Driven by the determination to shine a spotlight on people who try to get away with flouting the law, this group has figured out how to exploit social networks to prick consciences and show that, in the midst of the chaos of our day-to-day lives, it’s vital to keep raising our voice.
Los Supercívicos shake up the Internet with every capsule they launch from their computer. They’re nimble dwellers of the digital world, and they make use of it as few others in Mexico do, although they originally came from a parallel universe – analogworld—where they first appeared over a decade ago in a video recorded on a bulky old Handycam, instead of the smartphones they use today. They were first seen on network TV, not on social networks. But their mission is the same as in 2005: to shine a spotlight on the abusive types, on the jerks, on the corrupt, on the attitude of “Why not? This is Mexico. Just a little.”
After years of false starts, interruptions and censorship on television, Los Supercívicos found their stride on social networks. Today they have over a million followers on Facebook, plus a collaborative app. They may insist otherwise, but they’re doing well on YouTube; not many projects can boast that their videos have been reproduced hundreds and thousands of times. This year they raised over a million pesos in a crowdsourcing campaign. Arturo Hernández, the creator of the project, tells its story in this interview.
Los Supercívicos in Culiacán, Sinaloa with the Screw Mexico party, which goes around “congratulating” citizens who appropriate a piece of the street for themselves and charge people to park there.
How did Los Supercívicos get started?
I got started in 2005. I had just come back from a long stretch in Gringoland. I lived for nine years in Florida, right in Miami, so I know all about those dudes, the ones that stab us in the back, the Latinos there who think they’ve made it. They’re the most Republican of them all, the most fascist even.
So I come back after living there for a long time. When I come back to Mexico, what I find is the Jerk Rule: everybody does whatever the hell they want, but the biggest jerk, the one with the biggest pair of beach balls, gets away with the most. For better or for worse, one thing that works there is authority. You don’t park your car blocking the handicapped ramp because you’ll get slapped with an 800-dollar fine, and if you do it again, you lose your license for life.
Talking about handicapped ramps, I had a neighbor who’d always park on the sidewalk right over the ramp. This as in Parque Tlacoquemécatl, in Colonia del Valle [Mexico City]. One day I confront him, “Dude, don’t park there.” He was a young guy. I was about 34 back then, and he was maybe 30. “One of these days you’re gonna need that ramp. It sucks that you park on the ramp.” And he goes, “Who are you? A cop or something?” And I go, “I’m nobody. I’m the guy telling you that what you’re doing is wrong.” “And what are you gonna do about it?” he said. And that “What are you gonna do?”— I couldn’t get it out of my head.
Arturo Hernández, also know as Commander Hernández
At that time, I was obsessed with Banksy. I love Banksy. And I think it was from looking at so much of Banksy’s artwork that I decided to take action, to engage in a little poetic guerrilla warfare. I went to Lumen and bought vegetable dye. Then I went to Satélite [a neighborhood in Mexico State, north of the city], to a store for civil engineers, and I bought one of those wheels they use to paint lines on the ground. I knew that my jerk of a neighbor left for work at nine or nine-thirty. I get there at seven-thirty and what I did was paint his car with vegetable dye, as if a wheelchair had driven over it, I’m talking big wheelchair tracks like 30 meters long.
I remember that some school kids walked by and asked me what I was doing. They were middle school kids from the Colegio Avante, and they said, “This is cool. Let us help.” The kids got involved, and they were laughing their asses off. They were talking about it and said, “This is perfect. It really works.” People passing by figured out the concept and said, “Good, yeah, go for it. They’ll get the message.”
So we painted the lines, and the kids left, and I’m waiting for the guy to show up. I hide behind some bushed, he shows up, notices the lines, and can’t figure out what’s going on. He touches the paint, and I pop out with my Handycam – one of those big ones. The guy sees me and says, “It was you, you son of a bitch. I’m gonna call the cops to arrest you because you damaged my private property.” “Go ahead, call the cops, and I’ll tell them that you parked on the handicapped ramp. We can let the judge decide who did worse. But let me show you one thing first: I didn’t damage your car.” And took a bottle of water and washed off the lines so he could see there were no scratches or anything. And I remember that’s when I told him, “This comes off with water, but that crud in your mind that lets you block a ramp for the handicapped, how do you scrub that off? You need to do a friggin’ mental reset, dude, because you’re wrong.” He had a thing or two so say about my mother, but he got scared, he couldn’t keep it up and he left. That was the first Supercívicos video.
The Lifeguards calling out people who talk on their cell phone while they drive.
I started thinking and said to myself, “I’ve got the DNA of a project here. This can work with all kinds of things: sexual harassment, corruption, litter. A frontal attack on jerks!” It wasn’t calledLos Supercívicos back then, it was more radical. It was called MECO [a vulgar word for semen] for Movimiento Ejemplar Contra Ojetes [Exemplary Movement Against Jerks]. But then I reconsidered, “No, I can’t be that rude and that violent.” The truth is I’ve worked hard on the format. First it was much more radical; it was like, “If you hit me, you prick, I’m gonna knock your teeth out. I’m here to raise civic awareness, but don’t think you can step all over me.” But it’s evolved over time, and now I don’t engage in any kind of violence.
So I realize that I’ve got the DNA for something and I decide to make a pilot. I was out of work at the time, but I had some money saved up, and I decided to invest it in the pilot. It was all my own money. So I went to Iztapalapa and bought a ’69 Valiant Duster, an old jalopy that cost me 5 thousand pesos back then. I asked the guy who sold it to me—he had a body shop— “Can you make me some gull wings, and a periscope out of PVC?” We made a Batman car with stuff he had, but the secret was we put some bad-ass speakers in the trunk. Then I went to see a friend who was an announcer, Abel Membrillo, and I said to him, “C’mon, let’s take a ride in Autoconciencia” (a play on words in Spanish: the word can mean Self-awareness or Auto-awareness)—that’s what I called it, but later we changed the name to Masiosare (taken from the National Anthem). We started patrolling the streets, looking for cars that were double-parked. Anything we found wrong in terms of traffic and transit, Masiosare would take care of it. It was incredible to see people’s reactions when we put them in the spotlight. We always used humor, and songs. I remember once we caught a lady throwing a Kleenex on the ground, and Abel started singing, “Pig, don’t you call me a pig.”
We made a pilot, and it was good. I started showcasing it wherever I could, and Televisión Azteca bought it. Lots of people were interested: MTV got back to me, Televisagot back to me, and Azteca approached me and bought the format. That’s when the censorship nightmare started. The truth is when the first edition of The Supercivics came out in 2006, no one watched it. Why not? Because I didn’t want to play their game… and they began to censor me. And since I didn’t go along with their censorship, the show, which was programmed to go on in a prime-time slot at eight in the evening, was aired at one in the morning. So nobody saw the first edition.
Public swimming pool for Barbie dolls, in a pothole on the streets of Mexico City.
Aside from Abel Membrillo, who else did you start with? Who are the original Supercívicos?
On the first Supercivics show, the pilot, it was Abel Membrillo, Beto and Lalo – who do lots of stuff on Televisa—and Teo, the drummer from Los Liquits. But many of them couldn’t sign on to the program. Beto and Lalo because they worked at Televisa, and Abel because he worked at Radio Activo. So I started looking around. On the first program we had Andrés Almeida, plus Laura D’Ita, an actress friend of mine.
After you left Azteca, what did you do?
To be honest, I threw in the towel. Talking in over not long ago with Andrés, we came to the conclusion that we were ahead of our time. Mexican TV wasn’t ready for a show like that. The idea is to confront ordinary citizens the same as the city delegate, the mayor or the Coca-Cola truck. I mean, I don’t give a crap, and that’s the problem. The TV stations tell you, “No, how can you say that? Coca-Cola is a sponsor.” Well, they didn’t get it, and we were ahead of our time. I worked at all kinds of things: I started hosting Discovery Channel, E Entertainment; I did other hosting gigs; I directed commercials; I wrote; I learned how to edit. I kept on learning and looking for opportunities wherever I could.
Seven years go by, and I get an offer to do television again, and we start working with MTV. They ask us to come up with a political comedy format, and we proposed Houston, We Have a Program. The trouble was the person who asked for the proposal was not in contact with the executives. We started doing the political comedy format and when it went on the air, the MTV executives saw it and said, “What’s going on? How can they say that about the President?” “It’s political comedy. Tomorrow it might not be the President. It might be the Archbishop, or some governor. It’s against everyone and no one. You pick up the paper and look for the most relevant news and you make a joke about it.” “Well, you can’t talk about the President that way.” “It’s comedy. Without the President, you’re taking away 30 per cent of the format.” Two weeks later: “You can’t talk about the Minister of the Government because we’re about to be assigned that signal… (2.5 GHz band).” At that time Carmen Aristegui was still there. So we kept getting censored until we got kicked out. In less than four months, Houston, We Have a Program—which was getting good ratings, because it was a well-made show—in less than four months we were canned.
Arturo Commander Hernández (right) and Alex Marín y Kall, known as Esewey, show the cigarette butts they collected on a beach in Quintana Roo.
The lucky thing was that Houston, We Have a Program had a number of sections. Once a day we ran the Supercivics spot. We’d go out onto the streets and do what we do, these capsules, and we’d put them on YouTube. When we uploaded the first capsule, the producer called and said, “Have you seen the reaction to that bike spot? Thirty thousand visits, and nothing but like, like, like.” People started telling us they liked The Supercivics best, and to forget about Houston, We Have a Program. In fact, we started growing so much because of The Supercivics, and that’s why they kicked us out. It was like, “Hello, Milenio on the line; hello, this is Reforma; hello, BBC calling; hello, this is the Washington Post.” In less than two months we started doing these high-powered interviews. I think the MTV people said, “We either drop them now, or it’s going to get a lot harder later.” So one fine day they simply didn’t let us in, we couldn’t even go get our material. Just like that. We had to leave a lot of good Supercivics stuff behind. They played dirty.
After that came El Incorrecto , a program on Channel Three, with Eduardo Videgaray and El Estaca [José Ramón San Cristóbal]. They were fans of Houston… and they asked me, “How about doing your section once a week?” In the agreement I reached with them, I told them, “OK, I’ll do TV. You’re paying for the capsules – each one costs about 35 thousand pesos—, the TV rights are yours, but let me put my stuff on Internet.” And that’s how we starting building the Supercívicos channel on YouTube, and later we realized that we’re Facebook stars, that people like to watch our format on Facebook. In 2014 we did El Incorrecto and it ended in 2015, because the program died, because the network’s name changed.
Did you have censorship problems there?
No, not there. I remember once I was pretty merciless on Peña Nieto in a capsule about the police, I really laid into him, and Eduardo Videgaray said to me, “Listen, would you mind it if you uploaded your capsule as it is to the Internet, but for our show, I’d like to keep some things and take some others out.” It was all above-board, it wasn’t even censorship, it was more like “I’d take this out, it doesn’t really add anything,” “This doesn’t work here,” and it’s perfectly fine, because sometimes I get lost in my own material and it’s always healthy to have another pair of eyes look at it.
In this parody of Jaime Maussan [a popular television host specializing in UFO’s] investigate the UBV (Unidentified Broken-down Vehicles) phenomenon, to expose drivers who clog traffic by lifting their hood, pretending the car has broken down.
Between the end of El Incorrectoand the fundraising campaign, how did you finance your project?
There was a gap there. You know what really helped? I had uploaded a bunch of videos from El Incorrecto to YouTube, but they weren’t on Facebook. I had 30 videos; once a week I started uploading videos from YouTube to Facebook, and it turned out they were two completely distinct audiences. So I started expanding my Facebook channel. For example, on YouTube we’ve got 230 or 240 thousand subscribers, but on Facebook we’ve got 1.1 million likes. I found that everyone has their niche social network. Nobody dominates all of them. For instance, Chumel Torres does really well on YouTube and Twitter, but he’s a flop on Facebook. We don’t do well on YouTube; we started generating [followers] on Twitter, but it’s Facebook where we’re a big hit. So I started rehashing videos. More and more called asking for interviews. We kept making noise until the crowdsourcing thing came along.
It was them who came to me. Lalo Suárez, a kid who works at Fondeadora, said to me, “I see you’re uploading old videos. Why don’t you ask people for money? I think you’ve got a sizeable community.” At first I had my doubts, until I saw that there was nothing more I could do. I also started doing a lot of video exposés. A lot of them came out, some very powerful, and they’ve been seen more than my comedy material.
Thanks to crowdsourcing we raised a million pesos for three things: One, to keep making capsules, which I’m making at a pace of one a week. Two, to make capsules outside of Mexico City, and I’m following through: we’ve gone to Monterrey, we’ve gone to Chihuahua, I’m going to Culiacán. And three, the application, for the start-up, to begin putting it together, and it’s now ready.
Just like on Back to the Future, Rucommander Hernández comes back from the future, the year 2054, to keep Esewey from becoming a viene-viene [a street hustler who helps you find a parking spot] because he has no savings.
Did the fundraising breathe new life into the project?
Yes. I learned a lot from crowdfunding, I learned to believe in people. I look at it like the real ratings, because one thing is for people to watch your content and give you a thumbs-up, and another thing is for them to go to the corner convenience store and deposit 250 pesos for your cause. People realized we didn’t have resources, and then we did a campaign to remind them, using humor and creativity. We dubbed a scene from The Warriors inviting people to donate.
And now they include you on Radio Fórmula’s line-up…
Radio Fórmula came looking for us, and it looks like an intelligent operation. Some TV channels still haven’t understood how the medium works, but these guys knew their stuff. They said, “We’re going after the people who are doing things on the Internet, and we want to invite them to do radio.” People have already started to criticize us, called us “Supercivic sell-outs.” As long as they let me say my things anywhere, I don’t care if it’s Televisa, Televisión Azteca,whatever. Radio Fórmula is a platform; the more people it reaches, the better, as long as there’s no censorship. We’ve got this opportunity, and it’s an ally for everything Los Supercívicos are doing, because a lot of times the capsules don’t go far enough. Yeah, we make the capsules with humor, with irony, but there are so many other topics to address. That’s what the radio program is going to have: greater depth, to push the Supercívicos format beyond where it is now. m.