A trapeze artist balances on his head while doing a split in midair during the Do Portuagal Circus. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Thirty minutes before showtime, Damien Portugal was backstage trying to fix one of his motorcycles. In less than two hours, he would be whipping it upside down and around the inside of a giant metal globe, trying to avoid slamming into two other riders.

The motorcycle act was only one of the daring feats performed Friday night under their purple-and-white big top set up in the parking lot of the Ingram Park Mall. The Do Portugal circus, a traveling show from Mexico, made a week-and-a-half long stop there as part of their first-ever tour in the U.S. 

San Antonio residents who took a chance on tickets – $20 for general admission, cash only – got to see a blindfolded woman leap from the arms of a fellow trapeze artist and grip onto another trapeze with no visual cues. Below them, a troupe of dancers performed Irish steps and ballet moves to a nautical soundtrack.  

Another man balanced in handstands on an increasingly higher set of stools on top of a platform built to look like the Eiffel Tower. Clowns with trumpets and saxophones resolved their slapstick bickering in a trio playing the Celine Dion song, “My Heart Will Go On.” 

“It’s like acting,” said Lucero Cabral, one of the show’s ringmasters, or locutoras. “You have to enter and be a different person. It doesn’t matter if you’re mad or not feeling well, when you enter the ring, you have to give your all to the audience.”

Three dirt bikes ride at high speed in the Globe of Death.

The life of the traveling circus performer might seem strange and exotic, but Cabral, 27, who grew up in a family that ran a different circus, said that there are plenty of similarities to the sedentary life. While on the road, performers live in trailers set up behind the tent, but their children get educations through traveling tutors, or, for teenagers, online classes. 

“I think we’re the same as everyone else, it’s just that we travel a lot,” Cabral said. “But we have our homes, there are teachers for the kids, just like anywhere else. People sometimes don’t take us seriously and they have this idea of the circus that we’re always in character.” 

For members of the Portugal family, the lifestyle seems to be like mixing a performance career with a long family road trip. 

Damien Portugal, 25, has traveled throughout Mexico and Central America, performing and working alongside his mother, brother, and extended family. Aside from dancers recruited from as far away as the U.K., most of the performers and behind-the-scenes workers are members of the Portugal family. Damien Portugal is the fifth generation of the family from Guanajuato, Mexico, to run the circus.

“Everyone here’s a big family,” he said. 

Family members described how older generations have passed down circus skills to younger relatives, with occasional help from outside instructors. They’re always looking for ways to improve the act, such as with the motorcycle bit, a project of Damien’s and his brother’s. 

“For the most part, parents and older performers teach the kids,” said Rocio Portugal, Damien’s mother. “The basics start with gymnastics. Once they’ve got that down, they can move onto anything because they have the strength and flexibility.”

A shadow from a trapeze artist is projected onto the back wall.

With only about 40 people in the circus, everyone has to juggle multiple jobs, Damien said. Aside from the motorcycle act, he’s also a trapeze artist, and he handles the logistics of getting from one place to the next.

Before the show, Rocio Portugal, 52, cooked hot dogs and prepared paper plates full of nachos. She’s been traveling with the circus for 22 years, she said.  

“Sometimes there are difficult parts about it,” Rocio said. “For example, the weather in different places or long trips. But there are a lot of good things about it. We’re always together. I always know where my kids are. I always know where my husband is.”

The family has welcomed other performers from outside Mexico. Many of Do Portugal’s dancers originally come from the U.K. and Canada. Those who have been with the circus for years say they’ve picked up plenty of Spanish, but most of the younger generation of Portugals are bilingual.

After three shows on Sunday, they’ll pack up again and head for other Texas cities to display their talents on their first-ever tour through the U.S. Their first stops in Texas were in border cities, such as Brownsville and Harlingen. They’re focused on cities with large Hispanic populations, Damien Portugal said.

“It’s really hot,” he said when asked what they think about Texas so far. 

Their next stop is Austin, where they’ll pitch their tent at the Barton Creek Square shopping center. After that, it’s on to Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston, he said. 

For some performers, leaving can be the hardest part. 

“You … get attached to the cities that you visit and the people in those cities,” Cabral said. “For example, I got attached to San Antonio, but now we have to leave. It’s sad to leave a place that you’ve grown to like.”

Rivard Report editor Blanca Méndez contributed to this story.

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.