The unforgettable life of the circus

The Magnet Tribune: Anna Davenport
A former member of the circus, Margarita Cannon Castillo shared beloved memories of her performances in the living room of her sister's house.

Anna Davenport, Staff Writer

There’s a lot of adventures to be had in the circus — some more unforgettable than others.

“I still liked it, even when we had a lot of problems at the circus, like no power or broken trucks. I remember a lot of things that happened. Especially when we were in the Carson (circus). One night we got an elephant stampede. It was terrible, terrible. You only heard everybody say, ‘Get in the trailer and don’t go out! Don’t go out and get in the trailers!’ All the elephants were knocking over and throwing everything there was. They caught almost all the elephants. There were about six or seven elephants but one, just one, they couldn’t get. They couldn’t get it until two days later. There was a big, tall Indian who took care of elephants, and he was the one only one to follow it. He ran behind the elephant until it got tired and brought it back,” Margarita Cannon Castillo said.

Castillo is a third generation circus family member.

“I was born on June 10, 1938, in San Luis Del Cordero, Durango, in Mexico. I was born under the tent, the same tent we lived in. I was the second child out of the thirteen of us,” Castillo said.

Castillo had an early beginning into the circus life.

“When my grandmother died (Francisca Vargas de Garcia), my daddy separated from the circus and made his own business, Circo Castillo Hermanos (Castillo Brothers Circus). Contortions were my first act. I started practicing when my daddy made his own circus, when I was around seven. My brothers, sisters, and I saw people practicing and started on our own. We liked it. I liked it. And I started making different acts like the balancing ladder on my shoulders (also known as “La Percha”) with my sister Catalina on top. And then I started to do acrobatics with my sisters Alicia, Gloria, and my brother Tito. Together we did acrobatics. Up, down, the jumps, one on top of the other, all that. Then we started making other acts, things like this. The more we grew, the more we practiced,” Castillo said.

When the circus business is a small one, family plays key in making it happen.

“Before my daddy’s business was little, and now he started to make a bigger one and although young, almost everybody in the family started to perform. And I started to practice the trumpet, just playing. No written music, just practiced like that, playing by ear. And I helped my daddy play in the circus. When he bought the microphones and the speakers, I helped him with announcing too. And it’s the same as those little circuses you see in Mexico. When a circus is little, the family makes everything. They sell the popcorn, they come over to sell the sodas, or we’d get some little boy: ‘here, I’ll pay you or you can go free to the show if you sell things.’ And that’s what we did when we had no time to go and sell. But we all did these things. Maria (my grandmother) sometimes made little candies to sell or she’d make some sandwiches to sell and she’d fix them on a little tray for some boy to sell. And another would sell popcorn or peanuts but you do everything in the family. If your own business is the circus and you are the family, you make everything there, and that’s what happened in my daddy’s circus,” she said.

When I got into this business, I started to like it for the people’s applause. The people came and watched. And that’s why I liked it. The applause.”

— Margarita Cannon Castillo

Family members each had their own acts, she said.

“And we all did different things; everyone did different acts. My brother Tito did an act with the feet. Then my sisters Ofelia began to practice it and Rosa did it. Catalina did the waterwalk and the bicycles when we were lonely. So many different things and we made the whole show. By the next show, we had different acts: the clowns didn’t do the same thing like now in Mexico where you go at different times and the clowns do the same thing. Before they didn’t do this, we didn’t do this to keep people coming. We sometimes stayed in one place for two weeks and people would come every night. Sometimes the same people would come back to see again because we were different. And sometimes we repeated an act, but we changed the program. And people liked this. They kept on coming. And that’s the way we grew up,” Castillo explained.

Despite the possible dangers the circus had, Castillo said she was unafraid.

“I never thought about getting hurt, although things can happen. It’s like a race car driver, when they get in that car they’re not thinking about whether they’ll get hurt or scratch their car. They get in that car for the idea that they could win. The same goes for the ring. You get in the ring to perform for the audience. You don’t have fear in your mind, thinking that you might fall or that you could possibly never walk again. You never have those things in your mind. I don’t think any circus performer would have thoughts like this in their mind. When I see something happen, it happens, but you don’t keep in your mind that it’ll happen,” she said.

Cannon said a sister found out how dangerous her act was.

“My sister Alicia had an act like trapeze that had many dangerous changes, and it was a nice thing. Then one day she fell from really high and her elbow came out. We were in a very small town and some people from the audience came and said they knew an old lady. The old lady came, held Alicia, and pushed the elbow back into place. Then maybe about thirty days later Alicia started having problems moving her fingers. We took her to a doctor. They did x-rays and saw that the bones were open and her veins were leaking and that liquid was hardening which was making it hard to move her fingers. They had to operate (to remove) the dried liquid and fix her bones. She got a cast for forty days. She never worked that act again because a little after she had the cast removed she got married and was pregnant. She worked other acts like the ladder but she still didn’t think about other things like getting hurt again,” Cannon said. “I had also fallen during a performance. The cord that held me during my performance broke and I had nothing to grab onto because the cord was all that had been supporting me. I fell on my arm and for three days I couldn’t work because my whole arm hurt. But the circus is like that.”

You get in the ring to perform for the audience. You don’t have fear in your mind, thinking that you might fall or that you could possibly never walk again.”

— Margarita Cannon Castillo

Traveling had its own adventures, she said.

“And the circus is nice because you get to travel. That’s another thing I liked about the circus. I like it when the people come in to see the actors. They applaud and everybody likes it. And we had a lot of different things like accidents. We’ve been in places with floods, in the water, picking up everything wet. Or sometimes a storm’s coming. One time at night in the truck we all rolled over with everyone inside. I was in the cabin and I had Julio and Gricelda. You felt like you’re going way down and you felt yourself going downhill. I came out however I could and then I removed Julio and Gricelda. And the driver was saying, ‘Help me! Help me!’ And I told him, ‘help yourself.’

“I was checking on everybody in the truck. There was Lupe, Ofelia, Catalina, Ilda, my daddy, everyone. But we all just got scratches and things like that. My daddy had to go with another one of his workers back to the city on foot to go for a truck and get some help. The rest of us stayed there on the road since we were scared of snakes. Everyone was scared but nothing happened to them. My daddy came back and some stayed behind to pick everything up. I was around 18 years old when this happened, so I was taking care of everyone when this happened. We went back to the city and had to wait for a train to take us to Monterrey but they didn’t have any room for us. It was full. And we told the guy (ticket agent) that we needed to get to Monterrey and it was still night, maybe two or three o’clock in the morning and the guy said, ‘Well, I’ll talk to the chief of the station.’ They let us go in the caboose and we left,” Cannon said.

Cannon explained why she enjoyed being a part of the circus.

“When I got into this business, I started to like it for the people’s applause,” Cannon said. “The people came and watched. And that’s why I liked it. The applause.”