For Dulce Pinzón, the true superheroes inhabiting Gotham are the undocumented immigrants who work as waiters, delivery boys, laundromat attendants, taxi drivers, and nannies, yet remain invisible in the din of the bustling city.
The Mexican photographer's provocative solo show, "The Real Story of the Superheroes," features 10 intimate color portraits of immigrants doing their daily work in the Big Apple — while decked out in the costumes of the Justice League.
In Superman, Noe Reyes, who works as a restaurant delivery boy in Brooklyn, pedals his Schwinn bicycle with his jowls clenched grimly as his red cape flaps in the wind and the New York skyline looms in the background. A caption below the image informs that Reyes sends his family in Puebla, Mexico, $500 every week.
The 33-year-old Pinzón, who has lived in New York since 1995 and once worked as a union organizer for the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 338, says the idea to recognize unheralded Latino laborers came to her from the people she encountered in her neighborhood. She decided to get them to pose for her in superhero garb, determined to bring their plight and sacrifice to the limelight.
"Reyes delivered food to my home. I found Wonder Woman at the laundry where I do my wash," Pinzón says. "I used my entire neighborhood as a lab."
The photographer doesn't delve into the hot-button topic of illegal immigration, other than to point out it's evident in her work.
Each photo in the series, which Pinzón began three years ago, contains a caption identifying the subject, the name of his or her hometown in Mexico, and the amount of earnings wired to the family.
Looking at the photographs and seeing how much cash these individuals send home weekly despite their low-paying jobs, the viewer can easily understand why they've been designated superheroes.
Bernabe Mendez, a professional window washer from Guerrero, became Pinzón's first subject and an easy choice for Spiderman. He is shown cleaning a building window 18 stories above the street, with a panoramic view of the East River and skyscrapers behind him. Pinzón, who expresses a terrible fear of heights, says Mendez persuaded her to don a harness and lean outside the building to snap his picture.
"I was terrified, but he told me to trust him and I did. Logistically I had researched that it would have cost me $3,000 to rent a crane for the shoot, and he ended up saving me the money." Mendez, who works long hours in harrowing conditions, sends his family $500 a month.
Pinzón often matches the characteristics of classic superheroes to the jobs of her subjects, elevating commonplace scenes to the realm of satire.
Wonder Woman does a load of dirty laundry, while Aquaman guts a large tuna at the Fulton Fish Market. The Human Torch moonlights as a cook behind a restaurant counter, where his sauté pan shoots flames to the bemusement of diners.
One of the funniest images on display is of Luis Hernandez, a demolition worker and Veracruz native dressed as the Thing, perched atop a boulder and holding a jackhammer. Behind him, several immigrant laborers struggle with heavy construction equipment. Hernandez wires $200 home weekly.
Pinzón says she finds the superhero costumes online or has a relative make them for her. "I'm not that talented," she laughs.
Although masks often conceal their identities, the undocumented laborers she portrays exude a quiet dignity and pride in these soulful pictures.
Some of the images also capture a sense of the arduous nature of big-city life when immigrants find themselves confronted by scant prospects for honestly making a buck.
Ernesto Mendez is a young man from Mexico City who earns a living as a street hustler in Times Square. In Robin, the male prostitute, wearing the garb of Batman's chirpy sidekick, leans against a light pole in front of a peepshow palace. The arresting image frames the dashed hopes of thousands of Mexicans who each year risk a border crossing only to see their dreams of a better life crash on their heads. Regardless of his hardscrabble existence, Mendez still steers $200 weekly back home.
America's dependence on immigrant labor comes home to roost in a striking domestic scene. Minerva Valencia, who works as a nanny, is dolled up as Cat Woman while she hand-feeds grapes to a diaper-clad Anglo toddler cradled in her arms. The Puebla native, who each week wires $400 home, appears to be struggling for patience as several fake glittery silver fingernails begin to pop off her hands and the boy's older sister tugs at Valencia's pant leg, pleading for her to share the fruit.
An image that wittily communicates the psychological balancing act of adapting to life in the States is Elastic Man, in which Mexico City's Sergio García is a waiter outfitted in the getup of the Fantastic Four's Mr. Fantastic. (In Latin America, he is known as Elastic Man.)
Like the character, who can stretch his body to incredible lengths, the apple-cheeked García, standing in the middle of a restaurant and grinning, extends one elongated arm to serve a patron while the other arm disappears into the kitchen. He sends $350 home weekly.
In her artist statement, Pinzón writes, "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."
But what her show screams desperately is that the unsung sweat of their labor, the occupational hazards, and the legal turmoil they endure daily while servicing Anglo America have become intolerable.