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Who Was That Masked Man? Ask the INS

Times Staff Writer

The masked man appears wherever his people are suffering injustices, a crusade that has taken him from the run-down tenements of Mexico City to the chambers of the Mexican Congress and now, to the streets of Spanish-speaking Los Angeles.

The short and stocky man who calls himself Super Barrio came to California this week to see for himself how things are going for his “brothers on this side of the border.” And on Friday, he learned firsthand about what some of his compatriots consider the heavy hand of the immigration authorities.

The Mexican folk hero, who dons red tights, a flaming yellow cape and a bright red mask to become the “defender of tenants and scourge of greedy landlords,” was detained by agents of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service who had received anonymous complaints that he was here illegally. The allegations, the agency later acknowledged, turned out to be false.

Hustled Away

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As Super Barrio walked with his entourage near Union Station about 2 p.m., he was handcuffed and hustled away by plainclothes INS agents. He was held for more than 2 1/2 hours until his attorney, Antonio Rodriguez, met with INS Los Angeles District Director Ernest Gustafson and persuaded the official to release him.

“I wasn’t committing any crime, I just came here to talk and dialogue with people,” Super Barrio said after his release. “This has opened my eyes to the situation lived not only by Mexicans, but by all foreigners in this country.”

Before his run-in with authorities Friday, Super Barrio spent a busy week, speaking before the Los Angeles City Council on behalf of men who solicit work on street corners, meeting farm workers in Oxnard and homeless men who seek shelter at a downtown church. He also found time to insult the Mexican consul, whom he called an “accomplice” of abuses committed against immigrants at the border.

Although Super Barrio disappeared soon after his release Friday, a San Francisco publicist for his tour angrily said his detention was an act of retribution for his pointed criticism of INS policies.

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“He came here to talk about abuses on the border, about Mexican and poor people’s rights and why they don’t have those rights,” said the publicist, who declined to be named. “That’s why they detained him.”

Telephoned Tips

Gustafson acknowledged that Super Barrio, whose true identity is a carefully guarded secret, had the proper papers for his visit--a visitor’s visa that he used to enter the United States on Feb. 19. Gustafson said that INS agents had taken Super Barrio into custody because of “two or three” tips telephoned into the agency over the last week.

“There were some calls regarding his status from various people anonymously,” Gustafson said, adding: “I wish this guy had his documents on him at the time” of his detention.

The masked man appears in Mexico City to aid people suffering injustices--a crusade that has taken him from the Mexican capital’s run-down tenements to the chambers of the National Congress and now, in his first visit across the border, to the streets of Spanish-speaking Los Angeles.

“There isn’t any work in Mexico, so they come over here,” Super Barrio said on Thursday as he watched a group of Latino men soliciting work on Pico Boulevard. “They’ve practically been driven into economic exile.”

Wearing gold lame bikini briefs and with “SB” emblazoned across his chest, Super Barrio inevitably drew a few laughs at some of his appearances. The portly super hero is taken seriously in Mexico, however, where he has an impact on urban politics.

Super Barrio is the symbol of the Assembly of Barrios, a movement of urban slum-dwellers that has flourished since the September, 1985, earthquake destroyed much of Mexico City’s poor, inner-city neighborhoods. Modeled on “El Santo,” a popular wrestler, Super Barrio’s exploits have since become the stuff of legend.

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Prevented Evictions

In Mexico City, he appears suddenly and unexpectedly when poor tenants are about to be evicted from their homes and more than once he has prevented those evictions from taking place. He took to the ring to wrestle and defeat a mythical “Nuclear-saurus” during protests against a nuclear power plant in Veracruz, and he has been invited to attend meetings at Los Pinos, the Mexican equivalent of the White House.

Unaware of his wide-ranging exploits, some council members smirked and laughed out loud when Super Barrio arrived at the chambers of the Los Angeles City Council on Wednesday to speak on behalf of immigrant day laborers.

But the costumed super hero strode with dignity down the marble-lined aisles of the chamber, his long yellow cape flowing behind him. At the podium, he made a short but impassioned speech.

“Work is one of the fundamental rights of life,” he told the council, which was considering an ordinance that would have made it illegal for the immigrant workers to solicit work on street corners. “We are not delinquents, we are workers and we want to be treated like human beings.”

The council members were impressed enough that they quickly drew up a commendation and presented it to the costumed hero after the meeting.

“I thought he was amazing,” said Marjorie Bray, coordinator of the Deparment of Latin American Studies at Cal State Los Angeles, where Super Barrio spoke Wednesday. “He had a theoretical grasp of what he was doing, but his language was very clear and down-to-earth.”

Idea Behind Costume

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Before his detention, he gave a relaxed interview in the home of a Westlake family, his home during his stay in Los Angeles.

The idea behind the costume, Super Barrio explained, is to capture the imagination of Mexico’s poor, working people by using the symbols of popular culture to deliver a “social message.”

“In the ring and in the movies, the wrestlers fight against false enemies--mummies, vampires, ghosts, whatever. I decided to step out of the ring and fight against the real enemies, the landlords and the corrupt politicians,” he said, in costume and masked, as always.

Little is known about the real man behind the mask. He has revealed that he has a wife and family, and that he lives, like the people he represents, in a dilapidated apartment building in downtown Mexico City. He said he was once part of Mexico City’s large army of street vendors, hawking trinkets, candy and cigarettes to earn a living.

Even after his detention Friday, his identity remained a mystery. “I’ve seen several different names,” Gustafson said. “And I can’t remember any of them.”

Super Barrio says his anonymity serves a purpose.

“When we are united we are strong,” he said. “If we are divided and dispersed then I’m not strong, we’re not strong. The mask represents the idea that our struggle is a collective one, that it doesn’t belong to one individual.

“Superman doesn’t wear a mask,” he continued. “All of his victories belong to him, they are his. I try to be the opposite of that.”

The masked hero’s last day in Southern California started out with an appearance at the House of Ruth, an East Los Angeles shelter for homeless Latina women, and a second stop at the Mexican Consulate, where a small group of people were protesting the results of last year’s presidential elections in Mexico.

Facing INS Agents

As he and his entourage walked to their car, Super Barrio found himself facing the INS agents. It was only his latest hair-raising encounter with authorities.

Super Barrio laughed when he recalled an impromptu wrestling match he had with the governor of the state of Jalisco. The super hero was delivering a speech calling for housing reform and the governor, Super Barrio said, attempted to remove his mask.

“Luckily, the people came to help me and nothing happened,” he said. “There are many functionaries who don’t understand the symbols of the people. What would they win by unmasking me? Super Barrio is everyone.”


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