Sounds of children laughing, talking and playing drift out the door at the National Hispanic Cultural Center (NHCC) as campers stretch and warm up their bodies, minds and voices for an active day full of clowning, unicycling, acrobatics and more as part of the Circo Latino summer program.
The NHCC Foundation started the Circo Latino program in 2009 to bring the art and culture of circus to families and children in New Mexico. In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic made the program nearly impossible to continue due to the physical and community nature of circus arts. Funding for the program also suffered due to the pandemic, further jeopardizing students’ ability to participate.
“This year particularly we were heavily impacted by COVID-19, so our funding was cut by almost 40%,” said Dahveed Torres, co-director of Circo Latino and coordinator of performing arts at NHCC.
Fortunately, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of New Mexico (BCBSNM) awarded the NHCC Foundation with a $30,000 grant in 2021 through its Healthy Kids, Healthy Families® (HKHF) initiative to support Circo Latino.
“Thanks to the generous donation from BCBSNM and the HKHF grant we were able to provide scholarships to many students who would not be able to afford the program,” Torres said. “Without BCBSNM and HKHF we would not be able to have Circo Latino.”
Circo Latino began with the purpose of drawing on the rich cultural tradition of circus in Latin American countries to promote healthy lifestyles. The program merges the concept of circus arts with Latino culture and Spanish language in a space where children can exercise their bodies while exploring their artistic voice and creative expression.
“Our philosophy is about combining healthiness with having fun, and we do that through this artistic lens because we believe that art is a great connector,” said Elsa Menendez, volunteer co-director and founder of Circo Latino. “Healthiness is not just about your mind and body. It’s also about your spirit and your community.”
Circo Latino is a four-week program dedicated to providing students ages seven to 18 with basic, intermediate and advanced circus arts instruction, including juggling, stilt-walking, clowning, movement, aerial, mask-making, leadership, environmental stewardship, compassion, empathy, community vibrancy and healthy lifestyles. Students spend the four weeks being introduced to various circus skills, specializing in a skill and building a performance of original works and songs to present to the community and their families.
“The main thing I love about Circo is the community that we build."
Due to COVID-19 safety restrictions and Circo Latino’s deep commitment to the safety of its participants, the program temporarily moved to an online format called Circo Digitalino in 2020. Circo Digitalino, a hyper-condensed version of Circo Latino, provided a three-week program exploring juggling, visual arts, movement, object manipulation, clowning, animation, puppetry and music.
This year, Circo Latino was able to safely bring together about 65 students and 45 staff members in person. The number of total attendees is usually high because many staff members are often former students. Circo Latino is a cumulative experience where campers often spend multiple years developing skills as students before graduating into leadership roles, such as troop leaders and counselors. Troop leaders, often teenagers, are former Circo Latino campers who act as mentors and set examples for younger campers while continuing to work on their own circus skills. The next step from troop leader is to become a camp counselor. Camp counselors are the Circo Latino instructors who lead exercises, teach skills and help campers to create their final performance.
“The main thing I love about Circo is the community that we build,” said Tamara Motley, a Circo Latino counselor.
“I think Circo has taught me the importance of community and being accepting and nice to people is really cool. There’s a really good energy to the program,” said Zen Mendez, a former Circo Latino student and current troop leader. “It has taught me to be a really good clown and has taught me some things about music. I feel like it has been a really great gift to be part of this.”
To learn more about the National Hispanic Cultural Center and Circo Latino, visit https://www.nhccnm.org/.