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by Bob Brooke


Carpa Garcia PosterThe U.S.-Mexico Border region is full of stories about immigrant families who came north from Mexico to find a better life in the United States. One such family was the Garcias, a family of circus performers who fled Mexico after family member Victoriano Huerta was deposed from his brief reign as President of Mexico during the Mexican Revolution in 1914.

Manuel V. Garcia and his wife, Teresa, formed La Carpa Garcia, a small traveling tent show (carpa is Spanish for tent), in 1914. They brought their talent and circus acts to the poor people of the communities, entertaining them for more than 30 years. During this period, they traveled and performed in Southern California, New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas. The show eventually settled in San Antonio and toured throughout South Texas.

In addition to Manuel and Teresa Garcia, La Carpa Garcia consisted of several other related Garcia families–Raymond and Virginia Garcia, Rodolfo, Consuelo and Pilar Garcia, and Esther Garcia Robinson.

Pilar Garcia also came to the U.S. in 1914 and toured with another famous tent show, La Carpa Cubana, before joining La Carpa Garcia. Pilar perfected and performed a very dangerous high wire act that made him well known in the circus community. His wife, Consuelo, also performed as a singer, dancer and acrobat.

The tent shows were usually run by one family and featured a mix of bawdy stage comedy, song and dance, acrobatics and clownery. They also incorporated a variety of entertainment including Mexican dances, flashy costumes and traditional songs. The concept of the carpa evolved from the acrobatic and clown tradition of the Aztecs. Before the carpas, companies of tumblers called maromas toured Mexico. In the late 19th century, European circuses toured Mexico, bringing new acts. Not to be outdone, the Mexicans formed carpas, combining their ancient traditions with modern circus elements. Early carpas in Mexico City featured vaudeville, burlesque and flimflam artists from both sides of the border.

In 1912, the family of Ysavel Monsivais, who crossed the border to escape the Mexican Revolution, formed Carpa Monsivais and toured until the late 1940s. La Carpa Cubana toured the southwest from 1920 to the 1930s. Founded by Virgilio and Federica Abreu, members of a famous Cuban circus family who lived in Mexico, they brought their show north to the U.S.

While on the road, the carperos or members of the carpas had to function as a small business, meeting payrolls, getting city permits and keeping equipment maintained. They constantly had to replace tent parts, worn lumber, and costumes. And even ordered candy to serve during the show.

The carpas presented traditional circus acts in the pista or ring. But they performed comedy and burlesque acts on a small stage. While larger shows had trained dogs and horses, none had side shows or freaks or large animal acts associated with traditional circuses.

Folkloric dances from other countries also separated the carpas from traditional circus shows. Though dances from Mexico–including "El Jarabe Tapatio" or the Mexican Hat Dance–were popular, the carpas also performed dances from Japan, Germany and Holland, as well as the Charleston and jitterbug.

For the carpas, the family was all important, as it is in all Hispanic cultures. Ties were strong and everyone participated to make the show a success. Most carperos had to perform at least four acts to replace performers in a pinch.

Although La Carpa Garcia is historically hailed as one of the more popular and long-standing Mexican tent shows from this era in South Texas, it was one of many. Recently, the Hertzberg Circus Museum in San Antonio inaugurated a new permanent exhibit dedicated to the Carpas of the early 20th Century. The museum, housed in a former library, features the circus memorabilia collection of Harry Hertzberg as well as an extensive circus research library of over 10,000 volumes.

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