Beneath the Many Masks of Lucha Libre
By John Tommasino
It's a cool Sunday evening in Ontario, California. A sizable crowd of spectators, conversing in both Spanish and English, arrives at the sports arena and forms a line as children run and play about them. Some of the children are wearing colorful masks and mimicking the spectacle that awaits them inside — jumping, tackling and mock fighting one another as their parents patiently wait for the arena to open.
The gates open, and spectators file into the arena past a brisk, friendly security check.
"Lucha Libre is not fake," says a boy, about 12 years old, waiting in the line behind me, to his somewhat older friend. "It's real. They hit each other really hard, and they get hurt."
Clearly, the disbelief of the adult audience is checked at the door as the crowd files into the arena. It's a mixed crowd of spectators, ranging from the small children who are mesmerized by the show and crowds of teenage girls who admire the athletic, toned physiques of the wrestlers, to older men who drink beers and taunt the performers. After the preliminary introductions, the spectacle begins as wrestlers (luchadors) perform their battle to the crowd's delight. There are cheers for the heroes and a healthy amount of boos and taunts yelled at the villains. This is Lucha Libre as put on by the visiting promotion Lucha Libre USA: Masked Warriors. But there is more to the spectacle than the style of standard American professional wrestling.
Translated, Lucha Libre means "free fight" or "free struggle." Its performers are starkly divided into two sides: the righteous technicos, and their bad to openly evil counterparts, the rudos. At the heart of Lucha Libre are the masked wrestlers (enmascarados). Although many promotions are held throughout the United States, particularly in the Southwest, and globally as far away as Japan, Lucha Libre remains a distinctly Mexican art form.
Unlike American professional wrestling (as popularized by Vince McMahon of the World Wrestling Entertainment), where size and strength — as well as lengthy belligerent rants on the microphone — are emphasized, in Lucha Libre, a strong foundation in Greco-Roman wrestling with its many grapples and holds is topped off by extreme feats of agility and an intense, speedy pace. Part carnival, part theater, Lucha Libre is a showcase for athleticism as well as a story about good versus evil.
William A. Nericcio is the director of The Master of Arts in Liberal Arts and Sciences and a professor of comparative literature at San Diego State University. Nericcio noted that the original audiences of Lucha Libre were working-class Mexican families that delighted in the sport largely because of economic factors.
"It's basically a working-class opera, although today it seems to be hipster heaven. Entire families would go to Lucha Libre shows on Sundays because they worked during the week. They couldn't go to the opera or a football game because it was too expensive, so this was their only outlet for live entertainment," Nericcio said.
"It's like a circus; it's a working-class spectacle. And sometimes it gets a little crazy," Nericcio added. During shows, the action in the ring often spills over into the crowd as wrestlers throw each other into ringside seats and battle among the spectators.
Origins, Training and the Mystique of the Mask
Lucha Libre, although appearing somewhat kitschy on the surface to those unfamiliar with its traditions, represents a noble history that dates back more than eight decades to Mexico City. During the worldwide Great Depression, the city experienced a rapid urbanization period and found its early audiences among the poor, working classes.
Early promoters and performers began introducing masks among the athletes, an integral feature that gave Lucha Libre a distinct look that set it apart from the wrestling shows in other countries. The mask became a sacred symbol in the arenas. Masked characters represent not only good and evil, but specific powers like forces of nature, warriors, demons, animals, and other personifications. The wrestling masks also clicked on an instinctive level with the growing audiences, as Mexican history and culture are full of masks and masked rituals. Dating back to the pre-Hispanic era when Mexico was ruled by the Aztecs, Maya, and other indigenous peoples, the colorful and creative masks fit Mexican culture like a glove.
Heather Levi, Ph.D is a cultural anthropologist and an assistant professor of anthropology at Temple University in Philadelphia. She earned her doctoral degree from New York University by engaging in a unique and physically challenging fieldwork, enduring the intense training of a Lucha Libre wrestler in Mexico City.
Levi also attended more than 100 live events in Mexico and fully immersed herself in the culture surrounding the tradition. Levi's experiences are chronicled in her book, The World of Lucha Libre: Secrets, Revelations, and Mexican National Identity (Duke University Press, 2008). Levi credits her background in the martial arts as her solid foundation for passing the intense exercises and acrobatic skills of the Lucha Libre school run by veteran trainer and former luchador Luis Jaramillo Martinez.
Mexico City's high elevation (well over 7,000 feet above sea level) made for a particularly grueling physical challenge, as the air was extremely thin. The intense physical training Levi and her classmates endured included learning the grapples, tumbles, and ring moves that luchadors perform, Levi said during a telephone interview with this writer.
"I was in the best shape of my life. The wrestling itself is a very intense activity and atmosphere. My (academic) committee was very supportive even though Lucha Libre is sometimes seen as kind of a weird topic," Levi noted.
Among the rituals luchadors in training endure is a rough physical "baptismo" at the hands of their trainer or another experienced wrestler. Baptisms often include rubbing a trainee's face into the mat and other physical punishment. Respect must be shown, and earned, in the gym and the training ring.
Although iconic, Levi noted that the luchador masks do not represent a direct succession from the rituals of the indigenous Mexicans, but rather an oblique line influenced by many things, most notably comic-book superheroes. But the masks are a true fit for Mexican culture and carry with them a certain intangible mystique.
The promoters sometimes promote "mask versus mask" matches. Traditionally, when a luchador loses his mask, he can never wear it in the ring again and must continue his career with his true face. Enmascarados wear their distinctive masks during every public appearance, whether at a press conference or while signing autographs for fans. The iconic luchador masks are frequently sold at Mexican marketplaces and online specialty outlets.
In Mexico, and elsewhere, Lucha Libre is also a profession for its athletes with strict licensing agreements that the new luchadors must adhere to as they rise through the ranks in popularity. Today, fewer athletes are opting for a career under the mask and wrestle without the symbol, Levi noted. The colorful masks seem to have an innate ability to transform the athletes into both heroes and villains.
"I would see the other wrestlers that I trained with put on the masks, and they literally became different people," Levi said. After finishing her training, the anthropologist notes that she was tempted by a career in wrestling, but chose academia instead. In her classrooms at Temple University, the professor said she has earned a "lot of points" with her young students when they learn about her doctoral fieldwork and studies in Mexico. "They think it's cool," Levi said.
The Man in the Silver Mask
No chronicle of Lucha Libre is complete without mention of the tradition's greatest icon. Just as Elvis Presley was the King of Rock 'n' Roll and DC Comics' Superman is one of the most recognizable comic-book superheroes, Rudolfo Guzman Huerta in the guise of El Santo (The Saint, also known as The Silver Masked Man) remains the most-recognized wrestler associated with Lucha Libre.
Carlos Avila is a Los Angeles-based filmmaker and television director who grew up in the Echo Park neighborhood during an era when Echo Park was mostly working class and Hispanic. His boyhood idols were Mexican luchadors appearing at sports arenas in Los Angeles battling America wrestlers. Avila's 2012 documentary film, Tales of Masked Men, A Journey Through Lucha Libre, was originally broadcast on PBS and is now available on DVD and download. In the award-winning film, Avila thoroughly chronicles El Santo's story, from his early struggles to earn a living in Lucha Libre as a journeyman wrestler, to when he ultimately found his identity beneath a simple, silver-colored mask, and earned worldwide stardom as El Santo.
The character was originally a rudo who wrestled brutally, but changed to the side of technicos, where he became a symbol of goodness, courage, and honor. El Santo also appeared in more than 50 feature films earning multimedia, action-hero status akin to the later Hollywood film careers of Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
"He's such a legendary figure, and he is steeped in the history of the sport," Avila said. "He casts a very long shadow in Mexico."
Nericcio recalls his boyhood growing up in Laredo, Texas, and enjoying genuine bonding with his father when they watched El Santo's many films together. El Santo was a dynamic figure within the history of Mexican film, and his fame carried on through comic books, photo novels, toys, and other media, Nericcio said.
"Santo is ubiquitous in Mexico, and he was a key figure in the rise of Mexican cinema, which is a great tradition with wonderful films. Santo appeared not just in the Golden Age of Mexican film (from the 1930s to the 1960s), but later films as well," Nericcio said.
"Santo was a celebrity, not just in Mexico but worldwide; he was as popular as Lady Gaga is today," Nericcio noted.
Today, El Santo lives on through his son, El Hijo del Santo (The Son of El Santo), another iconic and talented wrestler who has copyrighted the image of his father and their mutual iconic silver mask to protect it from merchandise knockoffs and other piracy. The rights to the El Santo image and story were secured by Avila after he approached El Hijo del Santo at an event in Cudahy, California.
"I was on their (the El Santo Estate's) radar for some time because I was making this film. I just knocked on the dressing room door and introduced myself to El Hijo. I showed him the footage that I had made, and he liked it. I then flew to Mexico City and met with his wife and secured the permission of the El Santo estate," Avila said of his filmmaking journey, which took several years before the documentary was released in 2012. Financial 'brick walls' and other challenges were met with the backing of Latino Pubic Broadcasting, an organization that shared Avila's film vision.
Avila's film focuses on the serious side of the tradition, the history and the training and athleticism required to make a career in the ring Other documentaries have focused only on the kitschy aspects of Lucha Libre and have given the viewers the wrong impression of what Meixcan wrestling is all about.
Avila was also able to secure a recording of El Santo's voice, an element missing from many of his feature films, as the luchador's voice was routinely dubbed in the course of his acting career. Hearing his actual voice was a gem for both the filmmaker and audiences familiar with the legend.
Despite achieving worldwide fame, El Santo remained a modest man at heart and is still known for his many acts of generosity and humility. When the legendary luchador and film star died in 1984, thousands of fans filled the streets in Mexico City to honor their idol. According to his wishes, El Santo was buried in his mask.
From Father to Son: Inheriting the Mask
Perhaps the most honorable tradition in Lucha Libre is the passing down of a wrestling mask and character to the next generation from father to son. Avila chronicles this practice in his documentary with the story of veteran wrestler and teacher Solar and his son, Solar Jr.
If a masked wrestler's son is interested in inheriting his father's character and identity in the ring, he must first prove himself worthy with the intense training and conditioning required to be a luchador and earn the honor of the mask. Many wrestlers appear as different characters before earning the skills and respect needed to inherit their father's mask.
Today, well past 50 years of age, Solar still wrestles with a passion and has earned legendary status and the respectful title of Maestro (teacher). He trained his son in the ring, and now the father and son sometimes appear as tag-team partners in the ring.
"I wanted to tell the story of a father passing on his character to his son, and I approached one wrestling family and was turned down. But I was met with open arms by Solar. He is a walking history of wrestling, and he wrestled with legends like El Santo and Blue Demon and Solitario all through the modern era. He also knows so many different styles of wrestling and is very well-respected in Mexico," Avila said.
Solar Jr. has adopted the unique sun-patterned mask of his father, but usually wears a distinctly colored yellow-on-black pattern. His father speaks candidly in the film about his age and how one day he will retire from the ring. But his son waits to carry on the name and character in the ring.
In the United States, wrestling involving little people, or "midget wrestling," has been a fixture in rings for many years although the term carries a derogatory and exploitative connotation. In Mexico, little people have been wrestling for several eras, but have carved out their own niche as athletes and professionals. Avila tells the story of one popular mini-wrestler, Mascarita Sagrada (Little Sacred Mask). Mini-wrestlers in Mexico are often smaller counterparts to established characters; both sizes wear the same masks and costumes. But these little people are professionally trained and take their work very seriously.
Mascarita Sagrada survived a childhood in poverty and was constantly challenged, even by his school teachers, because of his size. Today, he is a successful wrestler who found an identity under the mask and a profession in the ring.
"I had some concerns that this story was going to become a sideshow," said Avila. "But Mascarita was a professional who was conscious of that history, and he cared about his work. He impressed me because he was a professional."
Lucha Libre in the City of Angels
Los Angeles is an important hub for Lucha Libre in the United States, and the city carries a great history of the tradition. The Greater Los Angeles area is home to multiple wrestling organizations varying from the traditional wrestling of the UIPW L.A. to Santino Bros to an attraction called LuchaVaVoom, which combines wrestling with a burlesque (of all things!) and routinely sells out shows at the Mayan Theater and has staged shows in Chicago. Shows at the Mayan routinely attract Hollywood celebrities.
One of the most popular wrestlers in Los Angeles is named Lestat. Wearing a black mask and costume with silver, blade-like designs, his identity is a mystery. Lestat is both agile and fast and wrestles in classical Lucha Libre style.
We caught up with the masked Lestat before a Sunday afternoon wrestling event in East Los Angeles. “It’s very different from American wrestling. It’s more spectacular because it’s more high-flying. I grew up watching the movies of El Santo and Blue Demon. They were like my idols and I wanted to be like them when I grew up,"the masked hero said.
Lestat is currently one-half of the UIPW L.A.'s Tag Team Champions along with his partner El Mariachi Loco, an athletic masked wrestler who taunts his opponents with hip-shaking dance moves set to pre-recorded music. The masked duo are a popular hit with fans who audibly cheer as they move through the crowd before and after their matches.
Lestat trains in the gym “just about every day” for two-hour sessions of intense exercise in addition to weekly ring training where he practices the high-flying stunts. He also works a job away from his masked identity ring. “I like to keep very busy, every day,” he noted.
The high-flying is also high risk, and Lestat admits that he has been seriously injured several times during his matches, sometimes requiring hospitalization. But the cheering of the fans brings him back to the ring time after time where he can continue his passion for lucha libre. “I think that for me and every wrestler, to be in front of the crowds is a great feeling,” he said.
The luchador is also involved in a unique project, a motion comic book titled: The Guardian: City of Angels. This computer-generated art form will tell the story of Lestat as a crime fighter battling a Los Angeles crime syndicate. Lestat performs throughout Southern California and reports that it is one of his dreams to travel to Mexico and perform in front of fans in the same arenas where the legends like El Santo wrestled.
Fiction and life and limb
Why has Lucha Libre endured and grown in popularity since the 1930s? Largely, it is a family-oriented event loved by different generations of fans. But the spectacle also serves as a type of collective story in the form of a melodrama, Nericcio noted.
"Everybody needs fiction in some form. Even gossip is a form of fiction. Lucha Libre serves as that fiction."
Although Lucha Libre is often dismissed and looked down upon as a staged event, luchadors perform to an extreme in what is essentially a contact sport. Injuries are numerous, and there have been multiple deaths as the result of injuries and accidents in the ring.
"There are many talented wrestlers here in Los Angeles, and they are risking life and limb every time they are in the ring," Avila noted.