On the mean and traffic-choked streets of Mexico City, a fearless superhero is fighting to protect the planet from the worst the internal combustion engine can throw at it. The mighty Peatonito (Little Pedestrian) pushes cars blocking the path of pedestrians, creates crosswalks with spray paint, and climbs on vehicles parked on sidewalks - though his mother has begged him to stop stepping on them. "Pedestrians are happy because they finally have a defender," Peatonito said, his face covered by a wrestling mask adorned with a pedestrian symbol and wearing a striped cape (sewn by his grandma) adorned with the black and white stripes of a pedestrian crossing.
"We live in a car dictatorship. Nobody had fought for pedestrian rights until some activists emerged a few years ago." Meanwhile, below the city streets five clowns are on a similar mission to send up urban incivility, barging into a metro carriage making monkey noises and holding a sign saying "It's better without pushing."
Peatonito and the clowns from the civic association the Claustrofobos (Claustrophobes) are among a wave of activists fighting uncivil behavior and bad urban planning in this metropolis of 21 million people, four million cars and five million daily metro commuters. In 2013, around 30 groups from across the country formed The Pedestrian League, which published a "Mexican Charter for Pedestrian Rights" and lobbies against public policies that favor cars.
Some groups post pictures on social media to shame drivers illegally parked on sidewalks or in handicapped spots. With buckets of paint, they create crosswalks or trace sidewalks. But humor is the weapon used by Peatonito and Claustrofobos. They face a city where drivers only need an ID and 704 pesos ($46) to get a license and joke that red lights are a "suggestion". Underground, moody metro riders battle to enter and exit trains like rugby players in a scrum.
Six philosophy graduates founded the group "Ponte la del Metro" to restore metro etiquette in 2010, and later created Claustrofobos. "We think that giving information through art and culture makes information more fun," said co-founder Aldo Giordano, 27, who works at a film production company. This year, the city gave them one million pesos ($65,000) to fund the clown troupe, conduct research and make a short film.
As the clowns entered one of the orange metro trains, some riders stared blankly at their phones, but many smiled and took pictures, happy to see something other than illegal sellers of CDs or other contraband. A curly-haired clown moaned and pretended to faint while holding a "baby" (her purse) wrapped in a purple scarf, mocking the unwillingness of younger commuters to give up their seats.
"There are no gentlemen like before. Now they act like they're half asleep to avoid giving up their seats to women or the elderly," said Susana Hernandez, a 53-year-old housewife whose frown turned into a smile during the brief show. The performances can have an immediate effect. At escalators, they convince people standing still on the left side to move to the right and let others pass.
The clowns also bring smiles at ticket booths, where sellers and customers are often rude to each other. "We're trying to break a vicious circle," said Julio Cesar Ortega, the 27-year-old artistic director of the Clownoscopio troupe, which works with Claustrofobos, after dabbing white make up on his face with a red dot on his nose. But changing attitudes will take longer than the daily commute. "Many people congratulate us but also tell us that nothing will change," Giordano said. "I think we are planting the seeds, and another generation will obtain this change."
Claustrofobos and Peatonito both say they were partly inspired by former Bogota mayor Antanas Mockus, who deployed mimes to mock traffic violators. Peatonito aims to reduce traffic deaths in a city where pedestrians account for more than half of around 1,000 annual road fatalities, according to health ministry statistics. On a recent weekday morning, Peatonito policed a side road of the capital's iconic and congested Reforma boulevard.
"We need you," said a driver who sheepishly reversed after Peatonito pushed his car back with both hands on the hood, both laughing as they waved goodbye. Peatonito's real identity is Jorge Canez, who works in non-governmental urban policy group. But twice a week, he puts on a black mask with a green pedestrian symbol. He even has a business card. People contact him on Facebook and Twitter, asking for help to improve their streets. He spray paints circles around holes on the sidewalk and sends pictures to city officials.
In a country where wrestlers are national heroes, he got the idea two years ago after watching a lucha libre (Mexican wrestling) event. "You have to be creative for people to be entertained and want to help you in this pedestrian revolution," Peatonito said. With his newfound fame, he gets invitations to urban planning events abroad. "I'll keep doing this until nobody is run over," Peatonito said, as he removes his mask and cape and turns to walk away, blending in with ordinary Mexicans walking to work.