Superbarrio: Mexico City Political Climate
Photo essay originally published online at Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics at New York University
Historically, Superbarrio has been strategic in promoting democratic electoral change. He first emerged in June, 1987 as representative of the Neighborhood Assembly; but in order to win, Superbarrio and the Assembly understood they had to create an alternative political imaginary against seven decades of PRI government, its repeated electoral frauds, and its unpunished corruption. In 1988, the Neighborhood Assembly nominated Superbarrio for president. But, already exercising a profound understanding of coalition building, he gave up his nomination to support Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, the progressive leader of Mexico’s Democratic Coalition.
Who is SUPERBARRIO?
Superbarrio Gomez is like any other working class man; he is a street vendor, lives in the barrio and owns a Barriomovil. According to the Cumbia de Superbarrio (Superbarrio’s cumbia song), he was an orphan. While a teenager, he witnessed the ’68 military oppression against the students uprising in Tlatelolco. Superbarrio “tried selling clothes, driving a taxi, about 200 different jobs before settling on a career as a luchador calling himself Black Prince.” Eventually he fell in love with “Lucha,” not the popular ranchera singer Lucha Villa, nor Lucha Contreras, but Lucha Popular. (Lucha is a proper name which also translates as “struggle.”) He married and had a wrestling carrier. Gomez’s life changed after the September earthquake in 1985, and after he and his neighbors were evicted from a building in downtown Mexico City. He decided to stop fighting fictional enemies in order to fight the real enemy, the government, and its illegal alliance with landlords who perpetrated tenant evictions. In his interview, David Brooks asked Superbarrio what was behind that mask, if there were many Superbarrios. Superbarrio replied that there were thousands of Superbarrios, in fact that anyone who rises his/her voice against injustice was Superbarrio.
Superbarrio’s consciousness is the result of the unification of Mexico’s majoritarian class against a large national problem, the government’s consistent project of gentrification. Superbarrio explains: “The policy of the government over the last decades has been one of forcing people from the center of the city to the periphery, and giving the properties at the center of commercial use to benefit large enterprises, warehouses, restaurants, tourist attractions.” In 1993, Mexico was the fourteenth-wealthiest country in the world, and the most politically stable country in Latin America. Simultaneously, Mexico City had the most unequal distribution of wealth; it concentrated the richness and the misery of the entire country. Superbarrio adds that, “when peasants demanded land to the government, the government gave them land—but 6 feet under. Those who petitioned housing and invaded vacant lots, got housing—but inside jail. And those workers who asked for wage increases—found themselves fired.”
La Asamblea de Barrios (Mexico City’s Neighborhood Assembly) is a grassroots organization concerned with the egalitarian acquisition and distribution of decent housing for the poor. In the late 1980s, working class women and amas de casa constituted seventy percent of the organization. La Asamblea de Barrios was the result of the unification of the representatives of 40 neighborhood unions, which emerged to oppose the city’s evictions against the marginal population in Mexico City. The government proved its lack of commitment to the poor during the most difficult moments after the earthquake. Taking advantage of the situation, the government spent most of its time “organizing” the evictions of thousands of underprivileged people living in downtown’s historic center, rather than rescuing other thousands of people dying, or already deadly trapped, “aplastadas,” by the Government’s poorly constructed building projects and hospitals. Two hundred and fifty thousand people were left homeless after the first earthquake, while, 500 thousand Mexicans slept on the streets with one eye opened, looking at their houses, afraid to lose the rest of their belongings. This devastation and corruption, and La Asamblea de Barrios’s infrastructure, created the context for Super to jump into the ring of urban politics to renovate and reconstruct the Mexican political arena. “To confront these problems a super human effort is required, and that is why it takes a Superbarrio to change it.”
Superbarrio’s ability to transform the practices of popular culture, such as wrestling and its rhetoric, into an alternative political imaginary produces the transformation of social space into urban mobilization. Simultaneously, his wrestling performance within a social movement transcends and conveys his fictional character into a real political leader.
The wrestling mask is designed to differentiate each wrestler within the various social spaces in which they interact, from the wrestling ring performance to the “fotonovela” print. While Superbarrio’s mask connotes the traditional strength of wrestling championship, he subverts this exclusive function by adding to it an extra layer of signification. “Behind the mask there is the whole struggle of the city’s inhabitants, to make it more livable, more democratic, to resolve the great problems we face. The mask is the symbol, the identification of the people in this struggle…it is not an individual struggle…” For Superbarrio to keep his mask on in the wrestling ring and the social struggle means that we are all winners, we are all Superbarrio.