in Frieze | 05 JAN 94
Featured in
Issue 14

The Masked Avenger

Super Barrio

in Frieze | 05 JAN 94

Super Barrio is a living comic strip character, a masked man who wrestles with evil slumlords and corrupt politicians. Though his true identity remains a mystery, he's one of Mexico City's most popular figures, and since his first public appearance in 1987 - two years after the earthquake which left 150,000 homeless -he's been a potent, if unsettlingly whimsical symbol of the struggle for tenants' rights in the city's barrios.In leading the fight for fair housing, Super Barrio mediates between municipal authorities and indigent tenants, and when necessary, rallies crowds to prevent landlords from evicting poor families. Because of his popularity, the police are reluctant to arrest him. Publicised meetings with cabinet-level officials have also endowed him with a certain legitimacy; Super Barrio is the unofficial ambassador of a cartoon government, elected by those whose reality the actual government continually ignores.

His bright yellow and red gear, with the letters 'SB' emblazoned on the shirt, may recall Superman's costume, but the principal reference is to professional wrestling, known in Mexico as lucha libre. Super Barrion's gold boots, shimmering cape and full-face mask are all staples of the luchador. Even the prefix 'Super', is a common one in lucha libre, where fans root for Super Astro, Sper Porky, Super Raton, Super Muneco, and even Super Bowl.

'Lucha is like the dream of the disenfranchised,' I was told by one wrestling promoter. "It is spectacular and calming.' Matches tend to allegorise good and evil, and luchadores generally fall into two camps: the rudos, who continually disrespect the rules of the game, and the tecnicos, who work within the system. As a political metaphor, their relationship is instantly comprehensible: one group fights fairly, while their counterparts are utterly corrupt.

One of the trade marks of lucha libre is the use of the mask, which generates an iconic yet unstable and elusive identity for its wearer. To be stripped of one's mask in the ring is the greatest dishonour imaginable, because it reduces the enigma of identity to a simple unity. By contrast the mask functions as a device for infinite transformation. In the permanent lucha libre exhibition in Mexico City's Museum of Popular Arts, this notion is born out by written testimonials from several celebrated luchadores. Blue Demon, for example, writes, 'My mask has formed every aspect of my life - as a man, an adolescent, as the head of my family, as a professional. It has become part of my body, part of thoughts and dreams, even part of my soul.'

It is only a short leap from this theme of self-transformation to the dream of social transformation which Super Barrio embodies as a collective identity marker. At demonstrations, Super B serves as a type of 'crowd crystal', to use Elias Canetti's term: Anonymous and unique, he exerts a centrifugal force on bystanders, converting them into an organised mass. The first time I witnessed Super Barrio in action, at a demonstration against the national television monopoly, he fromted the procession like a human car ornament dressed in gold undies and red tights. En Route, his jelly roll physique jiggled as he laughed and swapped jokes with fellow protesters. Crowd crystals, it seems aren't necessarily solemn.

When the march later moved to the Superior Court building, Super Barrio picked up a mike and addressed the crowd in a voice that was weak and flat - instantly conveying his status as an average guy. Indeed, if it weren't for his costume, the rally would've been dreary and lifeless, but the sight of this cartoon activist gave the proceedings a carnivalesque air, and the crowd, aroused by its intimacy with a living effigy, repeatedly interrupted anyone holding the floor with chants of 'Su-per Bar-ri-o! Su-per Bar-ri-o!'

Working somewhere between politics, performance art and agitprop theatre, Super Barrio walks a wobbly path where the real and the fictitious interact without the benefit, or hindrance, of clearly defined borders. 'He saved me from being evicted,' one of the demonstrators related. 'Everyone is his friend. Anyone can go to his house for help.'

When I approached the masked man for an interview, Super Barrio referred me to Marco Rascon Cardova, a journalist and activist in Assemblea de Barrios, a tenants' rights organisation with which Super B is closely associated. Marco is the mouthpiece of Super Barrio, and as I later learned, his Dr Frankenstein.

The following conversation, which took place with the aid of an interpreter, was held at a VIP's restaurant in the Zona Rosa. Marco Rascon initially showed up by himself, and only later we were joined by an unnamed associate, a short, stocky, 30ish man with a tranquil demeanour. Afterwards, the two invited me to meet Super Ecologista (Super Barrio's popularity has recently spurred a trend in 'social wrestlers'), who was maintaining a hunger strike in a downtown park.

Ten minutes later, they picked me up outside the restaurant. Marco was behind the wheel and Super Barrio, arrayed in full battle dress, was sitting in the passenger seat. No mention was ever made of the unnamed man who'd graciously sat through the interview, referring to Super Barrio in the third person the few times he spoke, but with an authority that conveyed an insider's knowledge.

Ralph Rugoff: The earth opened up in Mexico City in 1985, and out came a superhero. What was the context of Super Barrio's emergence?

Marco Rascon: The earthquake in September 1985 led to some very important changes. Before that, the sociaty of Mexicao City was characterised by its coldness. After the earthquake, though, a great civic moment developed. There were demonstrations of solidarity and acts of great humanitarianism between neighbours, which came in the face of the government's failure to respond adequately to the severe housing crisis caused by the earthquake.

When did you first develop the concept of a masked wrestler as political activist?

In 1987, as the popular movement was developing in Mexico City, some friends and I came up with the idea as a kind of prank. Wrestling has always been very popular among the poor, and famous wrestlers like El Santo could draw big crowds wherever they went. But we never thought that Super Barrio would last beyond one or two appearances.

How did you choose someone to play the role of Super Barrio?

It was a dilemma. Super Barrio had to be able to speak well, to know the language of the games, as ell as to be very serious because the political message had to be lucidly expressed, and at the same time, it needed to be humerous and suitable for a popular audience. And on top of that, the guy had to have a good physique. Somehow we ended up with this young provincial boy. He was a very shy guy, a little fat, and at first he had problems talking in public because there was a lot of pressure on him to talk well. But once he put on his mask, he was transformed - it was like he became a different person.

Was this transformation a gradual process?

There was a moment during his first month when he surprised us all, going beyond anything we'd originally imagined. It was at a University conference where he'd been invited to speak. The auditorium was full of people, and a young man stood up and asked him why he was dressed like that. On the spot he made up a story about how he was going home one day and was worried and depressed because he didn't have enough money to pay the rent, and his neighbours were all broke. When he got home, he walked into his room and a red and yellow light came whirling through the window, blinding him. When he came to, he was dressed in this costume. He told thisstory in sucha way that no one could doubt him, everyone was riveted.

Did people think Super Barrio looked ridiculous when he first appeared?

People didn't know whether it was a joke or not, but once they saw the reaction of the authorities towards Super Barrio, they realised his importance. The first time he showed up at a demonstration, he joined the neighbourhood commission when they went in to meet with the municipal authorities, who were shocked when they saw a masked figure sitting across the table from them.

Nowadays its not that surprising, of course, but back then, the fact that they had to face a masked man gave us an important weapon. With Super Barrio, we dominated on their own territory. They got into such a defensive position that they couldn't say no to us on manymatters which they had previously opposed.

The anonymity granted by the mask seems like an important factor in Super Barrio's ability to functionas a collective symbol.

Super Barrio is a personality whose credibility exists while he has a mask on; without the mask, he doesn't exist. There's a similar element to earlier national heroes such as El Santo or Zorro, as well as an echo of the pre-Hispanic origin of masks, the warriors in pre-Columbian times who donned animal masks to adopt their qualities.

One of the things that has hepoed maintain Super Barrio's credibility is that the government hashad to deal with him as a confrontational force. In addition, he has never allowed himself to be separated from his popular origins. When he speaks in public, he speaks in such a way that the average persoin can understand him. What he's expressing is the feelings of the people, especially those who get lost in the political discourse. That's why he's been able to achieve remarkable things since the campaign of 1988, when even (President) Salinas wanted a meeting with him. They wanted to absorb his image, to make him part of the official party, the PRI, but we refused. People are deeply suspicious in Mexico of anyone aligned with the political parties, there's always the suspicion that one ends up being seduced by power. If Super Barrio is a collective symbol, that's because his power existsonly in collective form. Waht we like to say is that we are all Super Barrio.

Many masked wrestlers speak of leading a double existence. I was wondering if Super Barrio had experienced that.

Mysterious Stranger: There are indeed two personalities, which sometimes are very different. When he puts on his mask, Super Barrio can't abandon his defined personality, it's part of his job. He has to try to be understanding at all times, to defend people who need his help. Super Barrio has to deal with everyone very respectfully, whether it's a drunk on the street or a high dignitary. He is very calm, and he doesn't call for rash actions. Instead, he encourages actions of rationality, he encourages people to think things through. This is the personality which he has to assume whenever he puts on his mask.

When he takes off this mask, he's free to become his own self, to assume his own way of being. Then he's a very different person. Super Barrio without his mask is often bitter and angry, he's often impusive, and what he can't do with the mask on, he does when he takes it off.

How does his family relate to his dual identity?

His children will say, 'We saw Super Barrio in a demonstration today,' or 'we heard him on the radio.' They never say that they saw their father. But his little girl starts crying whenever she sees him wrestle.

When Super Barrio meets with politicians, is there a sense that he contaminates their reality? That in appearing with a costumed character, they take on something of his cartoon aura - or appear to be wearing masks themselves?

When Super Barrio appears, he often makes the politician feel like a caricature. But not they're changing their attitude and they want their pictures taken with him, they want his endorsement. So we startedmaking new characters for Super Barrio to oppose. For a while he used to have wrestling matches against a representative of the slumlords. Now he's going to fight Senator No [a reference to a recent plebiscite on the issue of autonomy for the Federal District, wich includes Mexico City].

Why is it possible to have a Super Hero activist in Mexico?

Before Super Barrio, everything to do with social movements had to be represented in a very serious way, with proper respect for the solemnity of the struggle of the people. All the social movements we see in the US still have this solemnity, they don't play with it or laugh at it. The political reality there remains expressed in very rational terms, very concrete realities. Clarity and logic are the order of the day, but in Mexico people don't distinguish so precisely between the real and the fantastic.

On the political right, though, it's all fantasy in the US - Star Wars, racial paranoia, patriotic nostalgia. Historically, the left is very suspicious of anything irrational, which in this century has been indelibly associated with fascism.

America has its problem of uniting the needs of many different people. Now we need to take what the conservatives have done....what Walt Disney has done, and apply it to our own agenda.

In another way, though, Super Barrio is response to the fascist idea of the mythological superhero. He's the contrary of all that . He's not Superman, he does not have superhuman powers, he's just an ordinary guy. He's a product of struggle, not of consumption. He hasn't been built up with publicity, but is a by-product of the barrio and grassroots campaigning. So we use the same superhero imagery, but twist it around so he can be fighting from the other side.

People ask, what's the difference between Superman and Super Barrio? The answer: Super Barrio exists!

Why is Super Barrio taking on the television monopoly now?

In Mexico, the relationship between the media and the government constitutes one of the major hurdles to democracy. It's impossible to reform politics in this country without ending the monopolistic charcter of TV, radio and the press. Television in particular doesn't remotely reflect the country's social, political or cultural diversity.

Super Barrio has appeared on TV shows in Europe, America, Japan, but here in Mexico he's been banned from TV, he's a taboo figure on both [commercial] Televisa and state television. But he appears regularly on radio, and in the press, which has been very important. Radio stations call and talk with him everyday. 'Super Barrio, good morning. What's happening in the city today? What are the problems?' There's a Barrio hotline number which announcers give out on the air.

I heard that Super Barrio recentl;y offered to buy a TV channel.

It's a new facet of the struggle. They're privatising the government channels, and Super Barrio was the first to attach his name to a petition for ownership of one of the new channels. He's going to but the channel to do a different type of TV.

Will everyone on his channel wear masks?

Perhaps. Or by then, it might be the viewers who will wear the masks. With Super Barrio, anything is possible.