The super hero arrived stylishly in a 1970 Monte Carlo convertible, all parts customized, low, low to the ground, polished chrome gleaming in the morning sun, fresh candy-regal blue paint as reflective as a mirror. The man of the hour emerged in full regalia: red leotards and mask, gold bikini lame shorts, and the trademark canary-yellow cape with SB emblazoned on the back.
“Super Barrio!” the children screamed in glee. “It’s Super Barrio!”
The Mexico City-based defender of the defenseless took his message of social justice to San Diego Wednesday, speaking with youngsters at Sherman elementary school and with migrant workers at an Encinitas roadside, among other stops on a whirlwind agenda. He is winding up a three-week tour of California, concentrating on areas with large Latino populations. Local community groups are picking up the tab.
In Los Angeles, he experienced an indignity well-known to his compatriots: He was detained for several hours by U. S. immigration authorities, who released him after it was determined that he was in the United States legally.
Champion of Underclass
Based in Mexico City, the world’s most populous metropolis--and perhaps the most problem-filled and bewildering--Super Barrio, a former wrestler and street vendor whose real identity is a secret has earned a worldwide reputation as a champion of that vast city’s underclass. Residents being evicted from their dwellings have learned to fire three rockets in the air, a distress signal that often prompts the arrival of the super hero-cum-community activist in his “Barriomobile,” which he describes as a battered but serviceable jalopy. (His residence: the Barrio Cave.)
Victims lacking rockets can always call the Barrio hot line.
“I am fighting,” Super Barrio told an assembly of young students, “so that poor people can have a place to live decently.”
Pudgy in appearance but sincere in tone, Super Barrio is a kind of peculiarly Mexican fusion of Super Man, Robin Hood and Saul Alinsky, the late Chicago-based community organizer. His growing popularity--his photograph has appeared in U. S. news magazines and in the New York Times, among other publications--was evident in the entourage of journalists who followed the media-savvy super-hero about in San Diego, among them a photographer for People magazine who carefully choreographed photo opportunities at every stop. (A Hollywood company has approached Super Barrio with a proposal for a film of his exploits.)
Although Super Barrio’s singular persona may defy precise descriptions, his egalitarian message, delivered mostly in Spanish, resonated at the Sherman school, whose 1,300-pupil student body is more than 80% Latino and mostly poor, many of them the children of undocumented workers. “His talk hits home with a lot of our kids’ experiences,” said Cecilia Estrada, principal at Sherman.
Identify With Him
Added Dennis M. Doyle, vice principal: “We can preach to the children about staying away from drugs and gangs, but they can really identify with him.”
During separate assemblies in the school’s auditorium, Super Barrio emphasized old-fashioned values to the children, advising them to do their homework, listen to their teachers and obey their parents.
“Do you help clean your homes?” he asked the children at one point.
“Si,” came the resounding, all-too-unanimous response.
But his message also addressed deeper themes.
“We are all brothers,” he told the students. “It doesn’t matter if some of us are of a different color. We are all the same, and should all be friends.”
Predictably, the children seemed more interested in his super powers and abilities than in his thoughts on inequality.
“Can you fly with your cape?” asked one boy.
“Show us your strength! Where are your muscles?” said a young girl.
“Why didn’t you bring Hulk Hogan?” asked Nephtali Saucedo, 11.
Super Barrio, however, explained that he is not like Superman, Batman, professional wrestlers or other such heroes--nor does he aspire to be. No claims here to be faster than a speeding bullet; no avowed ability to leap tall buildings at a single bound. This super-hero has another agenda far removed from the Clark Kent fantasy.
“Superman lives in the sky, not in the barrio,” he reminded the youths. “I don’t live in the sky or in a fort. I live with the people. My strength is with the people, with all of you. I am like all of you. You are my strength. I can’t lift a car or stop a train or catch a falling airplane. No one can do that. But, together, we can accomplish much. We can confront whatever problems we face.”
‘I am a Symbol’
A boy asked: Why don’t you take off your mask?
“Because I’m very ugly,” he responded, but he quickly amplified his explanation. “I am a symbol to more than 50,000 families in Mexico City,” he explained, noting the number of members of his affiliated group, the Assembly of Barrios. “Our triumphs are triumphs for all of us, not just for Super Barrio.”
Later, Super Barrio, once a candidate for the presidency of Mexico, said his first visit to the United States had helped him realize the similarities of poor people everywhere.
“The problems are the same,” he explained simply, lips moving behind the mask. “People complain about a lack of housing, of high rents, of a lack of security, of police abuses.”
He expressed much surprise at the prevalence of poverty north of the border, noting the vivid contrasts of conspicuous wealth and widespread misery that often shock foreign visitors. “I saw homeless people sleeping in the park in downtown Los Angeles. How can a country as rich as this one have such problems?”
After visiting Sherman and a second school, in Ocean Beach, Super Barrio and his entourage headed north to Encinitas, a principal destination for the thousands of migrant workers who inhabit northern San Diego County; many laborers live outdoors because they cannot afford housing. A dozen or so workers, serious men in well-worn boots and campesino hats, looked to the bizarrely attired figure with hope.
“You have to help us, senor Super Barrio,” implored Bernardo Hernandez, 35, a native of the southern Mexico state of Oaxaca. “We are desperate. We have no place to live.”
Later, an undocumented Salvadoran worker, Carlos Marroquin Varela, 36, explained that he had been in the United States two months, but had only worked two days, reflecting a widespread unemployment problem among the migrants. If he returns home, he said, the guerrillas will kill him, as he spent two years in the military and is therefore a marked man in his village.
“We ask,” said Juan Lita Ruiz, a 28-year community leader, “that you request the Mexican government to do something on our behalf.”
Super Barrio, who had met with farm workers in the San Joaquin Valley and elsewhere in the state, summarized the situation succinctly. “The big ranchers or California are enriching themselves because of the labor of thousands of poor Mexicans and other Latin Americans.”
The hero from Mexico City promised to do what he could, but he stressed one message with the workers: Local organization is the key to successful activism. The laborers seemed to leave with an understanding of his counsel.
“One man can do very little,” said Marroquin, the Salvadoran. “But together, together we could be strong.”
Super Barrio departed saying he will not abandon his crusade anytime soon. “I have said I will keep going until there is no more injustice,” he explained. “Only then will Super Barrio be obsolete.”