Mexico’s Pedestrian Activists Are Waging a Battle for Safer Streets

Ten years ago, Jonadab Martinez was working in the face of constant tragedy. He was a legal manager at a local bus company in Guadalajara, dealing with the toll of death and injuries left by private minibuses on the notoriously under-regulated streets of Mexico’s second-largest city.

The lack of pedestrian protections in Mexico had been on Martinez’s mind since childhood. Pushing his grandmother around Mexico City in her wheelchair taught him the most important rule of Mexican streets: Cars always have the right of way, no matter what.

But then Martinez took a trip to Europe. There, he was blown away by the stark difference in drivers’ respect for pedestrians and cyclists. Most motorists stopped at red lights and crosswalks; the streets were relatively calm and safe. When he returned Mexico, Martinez vowed to take action to make change. So, one day, he turned to a friend who knew how to do makeup.

“Make me up like a mime,” he said.

Thus Martinez became El Mimo—The Mime. He began appearing in busy intersections around Guadalajara to silently direct traffic, in a bid to create more visibility about street safety. “It was a citizen’s reaction to a society lacking respect for the pedestrian,” he said.

The character eventually become a minor local celebrity. He’d never practiced miming before, but as his street activism buzzed around town, Martinez found himself with a new mission, and a new career. He left his job at the (now defunct) private bus company, and got a position with the government working on the city’s growing light rail system. He founded a group called “Yo Respeto Al Peaton” (“I Respect the Pedestrian”), whose members rallied for pedestrian safety at street intersections around the city.

And after five years of these guerrilla tactics, Martinez decided to work for change from inside the system: In 2015, he won a seat as one of Mexico’s 500 Federal Deputies. Now’s he’s fighting to pass a first-of-its-kind national street safety legislation, the General Road Safety Law.  

But as his unlikely career in mime-based activism shows, reforming Mexico’s streets takes more than just ordinary advocacy.

A national health crisis

Roughly 40 people die in traffic each day in Mexico, due to speeding cars, drunk driving, and a lack of traffic law enforcement. Its streets the 7th deadliest in the world, according to the World Health Organization. Mexico’s current safety regulations and monitoring systems are sorely lacking: Basic systems and oversight that most developed countries take for granted, like a database that records a driver’s accident history and speeding violations, or standardized driver’s license tests, don’t exist at the national level. In December, a local newspaper sent a legally blind citizen into Mexico’s equivalent of the DMV and they were able to get a permit.

People cross the Zocalo closed to vehicle traffic on World Car-Free Day in Mexico City in 2014. (Tomas Bravo/Reuters)

According the Mexican government, road traffic deaths are the leading cause of death for Mexicans aged 5 to 29—a shocking statistic in a country known for a drug war that has seen more than 150,000 killed since 2006.

But even those staggering traffic fatality statistics are very conservative, according to Areli Carreón, a longtime activist and a founder of Bicitekas, an organization that has spearheaded many pro-cycling initiatives in Mexico City. Bicitekas, along with other organizations, successfully lobbied for the construction of numerous bike lanes in the nation’s capital and participated in organizing the city’s ciclovía recreativa—a weekly Sunday shutdown of Reforma Avenue for cyclists, rollerbladers, and pedestrians. Perhaps their hardest-fought victory was the passing of Mexico City’s own municipal road safety law in 2015. What happens in the capital “echoes around the country,” Carreón said.

Bicitekas and other organizations have been working with Martinez for four years on legislation to bring a similar set of guidelines to all of Mexico. The national road safety law would bring responsibility to all levels of government from the top down, creating a policy framework for making road safety a priority throughout the country. The latest draft is made up of 69 articles that beef up traffic enforcement, drunk-driving penalties, and vehicle insurance. It also focuses on improving infrastructure, implementing national audits to evaluate the stages of planning, construction, and operation of public transit. To help finance these mobility initiatives, the law requires the development of a National Road Safety Fund.

Altogether, the law aims to transform the government’s current haphazard approach to traffic safety; among advocates, it’s an critical step toward reshaping the country’s devil-may-care driving attitudes.

Senator Patricia Mercado will present the law in Mexico’s Senate on April 23 on behalf of Martinez and others who worked on the legislation. Lawmakers will review the law prior to an official vote later this year.

Fighting for the little guy

Martinez isn’t the only activist who’s used street theater to draw attention to traffic safety. Most famously, there’s Peatónito—the Little Pedestrian—a masked crusader who made international news in 2013 for mimicking lucha libre wrestling moves on cars that broke traffic customs. A former civil servant whose real name is Jorge Cáñez, Peatónito became known for walking over vehicles blocking intersections, a common sight in Mexico. The image of a masked luchador battling onrushing cars struck a chord, because it was “like a defender, someone who fights for the rights of the pedestrians,” Cáñez said. “The cars are the emperors of the streets, a dictatorship of motorists. They always have the right of way.”

But the political climate in Mexico may be starting to shift. A wave of discontent with political corruption, violence, and inequality led to the 2018 election of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a left-leaning candidate who won with a message of anti-corruption and political reform. Under former President Enrique Peña Nieto, Martinez made little headway with his road safety law, which twice failed to make it to a vote in the Senate. But with newfound government support, now the momentum is with the activists.

Even if it’s passed, no one believes the law will calm the streets overnight. “It’s going to take a lot of time, but once we have this regulation, it’s the first step to start modifying budgets, and the way that cities are made,” said Carreón. “We’ll be able to turn off the faucet, little by little.”

Peatónito, who recently enrolled in a graduate program in urban planning in California, agreed. “There’s a lot of hope,” he said.

After the law previously failed to reach the voting stage, many members of the road safety community thought it would be years until it was brought to the Senate again. But tragedy changed that. In November 2018, a prominent cycling activist named Manu Vara, head of the Puebla City government’s Department of Road Culture, was killed riding his bike to work after a bus ran a red light. That night, hundreds of bicycle activists occupied Puebla’s central plaza to ride in his memory, and his death became national news.

“That very same tragedy that we had, multiplied by 40, that’s 40 families being torn apart every day,” said Armando Pliego, the director of mobility management for the city of Puebla and a longtime friend and collaborator of Vara’s. [Editor’s note: Pliego is also a friend of the author.] “That’s the tragedy: We shouldn’t be so comfortable with people dying on the roads.”

In the weeks following his death, Manu’s name became synonymous with road safety in Mexico, gaining prominence with the Twitter hashtag #ManuVive, and the activist community received renewed support from an array of newly elected politicians. The wave of change led by President Lopez Obrador seeped down to many in the senate who encouraged the law to be re-submitted.

Martinez finished his federal deputy term in 2018, but he was elected as a city representative in Guadalajara, and along with many organizations was involved in this month’s presentation of the law. He calls Vara’s death a “trigger” that “turned on something that hadn’t yet been lit.” He blamed the law’s previous failure to pass on a lack of political will and bad timing—it was proposed close to an election. Now, both those factors are in place. To build more support and awareness about the new law, eight public forums were held around Mexico in February and March. “I believe that the law is going to come to pass after all these years of hard work,” he said.

While Martinez awaits the fate of the national law, he has continued working on local initiatives in Guadalajara. Last month, the practice of squeezing a child between two adults on a motorcycle or scooter became a finable offense (inspiring its own hashtag: #NoMasNiñosSandwich). But he hasn’t painted his face in nearly two years. Now that he’s an elected official, people think he’s doing it for political interest when he dons his old persona.

“People loved El Mimo more when I was an activist,” said Martinez. “In Mexico, people don’t really like politicians.”

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