MEXICO CITY — MEXICO CITY -- Standing at about 5 feet 9 inches tall in a re leotard with his jelly-belly jiggling over gold lame shorts, "Superbarrio" Gomez looks more like a carnival performer than one of Mexico's most popular defenders of the poor.
But very few people laugh when he walks through the streets. Most cheer and run to shake his hand. And although politicians and business tycoons don't quiver at the sight of the masked crusader, his presence has made them squirm.
"He is our greatest champion," says 54-year-old Jorge Herrera, thrusting a fist into the air. "We follow him whenever he needs us because he is always with us when we need him."
Superbarrio emerged from the rubble of the 1985 earthquake that devastated Mexico City -- especially ravaged were the city's "barrios," as the slum neighborhoods of the city are known. Since he first strode into town in 1987, he has been adopted as the mascot of the Assembly of Barrios, a grass-roots coalition that formed to organize relief efforts for poor earthquake victims. To Mexico's underclass, he is seen more as a savior.
Some 1,500 unfair evictions have been stopped and about 12,000 families have gotten low-interest loans to buy homes or plots of land through the efforts of Superbarrio and the assembly.
"He helps poor people like us," says Patricia Tapoya, 23. "He doesn't do it for money. He does it because he lives with us and suffers the same problems we do."
"It's like Batman," says Daniel Ramos, 26. "It's better for him to wear the mask, because he is recognized wherever he goes."
"People may think it's silly," he adds. "But once they hear what he has done, they stop laughing."
Superbarrio explains that after the disastrous earthquake, the poor cried out furiously for help to rebuild their ramshackle homes. Others pleaded for justice as their landlords began forcing them out of their tenements so that the land could be sold to businessmen.
Politicians seemed deaf to the calls for help. However, those cries haunted the man who was a street vendor and wrestler, selling fruits and candy in a dilapidated slum.
"I began to think what could I do to make a difference, to get the attention of the government so that they would help us," says Superbarrio, whose identity is a closely guarded secret. "I decided to create this person."
Wrestling has long been a passion of people who live in Mexico City's poor neighborhoods. Superbarrio said he modeled his character after "El Santo," the Saint, who was the star of a series of old wrestling movies. In those films, El Santo always triumphed over evil to save the poor and defenseless.
"I remember people used to say, 'If only there really was an El Santo, he would help us,' " says Superbarrio. "So I decided to bring him to life."
In June 1987, at a demonstration to demand that the government provide low-interest loans for poor people to buy homes, Superbarrio made his first public appearance. His body still tenses up when he remembers the chilly reception he received.
"A lot of people laughed and jeered because they thought I was from a carnival," he says.
"But I stood and told them I was here to help in their fight. I started describing the conditions that they lived in and the insensitivity of the government, and they realized that I was not some outsider.
"They realized that I came from the same place they did and that I understood their pain because I had experienced it," he adds. "And then they cheered."
Symbol of courage
Leaders of political action groups who have watched or worked with Superbarrio speculate that the character is so popular because he represents the power and courage that most Mexicans wish they could muster to fight for justice.
"Superbarrio represents the fight that most poor people face every day just to survive," said Adoniram Gaxeola, president of the Mexican Ecumenical Committee for Help for the Displaced.
Emboldened by widespread support, Superbarrio lashes out at wealthy chief executive officers and politicians, including President Carlos Salinas de Gortari and Mexico City Mayor Manuel Camacho Solis.
In highly publicized fights around the city, Superbarrio wrestles costumed characters who represent political corruption, environmental contamination, disease and other social problems that disproportionately affect the poor.
One of his constant challengers is Nuclear-saurus, who represents the toxic wastes being dumped into steams and rivers around a nuclear power plant in Veracruz.
"Senator No" took on Superbarrio a few weeks ago, in a fight organized to encourage Mexico City residents to vote yes in a plebiscite that asked if they wanted their local government to be elected instead of appointed by the president.
As always, Superbarrio won decisively.
The do-gooder has ignored news media criticism that he has tarnished the prestige of the fight of the poor. And because it is rare for views of government opponents to be aired on television, Superbarrio has threatened to acquire a radio transmitter and broadcast short programs from various plazas around town.
Government officials are reluctant to participate in meetings with him, saying if they must come without masks, then so should he. But with persistence, and with thousands of people marching behind him, he has forced officials to hear the complaints of the poor.
"I tell the politicians that this is an expression of the people and this is the form they have chosen to represent their fight," says Superbarrio, standing in the midst of a crowd that has gathered around him on a street corner. "Who is behind this mask? Each one of us."
Arrested in U.S.
The fight "of the people" takes him throughout Mexico. A few years ago he even toured Southern California and criticized the Mexican consulates for not doing enough to protect the rights of Mexican immigrants along the border. A few days afterward, on an anonymous tip that Superbarrio had entered the country illegally, U.S. immigration officials arrested him.
Superbarrio was released a few hours later, and immigration officials admitted the information they had received was false.
"No matter where I am, I can feel the government trying to stop me," Superbarrio says with a chuckle. "But to stop this fight, they will have to stop thousands of people, not just me."
That was apparent at a rally last week. Superbarrio, accompanied by copycat super heroes "El Ecologista" and "Super Animal," led a demonstration to protest the continued dumping of toxic wastes in Veracruz. At least 5,000 people showed up to begin the march in the Zocalo, Mexico City's central plaza. And another 3,000 spectators joined the march when they saw Superbarrio ride by atop a dusty dune buggy.
The participants chanted:
"Se Ve! Se Escucha!
Superbarrio esta en la Lucha!"
Superbarrio is in the fight!"
Once the crowd reached the city government offices, Superbarrio stood tall.
"We are here in front of this building again, and we will keep coming here until this government recognizes its obligation to serve the people of this city," he yelled into a microphone.
"We will stay all night if we must," yelled a frail old woman in the crowd.
A worried look flashed across Superbarrio's face. In today's world, not even super heroes cannot avoid more mundane responsibilities.
He put his meaty palm over the microphone and whispered to the driver, "I can't stay too long because I have to pick my kids up from school."