August 7, 2014

A Watermelon (Helmet) To Save The World

Francisco Watermelon #2

Mexico’s Sargento Sandía, the Watermelon Sargent.

Every Wednesday night on the streets of the city of Torreón in the area of La Comarca Lagunera, a group of cyclists gathers around 8:30 p.m., often led by a smiling man in a Nutcase Watermelon helmet.

This region in Mexico, at the intersection of the Durango and Coahuila states, is known as one of the country’s most violent and deadly, with murder rates that triple the national average. That means an average of one killing each day, most of which are drug-related.

But the group that gets together each Wednesday is determined to take back the streets in the most visceral way possible, by being in those streets together, riding bikes in a group, without fear.

Their leader is a gentle-spoken university professor named Francisco Valdés Perezgasga. Valdés Perezgasga started the weekly rides three years ago and founded, with a partner, a cycling activist group called Ruedas del Desierto.

These days up to 300 people can gather for these Critical-Mass-style street rides, and even if they don’t know Francisco personally, they know his nickname – he’s generally referred to as “Sargento Sandía” in Spanish, which translates to Sargent Watermelon.

Francisco says that he bought a Nutcase Watermelon for two reasons. The first was simply that he saw the helmet and fell instantly in love with it.

Valdés Perezgasga also bought the Watermelon as something of a joke, because the fruit is a common specialty of the Durango-Coahuila region. He didn’t realize that the Nutcase Watermelon would soon become like a mascot symbol for the group and its goals.

Because he can be so bossy on group bike rides, yelling out to people to “Stop!” or “Stay in the lane!” Valdés soon earned the title “Sargento” and then “Sargento Sandía.”

Francisco Watermelon #3

Francisco said when he started the rides he was really just interested in getting people together to take back a little bit of road space by riding their bikes, but over time he’s realized that the group’s greatest strength is in its ability to bring people together as a community to combat fear and build that sense of common purpose.

“Our strategy is lobbying the local government for more and better cycling infrastructure and better traffic regulations,” Valdés Perezgasga says. “We want to show that cycling is not as dangerous as it seems, so we started weekly rides at night, also so that people could see a different city, a more exciting city – with the hope that people attending our ride might start cycling every day. And we have seen results – there are more commuters on our streets since we started the group.”

For more lore on the Nutcase Watermelon, read its history here.