Superheroes: Invisibles No Ms

Mexican laborers, real superheroes.

Gabriel Thompson

On a pleas­ant June evening, I’m seat­ed across the table from pho­tog­ra­ph­er Dulce Pinzón in a crowd­ed Mex­i­can restau­rant in Brook­lyn. Look­ing over the menu while try­ing to come up with a few rea­son­ably artic­u­late ques­tions for an inter­view, I notice out of my right eye a broad-shoul­dered work­er rush­ing by our table. He looks strange­ly familiar.

Is that … Hom­bre Elás­ti­co?”

Pinzón nods – it is Mr. Fan­tas­tic, the man of astound­ing intel­li­gence and extreme mal­leabil­i­ty, leader of the Fan­tas­tic Four (and who, in Span­ish-speak­ing coun­tries, is known as the Elas­tic Man”). Even with­out the three-foot-long fore­arms and the blue six-pack stom­ach, I remem­ber his pho­to clear­ly, with his chub­by cheeks and easy smile on dis­play as he deliv­ers a dish to wait­ing customers. 

That’s how I met many of the super­heroes,” Pinzón explains, just by run­ning into them dur­ing my nor­mal life. Won­der Woman (Mujer Mar­avil­la) works at the laun­dro­mat where I wash my clothes, Super­man deliv­ered food to my apart­ment one day. These are peo­ple that I saw con­tribut­ing in many ways to our lives, but they are also peo­ple that it’s easy to ignore, to not real­ly notice.”

Born in Mex­i­co City, Pinzón, 31, earned a degree in Mass Media Com­mu­ni­ca­tions at the pres­ti­gious Uni­ver­si­dad de Las Améri­c­as in Puebla. In 1995 she moved from Mex­i­co to New York City, where she con­tin­ued to pur­sue her pri­ma­ry pas­sion, pho­tog­ra­phy. Her lat­est project, The Real Sto­ry of the Super­heroes,” con­sists of 14 inti­mate por­traits of immi­grants at work in the Big Apple: Nan­ny. Con­struc­tion work­er. Taxi dri­ver. Fish clean­er. Even a pros­ti­tute. All of the sub­jects pho­tographed are from Mex­i­co, and all send mon­ey back home to fam­i­ly mem­bers. Below each por­trait is the immigrant’s name, their home state in Mex­i­co, the year they arrived and the amount of earn­ings each wires across the border. 

All well and good, you might say. These peo­ple work hard, and undoubt­ed­ly play impor­tant roles in the econ­o­my. But they are so eas­i­ly missed in the hub­bub of big-city life. Who can remem­ber the face of the taxista who dropped you off at your des­ti­na­tion, of the wait­er who served you arroz con fri­joles?

That invis­i­bil­i­ty was what Pinzón set out to high­light, and to do so, she set­tled on a sim­ple yet dra­mat­ic ploy: super­hero cos­tumes. Aqua Man slices open a gigan­tic tuna in the back of a fish mar­ket; Super­man zooms down a street on his bike, deliv­ery food in his bas­ket and red cape bil­low­ing in the wind; the Red Crick­et (El Cha­pulín Col­orado–a pop­u­lar Mex­i­can char­ac­ter) push­es a loaded wheel­bar­row up a ramp at a con­struc­tion site. The result­ing pho­tographs are visu­al­ly arrest­ing, por­tray­ing immi­grants as both hum­ble and proud, and they suc­cess­ful­ly bring a fresh per­spec­tive to a top­ic that’s usu­al­ly debat­ed with­in the stale con­fines of defen­sive Democ­rats and nativist Republicans.

Pinzón’s inspi­ra­tion came when she saw a Spi­der­man cos­tume for sale in a Mex­i­can mar­ket while walk­ing with her moth­er dur­ing a vis­it home. When she returned to New York, she began to search for poten­tial immi­grant labor­ers, explain­ing her idea and ask­ing if they would par­tic­i­pate. Work­ing with­in what she calls a fic­tion-doc­u­men­tary” style, she tried to find immi­grants whose occu­pa­tions matched a superhero’s abil­i­ty. (The Incred­i­ble Hulk, for exam­ple, is a man from Guer­rero named Pauli­no Car­doza, who unloads heavy ship­ments for a gro­cery store.) She hopes to even­tu­al­ly find six more peo­ple for the project, and recent­ly received fund­ing from the New York Foun­da­tion for the Arts to com­plete the exhib­it. Thus far, The Real Sto­ry of the Super­heroes” has been shown in sev­er­al cities in Mex­i­co, San­ta Fe, Tul­sa, San Fran­cis­co and San Diego, and will be on dis­play at the Queens Muse­um of Art in New York City from July 21 to Sept. 17.

Pinzón writes in her artist’s state­ment: The prin­ci­pal objec­tive of this series is to pay homage to these brave and deter­mined men and women that some­how man­age, with­out the help of any super­nat­ur­al pow­er, to with­stand extreme con­di­tions of labor in order to help their fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties sur­vive and pros­per.” Any­one who has wit­nessed the occu­pa­tion­al haz­ards that exist in a fish mar­ket or nego­ti­at­ed the treach­er­ous ter­rain of pot­holed city streets on a bike in the rain under­stands such obsta­cles. And any­one who has jour­neyed to the states of south­ern Mex­i­co where the immi­grants in the exhib­it orig­i­nate – Puebla, Guer­rero, Oax­a­ca – can quick­ly attest to the vital life­line that remit­tances play for those left behind.

Iron­i­cal­ly, it wasn’t until she left her native Mex­i­co and land­ed in New York City that Pinzón began to real­ly notice Mex­i­can labor­ers. I went to pri­vate schools and was very priv­i­leged, but didn’t real­ize it at the time,” she says. That’s prob­a­bly how it is every­where for peo­ple like me.” Her father owns a suc­cess­ful con­struc­tion com­pa­ny in Puebla, and when she was grow­ing up, her par­ents were able to afford a dark room in the house where she could devel­op pho­tos. Ques­tions of priv­i­lege and class didn’t need to be stu­dious­ly avoid­ed – they went com­plete­ly unnoticed. 

When I got to New York I found myself hav­ing to assim­i­late, and that’s when I became inter­est­ed in the lives of oth­er Mex­i­cans,” she explains. I sud­den­ly saw all of these peo­ple here – my peo­ple – and at the same time I saw them doing what I was doing: blend­ing in but also main­tain­ing our own iden­ti­ties.” She also real­ized that even as the num­ber of Mex­i­cans in New York City dra­mat­i­cal­ly increased – they are Gotham’s fastest grow­ing immi­grant group – they were still gen­er­al­ly ignored by Ang­los, just as she had found it easy to over­look the work­ing-class Mex­i­cans back home. 

Along with her own strug­gles to assim­i­late and earn a liv­ing (for a peri­od, she her­self was undoc­u­ment­ed, and worked under the table as a wait­ress), a key expe­ri­ence in her polit­i­cal devel­op­ment came when Pinzón spent two years vol­un­teer­ing on a local union cam­paign. We were work­ing to orga­nize the Mex­i­can green­gro­cers,” she recalls about her time spent with Local 338 of the UFCW. And even though I loved the work, I could see that the unions weren’t ready to ful­ly incor­po­rate the Lati­nos. There was still some resis­tance, and this resis­tance meant that they weren’t using the full poten­tial of these work­ers. I think that now with the recent protests around immi­gra­tion, you’re final­ly see­ing the pow­er that we can have, if we get orga­nized. Peo­ple aren’t able to ignore the grow­ing Lati­no pres­ence in this coun­try anymore.”

Pinzón says her most reward­ing expe­ri­ence of the Super­heroes project came when she returned to Mex­i­co for the open­ing of the exhib­it in Puebla. By chance, María Luisa Romero, who is from Puebla and works at a Brook­lyn laun­dro­mat, was also in town to vis­it her par­ents and bring her 14-year-old daugh­ter, Anayeli, to Brook­lyn. Romero, a.k.a. Won­der Woman, came to the exhibit’s open­ing with Anayeli and was one of the stars of the show. She loved it,” Pinzón remem­bers. She was stand­ing around, drink­ing wine and talk­ing to peo­ple from La Jor­na­da, El Refor­ma and El Uni­ver­sal. You should’ve seen it, her cheeks were so red!”

When I speak with Romero, she agrees. The event was beau­ti­ful – there were so many peo­ple to meet,” she says excit­ed­ly. Reporters took my pic­ture and asked me all sorts of ques­tions; every­one was very inter­est­ed in the life of an immigrant.” 

But when the event end­ed, Romero’s celebri­ty didn’t make the ardu­ous task ahead any eas­i­er. She and her daugh­ter, both born in Mex­i­co, had to cross the busy bor­der near Tijua­na ille­gal­ly. It was very dif­fi­cult to cross, because there was too much migra,” she explains. They were appre­hend­ed three times by Bor­der Patrol agents before final­ly mak­ing it safe­ly into the Unit­ed States, where Anayeli now attends a bilin­gual high school and Romero is back at the laundromat.

That is why I think Dulce’s project is so impor­tant,” Romero says. Amer­i­cans need to know the hard­ships and suf­fer­ing that immi­grants must go through in order to help their rel­a­tives back home.” She’s been wait­ing anx­ious­ly to see if an immi­gra­tion reform bill emerges that could even­tu­al­ly grant her cit­i­zen­ship. Hav­ing worked in the coun­try for six years, she is opti­mistic that Won­der Woman might one day be able to vis­it her par­ents with­out hav­ing to wor­ry about how she’ll get back. 

Gabriel Thomp­son is a Brook­lyn-based jour­nal­ist. He can be reached at his web site.
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