James Judkins photographs the winning team at the carnival workers’ soccer tournament in Tlapacoyan, Mexico. (Joshua Partlow/The Washington Post)

After his sophomore year at college, James Judkins and a friend who was an aspiring juggler ditched their cafeteria jobs and ran off to join the circus.

Judkins learned to eat fire, train elephants, lie on a bed of nails. Then, in the winter of 1978, he drove his cargo van down to a town in eastern Mexico and performed what would become his most incredible trick.

The place was called Tlapacoyan, a lush mountain hamlet in Veracruz state where villagers eked out a living picking bananas and tangerines. His circus needed workers, so “I went down and found a few people.”

Thirty-five years later, Judkins sat at the table of honor recently in front of an auditorium full of Mexicans who now earn their livings at America’s carnivals, circuses and fairs. The town’s mayor-elect, Victor Apolinar, who once ran the pony rides at Judkins’s Circus Chimera, smiled from the podium.

“I want to salute our friends and brothers from the American Union who are present,” he said. “All the Tlapacoyans thank you for coming to this town.”

A view of Tlapacoyan, the town where many Mexicans who now earn their livings at America’s carnivals, circuses and fairs come from. (Joshua Partlow/The Washington Post)

What does the word “carny” bring to mind? Barbed-wire tattoos and Marlboro reds? That culture is fading away. The new face of the American carnival worker is Mexican — more specifically, Tlapacoyan.

Each year, about 3,000 people from this small town and the surrounding villages decamp to the United States to man America’s Tilt-a-Whirls and fry up carnival-goers’ elephant ears. These seasonal migrants, who have found the jobs through word of mouth or family connections, make up a third to a half of the nation’s carnival workforce. Many were recruited by Judkins’s JKJ Workforce Agency.

Without them, said Monica Dowis, a manager at Paradise Amusements of Post Falls, Idaho, “we’d be out of business.”

“It would destroy the carnival industry,” said Betty Gillette, a carnival entrepreneur in Pittsfield, Maine, who has a sign on her office wall that reads “Powered by Mexicans.”

Grueling life on the road

The first words of English that Jose Ortiz learned were “two tickets.” He was 19, and he had come from Tlapacoyan by bus across the border and up to Illinois to load squealing children onto the Dizzy Dragons ride for Astro Amusement Co. Carnival culture confused him. The Gravitron. The Freak Out. The Ring of Fire.

“Corn dogs. People love corn dogs,” said Ortiz, now 27. “I don’t know why. Personally, I can’t stand them. But between funnel cakes and corn dogs, people go crazy.”

The work can be grueling. Each week, setting up and taking down rides, traveling from town to town, hosing down kiddie vomit. Researchers have found that pay often falls below minimum wage and workers don’t receive overtime pay. Customers can be demanding and racist.

“How do they call people, wet . . . wetbacks?” asked Jairo Huesca, who works with Guadagno & Sons Shows in Garden Grove, Calif. “They try to call us that. No, man, I’m dry. They think we are illegals. They harass us, you know. I’ve got papers. I don’t have to take that.”

The Tlapacoyans come to the United States on temporary work permits known as H-2B visas, specifically for non-farm labor. They spend up to 10 months on the job, then return home in winter. For many, separation is the most difficult part of the job.

“To be away from my mom and my wife and kids, it’s really hard,” Manuel Mendoza said.

Mendoza earned a degree in agricultural engineering from a university in Veracruz but could not find work that paid more than subsistence wages. With Helm & Sons Amusements in California, he has risen to supervisor. Farm­workers earn about $60 a week. Carnivals tend to pay about $350 to $400 a week.

“We cannot get that kind of money here” in Tlapacoyan, Mendoza said.

The workers generally sleep on bunks in trailers parked at the carnival grounds. They drive from town to town with the equipment and cook for each other. Several of them said they spend what little free time they have on quick shopping trips to Wal-Mart or other stores for basic supplies. Critics of the industry have described the housing as cramped and unsanitary.

The money sent back to relatives has helped transform Tlapacoyan, which means “place where you wash” in the indigenous Nahuatl language, reflecting its heavy rains and rushing rivers. In 2000, 129 people in Tlapacoyan owned computers; 10 years later, that number had risen to 1,754, according to the government statistical agency. The number of families living in homes with running water and floors other than dirt also has increased steadily. The growing economy has attracted several new medium-size Mexican chain stores to the city of 58,000.

Jairo Huesca used his savings to buy cattle for his father’s ranch. Juan Pablo Juarez pooled about $13,000 with his neighbors to build the Virgin of Guadalupe Church. He built his own house and supports eight relatives on his carnival salary. “I don’t have a car, but I’m happy with what I have,” he said.

Mayor-elect Apolinar used his early savings to put a concrete roof on his home. Now his political fortunes depend on the influence of the carnival workforce. After he left the circus, Apolinar ran Judkins’s recruitment office in Tlapacoyan, where he was responsible for choosing candidates for carnival jobs. Demand always outstripped supply. These were precious gifts that Apolinar doled out, and his influence grew even though he was part of no political party.

Carnivals have eased residents out of debt, financed surgeries, paid for iPhones and flat-screen televisions. “These remittances are what maintain us,” Apolinar said.

Seeing workers’ home town

Judkins, who lives in Rio Hondo, Tex., has organized a December festival for the workers in Tlapacoyan for the past eight years. Some American carnival owners take the opportunity to visit their employees.

“My husband, he didn’t want me to come here. You know, all the horror stories of Mexico,” said Dowis, of Spokane, Wash., whose carnival employs about 40 Mexicans. “But I felt that’s the part that was missing. I want to know how they live, what their world is like. They all come, they see my house, they know the way we live in America.”

From the balcony of the Hotel Oriente on Tlapacoyan’s main plaza, DBowis spent hours watching the goings-on. Truckloads of cattle and oranges. Parades for the Virgin of Guadalupe celebrations.

Every few minutes, one of her employees would drive by, wave and ask if she had everything she needed.

“You’d have to go to Riverfront Park in Spokane to see all these people. And they just hang out and they chatty-cath and they talk, not a care in the world,” she said. “In the U.S., there’s no caring anymore. Nobody goes out of their way to do something for somebody.

“ ‘Buenos dias.’ ‘Buenas noches.’ Not in America. You know, people don’t even look up and smile at you.”

Dowis and the other carnival owners have nothing but admiration for their Mexican employees. Hiring them is expensive. It costs about $1,000 per employee to arrange for bus or air travel and documentation.

They would rather hire Americans, if they could find ones willing to do the job. “They don’t show up,” said Gillette, the Pittsfield carnival operator. “They don’t want to work.”

To hire foreigners, the carnivals have to show that they cannot find enough American workers. They’re required to advertise their openings in newspapers. If anyone responds, the companies must call back at least three times and then send a certified letter.

“I put an ad in the newspaper for 40 positions,” said Jeanette Gil­more, owner of Smokey’s Greater Shows, based in Maine. “Travel. Work on weekends. Live in a bunkhouse. Last year I did not get one response. Most I’ve ever had was four.”

The Tlapacoyans say they must wear uniforms and be clean-
shaven on the job. Tattoos have to be covered with long sleeves. They take drug tests several times a season. On Sundays, they wear ties. They study English words: cotton candy, candy apple, snow cone. They are trained to be courteous.

“The carny is supposed to have no teeth, look awful,” said Juan Pablo Juarez, a Tlapacoyan resident. “We try to project another picture of the carnival. We’re not the same.”

Judkins spent the week of the festival running between events: torchlight processions, musical performances, dinners. At the soccer tournament for rival carnival teams, he moved through the stands, seeming to greet every fan by name.

Near the end of the final game, Judkins went down onto the field to photograph the penalty shootout. The victors fell onto the field in a happy tangle of limbs while the fans stood and cheered.

The winning team?

Judkins smiled. “Heart of America,” he said.

Gabriela Martinez in Mexico City contributed to this report.