Some of them juggle, some dance, some ride unicycles, while others act the roles of clowns and mimes. They all earn their living at busy intersections in Cuenca, performing for tips from motorists in a profession they admit is dangerous.
On Wednesday, a juggler working the Las Americas – El Batan intersection was the third street artist severely injured in 2015 when he was struck by a light pickup truck that then fled the scene. Argentinian Oswaldo de la Cruz was rushed to Vicente Corral Moscoso where doctors determined that he had suffered a critical spinal injury.
In early February, a Chilean mime suffered head injuries when he was run over by a car on Av. Unidad Nacional. In that case, the driver, who said his view of the performer was blocked by a turning truck, stopped and offered assistance.
In March, a juggler suffered a broken leg when he was hit by a car on Av. Solano.
The majority of Cuenca’s street performers are from Argentina, Uruguay, Chile and Colombia. Only a few are from Cuenca. According to several of them, Ecuador has become one of the most popular countries for street work in South America, and Cuenca one of the most popular cities. The reason, they say, is the country’s prosperity and generosity.
“People here respect what we do and don’t mind paying us,” says Raúl Esteban from Colombia. “Ecuador is more prosperous than most of the countries I have worked in, like Peru, Colombia and Mexico, so the drivers can afford to pay more,” he said.
Esteban, a juggler who works with both pins and knives, admits that the work is dangerous. “We work on the busiest streets since that’s where we can perform for the most people and make the most money,” he said. “But we know the risk is high. We have to pay attention to the traffic signals and watch for cars running red lights. A good friend was killed last year in Medellin and another was badly hurt two weeks ago in Quito,” he said.
According to transit police, the most popular streets for Cuenca street artists are Avs. Huayna Capac, España, Max Uhle and 12 de April.
The quality of the artists varies from rank amateurs to highly skilled artists, says Amanda Vasquez from Uruguay. “There is man from Paraguay who was on Av. 12 de Abril last week who was riding a unicycle and juggling fire,” she said. “I watched him for three traffic cycles and he never dropped the batons. He was amazing.”
On the other hand, she says there some bad performers too. “I have seen some terrible acts who need to spend more time practicing before they go back on the streets,” she said.
Vasquez, who dances with flags and scarves and performs acrobatics, is a former gymnastics champion who became bored with university. “I’ll go home next year and finish,” she said. “Now, I’m just enjoying life on the road and trying to be careful.”
Meanwhile, doctors say it is too early to say whether Oswaldo de la Cruz will fully recover.