Transnational Barrio Politics: Staging Justice in Red Tights in DC
Introduction: Instantiations, Reactivations and Efficacy
Superbarrio, an activist costumed as a lucha libre wrestler, is an iconic Mexican figure who led the struggle for housing that the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City precipitated and, throughout the 1990s, inspired a variety of other activists. This paper analyzes the barrio-based cultural practices that Mexican political activist Superbarrio deploys in his performance style as tools for political intervention as the figure of Superbarrio travels to Washington DC and performs as a character in community theatre play. I examine the tactics that the persona of Superbarrio uses differently in his original context and when he is reactivated (1) by Sol y Soul to spark housing activism in Washington, DC, in 2002.
In its first appearances in Mexico City, Superbarrio propelled the housing movement’s political efficacy by using performance tactics to create opportunities for disenfranchised tenants to exercise agency within an authoritarian system of power. He was able to open up dialogue between tenants, landlords and government authorities to stir housing negotiations forward. In both of the cases studied here, Superbarrio’s performances blur the boundaries of formal political procedures and popular cultural performances, allowing for the emergence of new negotiation practices between representatives of grassroots social movements and government agencies.
I claim that through his performances, Superbarrio is able to create an alternative means of negotiation wherein the corruption and intransigence of the state or housing corporations are temporarily disabled. In order to do this, Superbarrio elicits strong initial reactions that halt regular bureaucratic procedures where corruption and discrimination are domesticated and operate in everyday life without being successfully questioned.
The Superbarrio phenomenon is not only worth studying because it is an example of creative problem-solving at the grassroots level, but, as we can see in this comparison, because it functions as a model upon which other groups have drawn in similar contexts in such locations as Washington DC and New York. Following on Superbarrio’s successes, members of other grassroots organizations began to take up the Superbarrio mantle, donning lucha libre masks and costumes to champion such causes as animal rights, ecology, gay rights and immigrant rights (2). Furthermore, the Asamblea de Barrios, the organization for which Superbarrio was an icon served as the base for the founding of a political party that was successful in reforming city-wide elections and has since 1997 been consistently voted into the majority of city government positions (3).
When Superbarrio first appeared in Mexico City he stopped evictions in the neighborhoods of downtown Mexico City. He negotiated with the landlord to allow families that were being threatened with evictions to stay in their homes or if they had already been evicted, so that they could go back into their house. In one instance at the Romero Rubio neighborhood, northeast of the city center, Superbarrio convinced a landlord to make up a contract by hand on the spot and restore a family of squatters to their home assuring him that the entire Asamblea de Barrios would see that the family pay the rent. In actions like this eviction, the subversive, but relajo-driven aspects of Superbarrio’s performance can be understood as efficacious. In this case, the neighbors deploy this barrio’s specific worldview and logic through Superbarrio’s performances. Superbarrio materializes this group’s “utopian performatives,” not only in his costume and language use that come from their cultural particularity, but also through his tactics, a shared sense of urgency and common key political expectations.
Although Superbarrio’s actions do not stand in opposition to the rule of the state – as would a crime - they often threaten to undermine the authority of the state. In this first case study, Superbarrio’s agreement bypasses the law and judicial system. First he garners legitimacy through the ethical collectivity that a community trial evokes. Then he questions the state’s legitimacy by pointing out its faults to the existing social contract and then confirms the Asamblea’s communal independent governance by writing the contract by hand without any input from the state. In this way, Superbarrio questions and de-couples justice from the law and judicial enforcement and is able to create a sense of justice from the barrio: a barriologic justice. In order to create an alternative public space for Superbarrio to deploy his barriologic justice, a state of relajo needs to exist.
Relajo and Structures of Relajo
Relajo entails a series of acts that undermine the sacrosanct nature of a particular ceremony whose function is to enact the currency of the status quo. Relajo disorders the ceremony by disrupting its procedures, thereby exposing the incongruence of an authority figure. For example, Joseph Roach describes cultural performances during Mardi Gras in which working-class people can parody authority figures to emphasize their hypocrisies in very visible ways. In the case of Superbarrio, relajo is the set of performative practices that he deploys to disrupt the government’s authority to carry out an eviction. In Fenomenología del Relajo, Jorge Portilla defines relajo as the successful disruption of the values promoted in a ceremony. In order for this disruption to take place, those taking part in the ritual must recognize when one person expresses the intention of creating relajo and lend their support.
Getting politicians, bureaucrats or landlords to concede into relajo marks the success of Superbarrio in destroying the hegemonic procedures at hand. Diana Taylor also engages with the idea of relajo in The Archive and the Repertoire. Taylor’s understanding of relajo as “a blissfully failed performative, an act that breaks the appropriate system of conventional behaviors and turns its actions null and void” (129) resonates with Superbarrio’s tearing down of the ceremonies of normative politics, but it does not account for the second part in Superbarrio’s activist interventions, the performative creation of a contract for evicted families, or the organizing for a tenants association in Sol y Soul’s play. In the case of Superbarrio’s interventions, relajo is a two-step process, the second of the two is less visible, but still crucial. After relajo disrupts normal procedures, invalidating them and turning them void, Superbarrio rekeys his intervention away from a superficial relajo into a more profound structure of relajo where he is able to validate a new contract without the state.
Repertoire of possibilities and embodyment of a myth: lucha libre, saintly apparitions and negotiating powers
As Superbarrio arrives at an eviction his audience can already read symbolic meaning that project at least three arenas. Each serves as a frame with its own narrative that may allow Superbarrio’s interventions to be successful in stopping the eviction. Each serves as a possibility for performance. First, his lucha libre outfit places him favorably in a técnico/good vs. rudo/bad symbolic match that allows him moral ground (see Cadena Roa, Cahill). Second, his miraculous appearance plays on familiar religious tropes of saintly apparitions, and third his superhero persona suggests that he has special powers and authority that are realized here as special conflict-resolution abilities. These elements of popular culture out of which Superbarrio creates his character echo in such a way that they create a repertoire of possibilities that makes believable, what would be seen as impossible for others to accomplish.
Superbarrio explains his own conception as a highly aesthetic moment that was a response to the need for an immediate political action: “a light, a very intense flash hit me. I could make out a red and a yellow light… I started to feel a wind hurl that enveloped me…. I found myself dressed with the costume that I fight with…. Then I heard a voice that told me: “You are Superbarrio, defender of poor tenants and whip of voracious landlords and corrupt authorities” (qtd. in Schwarz 24-5) (4). Superbarrio’s supernatural transformation scene with lights and a whirling wind is reminiscent of a miraculous apparition. This apparition scene is powerful in creating a myth for Superbarrio, raising him to miracle status. It also sets the scene for unusual interventions in the social movements of the time, a symbolic path that is far from the bureaucratic logic into which many of the other housing organizations had fallen.
Superbarrio draws his image and aura from the lucha libre tradition of fighters for justice, and as he emphasizes every time journalists ask him, the main difference is that he fights corrupt politicians and “voracious landlords,” the real rudos. Superbarrio calls on El Santo, for inspiration. On the lucha libre ring, El Santo used high-skills and technique to overcome his opponents, most often characterized as strong and brute, rather than astute. By bringing this chiaroscuro set of principles to the political arena, Superbarrio sets himself up as a técnico, the clean player that relies on clever moves, arm, neck and leg locks. In contrast, his opponents, mostly government officials and landlords, become rudos. Their backroom deals and negligence is then understood as cheating in lucha libre: biting, of bribing the referee.
Although he avoids comparisons with American comic superheroes, especially for foreign audiences, the resemblance of Superbarrio’s insignia to Superman’s “S,” or to the masked Batman are unavoidable, signaling to a more complicated origin that the nationalist project of lucha libre. But as Cadena-Roa points out, even these neocolonial relationships work against the grain: “Superbarrio devalues the symbolic power of suits, ties, titles, and other symbols of distinction that bureaucrats, politicians, and the upper class use, with the symbolic power of popular superheroes” (78). His divergence falls on practice, whereas American comic superheroes beat up their opponents, drawing on their individual strength and superpowers, Superbarrio draws his strength from his wit and the collective efforts of the people of the Asamblea. Furthermore, he always negotiates with his opponents first. Another distinction he makes is that his anonymity empowers everyone, instead of hiding the identity of a single Superman.
Superbarrio concretizes these powerful narratives from popular culture with his embodied interventions. In successful negotiations for housing projects with the government, by intervening in evictions such as the Romero Rubio case, and by leading rallies and negotiating with government officials in full regalia, Superbarrio builds a different kind of credibility for himself and eventually acquires his own symbolic status. As his persona travels to DC, his iconic status will become a performative resource in itself.
Each of the performances also informs his repertoire of possibilities in the other arenas where he intervenes. For example, lucha libre vocabulary slips into meetings with housing agency officials as metaphors, and his savoire-fare and insider knowledge of the judicial process is essential to creating the puns that expose the corruption of the court system. Almost as important as Superbarrio’s arguments for the validity of the mutual agreement that the landlord and the family make is Superbarrio’s exposure of the corruption and insufficiency of the system of law. His trashing of the government’s credibility is facilitated by a frame of relajo that allows Superbarrio to make his criticism convincingly.
El Barrio Street Theatre’s Aquí Nos Quedamos/Standing Our Ground
Fifteen years after Superbarrio appeared out of yellow and red lights in Tepito, Washington DC’s El Barrio Street Theatre (EBST) performed a play entitled: “Aquí Nos Quedamos/Standing our Ground,” a title that resembles the motto with which tepiteños led their housing struggles starting in the early 1970s: “cambiar de casa pero no de barrio” (change homes but not barrios) (5). The play addresses issues of gentrification and invokes Superbarrio as a character in the play. The character of Superbarrio tells the tenants about a law that they can use in their favor and encourages them to organize. The people gathered at the meeting in the play, which takes place in Washington DC, react incredulously at the prospect of becoming owners of their own apartments. Instead of taking on Superbarrio’s proposition or seeking more information, they grow exasperated with Superbarrio’s suggestion.
In the play, Mr. Gonzalez is struggling to organize his apathetic neighbors. Although at the meeting Superbarrio is quickly able to make the tenants believe that they can find a solution to their problems, they are disheartened when he leaves soon after. Instead of getting organized, they become immersed in their daily lives and their cohesion disintegrates. The character of Superbarrio aids Mr. Gonzalez by testifying that similar struggles have been won in other parts of the country and the city, and points to a number of organizations that could support them if they decide to organize. In El Barrio Street Theatre’s play, Superbarrio proposes that they organize into a tenants association in order to be the first to bid to collectively buy the building.
Superbarrio’s intervention in Washington DC is geared toward convincing the neighbors that they can become owners of the building that they live in and that they need to get organized to do so. Superbarrio deploys of his own myth to set his course of action as he does with the Asamblea de Barrios, but the people involved in the Asamblea are already part of what Conquergood refers to as “communitas of crisis.” Their self-adscription as damnificados históricos effectively points to their communitas of crisis and their experience of being part of different organizations in the barrio for decades is successfully transferred to protest their housing crisis.
During his intervention in the play, Superbarrio unveils how landlords let their buildings dilapidate and become infested so that they can remodel them or sell them and turn them into high-priced condos. In the words of Superbarrio: “the developers are going on a shopping spree… they call it urban renewal brothers, but what it really is—poor people removal” (Áviles 13). Conquergood describes how developers used similar tactics of displacement in northern Chicago (6). The developers first used the absentee landlord’s utility debts to acquire control of the management of the building and then recorded health code violations as an excuse to vacate the building. Conquergood explains: “the domination and displacement of the residents of Big Red were underwritten by a rhetoric of redevelopment. Before the Big Red residents were physically vacated, they were discursively displaced. Drastic measures in the service of capitalism were discursively mediated as desirable and natural inevitabilities” (134). In El Barrio Street Theatre’s play, the long-time community organizer, Mr. Gonzalez, was murdered by a “burglar” in the scene following the meeting with the tenants and Superbarrio. His death is quickly attributed to the insecurity in the neighborhood.
The tragedy of Mr. Gonzalez’s death both brings up uncertainty regarding how to keep the movement going and not give up. It also brings a new will to carry on the plight. This gesture approximates the moment of crisis that the earthquake brought up in Mexico City in 1985 and gave rise to the Asamblea de Barrios. A degree of self-criticism is felt through remarks acknowledging how their communitas is short-lived; it will quickly extinguish itself and people will wait until another tragedy takes place before they organize. The play forcibly presents the decision that the neighbors face, as both a possibility for something better, but also a responsibility toward each other and to future generations.
In the play, Superbarrio doesn’t acknowledge the possibility of preventing the landlord from selling the building—one of his main tactics to stop evictions that he used with the Asamblea de Barrios in Mexico City. This tactic is not only not considered, but in fact, it would stand in opposition to Superbarrio’s proposal of taking advantage of the situation to become owners of their own homes—using the protections that the law grants them. In Superbarrio’s appearance in DC, there’s no distinction between landlords; they are all social enemies. They do not specify whether some landlords could be won back, as Superbarrio clarifies for some of the neighborhoods in Mexico City. In Sol y Soul’s production, the landlord is a minor accomplice of the developers and government officials by playing into the game, letting their properties be run down and then sell them to get a higher profit.
Although one of Superbarrio’s roles in the Asamblea is to bring a sense of cohesion within the organization by serving as a unifying symbol similar to a sports team’s mascot (7), his labor is mainly geared to negotiating in specific conflicts, particularly evictions and other conflicts with the government, as well as deploying his symbolic capital to gain alliances in the general population through wrestling matches on the streets among other performances.
In Mexico City, Superbarrio also creates new pathways for the member of the housing struggle to gain access to justice. This difference changes the relationship with the state. Whereas in D.C. the state seems to retain some degree of impartiality, in Mexico, the state is abridged as much as possible for justice to work. In Mexico City people could not rely on the government any more, while in the play they have to claim rights through compromises. In both places, authorities profit at the expense of the displaced tenants.
The Superbarrio of Mexico City is born out of a community of protestors that is well established. The Asamblea in Mexico City has many years of experience in community organizing, unlike in Washington D.C, where people are hesitant to protest for their rights. The magnitude and lasting effects of the earthquake in Mexico City seems to have been a determining factor in tepiteños deciding to organize or not. The range of relationships with landlords does not get played out in the play in D.C. Instead, Superbarrio traces the damage to government officials and developers’ efforts to change the neighborhood to increase its value and make a profit out of it. Although in Mexico City the same social agents are identified as evil, the landlords are the immediate people that they have to confront in order to stay in their viviendas.
Despite Superbarrio and the Asamblea de Barrios’s conflictive relationship with judicial procedures, much of their actions are negotiated through the constitution and civil code in Mexico and the law of the District of Columbia in the U.S. In DC, Superbarrio takes them through the steps of what they have to do to claim their rights. Superbarrio is not claiming a new venue for law like he does when he writes the contract by hand at the eviction of the Romero Rubio in Mexico City. Instead, he encourages people to become aware of their own power and the rights that the law already bestows on them.
(1) I borrow the term “reactivation” from Nestor García Canclini’s Culturas híbridas: estratégias para entrar y salir de la modernidad where he uses the term to identify those instances when a particular cultural practice resonates in a translocal context. García Canclini uses the term to emphasize how the meaning changes as the practice is produced and/or deployed for different purposes.
(2) I include all the means by which Superbarrio’s performances travel: whether one same person travels to enact Superbarrio, as was the case when Superbarrio travelled across Mexico and the US Southwest as part of his support for Cuahutémoc Cárdenas’s presidential campaign in 1988 and 1994. The original Superbarrio also took part in dozens of conferences all over the world where he acted as spokesperson for the barrio inhabitants of Mexico City, including an international conference on housing in Caracas in 1991, sponsored by UN-Habitat (see Coulomb), another conference he attended was the “Politics and Performance” conference in 1996, at Dartmouth College (see Jottar). The persona of Superbarrio has also been reincarnated by different activist groups protesting the war in Iraq and immigrant rights in New York City (see Bogad). Superbarrio has sparked variations that use lucha libre to struggle for other rights such as Superanimal, Superecologista, Supergay and Supermojado in Mexico (see Cadena-Roa and Perez Torres), in the US and at the US-Mexico border (see Gomez-Peña). Superbarrio has also been reactivated as a character in the play by El Barrio Street Theater in Washington DC that I analyze here, also in Guillermo Gomez-Peña’s “El Mexterminator” performance art piece and the documentary Super Amigos (see Áviles, Gomez-Peña and Perez Torres). Except for Gomez-Peña, who specifies that he met with Superbarrio in one of his visits to California, none of the articles about Superbarrio outside of its original context specify how they came to know Superbarrio or how they thought of adapting/appropriating the persona.
(3) After Superbarrio and the Asamblea gained international recognition, Superbarrio was often invited and sponsored to travel abroad for conferences, radio and television appearances. In 1997 the main person playing the role of Superbarrio took a job in the city’s public housing agency where he still works. Since 1994 other leaders of the Asamblea have become politicians and congressmen. It should be noted that no women became/were allowed as leaders of the movement despite the fact that over 70% of the participants in the Asamblea were women (Sánchez-Estévez).
(4) Un día salí temprano a comprar mi mercancía acá en Ampudia, en la Merced, para trabajar en el puesto que tengo como vendedor ambulante en el Centro. Cuando abrí la puerta para salir al patio de la vecindad me encontré con una luz, como un flashazo muy fuerte, muy intenso. Reconocí que había una luz roja y una luz amarilla y tuve que cerrar los ojos porque era muy intensa y no me dejaba ver. Cuando cerré los ojos, empecé a sentir a mi alrededor un viento que empezaba a envolverme, un viento muy fuerte. Yo no tenía control sobre los movimientos que quería hacer. Quise cerrar la puerta en ese momento, pero ya no lo pude hacer. Cuando sentí que había bajado la intensidad del viento, pude abrir los ojos y vi que la luz también había desaparecido. Entonces me encontré vestido con el traje con el que lucho: una capa amarilla, una máscara, un equipo de luchador y en la botarga, en el pecho, un símbolo con las letras SB. Yo no podía encontrar una explicación a eso que había pasado. Y entonces escuché una voz que me decía: “Tú eres Superbarrio, defensor de los inquilinos pobres y azote de los caseros voraces y de las autoridades Un día salí temprano a comprar mi mercancía acá en Ampudia, en la Merced, para trabajar en el puesto que tengo como vendedor ambulante en el Centro. Cuando abrí la puerta para salir al patio de la vecindad me encontré con una luz, como un flashazo muy fuerte, muy intenso. Reconocí que había una luz roja y una luz amarilla y tuve que cerrar los ojos porque era muy intensa y no me dejaba ver. Cuando cerré los ojos, empecé a sentir a mi alrededor un viento que empezaba a envolverme, un viento muy fuerte. Yo no tenía control sobre los movimientos que quería hacer. Quise cerrar la puerta en ese momento, pero ya no lo pude hacer. Cuando sentí que había bajado la intensidad del viento, pude abrir los ojos y vi que la luz también había desaparecido. Entonces me encontré vestido con el traje con el que lucho: una capa amarilla, una máscara, un equipo de luchador y en la botarga, en el pecho, un símbolo con las letras SB. Yo no podía encontrar una explicación a eso que había pasado. Y entonces escuché una voz que me decía: “Tú eres Superbarrio, defensor de los inquilinos pobres y azote de los caseros voraces y de las autoridades corruptas.” Tuve mucho miedo en ese momento. No alcanzaba a entender qué era lo que me había pasado, pero era una respuesta a toda esta inquietud de luchar por la gente. (Superbarrio in Schwarz 25-6)
Similar versions of this myth of origin appear in La Jornada (9 August 1987) and Cuéllar Vázquez (77) cites it from an interview with Superbarrio. Cadena-Roa includes a translation of the version from La Jornada (76) and Cahill includes a translation a version published by Arturo Gonzalez Jr. in “Superbarrio” (114). Cahill mentions two other sources where Superbarrio repeated the story: “This story is repeated with slight variations, in Superbarrio’s conversation with artist Carlos Amorales and Marcos Rascón at the Rijksakademic van Beeldende Kunsten in Amsterdam, (‘Amorales in Conversation with Superbarrio’ transcript posted online) as well as in Mary Farquharson, ‘Who was that Masked Man?’ 12” (n. 15).
(5) As Jorge Cadena-Roa points out, for the inhabitants of the neighborhoods of downtown Mexico City, moving to the city’s periphery implied “renouncing their rights, livelihood, and barrio culture, in exchange for land in the middle of nowhere, without legal tenure, drinking water, paved streets or any other urban service” (74).
(6) Conquergood, Dwight. “Life in Big Red: Struggles and Accomodations in a Chicago Polyethnic Tenement Building.”
(7) During an interview, Superbarrio confeses that the leaders of the Asamblea originally thought of the character as a mascot, something that would distinguish them from other organizations.
Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso, 1991.
Bogad, L. M. “Facial Insufficiency: Political Street Performance in New York City and the Selective Enforcement of the 1845 Mask Law.” TDR: The Drama Review. 47,4 Winter 2003.
Cadena-Roa, Jorge. “Strategic Framing, Emotions, and Superbarrio—Mexico City’s Masked Crusader.” Frames of Protest: Social Movements and the Framing Perspective. Eds. Hank Johnston and John A. Noakes. Lanham: Rowmand & Littlefield Publishers, 2005. 60-93.
Cahill, James Leo. “The Phenomenon of Superbarrio: Lucha Libre and Luchas Sociales in Mexico City.” M.A. Thesis. U of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, 2002.
Clifford, James. Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1997.
Conquergood, Dwight. “Life in Big Red: Struggles and Accomodations in a Chicago Polyethnic Tenement Building.” Ed. Louise Lamphere. Structuring Diversity: Ethnographic Perspectives on the New Immigration. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1992.
-——. “Performance Studies: Interventions and Radical Research.” TDR: The Drama Review 46 (2002): 145-56.
Constitución de los Estados Unidos Mexicanos. 8 Dic. 2005. Honorable Cámara de Diputados/H. Congreso de la Unión. 12 Dic. 2005. <http://www.cddhcu.gob.mx/leyinfo/pdf/1.pdf>
Corbin, Edwin Emilio. “Habitar: la eficacia de la Justicia a través de una intervención de Superbarrio y la Asamblea de Barrios.” e-misférica 3.1 (2006) 15 Nov. 2007 <http://hemi.nyu.edu/journal/home.php?issue=april%202006>
Correas, Oscar. “Eficacia del derecho, efectividad de las normas y hegemonía política” in Visiones transdisciplinarias y observaciones empíricas del derecho. Coord. Angélica Cuéllar Vázquez and Arturo Chávez López. México D.F. : Ediciones Coyoacán, 2003.
Cuellar Vazquez, Angélica. La noche es de ustedes el amanecer es nuestro: Asamblea de Barrios y Superbarrio Gomez en la Ciudad de Mexico. Mexico City: U Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, 1993.
Goffman, Ervin. Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1974.
Gómez-Peña, Guillermo. “El Mexorcist.” Journal of Visual Culture. 5,1 Sage Publications, 2006
Jottar, Berta. “Superbarrio Gomez for U.S. President: Global Citizenship and the ‘Politics of the Possible’.” e-misférica 1.1 (2004) 1 Nov. 2007 <http://hemi.nyu.edu/journal/1_1/home.html>
Portilla, Jorge. Fenomenología del relajo y otros ensayos. México DF: Fondo de Cultura Económica,  1984.
Roach, Joseph. Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance. New York: Columbia UP, 1996.
Schwarz, Mauricio-Jose. Todos somos Superbarrio: la verdadera y asombrosa historia del luchador social mas enigmatico de Mexico. Mexico City: Editorial Planeta, 1994.
Taylor, Diana. The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas. Durham: Duke UP, 2003.
-——. “History and/as Performance.” TDR: The Drama Review. 2006
Tirado Jiménez, Ramón. Asamblea de Barrios: Nuestra Batalla. México D.F. : Editorial Nuestro Tiempo, 1990.