Femibici and Insolente: The Mexican chic cycling debate

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The language barrier being what it was, I still don’t know exactly why I was invited to be a keynote speaker at the 5th National Urban Cycling Congress that took place in Oaxaca, Mexico, at the end of September, though I’m extremely glad I went.

It was hard to figure out what I was being asked to speak about, either — something about changing transportation paradigms in cities.

Several students contacted me before the conference, though, and asked if I would be sure to speak about gender. The topic fit the bill and has been on mind quite a bit lately, so I came prepared with a talk about the gender gap in urban cycling in the US and some of the economic barriers that I believe are behind it — and that thus are major reasons behind the much larger gap between bicycling and non-bicycling in general.

It turned out that this is a hot topic. After my talk, hands went up throughout the room. Among the first was a young man who explained that most women just don’t want to work on bikes. “How many women in the room are bike mechanics?” I asked. About twenty hands went up, and many stayed up; mechanics or not, everyone had something to say. Still, I was apparently the only person in the room interested in spending any energy rebutting this guy’s idea; everyone else had bigger fish to fry.

A woman at the back, representing the Femibici organization in Guadalajara, made a passionate speech about the potential for bicycling to change not only transportation paradigms but gender paradigms, and how she sees not just an opportunity but a mandate to move away from oppressive stereotypes of femininity. This earned her an ovation.

In response, another woman whose affiliation I didn’t catch pointed out that in Mexico even the poorest women work hard to dress up every day and look good, and that if advocates want to make riding a bicycle seem realistic to them, they will have to acknowledge that priority, whether they like it or not.

A woman from Mexico City, Laura, spoke next. She sat in the front row and was one of the more elegantly put-together people attending the conference, in strappy heels and a diaphanous skirt. She represented an organization called Insolente. For her, she explained, riding a bicycle in high heels and beautiful clothes, was incredibly empowering, and her personal style demonstrated to other women a new idea of what was possible.

Another woman stood up and said that the gender gap may be big in the United States, but in Oaxaca it is even bigger — a survey she helped conduct found that 96% of urban everyday riders were men. But, someone pointed out, there is also a culture of recreational riding on weekends in the mountains around town, and these seemed to be a more even gender split.

The conversation continued for almost 40 minutes. Afterward, standing on the pedestrian street outside the evening venue at an art museum, next to a giant wicker bicycle that hung across the right of way, I talked for a while with Laura and Laura, the two unwaveringly upbeat Insolentes at the conference. There was no talk of feminism or of the arguments that had occurred inside. They were just excited about bicycling, excited about the conference, excited to be there, excited that I was there. They gave me a postcard with their manifesto on it, in the form of a poem, and read it for me, translating it line by line. Here it is, transcribed:

Ser Insolente es más que cometer insolencias.
Es más que romper reglas. Es crear las proprias.

Ser Insolente no es llamar la atención, es que tú seas la atención.
No es un qué dirán. Ni un grito, ni una opinión.
Es acción.

Ser Insolente no es rebeldía, ni revolución.
Es cambio.

Ser Insolente es hacer lo imposible.
Es rodar.

Ser Insolente es ser solución.

Ser Insolente, es cometer la insolencia de subirse a una bici en una de las ciudades más grandes del mundo.

Ser Insolente es creer que las cosas pueden ser diferentes.
Bienvenidos todos aquellos que crean lo mismo.

If anyone feels inspired to translate that, please do! (See the comments for a translation.)

Another new friend later told me she had been part of the Insolentes when they had first formed, but that now she felt “there is nothing behind it.” And she didn’t like the way, when male acquaintances found out she was an Insolente, that they would immediatley shift the conversation, saying, for instance, “Ohhhh, nice legs!”

Insolente wasn’t her revolution, and, for many of the same reasons, it isn’t mine. I relate far more to the vision of the Femibici representatives, with their pragmatic determination to break down gender stereotypes for good. But not everyone shares that vision — and not everyone shares the same stakes. There is no reason high heels can’t be just as good as sturdy work boots for kicking down walls, and when they’re backed with the Insolente attitude they may turn out, in some places and among some people, to be exactly the right tool for the job.