‘El Peso Hero’ is the 21st-Century Borderland Superhero Texas Needs
‘El Peso Hero’ is the 21st-Century Borderland Superhero Texas Needs
Hector Rodriguez couldn’t find a comic hero he could relate to, so he created one.
Growing up in Eagle Pass in the ’80s and ’90s, Hector Rodriguez loved superheroes. Along with his parents, he often drove across the international bridge to Piedras Negras, where his godmother owned a video rental store. He’d head home wearing a backpack laden with Betamax and VHS tapes, many of them black-and-white films featuring Mexican superheroes like El Santo and Blue Demon. Stacks of comic books multiplied on his bedroom floor: Kalimán and Batman, Superman and Chanoc, lucha libre and Godzilla. Rodriguez devoured Mexican and American comics alike, but could never find a story set in the borderlands.
“Those characters never really spoke to me,” Rodriguez says, “to my background, my heritage or my language.”
Rodriguez, 34, is now a fifth-grade reading teacher at Burks Elementary School in McKinney, and he’s given his students the borderland superhero he never had. In 2012, he began writing and illustrating El Peso Hero, an indie comic book series starring a Mexican superhero. El Peso Hero fights injustice in the form of government corruption, drug cartels and human trafficking on the U.S.-Mexico border. The series has steadily become more and more popular, and on July 29 Rodriguez will headline the first-ever Texas Latino Comic Con in Dallas.
Rodriguez says he’s proud that his work can help readers find a sense of community, especially because he traces its origins to a time in his life when he felt alone.
When Rodriguez was in third grade, the family moved from Eagle Pass to College Station so his father could attend graduate school. “That was a culture shock,” he remembers. “I went from a majority Hispanic class to being the only one.”
He frequented comic book stores and worked on his own drawings at home, while also starting figure drawing classes. Meanwhile, his grandfather told him riveting stories about the Zetas and other cartels in Mexico. One day he connected the two. “It was just like a lightning bolt,” he says. “Wouldn’t it be amazing if there was a contemporary Mexican norteño superhero … fighting corruption but also fighting organized crime?”
Rodriguez back-burnered the idea, though, until he moved to Dallas for his first teaching job in 2010. More than 60 percent of his students at Webb Elementary, where he teaches summer school, speak Spanish as their first language. He remembers the day a student came to school distraught because his father and uncle had just been deported. “It’s hard, because their role models got deported,” he says. “I felt energized to do these stories that are reflective of our community, through a Mexican superhero dealing with these challenges and giving them hope.”
Rodriguez began posting El Peso Hero stories online in 2012. The series soon attracted a following within the devoted online comic community. Next, he started printing the first issues and selling them at comic conventions across Texas and California. He almost always sold out. “People were just hungry for diversity,” he says.
Rodriguez writes the script for his stories and initially illustrated them as well. Now he sometimes gets help illustrating the issues from artists he has met through online forums, like Chema Cuéllar, from Mexico, and Guillermo Santamarina, from Argentina.
When renowned Marvel Comics artist Sam de la Rosa illustrated a cover, the series became widely popular. The cover featured El Peso Hero, clothes ragged from fighting, in front of the Mexico City statue El Ángel de la Independencia, one of Mexico’s best-known national landmarks.
El Peso Hero is a humble and kindhearted but ruthless vigilante whose superpowers include super strength and bulletproof skin. He protects innocent victims from unjust situations related to real-life situations along the border. One scene in Border Stories, the comic’s third issue, depicts a group of Central Americans riding atop La Bestia, the train that migrants use to cross Mexico on their way to the United States. After cartel thugs stop the train, they hold children at gunpoint to steal the little money they have, until El Peso suddenly appears and beats the criminals up.
Increasingly, the series has included social and political commentary. A recent issue depicts El Peso Hero punching President Donald Trump — an homage to the famous 1941 Captain America cover that showed the World War II superhero doing the same to Adolf Hitler.
“[El Peso Hero] has never really been political, but when [Trump] made certain statements about the Hispanic community, we decided we needed to take a stance,” Rodriguez says.
The latest issue of El Peso Hero deals with so-called sanctuary cities. The story is similar to those Rodriguez has heard from his students: a Hispanic family in Houston gets torn apart when the father is taken away by immigration enforcement agents just as his daughter is coming home from school.
The character in this story is an American citizen who is racially profiled and mistakenly detained as an undocumented immigrant — a real situation that has befallen hundreds of American citizens. The family man is later taken to “Camp Border Freedom,” a fictional detention facility, while El Peso stands on a nearby mountain saying in Spanish, “This camp is an injustice, I’m going to set them free.” After this scene, the issue ends with a classic hook: “To be continued…”
The El Peso Hero comics are PG-13, but Rodriguez brings in selected panels to use as a teaching tool with his 9-and-10-year-old bilingual students. He often removes the text and invites students to write their own dialogue. Recently he brought in a scene showing El Peso Hero in street clothes as a vendor selling elotes, Mexican street corn. Only after the students had written the dialogue did he reveal that the humble street vendor was also a superhero. “They make the connection that anybody casual or normal could do great things at a superhero level, and [it] draws them in,” he says.
Nidia Cedillo, assistant principal at Webb Elementary, says Rodriguez has a way of turning reluctant readers into fans. “He’s a great asset to [the school], and all the things he can bring. … His comics are much more than a hobby, they can be a true way of life, a career that can make you shine,” she says.
The characters of El Peso Hero come to life in a small studio at Rodriguez’s home in Dallas. It’s a room filled with comic book posters, action figures and other memorabilia.
Sitting in a chair draped with a colorful Mexican serape, Rodriguez talks about one of his biggest efforts to give something back to the community: planning Dallas’ inaugural Latino comic convention. Tickets to comic conventions often cost hundreds of dollars, making them cost-prohibitive for many fans and indie artists. That’s why the July 29 convention, to be held at Dallas’ Latino Cultural Center, will be free and open to all. Rodriguez and his fellow organizers also sought to include up-and-coming artists and writers.
“We’re showcasing a lot of talent that a lot of people haven’t heard of,” he says.
The real-life El Peso Hero, Rodriguez says, was his grandfather. Hector Rodriguez Sr. moved back and forth across the border for decades. “He believed in the American dream, and he became a successful business owner,” Rodriguez says. He remembers his grandfather’s stories of seeing Jim Crow-era signs outside of establishments in Texas, where some people compared Latinos to dogs. Undaunted, the elder Rodriguez became an American citizen in the 1960s. That sense of justice is at the heart of his grandson’s work.
“It’s the concept of ganas: not giving up, perseverance, tenacity, grit,” he says.