Carlos Brito has been part of the circus that parades through Mexico City every day: Street children, their faces often painted up like clowns, juggle, tumble, and stack themselves in human totem poles, to solicit pesos from drivers stopped at red lights.
The diminutive teen once tried his hand at juggling when his fractured family became more of a threat than a home, and he found himself hungry and on the streets.
But nothing prepared him for the dazzle of the real circus, when he found himself in the center ring of the Greatest Show on Earth in April. After learning some juggling tips from a real clown and watching the tumblers, trapeze artists, and elephants, he said, "This is stupendous."
Carlos is one of 150 residents from Casa Alianza, a shelter and alternative home for street children, who were invited to last month's opening night here of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Circus officials often give out hundreds of tickets so underprivileged children can see the show, but this year's focus on street children is new.
"When the Ringling representatives came here last year and were driving around the city, they were impressed by the large number of street children they saw performing at the intersections as clowns, acrobats, and so on," says Alejandro Garza, president of RAC Produciones, which produces the circus here. "That also helped them realize the large number of children who could never afford to buy tickets."
Of the 4,000 tickets reserved this year for poor or hospitalized children, about 1,000 were earmarked for street kids.
More children among homeless
Unfortunately, that number only reaches a tiny portion of what public officials and private child-welfare workers say is a huge and growing population of children working and living in Mexico City's streets.
"We're seeing more children than ever before ... and we're finding younger children than ever before living alone on the street," says Rocio Saldaa, assistant director of Mexico City's preventive programs for street kids.
A 1995 census found 13,000 children on Mexico City's streets. Of those, the census estimated that more than half were working in the streets - as clowns or windshield washers or candy vendors - but had some kind of home to go to. About 2,000 were homeless.
Ms. Saldaa and other child-welfare specialists say continuing economic hardships mean the Mexican family, vaunted for its close ties and emphasis on children, is coming under acute stress. Children, they say, are the chief victims of this deterioration.
While Saldaa stops short of making any estimates of current numbers of street children, representatives of private organizations working with street kids are less circumspect.
"We thought the official figures were far below the reality at the time of the last census, and we aren't too comfortable with [official] estimates now," says Maria Elena Ramos Durn, program coordinator for Casa Alianza in Mexico City. "We alone are taking in up to 150 kids a night," she adds, noting that about 30 private groups are working with street children. Casa Alianza estimates 10 new children arrive on the streets of Mexico City every day, about 3 of every 5 from rural areas.
And the phenomenon of homeless children has taken a new and disturbing twist. Public and private representatives agree they're seeing something for the first time: Street children are having babies and raising them on the street.
"We're confronting the first generation of children who know nothing but the street," Saldaa says, "and because of that they are even more disadvantaged than their parents."
Since a 1995 agreement between the city and private child-welfare organizations, public agencies like Saldaa's focus on "at-risk" children, those who have a home and work on the street, but who could easily become street kids. Private groups like Casa Alianza concentrate on sheltering and giving a second chance to street children who want to turn their lives around.
Stories of survival
Carlos and many of the Casa Alianza children who attended the circus rattle off their circumstances with crushing candor.
"I was living in Iztapalapa," a poor neighborhood in Mexico City, "but my papa ended up in a prison in the United States, and my mom abandoned me," Carlos says. He tried living with an aunt, "but I had bad problems with my uncle, you know, he was bad, really bothering me," he adds, looking down.
Israel Valdz, from Portales, another city neighborhood, concedes that all his problems aren't someone else's fault. "When I was sent to the store for something, I'd end up spending the money on video games," he says. But he adds it was his father's beatings that pushed him to try living in the street.
The happiest member of the group was 13-year-old Francisco Aguilar. With the help of Maurisa the Clown, he got to harness up and try a bungee jump. He flew through the air and then waved up into the seats, making sure his street friends saw him.
Afterward, Francisco recalled how he tried to live on the street for a month "washing cars and juggling, but I didn't like it." His goal now is "to be good, so I can stay at Casa Alianza and go to school."
Despite their few minutes in the circus spotlight, none of the boys says he wants to make juggling or any other circus act his career: Francisco wants to be a doctor, while Carlos dreams of studying in the US.
But then, the object in giving out tickets to street children was not to sharpen juggling skills or make them want to join the circus.
"Maybe something in the show will inspire one of these kids to overcome his situation," says the show's producer, Mr. Garza.
"But if not, at least for one afternoon they can forget everything else and smile."