Mexico’s Real-Life ‘Superheroes’ Are Caped Crusaders for Justice

Originally posted:
Campaign: Taking inspiration from cartoon crime stoppers and wrestling stars, a string of social activists is donning outlandish costumes to fight for worthy causes.
MEXICO CITY — Faster than a bolt of lightning? Doubtful. Able to leap tall buildings? Not a chance.
Mexico’s newest superhero rushes into his headquarters, the office of the Union of Electrical Workers, flustered and breathing heavily under his leather and nylon mask after jogging from his car.
Even Super Luz–Super Light–can have trouble finding a parking space.
But when duty calls, this mere mortal slips into tights and cape to campaign against the government’s plan to privatize the power industry and to defend the interests of his fellow pole-climbers and linemen.
Just what compels a grown man reared in a macho culture to dress up like a cartoon character–and do it with a straight face?
“Precisely that the human being, the Mexican . . . needs the existence of heroes to be able to continue enduring a common and ordinary life,” Super Luz says.
Putting up with years of rampant crime and widespread government wrongdoing has left many Mexicans exhausted and cynical. But the sight of Super Luz thrusting his fist into the air can cause weathered electricians to crack a smile.
“Go, Super Luz!” one man cheers when the masked man bounds through–not over–the union building in downtown Mexico City.
Super Luz is just the latest in a string of Mexican social activists who have taken inspiration from comic book crime fighters and stars from the country’s unique genre of professional wrestling movies.
They trace their origin to El Santo (The Saint), a wrestler named Rodolfo Guzman whose silver mask propelled him to fame on the silver screen starting in 1958.
Guzman starred in dozens of films battling criminals, demons, witches and zombies before his death in 1984. “El Santo Against the Vampire Women” of 1962 is a kitsch classic, and his character continues to inspire a cult following as well as lyrics in Mexican rock music.
The passage from screen to streets came in the wake of Mexico City’s horrendous 1985 earthquake, when an incarnate superhero sprang to life to rally support for the thousands of homeless neglected by the city’s overwhelmed government.
He was Super Barrio, a paunchy figure in red and yellow spandex who became a cult idol for his attacks on the administration of the dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party. He led protest marches and rallies and helped form the Assembly of Barrios–a neighborhood coalition that defended the rights of the poor.
Super Barrio has kept a low profile since the leftist opposition won control of the city government in 1997, and he declined to be interviewed.
Other masked heroes have followed his path: Super Universal Ecologist fought to save the environment; Super Puppy explained the need to treat pets humanely; Super Policeman railed against corruption; Super Woman cheered women’s rights; and Super Gay denounced homophobia.
One of the longest lasting has been Super Animal. Like El Santo films in which the bare-chested, masked hero met desperate clients in his bookshelf-lined office, Super Animal welcomes visitors in costume from behind his desk in a disturbingly normal middle-class neighborhood.
The costume, he explains, is a sure-fire means of attracting attention to his cause: fighting for the rights and lives of animals–a battle he admits is difficult in a society enamored of bullfights, cockfights and meat-filled tacos.
But the mask and outfit are not only attention-getters, he says. They are a necessity for Mexicans who adore ritual.
“If they were to go to a church and see a priest come out for Mass in a T-shirt and jeans, would they like it or would they ask, ‘What’s going on, Father?’ He has to put on his vestments to reach the faithful,” Super Animal says.
“Here in Latin America people really like characters–professional wrestling, the films of El Santo. People like the masks.”
Super Animal and Super Luz, both of whom ask to have their real names kept secret, say they have taken the common man’s love of entertainment–specifically, professional wrestling–and sharpened it into a means of attacking a government they contend is intent on keeping the masses sated with bread and circuses.
Mexican television, with its history of state control, has been used to divert public attention from real problems, Super Luz says.
“What the mass media have given us is simply trash,” he says. “We are saying: Fight! Fight for economic stability for your families. Don’t remain asleep because the federal government is trying to bombard us so that the people will be stupid, conquered and forgetful of problems while they are focused on wrestling, soccer and soap operas.”
For Super Luz, Mexico could use even more superheroes–with or without masks.
“I believe everyone has an important fight because in Mexico there are many things that should be done,” he says. “And if there isn’t someone who says, ‘Here I am to do it,’ then no one will.”