Some forms of entertainment are so fundamental to our nature that they never completely disappear, but rather, they morph. The circus, for example, wasn’t always a massive, professionally lit, highly produced performance featuring skilled acrobatic companies. The country once supported small, nomadic groups of families who crisscrossed the land doing “mud shows”: illusions and animal tricks. The number of these modest troupes has indisputably dwindled, but this way of life has not totally vanished.
I learned this firsthand in 2002 when I wrote about the Floreses, a circus family from Von Ormy that still toured the country as a traveling act. I spent months with the members of the Fearless Flores Circus and Thrill Show—sixth-generation member Linda and her husband, Victor; their 24-year-old son, Tito, his wife, Chela, and their four-year-old daughter; and Frances Flores, Linda and Victor’s 22-year-old daughter, a beautiful performer who could ride the Globe of Death, twirl on a trapeze, and wield a sledgehammer in 100-degree heat without smearing her mascara-glossed eyelashes. Theirs was an endangered breed, but one of the last times I saw the family, an exchange between Tito and Frances led me to believe the show would go on:
[Tito] began to talk about what it might take to get by and wondered about the risks of getting ahead. “I want to be consistently good,” he said, “not inconsistent and risky. Fame is not worth it to me.”
Frances yelled from the bathroom, “It is to me.”
“Right,” Tito said gently, with a shrug. “It is to Frances.”
She walked into the living room of the trailer, gesturing with the hairbrush as she got serious, and said, “I want to be the old woman who walks into a show and everyone turns around and says, ‘That’s Frances. She used to do this and this.’ I work hard. Shouldn’t I let people know it? I want the glory.” Tito looked at her affectionately, and she began to laugh. “Well?” she said. Then she walked back to the bathroom. Victor and Chela said nothing.
“All I want to do is support my family,” Tito said. He thought about it, then he grabbed the table and a smile opened on his face. “No. All I want is a dynasty. Is that too much to ask?”
Witnessing Frances’s passion and conviction for this way of life, I envisioned a future in which she carried on the circus traditions, perhaps rising to become a powerful producer of a big-top show. Maybe she’d occasionally perform, dropping by a show every now and again to grace new audiences with her human cannonball act or trapeze routine. But a year after the story published, she wrote me an email and told me that at age 23, she’d decided to try something different: she had joined the Marines, and she loved it. Tito, she wrote, continued the family business. He, his wife, and their two children (he had another kid after I reported the piece) traveled the country as the Fearless Flores Thrill Show.
I was shocked that Frances had left her birthright (though given her need to be challenged, her attraction to the Marines made an odd sort of sense). In the years that followed, I watched the remaining group from afar. In 2011 I saw that Tito and his wife and kids landed a spot on America’s Got Talent, and I would occasionally see the name of their act pop up at events around the state. But, I wondered, what had happened to Frances?
“I left active duty but didn’t come back to this business,” she told me recently. “I wanted to be ‘normal.’ So I got a job at a human resource office in South Carolina.” By then, she’d married a fellow Marine and had two kids. The townie routine, however, didn’t fit. Every now and again, on a day off, she’d perform with her dad or Tito’s family. She sewed little costumes for her boys and pushed them out into the circus ring before the show to dance and act cute. When the boys got a little older, she showed them how to hold the ladder for her as she went up on the sway pole, and eventually the older boy, Giovanni, started riding a small motorcycle in the Globe of Death with her while the younger one, Victor, learned to twirl plates.
Inevitably, her old life pulled her back more permanently. “My job was nine to five; I couldn’t hack it,” she said. It was so different from her upbringing in Von Ormy, where the family worked shows together, traveled the country together, spent most hours of each day together. “It was really hard to get up in the morning and get the kids ready, send them off, and not see them until the evening when I got home,” she continued. “It was just food, shower, bed.”
A free life is what she wanted. So this year, after divorcing her husband, she decided to homeschool her boys and hit the road full-time. The trim 35-year-old mother now wakes early in the morning to pack a cargo trailer full of equipment and travel with eight-year-old Giovanni and six-year-old Victor for hundreds of miles to set up a colorful circus ring, the way her forefathers did. They’ve performed all over the country, from Florida and Alabama to Texas and Arizona.
And when the Fearless Flores Circus and Thrill Show made a stop at the Fiesta Texas fairgrounds in San Antonio on a hot day this past spring, I took my two kids out to see the circus. I sat with a transfixed audience as Frances, dressed in a red, sequined leotard, recited the introduction for her family’s act, an intonation that has remained more or less unchanged for eight generations: “Welcome to the Fearless Flores Circus and Thrill Show! We’re all professional circus performers traveling throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico, and beyond, doing shows just like this to people who are just like you.”
The crowd of fifty or so, timid at first, gained the confidence to applaud as Frances shouted at them, “Louder! I can’t hear you!”. Her father, Victor, stepped out at one point to introduce her as the master of the sixty-foot-tall break-away sway pole. “Let’s hear it for Fearless Frances!” he cheered, as she climbed to the top, vamped, swung upside down, and rode the swinging pole back to the ground. This was followed by a boleadoras performance by Fenix Dresdner, an Argentinian gaucho who was actually substituting for six-year-old Victor, who was taking a break.
And then, for the finale, Frances introduced Giovanni, who sped out into the ring on a motorcycle. He pulled the helmet off and waved at the crowd, squinting in the bright sun, then placed the helmet back on and entered the Globe of Death. The children in the crowd leaned forward as they watched him and Victor Sr. rock once, twice, and then race around the inside of the globe, side-to-side, upside down—two motorcycles intersecting at the bottom and top of the globe as they spun, buzzing like a deafening swarm of bees.
When Giovanni finally zipped back into the ring and tore off his helmet, the youngest members of the audience were spellbound. After a moment, some of them looked at their parents, scanning for looks of disapproval or judgment. A few kids looked confused as their parents beamed and clapped—wondering, no doubt, why their own benign daredevil stunts received rebuke while these received applause. Clearly, these were magical people who lived by different rules. Frances got this reaction too when she was a kid. So did Tito. So did her mother and her grandmother and kids dating generations back. But to them, this was not a big deal. This was not magic. This was just life.