Secrets and Other Superheroes

Tomorrow We Dreamt of Yesterday

Secrets and Other Superheroes

By Genevieve Quick May 22, 2018

Tomorrow We Dreamt of Yesterday explores how artists create counter-narratives that fuse science fiction, present-day life, and histories of colonization, displacement, and economic and political inequities.

In superhero films, the secret lives of the protagonists are self-protective, ensuring their security within the civilian world. While the secrecy of identities and societies can fortify resistance, it also suggests an absence, one that has parallels to the lack of representation produced by socioeconomic and racial inequality and political oppression. With the recent release of the film Black Panther (2018) as a possible herald of more inclusive models for heroes and heroines, society is reassessing who can claim heroic narratives. In art, the merging of fantasy and reality can allow explorations of the dimensions of secrecy. The artist Neil "Clavo" Rivas has created the Department of Illegal Superheroes (ICE DISH) (a project begun approximately in 2012), which applies Immigration and Customs Enforcement procedures to people with superpowers, while the photographer Dulce Pinzón has transformed Mexican immigrant workers into costumed superhumans for her series, The Real Story of Superheroes (2005–2010). Operating within the secret life of the imagination, these artworks become heroic gestures of consciousness and empowerment.

Dulce Pinzón. The Real Story of Superheroes, 2005–2010 (installation view); installation at California Center for the Arts. Courtesy of Bedford Gallery, Walnut Creek, CA and California Center for the Arts, Escondido, CA.

With a predominantly Black female cast dressed in fantastic costumes, Black Panther pays homage to Africa's rich visual and cultural traditions while presenting a futuristic and technologically sophisticated present. The presence of the film highlights the absence of non-white and female superheroes in popular culture; it interrupts the Western-centric vision that correlates whiteness with technological development and wealth, which excludes the developing world. Moreover, the film highlights the nature of multifaceted identities as the characters move between the present-day and Wakanda, a place that exists in a parallel dimension within Africa, which Wakandans have kept a secret as a form of self-preservation. As the Wakandans eventually emerge from their world to participate in global politics, they become visible role models, heroes and heroines.

The lack of culturally inclusive, heroic role models indicates the limitations that mainstream society imagines for marginalized populations, but the absence of any imagined heroes—as during Nicolae Ceauşescu's totalitarian regime in Romania—reveals a society of despair. The documentary film Chuck Norris vs. Communism (2015) explains that the Romanian government banned "imperialist" Western media and only aired propagandistic television shows for two hours a day. Despite potentially extreme repercussions, Romanians covertly screened bootlegged Hollywood films, which were crudely dubbed into Romanian by Irina Nistor, who developed a mythical status as the anonymous translator of the freedom of the West.

In the film, one interviewee who grew up attending clandestine screenings said that, after seeing American action hero films, kids changed how they played. They began to imagine that rocks and streets were challenges: “We started to play in a disciplined manner. We started to want to be heroes."1 Romanians’ imaginations were sparked, and they began to understand the lack of stimuli and freedom within their country. The screenings gave Romanians the thrill of participating in a secret society that engaged in civil disobedience. The film suggests the bootlegged VHS tapes contributed to the 1989 public protest and fall of Ceauşescu's reign.

Whereas fantasy effected change in real life in Romania, the real world crosses into the fictional lives of superheroes in Neil "Clavo" Rivas’s fictional immigration division tasked with deporting illegal superheroes. With a logo, a blue-and-white color scheme, and documents in legalese, ICE DISH’s website appears like those of the government. The online text explains that:

An illegal superhero is a superhero/superheroine who has entered the country illegally and is unlawfully present. If he/she has overstayed his/her allotted time and has not renewed a visa or is not following the required provisions of a visa, the superhero is considered a "status violator." … These illegal superheroes are subject to deportation at any time. Their presence is in direct violation of federal law.2

With terms like "status violator," mentions of visas, and the threat of deportation, Rivas applies the legal bullying of undocumented residents to superheroes. The project proposes that the nation's immigration policy must be applied to everyone, including superhuman beings.

Neil "Clavo" Rivas. Illegal Superheroes, 2012; 11 x 17 in. (each poster). Courtesy of SOMArts Cultural Center, San Francisco.

Like many of us, superheroes have complicated origin and immigration stories. Most iconically, Superman was born with the name Kal-El on the planet Krypton. Superman's father sent him to Earth before Krypton was destroyed, and he was adopted by a rural family in Kansas. In the view of ICE DISH, Superman is literally an illegal alien, which prompts the following questions: How would Superman obtain a visa from Krypton, and did the U.S. have a diplomatic relationship with Krypton? Does using an alter ego, Clark Kent, constitute identity fraud? Since Superman was sent to Earth to avoid the destruction of his planet, does that make him a refugee and thus eligible for asylum? Or, since he came to Earth under the direction of his parents when he was a child, is he a "dreamer" who qualifies for DACA? If the US government were to deport Superman, where would they send him, since his home planet was destroyed? Do his superpowers constitute "extraordinary abilities" and make him eligible for an O-1 visa? Has no one questioned his immigration status up to this point because he is depicted as a white man? In pursuing these seemingly absurd questions, Rivas's project prompts us to consider the bureaucratic mazes that real people face.

Living between Mexico and New York, the photographer Dulce Pinzón has been photographing Mexican immigrants in New York for The Real Story of Superheroes (2005–2010). Pinzón originally responded to the way that ideas of heroism became entwined with those of national security after September 11; since then, the practice of enforcing national security has developed into the openly hostile treatment of immigrants, especially those from Mexico and Muslim-majority countries.3 As Pinzón dresses her subjects in the spandex and foam-padded bodysuits, capes, and masks of popular superheroes and photographs them in their everyday workplaces in New York City, she transforms the banal and mostly unseen immigrant labor into a flamboyant heroism. Because many immigrants feel pressure to assimilate, they maintain discreet presences; the law sometimes forces immigrants to live in the shadows, even under false names and identifications. Pinzón presents them as working hard, overcoming many obstacles, and helping others back home. One of Pinzón’s subjects, Minerva Valencia, takes care of two families: the one in Manhattan that pays her as a nanny, and the other in Mexico that receives 400 dollars a week from her in remittances. Supporting family members abroad is an epic task that contributes to two national economies. As Mierle Laderman Ukeles's 1970s feminist interventions elevated her unpaid domestic labor into art, Pinzón transforms female domestic workers—many of whom are immigrants from Latin America and Asia—into superheroines.

Dulce Pinzón. The Real Story of Superheroes, 2005–2010 (installation view); installation at California Center for the Arts. Courtesy of Bedford Gallery, Walnut Creek, CA and California Center for the Arts, Escondido, CA.

While we wait to see if Black Panther can directly empower marginalized communities, Chuck Norris vs. Communism illustrates the power that fictional heroes can have on everyday citizens. In the meantime, Rivas's ICE DISH project blends the real world with fiction to critique an oppressive bureaucracy, and Pinzón's immigrant subjects offer a reassessment of what heroism means. By exaggerating and merging reality and fiction, and imagining diverse superhuman role models, these works show how we can envision our heroic potential.


  1. Ilinca Calugareanu, Chuck Norris vs. Communism, 2015; 47:37–48:08.

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