Carpe Diem: Juggling with reality

21 Aug, 2013 | Sophia Aitken & Kelly Keough

Culture and Urban living

Travelling street performers, known locally as malabaristas, have recently become a familiar presence across the continent. Sophia Aitken & Kelly Keough have some myths to debunk about them.


There’s no time for mistakes. Emanuel has only 45 seconds to wow his audience with his juggling until the light turns green and the cars speed away. A generous patron rolls down her window and quickly hands him one peso. He smiles broadly, thanks her as he skips to the safety of the sidewalk. He has noticed us watching his routine and approaches us with a warm 'Buenas tardes!' He is eager to speak with us about his occupation, especially after we explain that we are doing a piece on artistas callejeros - street artists.
Street performers are a controversial topic here in La Paz: some will tell you that they are degenerates looking for a quick buck to support illicit habits, others consider them lazy pests infiltrating the city. After speaking with a number of these callejeros, malabraristas or street performers of many kinds, we came to the conclusion that there are several myths about them that need debunking.
Myth #1 Bolivia’s drug mecca attracts young travelers
Malabaristas are not using their money earned on the streets to buy drugs like they have been stereotyped to be doing. Malabarista Emanuel from Argentina said, 'I am not against drug consumption but I am against drug abuse because any type of abuse is an excess which is a bad thing.' This attitude is common among malabaristas.
Bolivia is not their destination. Malabarista Vanessa from Argentina said, 'Bolivia is on the way to wherever we want to go, we have to cross here not matter what.' Malabaristas are travelers. They do not stay in one city for more than three weeks. After they have explored and earned enough money to leave, they are back on the road. Bolivia suits them well because it offers cheap living and transportation. In other countries they have to hitchhike because bus travel is too expensive.
Myth #2 Street performers are aimless
'En el futuro, no me veo,' said Emanuel after we asked him where he saw himself in the future. Similarly, malabaristas Vanessa, Gabriela and Virna balked at our future-oriented question. For them it seemed we were asking the wrong question. Virna from Colombia said, 'We don’t think about the future, maybe we say that in a couple years we want to be doing this or that but right now it is only about the present'. This is not to say that they have given up on having any life ambitions or dreams. The men and women we spoke to all seemed to be resolved to a certain extent about their destinations and goals. For now, the girls are headed to Paraguay for a circus festival in September, an event that will attract many callejeros from all over South America.
Their notions of goal setting seem to be very particular, yet they are coherent. Emanuel explained that he is not 'future-oriented' rather, he prefers to think in terms of 'projections', more general goals focused on a certain day to day quality of life than specific financial or material ends. 'I do what I do for a long-term objective and a short-term objective. In the short-term, to make money to pass the day. In the long-term to arrive in Venezuela', he said.
These traveling young people and their extemporaneous existence seem to embody the old aphorism, carpe diem. 'The truth is that we’re all here doing the same thing: trying to travel and live for the present', said Vanessa.
Gabriela from Argentina does have the eventual goal of settling down and making herself a 'home in the south, to live off the land with my animals and live calmly'. But for now, the present is enough. Emanuel and these women all seem very content living in the day to day of travel, talent, and whim.
Myth #3 Street performers don’t make enough to support themselves
'Depending on the day and how many hours I work I can earn from Bs. 80 to Bs. 150', explains Emanuel. 'There is always that kind person who throws you 10 Bs.' Normally he will work four to six hours. This is enough to cover his hostel, food and travel expenses.
Virna explained that the amount you earn depends on how long you work for. 'I want to buy un bombo y un platillo and until I earn the money for that I don’t leave, but if you just want to pay for food and hostel stay, then you won’t work for more than three hours a day.'
Myth #4 Street performers live on the streets
The hostels in the centre of La Paz house the malabaristas. They live there like a small community, gathering in the San Francisco plaza after a day’s work to practice their juggling and other circus tricks.
The malabaristas come from all over South America. 'Wherever you go there will be jugglers. We make friends along our travels and say goodbye to them but find ourselves with them again in a new place' Vanessa tells us.
Because they have this community, Gabriela calls their lives 'normal'. 'Just like you, we wake up to eat breakfast, go to work and then go meet up with our friends. We do the same.'
Myth #5 The life of a street performer is unrewarding
'The day I run out of curiosity I will die’, Emanuel affirms. He has played guitar and bongos in bars and restaurants across a number of cities, toured art museums, taken art classes and learned to juggle, all in the last six months. He is constantly investigating, trying and learning new things, but he is especially pleased to have been able to do all this on his own time.
Virna also cites this independence as one of the most rewarding aspects of being a malabarista. 'We don’t have a boss. We don’t have schedules. We can work at whatever time we want for as long as it is convenient for us’ she explains. Vanessa agrees, 'There is nobody to tell us when to stop or start working. Life is about enjoying the morning, afternoon and night. I worked for a while before I realized that closing myself in would not benefit me in the future. This is all about living in the present'.
These self-employed travelers live well and seem to love what they do. When asked why he started performing, as opposed to selling crafts or playing in bars, Emanuel laughs and responds that it was out of 'pride, definitely pride, the satisfaction of having a direct response from people in the moment in which you’re performing. That’s why I do it. It’s also a matter of experiencing a distinct form of working, one that isn’t dependent. It’s working for yourself, for your own goal. It’s not being confined by so many strict hours'.
Listening to them talk about their lives, we wondered, could it be possible that street performers have a better quality of life than the rest of us? At night they go out together to bars in the city with new friends they have made within the community of malabaristas and travelers staying in hostels in the city. They sleep late, eat well, and have fun working street corners with friends during the day.
But for Emanuel it is more than that. For him, performing has changed a number of his perspectives. 'You know it’s amazing how much I appreciate every coin I get, 50 cents, 20 cents, it helps me, it helps me accomplish what I want every day and it gives me satisfaction too.' It has made him more thankful, more appreciative of his freedom. The lifestyle has made him less prejudiced and very open to people.
He believes his lifestyle got him out of a rut and has helped him figure out who he really is. 'In the moment when we ourselves change in earnest, looking at our realities and errors, we will be able to change and respect the world and appreciate every day.'

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