Sunday, April 17, 2011
The masks hang on countless streetcorner racks around the city, glittered tassels fluttering, hoping to catch the eye of a passing tourist. Few of Mexico City's subcultures have been as successfully repackaged to capture foreign curiosity as has lucha libre, the peculiarly Mexican form of professional wrestling that is equal parts kitsch and passion. In many ways, however, the comedic interpretation--cultivated in Jack Black movies and Lonely Planet guidebooks--is a mask for the sport's more earnest elements.
Lucha is, undeniably, entertainment, but it is also entertainment with profound social resonance. Commentators have noted that the struggles of the characters in the ring--valiant tecnicos versus devious rudos--replicate the struggles of daily life in Mexico, right down to the flamboyant referee whose impartiality is often in doubt. Beyond this psychosocial reading is the reality that popular wrestlers make ready folk-heroes, the persona of their mask offering an anonymized identity that could be assumed, potentially, by anyone. For many years, the wrestler Santo, recognizable for his simple silver mask, starred as the do-gooding hero of many Mexican B-movies. In the wake of the 1985 earthquake, a retired luchador donned a red and gold outfit and styled himself as Superbarrio, a defender of popular needs and became the figurehead for a powerful citizens' movement. Female luchadors, it would appear, have extended the sense of empowerment inherent to the experience.
Perhaps the most telling sign of lucha's legitimate popularity is the sheer number of wrestling leagues performing in venues scattered across the metropolitan area. These range from the cavernous Arena Mexico in Colonia Doctores to the cramped cinderblock-and-aluminum bunker that is Arena Lopez Mateos in Tlalnepantla. At the smaller arenas, the lucha is more raw, less influenced by the pyrotecnic television entrances of the WWE, and has feel of gritty, working-class neighborhood entertainment. The wrestlers are local figures, and their fans are vocal, boisterous. These are the kinds of places where amateur fireworks set off in the back row spew still burning embers onto those seated by the ring, and wrestlers pose for pictures alongside the runway. Here, the interactive aspect of the performance is unmistakeable, in the crass taunting of unfavored luchadores and the echoing chants of support for the favorites.
The performance itself can range from monotonous to exhilarating: the repeated chest slaps and ubiquitous arm throws are humorous at best and yawn-inducing at worst, but the most talented wrestlers are high-energy acrobats, as often aloft in some elaborate maneuver as grandstanding for the crowd. The dynamics of a match are uncomplicated, though often lost in the swirl of lights and wave of noise. Wrestlers are divided into two camps, tecnicos, the supposed 'good guys', and rudos, their often dirty opponents. It is the rudos, however, who often draw the loudest cheers from the most devoted fans. The referee is often a character in his own right, whose judgement is often questioned, and many matches feature appearances by auxiliary characters, whether monkey-costumed mascots or morbidly obese women who demand kisses from the wrestlers.
Lucha is, in the final estimation, a far more complex organism than its comedic caricature would have. It is a potent subculture, a performance that fosters deep connections with fans and reflects aspects of the society at large. Its significance is not in the orchestrated throws or theatrical pins, but in its ability to reach beyond the ropes of the ring.