In dangerous Mexican border town, circus brings relief

Malasia Denise Santos Onofre is 6 years old. She likes to put sparkles on her cheeks, and prefers her accessories - a fake diamond ring, bangle bracelets, and 1-1/2 inch heels - in pink. Purple, explains the tiny gymnast, is too moody. Her best friends are her cousin Alberto Onofre Massias, 8, and Ivan Oswaldo, 11. The first is an acrobat, the second a clown.

The three have been touring the Mexico-Texas border with the traveling circus since the day they were born. Winter finds them in Ciudad Juarez; in the spring they pitch up in Piedras Negras or Reynosa; Matamoros gets them in the fall, and summertimes, when the temperatures climb to the triple digits and kids become fidgety with nothing to do, they are here in Nuevo Laredo.

Directly across the Rio Grande from Laredo, Texas, this busy border town has become the setting for an increasingly violent turf war between drug gangs: 130 kidnappings and 70 killings have been reported so far this year. Visitors are warned to stay inside after dark, and federal police rumble along the roads in tanks. But when the circus comes to town, it seems no amount of violence will keep the kids away.

"I suppose some people think circus life is a little strange," says Alberto, wandering over to check in on the company's black bear, who is snoozing in a small cage. But for them, he says, "This is life. And very fine."

Nolberto Onofre, Malasia's grandfather and a former trapeze artist, owns and runs the circus and has been taking it up and down the north of Mexico for 27 years.

As a nod to his birthplace, Nolberto charges 20 pesos ($2) for the entrance fee in Nuevo Laredo, 10 pesos less than anywhere else along the border. If you want to sit a bit closer to the stage, the price is 50 pesos. But most everyone climbs up the wooden planks in the cordoned off 20-peso area in back, careful not to get splinters in the dark.

The circus begins and Malasia, now in a green tutu, cartwheels onto stage to the strains of a Celine Dion song. She leaps onto a balance beam.

"How does she do that?" a little girl asks her mother in a whisper as the gymnast contorts her body, folding her head back to rest on her ankles.

"Careful not to fall through the rafters," the mother responds and holds her tight.

On weekends, Mr. Onofre might get 1,000 folks here, gasping at the daring acrobat acts or riding round and round on the Saturno gravity-defying spinning machine outside. Weekdays are slower, especially Tuesdays. Last Tuesday, there were no more than a few dozen people on hand to chuckle as Ivan came out to do the clown routine.

Nolberto's nephew, Eric Onofre, an acrobat who doubles as a ticket collector, admits that this year is slower than usual. Did violence keep the crowds away? Eric wonders.

The real problem, he says, is that this year publicity was not up to par. That, and the fact that they have fewer rides. No one is impressed anymore with the moonwalk and the twirling teacups, he complains. They are looking for the next big thing.

"Kids have other options in Nuevo Laredo these days," says Lucera Morales, who runs the go-fish game at the outside fair. Everyone is a winner at her stall. Mainly the prizes are Slinkys or plastic green Frisbees, but sometimes someone will walk away with a green Ninja turtle action figure. Ms. Morales says that there are the growing number of playrooms at McDonald's and Carl Juniors in town.

Few here attribute the drop in attendance to the drug and gang activity. Northern people, especially those from Nuevo Laredo, are brave folks, says Mayor Daniel Peña Treviño. They won't let violence stop them in their tracks. And contrary to press reports, he stresses, the city is not under siege.

"Our greatest strength is our people," he says.

And besides, adds his spokesman later, "It's summer vacation, and the kids would go nuts at home every night, so thank God for the circus, really."

Nolberto sometimes stands by the circus exit as the crowds drift home. "Everyone comes away satisfied," he says. "And often they say 'thanks' as they walk out, and I see they look happy."

That, he says, "is what I like."

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