Guys on the Wire
Documented by ISO50 @iso50agency
In 1963, a Galician priest succeeded in founding an independent nation around a circus tent; a colossal socio-educational project, unprecedented in history, called Benposta. a colossal socio-educational project, unprecedented in history, called Benposta. Today, 60 years later, one of the prodigal sons of that forgotten homeland is fighting to rescue utopia from the rubble.
This story begins in Morocco, on a beach in Tangier in the late 1980s.
There is a group of children performing acrobatics on the sand and a man watching them from the promenade. The leader of the group is called Mustafa Danguir and he barely lifts an inch off the ground. He is talented at jumping, thirteen years old, has four brothers and a father who is a waiter. The man watching them comes from far away. He is a priest, but no ordinary priest. He is also the manager of a successful youth circus and the founder - he claims - of an independent nation.
- I was just a beach acrobat, like so many children in Tangier. I had no idea what a circus was until Father Silva came along and said: "I want to take you to the Circo de los Muchachos". I told him that my father wouldn't let me, but he said, 'Show me where your father is, I'm going to talk to him. "In this café, his name is Abdul-Salam". I don't know how he did it but he convinced him.
There is more gratitude than nostalgia in the words of Mustafa Danguir (Tangier, 1975). The gratitude of a child who used the circus "as a bridge" - he admits today - to cross the strait and then managed to make a living walking on the sky. A life he began to build almost a thousand kilometres away from Hamat Baneder, the bustling neighbourhood of his childhood, in that independent nation that Father Silva had promised him, located in the parish of Seixalbo, on the outskirts of Ourense.
- I had never heard of that place. Father Silva had shown me videos, but it seemed to me a strange thing, from another planet. When I arrived and saw the children hanging from the trapezes, I said to myself: "This is the place where I want to be".
THE STRONG BELOW
Leaving the road, there is a rickety checkpoint barrier and an arched entrance that must once have been painted in bright colours. There is a rusty cross and a guard post up ahead that no longer guards anything. There are sheep and goats and cows grazing. Two turkeys, three dogs and absolute silence. There is a small church next to what looks like a mosque, the priest's house, a bar and the town hall, on whose balcony someone has put the washing out to dry. There is a young woman walking with her son; a boy who knows nothing of the eleven laws that once governed life in these streets, but who was born here, in a place that was first a dream, then a utopia, and which today looks like a living open-air museum.
Although most of the structures remain standing, it is hard to believe that this place was once an independent city; indeed, a nation. The epicentre of an inconceivable project carried out in the midst of Franco's dictatorship. It is hard to imagine that one man managed to set up here, 60 years ago, one of the greatest socio-educational entelechies of the 20th century: a republic run by children built around a circus polyhedron, with its own currency, autarkic functioning and free elections. A reverie called "Benposta, the Boys' Nation".
- In my time there were 200 people living there. The town had its own system: money - the crown - with which you bought your things, and places to go to school and to work. There was a well-organised assembly where problems were discussed in the morning. In the afternoon there was social work and crafts. Then there were gymnasium hours and mass," recalls Mustafa, as he sips his glass of green tea with mint.
Father Silva's idea had a source of inspiration: the project developed by the priest Edward Joseph Flanagan, at the beginning of the 20th century, in Nebraska (United States), on a farm christened "Boys Town". A sort of Catholic redemption orphanage focused on the reintegration of marginalised youngsters. But when it came to carrying out his plan, Father Silva went two steps further. He began working with a handful of teenagers in 1956 in his mother's home. Seven years later, he acquired a plot of land of just under 20 hectares located on the outskirts of Ourense. He called it "Ben-posta" - written like that, with a hyphen in the middle - to emphasise its dimension as an ideal nation, "well placed". That same year he inaugurated the circus school. His troupe, made up exclusively of resident children - women were not allowed in Benposta until 72-, when debuted in 1966 with a show in Barcelona.
Then came the international tours of the so-called "Revolution Circus", the trips abroad, the worldwide fame. All this while the Boys' Nation continued to take shape with the construction of a carpentry shop, metalworking, ceramics and leather workshops, its own television channel, hotel and petrol station. Father Silva's verb, the chimera, had become flesh in Benposta.
- The children came there because their parents sent them there. Or they left them at the door and went away. They came from all over, but once inside, there was no difference. The son of a minister from Japan came to live in Benposta with me. I, the son of a waiter from Tangier, slept in the same bunk as the son of a minister," recalls Danguir, who stayed in Benposta until he came of age.
THE WEAK ABOVE
The structure that dominates the terrain is a gigantic circus tent. A polyhedron. To its left, a mural reads: "We are the boys of the earth". A rusty pyramid of harlequins completes the picture. It is 11 o'clock in the morning in Benposta and at the door of a shed at the side of the tent, the figure of a man suddenly emerges, dressed in navy blue overalls and a threadbare jumper, torn at the forearm. He is Francisco Muradás, one of the 32 remaining inhabitants of Benposta. He arrived here 49 years ago. He must be over 60. "I'm a bit of a big boy", he says, by way of introduction, with a mixture of blush and pride in his gesture.
In 2004, the foundations of the revolutionary nation began to crumble. Millions in social security debts led to the seizure of Benposta's property, which was eventually auctioned off. Allegations of child abuse and mistreatment - investigated to no avail by the Vatican five years later - and accusations of embezzlement in the donation of part of the land of the city-circus accompanied the Jesuit priest to his deathbed, precipitated by a stroke on 2 September 2011. Jesús César Silva left behind a utopian model of autarchic youth society replicated in more than a dozen countries, a blank testament and at least 50,000 orphaned children.
Francisco Muradás is one of them. A boy trapped in utopia. An old boy. He lived through the golden years of Benposta, when the city functioned as a sunny oasis in the middle of the ominous wasteland of a dictatorship that was presumed to last forever. The time when Father Silva's solidarity project had taken on epic proportions. The time when being a boy meant being part of something that had never happened before. Perhaps because of this, and because utopias tend to age more slowly, there is a certain melancholy in every word spoken by Muradás today. When he says that he did not become mayor of Benposta but that he did hold "some important position" at some point. When he worries about the image the city projects now. Or when he tries to imagine what life away from the polyhedron might be like: "I haven't experienced what it means to leave because I never thought of leaving. I arrived, I liked it and I'm still here. Living here, fighting for this city, having everything, sharing everything and then leaving must be difficult. But there comes a time when you grow up and I guess you want something more. That must be difficult", reflects Muradás, a man who today - like the rest of the city's inhabitants - has been under an unappealable eviction order since the acquisition of the land by the coach company Alfer in 2016.
THE CHILD ON TOP
After leaving Benposta, Mustafa Danguir moved to the United States. Father Silva's death surprised him in San Francisco. The lights of his legacy, he says, can never be swallowed by the shadows: "Father Silva was a genius, he was the priest against the world. He invented the Circo de los Muchachos, which was something like Circo del Sol can be today, which is a copy of the Circo de los Muchachos. His idea was to change the world and to take the idea of the pyramid to all corners of the world: the strong at the bottom, the weak at the top and the child at the top. I think he succeeded. In the United States, Mustafa managed to make a name for himself in the circus world with a new stage name: Danger. "Because where people see fear, I see opportunity, and where others see death, I see life," he explains. After becoming one of the best tightrope walkers on the planet and setting a Guinness World Record in Benidorm in 2010 by riding a motorbike along a one and a half kilometre cable suspended more than 150 metres above the ground, Mustafa came back into contact with the reality of Benposta. The year was 2019. "When I realised it was abandoned, I said to myself: "No way, we have to do something, this place gave us a chance. We have to continue with Father Silva's idea". My dream then became to try to recover the Circo de los Muchachos".
The venture, however, did not go well. "I opened the circus and the dwarfs grew on me," he laments. Hostilities with some of the inhabitants of Benposta, who did not take kindly to the return of the prodigal son; constant visits from the social services and the police; and the commercial interests that the site continued to attract; they have brought down the whole of the
project. The polyhedron of the old city-circus continued to have too many faces. But far from giving up, Mustafa decided to try his umpteenth pirouette. He bought a piece of land in Verín, some 70 kilometres from Benposta, and built there, with his own hands, a space that is at once a home, a school and a tribute to memory: Mustafá's Boys' Circus. "I consider myself a boy because I am from the Boys' Circus. People say: 'The boys no longer exist, the boys are dead', but it's not true. We are the boys because Father Silva is the father of us all," proclaims the acrobat, who has just won the Silver Clown at the Monte Carlo International Circus Festival with his boys. Then he continues: "I don't rule out building a new Benposta here. I'm already giving these guys the opportunity they gave me, my experience and a place to practice. My idea is to found an international circus school for boys and girls from all over the world, open to whoever needs it. A space like the one we had in Benposta that bears the name of the boys, because boys is a plural word.
The boys Mustafa is referring to are currently practising on the various apparatuses that dot the farm, scattered around the circus tent, the main element. They are not all there, but they are all there.
There is Inés, nurse and acrobat, the cornerstone of the new project; there is Roy, commanding the Motoristas del Infierno, from Colombia; and there is Mohamed, the child prodigy of the new generation of Moroccan tightrope walkers, walking, together with the rest of the boys, on the wire. "I'm not going to give it up. I am 47 years old but I feel like Peter Pan. Some of us have remained boys all our lives", Mustafa Danguir suddenly says, without taking his eyes off his pupils and before bursting into loud laughter. The boy acrobat on the beach in Tangiers. The son of Abdul-Salam. The father of the new boys.
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Journalist, writer, storyteller and co-founder of ISO 50. He has written about humans on both sides of the Atlantic.
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