The struggles of the world's hairiest family

By Sara Lentati
BBC World Service

image copyrightEVA ARIDJIS
image captionJesus Aceves (left) and other members of his family

Jesus Aceves was born with a rare condition that means he has thick hair all over his face. About 30 members of his family also have hypertrichosis making them almost certainly the hairiest family in human history. They feature in a documentary Chuy, The Wolf Man by film-maker Eva Aridjis which is being released in Mexico this month.

As a child, the thick, dark hair that covers his entire face quickly earned Aceves the nickname "The Little Wolf". He grew up in the small town of Loreto in north-west Mexico where, as a result of his appearance, his family was shunned by the local community.

By the age of 12 he had started travelling from city to city to work at fairgrounds. One summer he sold tickets for a Ferris wheel, another year he ran a stall where people popped balloons to win prizes. It was there that a circus owner spotted him.

image copyrightACEVES
image captionAceves (pictured left, as a child) is called Chuy by his family - a nickname often given to people called Jesus

Find out more

"My life in the circus started when I was 13," Aceves says in Eva Aridjis's film, Chuy, The Wolf Man. The circus owner asked if any other family members had the same condition - and by this time Aceves' two younger cousins, Larry and Danny, had also been born with hypertrichosis.

"The man said he'd pay us well and said he wanted all of us. He said he would house us and there'd be money. I said, 'Yes.'"

The three boys were signed up by the circus and spent several years travelling around Mexico where they used to greet the audience and have their picture taken.

Accompanied by Aceves's mother, they always had somewhere comfortable to stay and plenty of food to eat but there was one thing that he didn't like.

"We were always locked up. They were presenting us as attractions so we couldn't be seen on the street. I didn't like that, being locked up so people wouldn't see us."

image copyrightARIDJIS
image caption"I tell people, 'God made me this way'"

As a young child, Aceves had wanted to hide away. He didn't like going outside and at school he was bullied by other children, who pulled his facial hair and called him names. But his self-esteem grew stronger as he grow older. Now, even at the age of 41, he has conflicting emotions of shame and pride in being who he is.

He says doesn't regret having worked in circuses.

"It's not a bad place where you make money doing something bad. It's a decent job. As an artist you entertain people and make them laugh," he says.

image copyrightARIDJIS
image captionAt one point Aceves worked at a timber yard to spend more time with his partner and daughter

But there was one tough time, touring the US with an American circus, when he became seriously depressed. Lonely, isolated, and unable to speak much English, he almost drank himself to death.

"I used to drink a lot of beer. I would never eat and my liver was killing me… I wanted to liberate myself with the drinking. But I was doing the opposite, I was destroying myself," he says.

Fortunately he pulled through and went on to perform in circuses all over the world.

He learned to walk the high wire as part of an act in Coney Island's Sideshow and how to walk up a ladder of swords while travelling with the Circus of Horrors, which brought him to the UK in 2012.

image copyrightARIDJIS
image captionTaking in the sea air on Worthing Pier

Aceves had hoped to make enough money to set up a small business near the home he shared with his partner, Victoria, and youngest daughter, Araceli, in the state of Mexico.

But their 10-year relationship broke down soon after his return from the UK and he's now back in the family home in Loreto, earning money by picking beans on a farm.

Aceves and most of his family live in two houses, next door to each other, that were given to them by the mayor when Aceves and his cousins were young, because no-one would rent them a home. One house was for Aceves's mother and the other for Larry and Danny's mother. Today, each holds about 10 family members.

image copyrightARIDJIS
image captionAceves with his youngest daughter, Araceli, and former partner, Victoria

Aceves has three daughters, all of whom have been born with hypertrichosis. His eldest, Karla, is now in her early 20s. Her mother left when she was a baby and because her father was always away she was raised by her grandmother.

"It's harder for the women because it's less socially acceptable for a woman to be very hairy," says Eva Aridjis. "Most of the women have been abandoned by the non-hairy partners that fathered their children. But for the men, they are actually considered virile and tend to have a lot of girlfriends.

"Karla is the only one in the family who has finished high school but she still has a hard time finding work."

image copyrightAridjis

After giving birth to a baby, she was abandoned by the child's father.

"He's now in the US, in Texas, and she's a single mother," says Aridjis.

Aceves's great-grandmother was the first of his relatives to be born with excessive hair on her face. Now about half of his family have the genetic mutation.

Other cases of hypertrichosis

image copyrightALAMY
  • The earliest recorded case is Petrus Gonsalvus. Born in 1537 in Tenerife, he was exhibited at royal courts in Europe with his children who also had hypertrichosis.
  • Julia Pastrana from Mexico (pictured), could be distantly related to Aceves's family. Exhibited as an "ape woman" she married her manager and died shortly after giving birth in 1860. Her son lived only a few days longer. Her husband continued to tour with their embalmed bodies.
  • A woman called Krao was born in Thailand in 1876 and became the marvel of her age, touted as proof of Darwin's "Missing Link" between apes and humans.
  • Russia's Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy was one of the stars of the American circus, Barnum and Bailey's. By the 1880s he had become one of the highest paid sideshow performers.

"No-one's really sure what causes hypertrichosis, or how to cure it. What they do know is that there are about 50 documented cases in human history and it was my fate to be one of them," says Aceves. "We are the hairiest family of our species."

In Aceves's family, the X chromosome appears to be the location of the mutation. "This means that for the men who have this mutation, all of their daughters will inherit it but none of their sons. And the women who have the gene, half of their children will also have hypertrichosis, regardless of whether they're male or female," says Aridjis.

"Scientists have studied Aceves and his family. They were particularly interested in this excess of hair because they wanted to find a cure for alopecia - for baldness. They know it's a gene that has laid dormant for a very long time which suddenly resurfaces, but they don't know how to turn it on or off."

image copyrightARIDJIS

Aceves trims the hair on his face and some of the women in his family shave their faces.

"The women tend to have beards and hair on their foreheads so it's a little sparser. For the men it's impossible to shave completely because they have hair on their nose and eyelids. They can't afford afford electrolysis or anything hi-tech," says Aridjis.

While these other procedures, such as laser hair removal, would help reduce the total amount of hair, they would not permanently remove it.

image copyrightARIDJIS

Aceves has not done any circus work for a couple of years and says he has no plans to return to it in the future.

He is now determined to ensure all the younger members of his family born with hypertrichosis get an education, and have the confidence to look for jobs beyond circuses, freak shows and "wolf" roles.

In the past, some of them have begun circus work before they can even walk. One of Aceves's nephews, Derian, was one year old when a circus owner came to their home to make an offer. Derian's mother, Gladys, had been adamant that her two sons would finish school, but with no partner to support her she made the difficult decision to let people stare and touch her son for a small fee.

She spent a few weeks travelling with a circus, presenting her little boy to the crowds as "Derian from the Wolf Boys".

image copyrightARIDJIS

Aceves' cousin Danny, with whom he began his life in the circus, also continued with it and was taken on by a well-known clown who taught him acrobatics, how to swing on the trapeze, and his favourite discipline - the trampoline.

image copyrightARIDJIS
image captionDanny on a trampoline

Another cousin, Eliud, is thinking about enhancing his circus act by growing his hair longer and replacing his incisor teeth with prosthetic fangs. One day he hopes to own his own circus.

Other family members, though, have succeeded in forging other careers. Aceves's sister Lilia was, until recently, a police officer in Zacatecas. And his cousin Larry now lives in San Bernadino in California, where he runs his own business renting out bouncy castles and other party equipment.

image copyrightARIDJIS
image captionAceves's sister Lilia

All his life, Aceves has been compared to a wolf. Sometimes wolf howls follow him down the street. In the opening scene of Aridjis's film, he visits a zoo in Mexico City in order to see one of the animals up close.

"Both of our faces are covered in hair and we both live trapped - them in the zoo and me in this body," he says. "At least the wolves treat me the same as they treat other humans."

Interviews with Jesus Aceves and images courtesy of Eva Aridjis, who made the documentary Chuy, The Wolf Man.

Subscribe to the BBC News Magazine's email newsletter to get articles sent to your inbox.

Related Topics