SAN FRANCISCO, MEXICO - With their gravity-defying trampoline flips, graceful acrobatics, juggling and tightrope walking, the children in San Francisco's circus school are bringing a touch of Cirque du Soleil magic to this bohemian Pacific beach town.
In jewel-colored leotards with feather headdresses and intricate makeup, they romp through seamless routines in an exuberant take on Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream with pumping music and hula-hoops, under the direction of Cirque co-founder Gilles Ste-Croix.
Wearing an ethereal illuminated dress and carried as fairy queen Titania, Juliana Palomares Rodriguez — like many of the 150 children in the Circo de los Ninos school — has set her heart set on joining the world-famous Cirque du Soleil.
"I love it," said Palomares, 15, from the town of around 3,000 residents, known locally as San Pancho. "It's really exciting to be in the show — the circus school has taught me how to present myself and work in a team."
Her dream now is go to circus school in Montreal, Canada, where Cirque du Soleil has its headquarters.
Ste-Croix raided costumes and circus gear from Cirque du Soleil's warehouses for the children's circus, which was set up in a converted warehouse six years ago.
Originally it worked with the Entreamigos community center next door, whose projects aim to equip the small town north of Puerto Vallarta to meet the challenges of increased tourism and development.
"Circo has become a project for the town ... it's something more than it was at the beginning, just to train kids in acrobatics," said Ste-Croix, before walking through the school where girls swung upside down on aerial hoops and stilt-walkers practiced skipping. "It's not a business plan for the sake of money — it's more a human resource plan."
Now aged 21, Jose Luis Herrera Botello graduated from Circo de los Ninos to a professional course in Mexico City. Here he is learning skills such as juggling, contortion, trapeze and acrobatics from Russian, Cuban and other teachers, which he will eventually pass on to the children in San Pancho.
"What I learned from the Circo de los Ninos is do things well or don't do them. If you really want something, just go for it," said Herrera, who is sponsored by Circo de los Ninos and Entreamigos.
Ready for change
For American Nicole Swedlow, whose Entreamigos project began at a table set up under a tree, access to good education is key to ensuring children from local families can earn a living, find professional jobs, and lead the town as it rapidly evolves along with an influx of tourists.
Entreamigos is now a vibrant focal point, with around 300 people passing through its shutter doors each day for free activities such as football, technology, English, art and capoeira. Others shop at its gallery and secondhand store.
"The danger for me is that we leave behind some of our most local families because they don't have access to the resources that you need to live in a growing community," said Swedlow in the airy library where children sit on the floor playing games and battle noisily over table football.
"Entreamigos is a classic example of resilience," she added. "We're asking a community to prepare themselves, or become prepared for everything that's coming, so they can be active leaders in that process."
Picking motivated children from low-income backgrounds for Entreamigos' scholarship scheme is crucial, she said.
Around 90 are now enrolled, with some at local universities, while two brothers with barely literate parents are at a nautical school.
Some women have trained as beauticians, allowing them to earn a living from their front yard while looking after their children, said Swedlow, whose work has been recognized by the Dalai Lama.
One of six siblings, Glenda Ponce said she secretly applied to university and finally got a scholarship through Entreamigos, despite objections from her parents who could not afford to pay and wanted her to get married and work as a cleaner.
She is on the leadership council that will soon take over running Entreamigos, where her parents both now work. Having completed only a couple of years of primary school themselves, they are improving their literacy as part of a deal that all employees study.
"The biggest impact of Entreamigos has been to change patterns — the course of a generation," said Ponce, 25, sitting in front of a huge banner with photos of scholarship recipients.
Isis del Rosario Vivas Rodriguez, 20, who met Swedlow when she first started classes under a tree, said her scholarship had changed her options, and she is now training to be a teacher while working at Entreamigos.
"It's helped find a path to follow. ... In my generation, hardly anyone studies. Normally they work in a little grocers' or stationery shop," she said.
Entreamigos also generates jobs and a chunk of its income from a town-wide recycling program, selling upcycled products such as glasses in its gallery.
More than 1,000 people come to volunteer with the organization each year, many of them U.S. and Mexican university students, while others visit to work out how to replicate parts of its model elsewhere.
"We'll educate anybody and everybody to give them the ability to do this in their own communities," Swedlow said.