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A ‘Viva Super Barrio’ in L.A. Is Not Exactly the Message Official Mexico Likes to Hear

<i> Frank del Olmo is a Times editorial writer</i>

On first glance, the Mexican character known as Super Barrio does not seem the kind of figure who could cause an international incident. For that matter, even after a second or third look, its hard to take Super Barrio very seriously.

With his red mask and leotards, gold bikini shorts and flowing yellow cape, most people in this country would probably react to Super Barrio as I did the first time I saw him--with laughter. But there are people in Mexico who take Super Barrio, and what he represents, quite seriously. That’s why some Mexican government officials are upset by the favorable attention Super Barrio got when he visited California a couple of weeks ago.

Professional wrestling is a popular pastime for Mexico’s urban poor. Super Barrio, in fact, is modeled on El Santo, the Saint, the masked-marvel hero of a series of old wrestling movies that still show up occasionally on Spanish-language television.

But Super Barrio is not really a professional wrestler. He is the symbol of the Assembly of Barrios, a grass-roots movement of Mexico City slum dwellers that emerged in the aftermath of the 1985 earthquake that did so much damage to poor neighborhoods.

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Super Barrio has helped lead protests against tenant evictions in Mexico City, a nuclear power plant in Veracruz and Mexican government corruption. He became internationally famous last summer when he lent his support to Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, the leading anti-government candidate in Mexico’s closely fought presidential election. He often campaigned alongside Cardenas--the same way a minor movie star named Chuck Norris, who makes low-budget martial-arts movies not all that different from the Mexican films featuring El Santo, campaigned alongside President Bush in last year’s U.S. election campaign.

Super Barrio is a symbol of political dissent in Mexico. That’s why the New York Times did a front page article on him. And on his recent trip to California, arranged by opponents of the Mexican government, Super Barrio was accompanied by a photographer from People magazine.

That kind of attention drives Mexican government officials to distraction. Not only does Super Barrio question the legitimacy of the Mexican political system by criticizing it, he does so using symbols popular with Mexico’s underclass. That has to bother the middle- and upper-class Mexicans who represent their nation in the world’s capitals and financial centers like New York and Los Angeles.

For example, officials in the Mexican consulate here are very unhappy because Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alatorre, who represents the heavily Latino Eastside, got the council to approve a commendation for Super Barrio when he visited City Hall.

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Now, City Council members hand out honorary scrolls and commendations like penny candy. A while back Alatorre even got the council to pass a resolution honoring “Spuds” Mackenzie, the dog that stars in those TV beer commercials, on the occasion of his visit to Los Angeles. But try explaining that to the angry Mexican diplomats who are convinced the city took a slap at the government of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari by honoring Super Barrio.

Given the many complex and difficult problems between the United States and Mexico, from foreign debt to drug trafficking, a diplomatic flap over a campy wrestler hardly seems worth focusing on. Except that Super Barrio’s visit to Los Angeles is yet another illustration of how easily Mexico and the United States misunderstand each other, even when the U.S. citizens involved are Mexican-Americans.

It is unlikely that Alatorre or his council aides even thought about Mexican government reaction when they decided to draft the resolution for Super Barrio. All they know is that there are people in Alatorre’s district who like what Super Barrio stands for.

And the Mexican government seems to have forgotten that there are thousands of Chicanos all over this country who feel the same. Most Mexican-Americans don’t understand the complexities of Mexican politics, or the sensitivity of Mexican officialdom to diplomatic slights involving the United States. And they could not care less.

The affection Chicanos feel for Mexico is based on its culture (both elite and popular), not its politics. If they think about the Mexican political system at all, most Chicanos share the cynical view of other U.S. citizens that it is corrupt and not very democratic. And if they can show some affection for their ancestral homeland by honoring a symbol of protest against that system--even a portly guy in a mask and red tights--they’ll do it.

So, Viva Super Barrio!


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