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Cliff Divers and Kids: Hidden Cultures Behind an Icon

    The Acapulco Cliff Divers, or Los Clavadistas de La Quebrada as they are known here, have been established as a world famous icon representing Mexico’s allure for over forty years.

    However, little is known about the cliff divers at home. With the exception of the famous Raúl García Bravo – better known by his alias of “Chupetas” – they have been largely anonymous. Despite being a world-famous phenomenon, a closely knit bunch of men who really do take their lives in their hands daily, their community and traditions have rarely, if at all, been perceived as a sub-culture that forms a valuable, colorful and coherent part of Mexico’s cultural heritage.

    The charismatic Raúl, who died in July 2004, arrived in Acapulco from Zihuatanejo as an orphan and did not have children who were destined to become cliff divers. But many of his contemporaries and the generation of divers who followed him, passed the cliff diver legacy directly onto their offspring. Ricardo Vega Moreno, for example – four times international champion at La Quebrada — had a little son Edgar who at the age of eight was diving from 18 meters (more than half the height of the La Quebrada cliff).

    Ignacio Sánchez, who was inspired to become a cliff diver by his older brother Cuauhtémoc, was champion three times and has a son, Martin, who recently won accolades for his synchronized dive in the international cliff diving championship that was held in La Quebrada last November. Mónico Ramírez, a contemporary of Ignacio, fathered the cliff diver Jorge Mónico Ramírez, who now has retired from his diving activities but currently holds the Presidency of the historic Cliff Diver Association.

    When I visited La Quebrada for the 1pm show in August 2004, I was astonished to see a young girl dive, coached tenderly by a man who appeared to be her father. With her shiny, long black braid of hair and attractive smile, Iris Alvarez was graceful and radiantly pretty. An article of mine about her that was published in Britain’s The Observer newspaper led her to be included in the 2007 Guinness Book of Records. The record lists Iris to be, at the age of 12, the youngest girl, and – slightly misleadingly – the youngest child to dive from the height of 18 meters in La Quebrada.

    “Why isn’t my son Edgar in the Guinness Book of Records, then?” Ricardo challenged me some months afterwards. Now a successful engineer in Puebla, Edgar, who was something of a child prodigy for both his high diving and dance skills at a very early age, faded into oblivion in the world of spectacle and no one – Ricardo included – had mentioned him to me in my then-18 months of casual research into the diver community of La Quebrada.

    It is a great pleasure to uncover layers of history of the diver children and their families who have kept this breathtaking phenomenon going behind the scenes, and to record their names for posterity. In the case of Iris, she exemplifies a family dynasty that could – in my view – quite fairly be compared to the great Eastern European acrobats and circus performers of yesteryear. Iris, along with her grandfather, alias “El Cuadro”, her uncle Eligio (the talented diver known as “El Cuadrito”), her father Jose Luis (alias “El Cuchillo”), along with a number of male cousins, form part of a history that has yet to take its due place in Mexican popular- and tourism culture.

    And the Acapulco cliff divers, an all-round family show for millions around the world, have always been child-friendly and child-aware, even though few are aware of their customs in this regard. In an early visit to the Cliff Diver Association headquarters, I was chatting with retired cliff diver Daniel García and admiring a photograph on the wall of a diver plunging as he was bathed in flames. “That was me,” Don Daniel said, adding that he also used to dive dressed as Hombre Araña (Spiderman) to entertain the orphans on Día del Niño.

    To my surprise, I found that the divers frequently have staged charitable events with the proceeds going to Acapulco’s orphaned children, and organize a show at the end of April for Mexico’s Children’s Day in which they invite kids from orphanages and lay on brightly colored cakes and a special diving performance — sometimes in costume, sometimes in capes or with other eye-catching thrills for eager little ones. One diver, “Don Tacho”, who now helps the younger divers in their training sessions, even lost the use of his eye on Children’s Day when the synthetic hair of a wig he was wearing in the show whipped into his face. These are just a fraction of the many anecdotes and poignant tales hidden behind the scenes in La Quebrada.

    For more information about this year’s cliff diving show for Día del Niño, phone the Cliff Diver Association Headquarters from 10 to 2pm, Fridays to Saturdays, on: 01 – 744 – 483 1400.