Payasito Nochi (Nochi the Clown), had a difficult childhood. Neglected by his mother, he turned to drugs at an early age in the decaying social landscape in which Guatemala has been immersed these past decades. The name Nochi comes from his nickname Chino (“Chinese”) and Noche (“Night”), as he looked like a Chinese kid and lived mostly by night.
When he was living on the streets, by chance, he became a clown when he took a job on a show pretending to be one. It’s been 8 years since that day. It was never easy but he managed to get enough shows to learn his trade and survive, helped and mentored by other clowns in Guatemala.
Here is a piece of a poem that Nochi often recites and that helps better understand his story:
"I am a clown in this life, God decided I would struggle, even when I am feeling down, I need to raise a giggle. Although my smile hides a frown, because of pain and trouble, this clown still wants to talk to you, and tell you about his sadness; even the toughest men would cry with me. When they see my clown face everybody seems to be amused, without ever understanding that my life is miserable…”
Like many other Central Americans, Joel is traveling north in order to reach the United States with the hope of earning a few dollars to pay for his mother’s expensive medical treatment. She suffers from acute diabetes; her liver and nervous system are failing. The peculiarity is that Joel decided to undertake his odyssey dressed up as a clown, a vagabond clown with a sad face who wants to make people laugh. By doing this he can earn some money on the way, performing on the streets, and avoid being arrested by the Mexican migration authorities. With the help of his disguise, he doesn’t raise any suspicions.
In Mexico thousands of migrants are assaulted and kidnapped each year by gangs who view them as easy money. Migrants face a range of other threats - murder, rape, human trafficking, extortion and forced labor, as well as lack of food and water.
Since July 2014, a new policy, Frontera Sur (“Southern Border”), has been established in Mexico. Supported by the US, it aims to detain and deport migrants in the south of Mexico before they can reach the northern border that separates Mexico from the United States. In 2015 the number of deportations from Mexico to Central American countries (especially Honduras, Guatemala and Salvador) doubled from previous years. Before Frontera Sur, migrants used to travel by cargo trains, known as La Bestia (“The Beast”) for the dangers it presented. It was a perilous ride, but it gave migrants a chance to reach their destination in a few weeks. Now, the trains travel almost free of migrants as the INM (National Migration Institute) often stops trains and raids them in search for migrants. The train is not an option anymore so migrants are adapting to new, more dangerous, and longer routes, often walking for days along the train tracks, leaving them vulnerable to criminal gangs like the fearsome Mara Salvatrucha.
I had the chance of meeting Joel in October 2015 and traveled with him for a few days while he was crossing the south of Mexico. We met at Arriaga, in Chiapas, and together we walked to Chauites, also in Chiapas. On the train, this stretch would have taken just two or three hours; on foot it takes around twelve. Under extreme humid and hot weather we walked along the train tracks, rounding migration checkpoints and looking for water in farmers’ wells. However, at one point, migration authorities appeared on the tracks and I lost touch with Nochi who ran into the mountains, dressed in full clown outfit, make-up and shoes. Luckily I met him again at night in a migrant shelter in Chauites. He was exhausted, with thorns in his feet, and bee stings covering his face – they had been attracted to his make-up - and having not eaten or drunk anything for 10 hours. I followed him from Chauties to Ixtepec, in Oaxaca, as he struggled to carry on his journey.
Since then Payasito Nochi managed to reach Phoenix in the US, but returned to Guatemala when his sister suddenly passed away. Now he is planning on traveling north again.
“The Wandering Clown” is a feature length character-driven documentary, shot in an observational style, following Payasito Nochi as he struggles to reach the United States in order to provide medicine for his sick mother and to support his wife. His dream is to one day buy a small piece of land to be able to build his own house.