Lucha Libre in Mexico City

*This is the final part of a 13-part series. Read part 12 here.*

Cat calls flood the stage as the balloon-breasted models strut down the aisle in high heels. Their hips sway back and forth as do the eyes of the hypnotized audience — left, right, left, right. Soon the music softens and the jumbo-tron explodes with highlight reels.

The first match of the night is about to begin here at Arena Mexico.

As the luchador (wrestler) walks down the grand stairs, stopping every few steps to power pose for the audience, the frantic cameraman positions himself at the bottom and points up, giving the Spandex Gods a larger-than-life feel.

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The scope of costumes seen over the course of this Tuesday night is truly astonishing. It includes everything from Chewbacca furs to leather jackets and a coiled python. Once they dive over the ropes into the arena and establish themselves with the audience, the magic begins.

The next few hours is a mix of slaps, taunts, kicks and aerial assaults accompanied by the cheers and jeers of the excited crowd.

“Did that just happen?!” I turn to my travel partner S. and ask, but she’s laughing too hard to answer.

Chewbacca just launched his side-kick Yoda — a little person who competes in the Mini-Estrella division — at least 10 feet in the air before he fell on his opponent and won the match.

Luchadores

History and Mythology

The Mexican tradition of Lucha Libre extends back to 1863, when Enrique Ugartechea tweaked a Greco-Roman style to create something unique. It grows in popularity after the establishment of the Mexican Wrestling Enterprise in 1933 and the spread of television in the 1950s. Nowadays, you can watch matches whenever you want or see the live ones a few times a week down at Arena Mexico.

Although it might seem cheesy or a distracting bread-and-circus ritual, this process of dressing up as alter egos and fighting archetypal battles is more nuanced than that. It serves the human need to investigate Principles like Good and Evil or Chaos and Order through the form of a dramatized story.

The luchadores are divided into técnicos, or “the good ones” who follow rules, and rudos, or the “the evil ones” who break the rules, and the match is a struggle between these two forces. “Good” and “Evil” are very heady concepts, abstractions that don’t exist in the “real world” but what does exist in the “real world” is a muscular badass with a python wrapped around his neck who cockily walks up to the stage and slaps a referee. Through him we can understand Evil. Who will prevail?

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El Santo unmasks himself on live television. He dies a week later. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

The Mask

Each wrestler takes on a persona, a word that traces its etymological roots to the Latin word for “mask”. Fittingly enough, many of the luchadores wear actual masks and the much-feared “unmasking” that might happen if one loses a match can have devastating effects on the career of a wrestler — or signal a shift into a new persona.

Their “real identity” becomes so merged with their wrestling persona that the most famous luchador of all time, El Santo — who also became a famous movie star with such hits as El Santo versus The Mummies of Guanajuato — wore it in public and only unmasked himself once on television. He died shortly thereafter.

One thing the wrestlers don’t hide is heart, an enthusiasm for the match. Despite it being a common Tuesday with a sparse crowd (which makes it easy to find a close seat!), they put on a show worthy of being watched by a crowd of 10 million.

As the night winds down, the last match is being fought in teams with Maximo as a central luchador. He is an exotico, a sort of gender-bending trickster of a persona who dresses up in drag, and ends up winning the match shortly after kissing his archenemy rudo. The crowd roars with laughter as the rudo reels with disgust, swearing revenge.

As the referee raises Maximo’s hand and announces victory, the crowd applauds and cheers this most unlikely of wrestlers.