Teacher brings border life to comics with tales of migrants, drug lords and superheroes
By DIANNE SOLIS | The Dallas Morning News | Published: December 2, 2017
DALLAS (Tribune News Service) — Sometimes, good clobbers evil. At least in the comic books of Hector Rodriguez III, a fifth-grade teacher hellbent on creating Latino heroes for Latino children.
Take this comic book:
"Don't move!" screams a masked man in his speech balloon.
In the next panel, a big gun points inches away from the bug-eyed faces of two migrant children.
"You two come with me," growls the masked man.
A beefy superhero in macho-tight jeans, metal-tipped boots and a white shirt slams the gunman with a fist as the comic strip unreels in panels filled with yellows, greens, blues and browns.
Through his Rio Bravo Comics, the 35-year-old Rodriguez creates narratives based along the Texas-Mexico border where he grew up. Rodriguez says Latinos simply need heroes, and children especially need to know they can be victorious despite life's challenges.
His main hero is El Toro Pesado, the Heavy Bull on the Mexican side of the river, but known as El Peso Hero on the U.S. side. El Peso Hero takes his Spanglish name from a storyline where Texas agents said his heroics weren't worth more than a Mexican peso. Good thing El Peso Hero has superskin, capable of deflecting bullets, along with insults.
Comics and graphic novels have long drawn from trauma for their stories. And so does this comic-book writer.
His injustice-fighting superhero battles a narcotics cartel that shares a likeness with the real-life Zetas. In another storyline, El Peso Hero battles human traffickers who prey on child migrants who ride a train called La Bestia, the Beast. In another, a U.S. citizen and military veteran is mistaken as an undocumented immigrant and insists he shouldn't be deported.
"There has never been a Latino superhero who embodied the border and that grit," says Rodriguez, who was born in the border town of Eagle Pass. As for the heavy use of immigration themes, Rodriguez calls them "a universal."
In 2015, El Peso Hero even slapped down a presidential candidate named Donald Trump who insulted Mexicans in a campaign speech. The slug scene made the El Peso Hero cover.
"We had to take a stand against that negativity ... that damaging rhetoric toward our community," Rodriguez said.
As a bilingual teacher in the McKinney ISD, he sees youngsters from low-income backgrounds often knocked down by family troubles. One, in particular, hit him hard.
"You see the newcomers and then a student says, 'They just deported my dad.' And it gives you a whole different perspective."
Rodriguez created El Peso Hero in 2011 as a web comic and then soon transformed it into traditional comic book form through Rio Bravo Comics. His wife, Heather, edits his work while also teaching elementary students. They have a toddler daughter.
At first, the California native says, she was shocked by her husband's stories, so often influenced by real stories of immigration hardships or violence by drug-traffickers. But since she often sees students coping with immigration problems, she hopes the comics give kids a chance to relate in a positive way with a powerful character like the superhero.
"They honestly don't know where they will be next week or whether their parents will be there when they get home," she said.
Inside Rodriguez's McKinney home office, a row of framed comic books lines the wall behind the desk. There's Batman, Superman and in the center, El Peso Hero.
But one other character dominates. That would be Godzilla.
Two glass cases contain replicas of the movie-star monster inspired by a dinosaur, who has also appeared in comic books in Japan and the U.S. A big, framed Godzilla movie poster is nearby.
Rodriguez was inspired by Godzilla's international origins. Watching Godzilla movies in Spanish had a special appeal; he liked Godzilla's evolution from a bad guy to a sort of good guy who fought off other giant monsters.
Fronterizos, or border-dwellers, became accustomed to listening to multiple points of view, said Rodriguez's father, a 62-year-old school teacher who's also named Hector.
Rodriguez's father says his first-born was always questioning things and trying to sort out why Texans view things one way and Mexicans another when he was growing up in Eagle Pass.
"The roots of El Peso Hero stem from a strong sense of justice and fair play before the rich and powerful. And that is something people from the border get from an early age," the father said. "El Peso Hero is trying to be more than just American or Mexican. He wants to be right and fair in his treatment of everyone."
The older Hector Rodriguez fueled his son's tastes. The father embraced El Santo and Kaliman. El Santo was a masked wrestler who died in the 1980s. He inspired comic book portrayals. To this day, Santos' masks can be found in many mercados, the markets found throughout the Southwest and Mexico. Kaliman was a more complex Mexican comic-book creation, a blue-eyed Indian-born figure and a master of martial arts.
Rodriguez's father moved the family to College Station so he could pursue a master's degree at Texas A&M University. His namesake son was 9, and trips to the comic book store there were a steady treat.
Meanwhile, relatives living at the border continued to pepper the younger Rodriguez with amazing stories of the violent drug cartel fighting for control over Nuevo Laredo. News blogs informed him of a cartel murdering dozens in and around Piedras Negras, across from Eagle Pass.
All that should have frightened Rodriguez. Instead, it became distilled into his comic books in fictionalized ways.
One character, Laura, is a female journalist and blogger chronicling the narcotics wars. Such a woman really lived. Then, died. A note was attached to her body in 2011 in which cartel bosses claimed the hit as their own.
Rodriguez says he's honoring the challenges journalists face at the border.
Women play villains, too. La Patrona, the boss lady, is an eye patch-wearing mobster and just debuted in a new series.
The bilingual educator would like to become a school principal. But in the interim, he's devising new characters for his comic book, branching out into 100-page-plus graphic novels. This past July, he helped organize Texas' first Latino comic convention in Dallas.
And the University of North Texas at Dallas and Rodriguez are in development for a comic book that features Jovi, a female bilingual teacher with super powers and a back story that begins in Honduras.
Other big-name comic book publishers have produced Latino and black characters. Marvel re-introduced Spider-Man as a half African-American and half Puerto-Rican. And Marvel debuted the Latina superhero Arana, spider in Spanish. They later changed her name to Spider-Girl.
Rodriguez dismisses some of these characters as "the gentrification" of superheroes. "It is too raw of a narrative for them to be mainstreamed," Rodriguez said.
But there's been pushback to El Peso Hero, too. Some have told him his border superhero is "too niche."
To which he says, "In the end, I'm just trying to tell a great story, a great drama."
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