Mexican circuses trace their origins to pre-Columbian religious rites and Spanish colonial entertainment spectacles. Their companies resided and played in Texas as early as the mid-nineteenth century and have been popular among Texas Mexicans throughout the Rio Grande valley, as well as in South and Central Texas, for almost a century. Bernal Díaz del Castillo, the major chronicler of the conquest of Mexico, was probably the first European to write about the existence of indigenous voladores (flyers), who imitated birds in Aztec religious ceremonies. The first mestizo circus in the New World was known as a compañía de volantines (company of flyers). The Spaniards introduced their own brand of entertainers, including minstrels and jugglers, to the evolving circus. By the seventeenth century Mexican circuses featured maromeros (acrobats), who entertained at bullfights. In the eighteenth century these circuses featured a troupe that performed acts of physical feats and dramatic presentations. Thus the Mexican circus and theater joined hands, providing outlets for actors, acrobats, and clowns to develop their skills in both areas.
The presence of the Mexican circuses in Texas was first recorded in the San Antonio Ledger on November 8, 1852. By the time they got to the state, the big-top Mexican circuses had incorporated some aspects of the Italian, English, and United States circuses, most notably the English clown with baggy pants and red wig. The carpa (tent circus), an unpretentious kind of amusement that had developed in Mexico to entertain the poor, was also part of the Mexican circus tradition introduced in Texas; in time it became the most durable aspect of the genre. In the twentieth century such Mexican circuses as Teatro Carpa Independencia, Circo Cubano, and Carpa García (the most famous of the three) made San Antonio their home base, and the city became the hub of both the big-top circuses and the carpas. The carpas regularly offered entertainment in rural South Texas in the 1920s and 1930s. The Circo Hidalguense (Hidalgo Circus), for example, took its shows to Charlotte in 1921, the Maroma Azul (Blue Acrobat), appeared in Del Rio throughout the 1920s and 1930s, and the Texas Show performed in the Los Ebanos area in 1929. Noted Tejano novelist Rolando Hinojosa-Smith, who as a child attended many carpa shows in his hometown, Mercedes, has recalled that announcements of the tent shows were often plastered on his family's garage. So important were the shows to Tejano culture in the Rio Grande valley that he included Mexican circus performers as characters in Estampas del valle y otras obras (Sketches of the Valley and Other Works), his award-winning book that was published in 1973.
The carpas, which were most popular among working class Texas Mexicans, combined traditional circus routines with theatrical traditions by mixing acrobatics, pantomime, clowning, singing and dancing, comedy routines, and dramatic monologues. They also introduced important stock characters, the most important of which was the pelado (the underdog), who engaged the audience with hilarious sketches dealing with treacherous political schemes and other human foibles and scandals. The pelado also delivered sardonic comments on Tejano social life and used his wits to survive. He symbolized the audience's struggles with racial discrimination and acculturation. Two notable pelados who represented the Tejanos' situation were called Don Slico (Mr. Slick) and El Bato Suave (the Smooth Guy). A female equivalent was invented by the noted comedienne Beatriz Escalona Pérez in the late 1920s. The carpas, small and often family-based, outlasted the more established circuses, as well as the Great Depression. They lasted into the late 1940s because they offered their audiences both temporary escape from, and an understanding of, their daily experiences. They also influenced the present-day Mexican-American Theater, which began in the 1960s, particularly in its reinvention of the pelado and its depiction of social issues.