MY GRANDMOTHER WAS A CLOWN


 

Written by Mariana Gabriel (or better yet, Birota the Clown)
Collaborator Christiane Gomes
December/ 2014


 

Mrs. Maria Eliza Alves was a clown. A male clown: Xamego (cuddle), with “X”.


"Everyone wants to know
What Xamego is
No one knows if he is white,
black or mulatto".

 

Those were the main verses of Xamego’s song - ??famous in the 1940s in the voices of the King and Queen of Baião (1), respectively the accordionist Luiz Gonzaga (2) and singer Carmelia Alves, and which was used to introduce each Xamego Clown’s entrance into the circus ring. As far as anyone knows, Xamego was one of the first women clowns in Brazil. My grandmother.


Black, petite, just five feet of great strength and courage. Courage which was tested while facing racism and sexism in her time. She was born in the first decade of the 20th century and her strength was instrumental to face the loss of seven of her own babies and still find enormous joy to raise a much-loved couple of children. Her son, a musician who was the singer Roberto Carlos’ guitarist for 40 years, is my uncle, Aristeu Alves dos Reis; and her daughter, the journalist Daise Gabriel Alves dos Reis, is my mother.


"In life, niña, what really counts is health. The rest is just cookies!".


This was one of Maria-Xamego’s teachings, both to my mother and myself, spoken in a mix of Portuguese and a Spanish - maternally inherited from my great-grandmother Bridget, who was Uruguayan.



GUARANI CIRCUS


Actually, when I came into this world, Guarani Circus, which was once owned by my family, no longer existed. The "greatest circus in Brazil" as speakers advertised throughout the towns where it passed by. My mother did not have hair strength and my uncle Aristeu didn’t do stunts, nor somersaults and flip-flaps. Nevertheless, this circus universe has always been quite present in the stories and memories of the ones close to me.


My great grandfather João Alves, a free black man despite being the son of a slave, owned Guarani Circus and was born in 1873, two years after the proclamation of Free Womb’s Law, which dates from September 28, 1871 and freed the babies of slaves who were born from this date on. Only fifteen years later Aurea Law (which abolished slavery in Brazil) would become a reality, on May 13th, 1988. We do not know at what time he bought the circus or how this story really took place. The fact of the matter is that he was a great entrepreneur until turning 70 years old, even having to face two world wars. 
My grandmother mesmerized me with proud stories of her own childhood - Guarani Circus glory days. Born in 1909, she learned to read with a private tutor, an unthinkable luxury for the time. She used to say:


"Niña, my father chartered a train, all wagons, to bring artists, equipment and animals. And we traveled throughout Brazil".


I visualized the trapeze numbers, the clown, trained animals, magicians and jugglers. The circus had a lion, an elephant, snakes, dogs, cats and my grandmother’s great friend: a chimpanzee named Fisherman.


"That monkey was terrible, he pretended to be dead to hunt birds, he looked for lice on my head and even prepared some medicine, chewing on a few herbs and applying them on my tomboy bruises. And he healed me".


That was amazing. There were also plays. It was the circus-theater era, when they made ??great performances like “Passion of Christ” and “Wuthering Heights”. In some cases it was difficult to imagine how they managed to stage the death of Jesus Christ in the very circus arena.


“We sewed the clothes and created the sets ourselves, even the thorns crown".


And my grandmother explained that the scene of miracles was made ??with a simple cardboard box: one side contained dried leaves, the other grapes. And an unnoticeable wire opened the box, which turned, making everyone in the audience open their mouth in disbelieve.


These were times before television. The circus was the people’s greatest fun and occupied a space nowadays reserved to music shows, theater plays and movies.


Famous circus families performed in Guarani Circus such as the Temperani - great Globe of Death drivers - and the Seyssel - Arrelia and Pimentinha clowns – a duo that would become famous on television years later. The major attraction of the circus was Ondina, the Snake Woman, acrobat and Oscarito’s mother. He was an actor who became, in the 40s, one of the most important Atlantis Studio names, along with the Grande Otelo (3). About her my grandmother used to say:


"Niña, Ondina was a contortionist who resembled a snake in the ring, she looked like she had no bones".


There was also an accordionist who was very successful with his songs, clothes and leather sandals: Luiz Gonzaga. “Caruaru Fair” song made the crowd go crazy – just about everyone knew the lyrics.


The bleachers also swayed when an acclaimed duo sang the famous song “Rio de Piracicaba”. The singers were young, stylish and very finely toned: Tonico and Tinoco (4). The place used to get full and the audience on the square went crazy when the car with speakers passed by announcing next weekend’s attraction: A Caravana do Peru que Fala (the speaking turkey caravan), led by a young radio broadcaster named Silvio Santos (5), bringing the comedians Ronald Golias, Manoel de Nobrega and his troupe.

 

“That Peru Que Fala made such an fuss! Niña, the local girls who were radio fans, rushed to buy tickets to sit in the front row and many would leave if it did not stay until the end of the show”.


Incidentally, during the radio early days, in 1929, my grandmother and her sister, Aunt Ifigenia, or Tita, tried a career in singing. They spent some time in Rio de Janeiro investing on their dream and stayed at Uncle Benjamin de Oliveira’s - one of the major clowns in Brazil, and the first black clown ever heard of. A strong figure who was a major presence in the national artistic scene and who opened space for future African descent artists.


Grandma Eliza and Aunt Tita sang at Radio Nacional , where they had the chance to meet radio producer César Ladeira, Hebe Camargo - who enjoyed success as a singer at the time - and Dercy Gonçalves, celebrated in theater, film and television.


"It was Cesar Ladeira who chose the artists to participate in its well-known Radio Nacional show. Hebe Camargo was very young and wore long braids. And Dercy Goncalves was already hilarious".


Some years later, with the wedding of her niece Noemia with Genésio Arruda, one of the biggest names in Brazilian theater, my grandmother and my aunt ended up being part of their Caravan. Genésio Arruda used to arrive in cities with his yellow car, his band and his simple country man style (a precursor of Mazzaropi (6) making huge success. They traveled mainly to the south of the country, working as singers as well. At the time, they were known as the Alves Sisters and were much applauded when they sang Tiptiptim.


My grandmother used to talk about this singing and dancing, with her eyes shining, as if she was on stage again:


Tiptiptim...tiptim
Tiptiptom...tiptom...
Always when the sun rises near your window
I sing this song


AND THEN XAMEGO IS BORN...


In 1942, they returned to São Paulo and my grandmother married my grandfather Eurico - a passionate man, who ran away with the circus. During this period my great-uncle, Toninho or “Gostoso Clown”, who was the star of Guarani Circus, had a serious health problem: a degenerative disease that cause him to have both legs amputated. The need to have a replacement clown was the cause for Xamego’s birth. And what in the beginning was just a temporary role ended up lasting 50 years.


It was not an easy task. Women did not dress as a clown at that time. The idea of laughing at a woman - still not seen positively in our society today – was not well received in those years. Besides, my grandmother still needed to convince my great grandfather. In a very traditional circus way, with the famous "make me laugh", my grandmother used to tell how she wore funny clothes, let her curly hair free and puffy, in a way which looked very nice on her, and put on a tiny little hat on her head. Since she was a quite funny lady, she managed to make my stubborn great-grandfather have a great time. And Xamego Clown received a body!


... AND WHAT IS THE CLOWN? HE’S A WOMEN’S THIEF!


Xamego participated in almost every circus number: at the beginning with a partner, introducing the acrobat children, the Alves Brothers, working on comedies and interrupting the jugglers’ number while doing wrong tricks.


Mostly Xamego was sly and mocking, the opposite of his partner, my grandfather, who behaved in a smart and serious manner, but always ended up falling into the traps of Xamego. And that used to charm women in the audience. There were many who fell in love with Xamego. At the end of the show, they waited, hoping to see him without makeup. My mother also said that several times she received little notes to be delivered to him. Can you imagine something like this?


Usually the circus stayed on the squares - name given to places where they made their shows. And only on the last day of the season the mystery was unraveled: my grandmother pulled her hair off and introduced herself as a woman. It generated a huge "whimper" from passionate fans.


THE BREASTS OF THE CLOWN


Many Guarani Circus records were lost. During a family quarrel, my great-aunt burned photos and documents. Recently, searching for more details of our history we found a book called Third Sign, by Dirce Militello. There's a chapter called “The Buffoon”, which discloses the writer’s impressions about my family circus. And there's a very beautiful moment she describes how fascinated she got watching Xamego still with makeup during a break nursing a child, my uncle Aristeu. About this episode:


"The picture that was not taken and which remained in my eyes, can still be easily seen when I search inside myself. A Clown nursing a crying child!


In the dressing room, the boy cried, she nursed him without removing the makeup or changing her clothes. Outside most people waited, hoping to meet the friendly clown, especially girls. Funny how the girls fall in love with clowns, even without knowing their faces... The face is what first calls our attention, perhaps it is curiosity to know who is behind that makeup! Or maybe it’s the need to smile!”.


XAMEGO IN MYSELF


It was like a pact, a true passing of the baton with simple but intense exchange of looks.


In 1983 I participated in my first Halloween party at school, I was two years old. My grandmother was the one who dressed me, applied the makeup and prepared me for the event. She made ??me a pink cardstock witch hat and a scary nose. It was so ugly that I don’t remember what it was made of. She held my face, fascinated, carefully applying the makeup for that presentation. I can remember precisely that look. At school, people were frightened. Amid tidy girls, white princesses and monsters that looked more like princes, I was the black witch. A real witch.


I absorbed that as art. And when you're a witch, you’re witch. In my point of view, it's all about scenic faith and even about the consistency with which one must face life. I suppose at that moment I understood a little about the fascination that acting and being whatever you want to be can awake in us. A universe of possibilities opened. Pure magic. That's why I became Birota Clown.


It's been seven years since my grandmother passed away. She would be 105 in 2014. I didn’t personally see her as Xamego, but I can say that her joy and catching behavior, brought laughter to the most difficult moments of my life. She made not only my life but also the lives of all my friends and neighbors who lived with her ??lighter. She brought us many moments of joy. In the famous and traditional fair in Pompéia (neighborhood of São Paulo) people looked forward to her presence, as she always made people gather in a circle so that she could dance and sing inside of it.


“What about you, niña?” She used to ask, meaning: “aren’t you going to dance too?”.


When she was sick at the hospital, she composed a rap song for a nurse who entered her room singing in the middle of the night:


The cute little lady
Will get up now
She is a bit sick
And will have to be healed


Since my grandma always enjoyed a rime, the answer was prompt, surprising the nurse - an almost 6 feet tall young man with a splendid voice.


My cute little boy
You can help me
You will take a little of my blood.
And I will soon be healed.


This was Mrs. Eliza, my grandma.


I’ve been performing as a clown for five years now. It’s a space of altruism, of being generous with the people, of sharing joy. A possibility to be free to say whatever I think, to feel whatever I feel, liberated from social rules and prejudice. It’s a space for combat, for questioning injustice and for collective reflection. This is a space I’m quite proud to fill out.


I believe I’ve got your message grandma. It’s in my blood. I also have sawdust running in my veins. I realize I have a Xamego inside myself.


It’s a sealed deal.


Distinguished members of the audience, hail Xamego!





NOTES


(1) Baião is a Northeast Brazilian rhythmic formula that became the basis of a wide range of music.


(2) Luiz Gonzaga "The King of Baião" was a Brazilian singer, songwriter, musician and poet and one of most influential figures of Brazilian popular music in the twentieth century.


(3) Grande Otelo was the stage name of Brazilian actor, comedian, singer, and composer.


(4) Tonico e Tinoco were a Brazilian Country Music duo of brothers who are regarded among the most famous and prolific artists in this music style.

 

(5) Silvio Santos, became a successful Brazilian TV show host and entrepreneur, who owns SBT, the third largest television network in the country. His net worth is over $6 billion.


(6) Mazzaropi was one of the most known and loved Brazilian artists of all times. He was an actor, director and producer who worked in, at least, 32 movies in years between the 1950 and 1981.




IT MIGHT BE INTERESTING
Centro de Memória do Circo (Center of Circus Memories)
Av. São João, 473 – Galeria Olido
Centro/ São Paulo




MARIANA GABRIEL, or Birota Clown, is a filmmaker graduated from Fundação Armando Alvares Penteado (FAAP) and a journalist for ESPN Brazil.


CHRISTIANE GOMES is a journalist, Master in Communication and Culture from USP. Acts as coordinator of the of the dance group named Bloco Afro Ilú Oba de Min in the city of São Paulo.


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ILUSTRATION BY MALOK
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Mrs. Maria Eliza Alves
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SILVIO SANTOS
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MARIANA GABRIEL (OR BETTER YET – BIROTA THE CLOWN)
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XAMEGO