19-year old Roberto Pérez revs up his bike, sending up a prayer to the Virgin of Guadalupe with each throttle. He asks her to watch over him during the Death Ball. His father, 37-year old Roberto Pérez, prays just as fiercely, but has a more practical request: he hopes that the turnout is good enough for the show to start.
They were both born under the tent of Latino Evolution, a circus that has been in the business of wowing people for the past 40 years. Latino Evolution was created by their ancestors, Olga Leticia Chinchilla and Rolando Pérez, who were also born under a circus tent. “During the 70s and the 80s, business was really good,” explains Ms. Olga. “There was no television or cable, let alone cellphones. People would come to the circus and enjoy all of the animal shows and the Death Ball.”
Rolando Pérez, 65, aside from being a professional clown and a talented juggler, boasts the title of being the precursor of the Death Ball. He says that he learned the act in Honduras and then installed it at his own circus. When his son, Roberto, turned 19, he taught him the number. “Courage and valor is what’s needed to get into the steel cage,” relates the circus family. That courage and show wisdom has been passed down through a couple of generations to the family’s grandson, Roberto.
Nowadays, it’s young Roberto Pérez who risks his life on the motorcycle. He’s being doing it since he was only 10 years old. According to him, he fell in love with the Death Ball when he was just 9, and it only took him a year to pick up the courage and skill to make the number his own. “There’s a whole different world inside the Ball,” says the grandson. “You’re alone within the machine and you need to focus as much as possible to not wipe yourself out. It’s only four meters in diameter, and it’s made of solid steel. So, the smallest of details count. You need to have a small motorbike that’s capable of accelerating to its full capacity, and then just let gravity do its thing. The public admires me.”
Grandma Olga comments that, in the Circus business, you constantly have to renew yourself, and confesses that the Death Ball is their most popular act. In 2015, Guatemala City’s mayor, Álvaro Arzú, banned all circus shows involving animals. So, Latino Evolution stopped including “beasts” in their acts, and began looking for ways to keep themselves fresh. “It’s difficult to have a full house with each show,” admits Ms. Olga. “Between all of the sons, nieces and nephews, grandsons, grandparents, and workers, there’s about 40 people living under this tent. And we all depend on the Circus to make a living. So, the show must go on.”
There are 40 circuses in Guatemala, all of which travel throughout the country. Every day, they compete against cellphones, bootleg DVDs, rain, and each other to give their audiences the best show possible. “The circus is a spark that has to be kept alive so that it keeps working,” concludes Grandma Olga. “That way we can bring joy and wonder to the public.”