Playing with Fire

On first read, this may appear to be a tale set in the past. It is about a boy who was let down by all the adults in his life, spent his formative years in a children’s home before daring to dream of a life of travel and adventure, before finally finding a home by joining the circus. However, Rafael Martinho’s story is a modern-day narrative, and it started here in the Algarve.

I was initially interested in interviewing Rafael after I saw him perform a dazzling fire juggling act at the circus in Lagos and realised he was the performer I had seen appearing in Portugal’s Got Talent. As our interview progressed, however, I began to feel that the television appearance was a small part of a more remarkable and interesting narrative. His is the story of a boy who, despite many hardships, refused to give up and never lost faith in himself.

“My Mum and Dad were always hooked on cocaine and heroin, and I was unwanted. When I was born, my father was arrested, and my mother was disoriented; she didn’t know what to do and left me with my grandmother and went to England. My maternal grandmother Maria Vitória raised me until I was nine years old. But, at that time, she was an 88-year-old woman, and having been widowed three times, she had a lot of sadness in her life”, Rafael says. He confesses that as a kid, he was angry and could be disruptive; they rubbed each other up the wrong way. “I did not trust people as a kid – I was living with the fear that I couldn’t trust anyone.” 

He was terrified of abandonment, a fear he still lives with today. But he struggled to fit in, perhaps believing that whatever he did, he would always be viewed as the son of a drug addict. “I never touched drugs, but by the time I was nine, I was already being accused of smoking and getting involved in drugs. I came home with chilblains from the wind from riding my bike and my grandmother thought I was hanging out with the wrong crowd. My mother got accused of stealing from home, and I was raised with that accusation.”

His grandmother couldn’t handle the situation, so he was transferred to his other grandmother, Idilina, in Lisbon. Just after his ninth birthday, his father got out of prison and it must have briefly looked to the young Rafael that his life might take a change for the better. But then Idilina was involved in a road accident. After being hit by a truck, she was in a coma and died. Afterwards, Rafael lived briefly with an uncle, aunt, and cousin, but that didn’t work out either.

“I walked from place to place for a few weeks until I went to a children’s home, Casa da Palmeira, where I stayed from the age of 10 until I was 18.” Life remained tough for Rafael – he was bullied at the home and in school and didn’t feel safe.

When he left the home at 18, he thought it would be time for him to take care of his grandmother. “I love my grandmother very much, and I’m very grateful to her, but our temperaments don’t fit.” He ended up on the street.

All too often, we know how this story ends – it’s never well. Many in this situation feel angry and seek revenge on the world, so how does he feel? “Even rich people suffer, maybe from different things, but money also brings problems. This upbringing gave me the freedom to leave and move around. But you need unbelievable faith to get through it.”

In addition to self-belief, it is undeniable that one of the things that got Rafael to where he is today is friendship. He was 18, and living on the streets of Lagos with no money when a chance encounter at 6 am was to change his life. Rafael bumped into Mika, a 29-year-old Finnish man who was a recovering heroin addict and on a journey to walk from Portugal to Seville. Mika was waiting for a shop to open to get supplies and they got talking. Rafael, with no other plans, asked if he could join him and his dog. 

“He taught me the basics of juggling, how to walk long distances, travel and plan the day. We used to camp everywhere. He had a heroin addiction, but he taught me values and to do what you say you are going to do. He was like the older brother I never had, and he guided me. He was a teacher, brother, friend and master. We always talked for hours before we went to sleep. It was so important to have him in my life.”

From 18 to 21, Rafael travelled across Europe on foot. “Sometimes I had money, sometimes I had nothing.” He started to make a small income from juggling at traffic lights for waiting motorists, developing his act further by setting light to a baton, which he juggled across his body.

When he returned to Portugal, he made a living by juggling at the Areeiro roundabout in Lisbon, where he made around €35 a day. He obtained his driving licence while living on the streets and bought a van. “I am alone in life, but juggling on the street, which is so underrated, can do good in the world.”

Rafael actually dreamed of being a rapper and would post videos on Instagram. “I believed that I was an artist and I just wanted to call attention to myself,” he recalls. But after eight years, he had fully honed his skill as a street performer. “It’s all about practice.”

During the summer, Rafael would perform his act on the streets in Germany, where he could make more money. He was there when one of the producers of Portugal’s Got Talent contacted him on Instagram. He immediately returned to Portugal. “When I first auditioned for the show, I had nothing. I had sold my van and I was sleeping on the streets. Sometimes, I couldn’t shower, or I found a gym to have one. Sometimes, I made friends who invited me to their place. I didn’t even have my juggling stick anymore. So it was a chance to rebuild everything I had lost.” 

At the audition stage of the talent show, Rafael won the affection of the judges: Sílvia Alberto and Manuel Moura dos Santos, Rui Massena, Inês Aires Pereira and Filomena Cautela. One of them said; “​​I was with you from start to finish and I got goosebumps. I believe it’s not easy to make a living from this and so I congratulate you for not giving up because it’s so worth it.”

“The judges were very cool and honest people – the whole production was excellent and it was a great team,” Rafael told me. 

“I never got into heavy drugs, unlike my parents, and I wanted to share my work, to see if people understand my story, and try to make a difference in this world. I would like to make a living with my art, but above all, I want to make a difference and inspire people.” 

© André Photography

On TV 7 Dias, Rafael Martinho burst into tears when talking about his mother and the fear he feels about losing her to drugs. “Do I fear that she will die? With everything I’ve suffered, it would be easier for her not to hurt me anymore. It’s complicated.” He also has minimal contact with his father. “I really like my father, but he is in prison”, but he thinks he has probably seen the show on TV.”

Rafael made it to the live finals, which first aired on 3 March in RTP1. “I was very nervous. But once I got on stage, I just focused on the routine in my mind and the music.” To rehearse, Rafael goes through the routine in his head the whole time – he can visualise everything in his head and all the moves. He quite often closes his eyes so the body moves on muscle memory. “I have a good mind,” he says.

It was certainly appreciated on the show, with the judge’s comment: “It was a dance with fire. It was very beautiful, this interaction as if there were two characters, the fire and you.”

Rafael enjoyed the camaraderie with the other finalists, including rapper Nuno Couto, who became a friend and whom he went to watch in Porto. He also loved hanging out with the kids, whom he would entertain in the moments they were waiting together backstage. They all hugged him when they parted company. “I had an overdose of love,” he confesses. The greatest thing he took away from the experience, however, is knowing he inspired children who watch the show. 

As one of the judges commented at this audition; “For someone who does what you do comes to a show like Portugal’s Got Talent, it’s the only television program that gives space for a large audience to have access to art like yours.” 

Rafael believes that “Kids need guidance – a lot of people are misguided. Young people are not encouraged to explore their full potential; they are pushed into getting a wage, but this might not be the best course for them.” 

Despite not finishing in the top three, he achieved one crucial milestone. “I want to change my life; I’m desperate in that aspect,” he told reporters at the time. Shortly after the show, Rafael approached the Dallas circus and asked if he could join. He now counts them as his family. He felt exploited during previous experiences of working in circuses, i.e. meagre wages, no food and no place to stay, but at Dallas, things are different: “They take care of me, give me food and support, a salary, a place to live, and food. The circus is run by two brothers who are real gentlemen.”

For now, Rafael is fully dedicated to his art. “If I hadn’t focused on juggling, I wouldn’t be doing what I do today and wouldn’t leave people speechless. I gave up my right and privilege to eat and sleep better to invest in this. I’m just trying to do things in a way that makes me happy, and if I’m alone at a traffic light, I can make a minimum wage at the end of the month and that’s okay.”

His ultimate goal is to perform with Cirque du Soleil, but he also wants to use his experiences to educate others. “I want to visit jails and children’s homes and make a difference to people. I am fair and loyal, and I want people to be fair and loyal to me.” 

Finally, Rafael has come to appreciate the life he has been given. “I believe I have motivation, not a superpower. I have a kick-arse life now. My past self would have looked at me and been envious. Yes, I had it hard, but if you move your arse, things will eventually come; it’s okay to be down, but opportunities will come.”

This story has elements of a Dickensian novel. It demonstrates that positivity and faith in the human spirit will get you through anything while throwing you good and bad characters along the way. But Rafael’s life has taken him on a journey and given him wisdom beyond his 26 years. Whatever the future holds for Rafael now, he really is on fire, and the future looks bright.

You can see Rafael in Circo Dallas during June in Lagoa. At the time of going to print, the dates had not been confirmed but will be available on


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