Rossana Céspedes had lived all her 40-plus years in the hot and chronically flooded Belén district of Iquitos, Peru. And after serving for years as her mother’s primary caregiver – even carrying her to the bathroom – Céspedes lost her to Parkinson's. It was 2006, and she felt exhausted and hopeless, like she “didn’t want to live anymore”. Then the clowns showed up.
“It was something beautiful and amazing to see – their costumes! They brought things that no one had ever seen here in our jungle,” Céspedes remembered.
She said she followed the colourful clowns around town “as if hypnotised”, and that her depression began to disappear. That life-changing event was the first Festival de Belén – an annual, week-long event that brings clowns, social workers, and healthcare professionals to one of the poorest and most remote parts of Peru. A blend of humanitarian aid, art activities, and plain fun, the gathering offers health clinics, mural painting, and workshops designed to inspire and educate local children.
The festival is now run by locals like Céspedes, known as Chana to her clown friends. She wears her own clown costume – giant golden mouse ears and a bright pink polka dot dress – and goes to play with her neighbours.
“So every year I waited for them, and that was how my life was changing,” Céspedes told The New Humanitarian. “And now I am part of them.”
‘A different world’ in a city on stilts
Deep in the Amazon jungle, Iquitos has a population of 400,000 and is the largest city in the world unreachable by car.
The main city itself is a destination for tourists on their way to an Amazon river cruise or Ayahuasca ceremony – it has a Hilton Doubletree, rooftop bars, and a neatly manicured, green town square.
Although it’s less than 10 minutes from the city centre by tuk-tuk, Zona Baja de Belén, or Lower Belén, is another place entirely: Whole families are crowded into simple wooden homes with only one or two rooms.
The ride there goes past the famous Belén market – full of piranhas, alligator heads, and herbal medicines from the nearby rainforest – and down a steep road to a flat expanse of dirt covered by rows of improvised wooden homes on stilts.
“It's like living in a different world,” said Eliscene Carrión, 25, the organiser of this year’s festival. “There is a contrast between Belén and the city.”
The town sits on the bank of the Itaya River, one of the Amazon’s 1,000-plus tributaries. For half the year, in the rainy season of January to June, it is flooded. Canoes replace tuk-tuks and people can fish from their living rooms. Its nickname: “The Venice of the Amazon.”
The greater Belén district has an extreme poverty rate of 14% – nearly double that of Loreto state, in which it’s located. But Lower Belén has its own unique challenges.
The floods, trash, untreated sewage, and precarious construction lead to high risks of waterborne diseases and drowning. In 2014, the Peruvian government abandoned a project to renovate the unsafe structures and passed a law to simply relocate residents to a new site 15 kilometres away.
Some in Belén left, while others, like Céspedes, stayed and tried to put pressure on the government to invest in bringing critical infrastructure to Lower Belén, rather than separating people from their work and family. Belén, Céspedes said, “is a forgotten area”.
Bringing joy with hula hoops and rubber chickens
But the clowns and the people of Belén remember each other well. On a busy Sunday morning during this year’s Festival de Belén in early August, clowns paraded through the bustling market in mismatching, colourful outfits and face paint, carrying hula hoops and rubber chickens. They stop for ukulele and kazoo performances, to cheer on a vendor mixing dough, to give a massage to a woman selling chickens.
“They come every year,” the woman said after her massage. “They give joy, peace.”
The festival was founded in 2006 by a pair of famous clowns – Wendy Ramos, an actress who played a clown on a popular Peruvian TV show, and Dr. Patch Adams, a doctor-clown-activist who was portrayed by Robin Williams in a 1998 film loosely based on his life story.
Over the years, they’ve partnered with NGOs, established more permanent aid projects in Iquitos to provide art activities and healthcare all year round, and inspired some in Iquitos – like Céspedes – to become clowns.
“It's time for us to have control because we live here. We know what kind of issues we have in our communities.”
This year’s festival was the first without Adams. International clowns still came to participate, but the organisers were locals, led by Carrión, who grew up in the area, working in the Belén market with her mother. The community is proud and has a sense of empowerment from assuming the leadership of the festival.
“It's time for us to have control because we live here,” Carrión said. “We know what kind of issues we have in our communities.”
When the clowns arrive in Lower Belén, the kids come out yelling. They play with their drums and bubble machines, and play tag. In her clown costume, Carrión says she can be herself, totally uninhibited, reaching children with play and body language.
“I want to work with children because I think they deserve to live, to have a quality of life like everybody else,” Carrión said.
Childhood in Belén can be hazardous and short. Although there’s no recent data to confirm it, chronic malnutrition has been a major problem historically, and a health clinic volunteer told The New Humanitarian there has been widespread diarrhoea among children this year.
According to a 2019 UNICEF report, nearly one third of girls become pregnant by the time they’re 20 and only around 40% of adolescent boys and girls in Belén’s Loreto state complete secondary school, compared to 86% of those in metropolitan Lima.
After a parade of clowns, a pop-up health clinic
One morning during this year’s festival, a group of clowns walked the streets of Lower Belén with megaphones, announcing a pop-up health clinic. Games of duck, duck, goose kept the kids busy while volunteers gathered and set up tables and green tents – much-needed shade as the heat index soared to 41 degrees. There were clowns with medical expertise and healthcare providers from around town: dentists, doctors from a regional hospital, and students of nutrition. They took locals’ vital signs, administered rapid tests for HIV and syphilis, and handed out antibiotics, toothbrushes, and condoms.
The close relationship between clowns and community that’s formed by fun and humour also opens the door for serious conversations. Vanesa Romano, a doctor and clown from Argentina, counselled patients during the clinic, many of whom shared stories of gender-based violence.
“It was hard,” Romano said. “The festival connects us with play, with joy. But well, all this [violence] happens. And today in this space of care, the community [showed] up, and it also speaks to the trust, to be able to talk about this.”
Romano, who spent three years volunteering in Belén year round, compares the work to that of an ant – lots of small actions that add up to big things over time. And the fruit of their labour in Iquitos, as she sees it, is that the festival is now run by local people who’ve been inspired – people like Lucía Isuiza Ramos.
“The time has come for the festival to be from within, from here,” Ramos said, “from us who are, in some [ways], the result of these previous years.”
When she isn’t clowning, Ramos works as a psychologist in Iquitos. As a curious teenager, she remembers watching the clowns there from afar. Now, at 30, she helps organise the festival. During the health clinic, she sits on a battered wooden step to a home with a sign that says, “psicóloga”.
Here, away from the crowd, children and mothers can confide in her.
“We see daily cases of violence here in the community,” she said, hinting at long-term problems of alcoholism and domestic violence. “So they see it as something normal. Hitting each other naturalises violence to children with a style of upbringing that is not acceptable.”
In Lower Belén, 9 out of 10 children report being the victim of some form of violence, according to the local aid organisation Asociación La Restinga. In each conversation with her neighbours in Belén, Ramos works to chip away at a cycle of domestic violence.
“So the first thing to work on is that they can express what they feel,” she said, holding a trio of paper circles with a sad, angry, and happy face on them. “Naturally, we adults should support these children to validate what they feel and not only love them when they are happy.”
‘Everything is possible’
Carrión’s goal now is to get her group funded by the Peruvian government as an official Punto de Cultura – an organisation that promotes art and culture in vulnerable populations. If they can earn this distinction, she has a vision to establish permanent mental health clinics that can address the town’s problems with suicide, depression, and anxiety – and normalise going to therapy. And they could provide regular art classes and workshops for kids.
Peru has one of the highest rates of child labour in Latin America – over 20% of children aged 5-14 in the country work. Many of the children working in Belén, Carrión said, sell candy on the street. In a place where so many children endure violence, get pregnant, and are forced to work, the clown festival offers them a chance to dream. This year’s festival featured a workshop for kids called “Cinema as magical art”.
Céspedes says that’s already had an impact. She has seen local kids seize opportunities, and recalled some in particular who participated in past festivals who have gone on to pursue video production. One of them, Livia Silvano Pacaya, made a short film about sexual abuse in Belén, called Bufeo, which she is submitting to film festivals.
“Little by little things are improving. The youth are already thinking differently,” Céspedes said. “Everything is possible, but it can [only] be done with a lot of work. The world cannot be changed in one day, but in many years, and drop by drop.”
With additional reporting from Josh Lee. Edited by Tom Brady.