Who was that masked man? That's precisely what befuddled Californians were asking themselves last month on college campuses and picket lines, at City Hall meetings and street rallies—wherever, in fact, they happened to bump into a potbellied, masked crusader known as Super Barrio. That's barrio, which means "neighborhood" in Spanish, and to answer the question, he's the most fiery—and flamboyant—Latin import to hit America since the jalapeño pepper.

Gussied up in a red leotard, a shirt emblazoned with the initials SB, gold lamé hip-hugger briefs and matching yellow boots and cape, Super Barrio is no mere loco. In his native Mexico he is a respected political activist who champions the rights of the disenfranchised and downtrodden. His recent 17-day foray into California was aimed at showing solidarity with the large Mexican immigrant community living below the poverty line—and the trip won him a new legion of fans north of the border. "Comic-book characters are very real to lots of Mexicans," he says in Spanish, his brown eyes flashing through the holes in his mask. "That's where they find their heroes, and I'm in that romantic tradition."

A few years ago, Super Barrio—who strives to keep his true identity a secret—was a former professional wrestler and street vendor, eking out a living in Mexico City. Then came the devastating 1985 earthquake that rocked the capital, killing thousands of people and leaving more than 150,000 homeless. The resulting housing shortage has proved too much for avaricious landlords to resist. "They evict previous tenants, jack up the rent several hundred percent," says Super Barrio, "and then lease the quarters to middle-class people whose homes have been destroyed and who have enough pesos to pay the inflated bills."

In the year after the quake, SB attended a few antieviction rallies and watched as embattled citizens floundered, leaderless. His mission suddenly became very clear. "I live in a small room with my wife, Lupé, and my two small children," he says. "One day I opened the door to go out. There was a blinding red-and-yellow light and the wind roared. I was terrified, and when the wind and light subsided there I was, clad as you see me now, in tights, cape and my mask. And a voice said to me, 'You are Super Barrio, defender of the poor, scourge of greedy landlords.' I've been looking for that voice ever since. He has given me a helluva big job to do."

Personal mythology aside, Super Barrio plays his role with gusto. At a moment's notice, he responds to phone calls from the needy, leaping into his red-and-gold Barriomobile van and zipping from the Mexico City slum where he lives to the scene of the latest eviction, rallying crowds to prevent police from tossing another family out onto the streets. He says he has saved the homes of dozens of families. And his popularity is such that police have so far refused to arrest him for fear of drawing even more ire from Super Barrio's poor followers. (To keep SB from overextending himself, there is now a team of Super Barrio doppelgängers who are pressed into service whenever authorities descend on several neighborhoods at once.)

The chubby, 200-lb. hero, who stands only 5'7", has been interviewed on radio and television and has testified on housing issues before Mexican government committees—always in full crimson-and-gold regalia. He has refused what he describes as a deluge of offers to do commercials and movies, accepting instead only a modest salary from the Assembly of Barrios, a 55,000-member tenants' rights group. "My cause is social, not mercenary," he says. "I was not born to be rich."

Recently, Super Barrio has broadened his campaign by touring Mexico to preach against drugs, alcohol and environmental pollution. Crossing the border to visit more than a dozen Mexican communities in California, he was awarded a certificate of commendation by the Los Angeles City Council after delivering a moving speech on civil rights abuses suffered by Mexican immigrants. The city of Fresno also extended a full civic welcome, declaring a Super Barrio Day in his honor. But his most ardent admirers were schoolchildren, who, after listening to his speech, flocked around him as if he were a Pied Piper, clamoring to touch the masked marvel's costume.

Super Barrio's last campaign stop was back in Mexico at the open space known as the "soccer field" in Tijuana, where hundreds of would-be illegal aliens gather each dusk, waiting for nightfall to cross the border into El Norte. "Our people are being driven into economic exile," he told the crowd. "We must make it possible for people to find work in our own country so we can end this tragic traffic in human beings."

And then, with a flip of his cape, Super Barrio was gone—homeward bound to continue his fight for truth, justice and the Mexican way.