Thousands of traffic enforcers struggle grimly to keep the Philippine capital’s notoriously gridlocked roads moving every day, but Ramiro Hinojas does it with a smile and a little help from Michael Jackson.
Rain or shine, seven days a week, the diminutive 55-year-old stands in the middle of one of Manila’s major intersections, and to the cacophony of roaring engines, puts on an elaborate dance show as he deftly guides the traffic flow.
The struts and footwork may have been copied from the King of Pop, Hinojas’ deceased US idol, but the flare and passion by which he mixes them with hand signals to direct amused motorists are uniquely his own.
His sleek moves, which appear on Youtube, have made him a minor celebrity and a champion for the country’s lowly paid -traffic force, which is faced with the impossible task of trying to keep roads flowing freely.
“It gives me joy to see people happy while they’re stuck in traffic, because I know how the rush hour can make anyone crazy,” Hinojas told a reporter in between breaks at the main junction in Manila’s Macapagal Boulevard.
The father of three has been adding even more spice to his routine this month, dressing up in a Santa Claus outfit to help motorists cruise into the Christmas season.
One of 16 children from an impoverished family in the central Philippines, Hinojas came to live in the chaotic slums of Manila as a boy.
He found his calling as a traffic enforcer about a decade ago when he was laid off from his previous job as a security guard.
Hinojas said he decided to -introduce the dance routines in an effort to get motorists to take notice and follow his instructions.
“So I picked up the dance moves of Michael Jackson, and adapted them for my routine,” he said.
The Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA), the agency that oversees traffic management in the megacity of 12 million, said it employed about 2,000 full-time enforcers.
However, the number could run into the many thousands, because various districts where the MMDA does not operate also deputize their own traffic volunteers. Hinojas is one of those deputies, and easily the most flamboyant.
With their blue or green uniforms, the enforcers crowd small and big intersections even when there are perfectly working traffic lights, ready to pounce on erring speedsters who ignore the signals.
They are supposed to help out when traffic lights fail, or when perennial floods render areas impassable.
However, because some roads are so densely packed and slow moving, vehicles often get caught by the red light in the middle of the junction, meaning the enforcers have to take over the chaotic road management.
MMDA spokeswoman Alu Dorotan said that apart from being exposed to terrible pollution, traffic enforcers sometimes fall victim to “road rage,” partly because they have the power to issue motorists’ fines for traffic violations.
At least two have been wounded in gun attacks by drivers since September, the MMDA said.
The assailants in both instances have been caught and charged in court, but in a country where unlicensed firearms proliferate and where rights groups complain of a culture of impunity, Dorotan said more attacks were likely.
“Other constables have been punched and verbally abused in scenarios that could have turned worse,” Dorotan said.
Hinojas said his dance routines were precisely meant to relieve those kinds of tensions, and entertained commuters often show their appreciation by honking their horns as he wriggles his bottom and pirouettes to pull in oncoming traffic.
Others take the time to stop at a nearby mall to buy him food and offer cash donations that augment his measly take-home pay, which equates to less than US$3 a day.
“He is very nice, and dances for us while we’re stuck in traffic,” said a smiling Reynaldo Nieto, a bus driver who passes by the busy intersection several times a day, and a self-proclaimed Hinojas fan.