeal of clowning in Mexico, which is ubiquitous on the streets and, for hundreds if not thousands of performers, represents a full-time job. Their presence connotes little of the creepiness that clowns invoke across the U.S. (and also none of the widespread panic) but instead are happy fixtures in a wide array of social activities, from kids’ birthdays to bachelorette parties to government functions. Mexico’s version of The Daily Show, called El Mañanero, is anchored by a clown. And many in the country, like that boy and his parents in the streets of Querétaro, appreciate them for what they are: avatars of the absurd, an ever-present reminder that life is worth it, if just for the laughter. But many clowns also serve a broader, even subversive purpose, a strand of gay expression that’s acceptable in a country that is still largely sexually conservative. They can also bridge class divides. At one recent show in Querétaro, two women whose shoes cost more than my camera watched alongside some indigenous migrants who might later have to walk a dozen miles just to get back on a train heading home. For a brief moment, though, both groups laughed together in the one place in the city where all social groups mix—between the plazas and in the middle of a clown show.

Piskachin the Clown.
Piskachin the Clown. Jonathan Coumes

Recently, I spent some time with three of Mexico’s street clowns: Piskachin, who briefly terrified the boy, his partner Trompo Trompito, and Marcelo Miserias Pelos Tristes. At 42, Marcelo’s the veteran and the current president of the clown association of Querétaro. He’d always wanted to act, and after high school he fell in with a mime and ended up performing for the first time in the Zócalo in Mexico City. He started out copying Charlie Chaplin’s tramp and called himself Plincha in honor of the character. He’s been through a lot of states, characters, and a marriage since then. His full name, Marcelo Miserias Pelos Tristes, and the way he wears his kinky hair when he’s performing, are each inspired by Marcel Marceau, the French mime.

Piskachin, 27 and a father of two, and Trompo, 18, are both sons of clowns, and they started out performing in their fathers’ shows as kids. “I’ve always been short,” says Piskachin, and where he’s from, piska, “a pinch,” refers to anything diminutive. He tacked the chin on, he says, because kids at parties took the feminine ending to mean he was a girl. Trompo means “top,” like the toy, and he got the name because of the way he used to bop around to the music at the bars where his father performed.

And while Marcelo’s career in clowning is well-established, and Trompo’s is just starting, Piskachin said that he had other options before going into clowning full-time, going to college for business and working for a Mexican railway before quitting to be a clown.

“They paid me very well, but it didn’t fulfill me,” Piskachin said, “and there came a time when I said, ‘Being a payaso is what I want to do with my life.’”

Now, Piskachin and Trompo play three shows in the street on Saturdays and Sundays and work the city buses Monday through Friday. In a good week they’ll play five or six private events, usually birthdays or bachelorette parties, for about $150 a pop.

Marcelo the Clown.
Marcelo the Clown. Jonathan Coumes

The money at most of the normal shows is acquired through an ask, which Piskachin and Trompo also take the opportunity to turn into a bit. At one show they asked 10 people for bills, eventually getting seven after a woman exchanged a hundred for four of the clowns’ twenties, increasing their take but not, alas, the number of bills they’d originally asked for.

“Let’s count,” Piskachin says. “One, two, three, four, five, six…seven? We need three more!”

The crowd erupts.

The stakes for the clowns—literally, their livelihoods—are high, but their earnings are also hugely influenced by their position in the streets. Trompo and Piskachin’s spot, for example, is in one of the best plazas in town, a right that they earned through the local clown association, known as, the Collective of Artist Clowns and Urban Culture in the State of Querétaro, or CPACUEQ. There’s a list of requirements negotiated for each plaza by CPACUEQ and the municipal government, with hours of operation, maturity of language, and the freedom of the public way all taken into consideration. It’s not always easy for CPACUEQ to interface with the government, meaning that they often keep their agreements with the city by handshakes and words of honor. Clowns breaking the rules get a talking to by the boss of the plaza—always an elder statesman of the collective—and repeated infractions land them before a jury of their peers. Which is to say, clowns.

Jardín Zenea in Querétaro.
Jardín Zenea in Querétaro. Jonathan Coumes

“We’re like a little republic,” says Marcelo. “Every plaza is its own state, and the boss of each plaza serves as representative to the collective.” Both Piskachin’s and Trompo’s fathers are representatives, and Marcelo became current head by dint of his work in clown labor organizing in Querétaro, Mexico City, and elsewhere over the last couple of decades. Each representative brings the concerns and needs of the clowns of his plaza to committee meetings, and if the CPACUEQ can’t resolve them internally, they go to the city. The organization also stepped in after, recently, some young Mexicans started organizing gangs to attack clowns following Mexico’s own brush with a clown scare—sometimes administering public beatings to working clowns in the process. Marcelo and the collective worked with the municipal government to get the groups shut down.

The organization also works with less urgent matters, like helping working clowns to manage their money, and what Marcelo says is the need for clowns to be socially responsible with their acts.

Trompo Trompito the Clown.
Trompo Trompito the Clown. Jonathan Coumes

“We’re fighting against poor pedagogies of clowning,” he says. “Clowns are a medium of expression, and we project towards society a model of what to think and to feel.”

Still, a lot of Mexican clowning is rooted in old-fashioned jokes, and here that often means la picardía Mexicana, a form of wordplay and double-entendre that is a national pastime and a respected art-form. One night, for example, in an elaborate skit, Piskachin strapped into a raggedy, undersized wedding dress, prompting the crowd to howl and shout insults. But then Piskachin revealed two of his fictional names, to huge laughs from the crowd: Rosa del Bahío and Rosa la Manguera. Both turn out to be subtle dick jokes. Manguera, is, literally, a hose in Spanish, while Bahío is a mix of bahía, or bay, and bahío, slang for one’s genitals, both names that could be taken as innocuous or filthy.

The double-entendre is important, too, because the rules for this particular plaza are strict. No cursing, no blocking the public way, and nothing obscene before 10:20pm. Still, Piskachin and Trompo’s act could be taken as thoroughly adult throughout, mostly thanks to Piskachin, who grew up mastering the art of doing mature shows that are also safe for kids. In this realm, it’s the adults who turn into children, laughing hard at the joke on the surface before discovering the second one just below.

The Conchero statue in Querétaro.
The Conchero statue in Querétaro. Jonathan Coumes

Clowns are also able to do and say things that would get other shows cancelled and, in certain barrios, might get a man killed, from lambasting the same city authorities that let them perform to insulting their audiences to kissing other men in the crowd.

Mexico’s come a long way in the last decade or so, and places like the Zona Rosa in Mexico City are as progressive as San Francisco, but the country as a whole is still machista, and, in a place like Querétaro, still very socially conservative. If you’re a clown, though, none of those rules seem to apply. Consider one recent scene where Piskachin gestured toward a man he’d picked out as a guapo, a desirable one.

“You’re perfect,” Piskachin said, touching him on the chest. The guy turned to give a thumbs-up to the audience, and Piskachin used the opening to leap up and kiss him on the face, much to the delight of his friends in the crowd.

Or take another sequence called the Waltz, normally done with men who fit a certain masculine ideal: muscly chests, thin shirts, and painted-on jeans. In the Waltz, though, the men are able to let their guard down a little, dancing in circles with a paunchy clown in a wig and appearing to love it.

But Piskachin and Trompo’s show doesn’t just subvert the macho, it’s built on it. The Waltz routine is one example, but it’s present throughout. Both clowns, for instance, constantly flirt with the men in the crowd, while during each opener, Trompo says that people tell him, “Don’t be a niña.”

“But I’m not a niña,” he says,  “I’m 18. I’m a woman,” rubbing his hands down his sides.

Or take this bit, called The Story of the Bible, in which Trompo quizzes Piskachin: “Who was the first man?”

“Oh no,” Piskachin responds.

“Who was the first man?” Trompo repeats.

“It’s personal,” he says.

“Who was the first man?”

Alright, it was him!” Piskachin yells, and grabs a man from the crowd.

This schtick is known as jotear, which might best translate to “queering around,” suggesting a more crass cultural appropriation, but Marcelo says that the point is to tear down the audience’s resistance to gay-coded behavior and normalize it.

Trompo Trompito, Marcelo and Piskachin.
Trompo Trompito, Marcelo and Piskachin. Jonathan Coumes

“Suddenly they think, ‘You’re not taking my machismo away, I’m just playing in your game,’” says Trompo, “And they let you play with them, they think, ‘I’m getting out or getting to do what I can’t with my friends or my family.’”

In the earlier bit, after Piskachin kissed the guapo, a lascivious dance ensued, and Piskachin moved the guy’s hands down to his waist, while the guapo went even further, grabbing Piskachin’s ass and lifting him into the air. Towards the end of the routine, Piskachin had the men take hold of his ankles and lift him up, flopping his dress over the guapo’s head and thrusting towards him once he was in the air. Piskachin wobbled around until they had to let him go and he fell into a somersault, his dress flying over his head. As embarrassed as they would be at dropping a real quinceañera, the men all offered him a hand. He had them take a bow and they did, red-faced, smiling and giddy.

“We’re public figures,” Piskachin says, “And what we do has repercussions in society. I say, ‘Come on, come and play with me, have fun. I’m the ridiculous one.’ And like that, they participate.”