The Man, The Mask and The Myth: Mexico's Lucah Libre

The Man, The Mask and The Myth: Mexico's Lucah Libre
I am sitting in the third row at Arena Mexico in Mexico City, and the crowd is reaching a fever pitch. The event is a live television taping of lucha libre, otherwise known as Mexican wrestling. The tecnicos (good guys) this night are Los Villanos ? the father, Villano III, and his two sons, Villano IV and Villano V. They are beating the hell out of the hated rudos (bad guys), this night, enemies Pierroth, Bestia Salvaje and Scorpio. Los Villanos wear the same masks their family has worn for generations (Villano III's father was Villano I; his uncle, Villano II), though the elder this night wears no mask, having lost it in a mascara contra mascara (mask vs. mask) earlier this year. In the ring, Villano III has Pierroth at his mercy. He gnaws on his opponent's forehead, spitting out Pierroth's blood at the television cameras. All around me, tecnico fans are hurling insults and abuse at rudos fans, and rudos fans are giving right back. Bestia Salvaje charges past me up the walkway, followed by a furious Villano IV, who catches his opponent and takes the battle into the stands. Meanwhile, Villano V has Scorpio lying prone on the concrete. He climbs back into the ring. Ever since I first discovered the wild world of Mexican wrestling four years ago, I had been waiting for what happened next: a real live masked luchador (Mexican wrestler) doing a somersault back flip off the top rope onto his opponent. It was beautiful.
So what's the big deal? After all, wrestling is fake. It's lame. Why would lucha libre be any different? Only one reply matters: it's all about the mask, and with it, the myth of the superhero.

I discovered Mexican wrestling through a friend, Toronto writer Steve Fentone, who publishes a lucha libre fanzine called Panicos! Back in 1997, I entered a Toronto Super 8 film festival called 3-Minute Rock Star. My cinematic masterpiece was The Parkdale Wrestler, named after a lakefront neighbourhood in Toronto. It was originally going to be The Parkdale Werewolf, but I realised that I couldn't pull off the transformation scene. Fentone suggested I have the guy transform into a masked wrestler, and lent me a silver Santo mask for the task.
The Parkdale Wrestler was one of the hits of 3-Minute Rock Star, and was screened later that year as part of the Images Film Festival's "Best Of Toronto" showcase. Since then, there have been six sequels and a comic book. It quickly moved beyond silly action films and The Parkdale Wrestler led to a deep appreciation of Mexican culture and its fascinating phenomenon of the masked luchador.
The use of the mask in Mexican wrestling is intriguing to me for simple reasons. Sure, masks have retained cultural and sociological significance in almost every culture in history, but my connection was more straightforward, more contemporary. It's from all of the superhero comics I read as a kid. Comics fuelled my revenge fantasies, but also delineated a clear-cut world of good versus evil. And this is what Mexican wrestling provides: masked superheroes (technicos) come to life and fighting villains (rudos).

The most famous, revered Mexican wrestler in history is El Santo, the epitome of the masked luchador superhero. By day he was Rudolfo Guzman, your typical Mexico City inhabitant, but when he donned the hood, he became El Santo, El Enmascarado De Plata (The Man In The Silver Mask). His trademark silver mask with the teardrop-shaped eyeholes is as familiar to Mexicans as the S on Superman's chest. Like his comic book forebears, El Santo never took off his mask in public, ever. If he was on his way to wrestle in California (where he was a huge star to the Spanish population), Santo would actually fly on a separate plane, away from his entourage, so that when he had to lift up his mask and show his face to American Customs agents, his entourage would never know what he really looked like under the hood. Now that is belief in the mask, in the mythos of the superhero.
Santo began his long career as a rudo, and in 1952, he had a famous battle with the Black Shadow, an older, much-loved and respected masked luchador. The two of them had signed a contract for a mascara contra mascara match. This was unheard of at the time: never before had two headlining luchadors ever put their masks on the line in a bout. It just wasn't done. This legendary match still reverberates in lucha libre legend today, where losing your mask is the ultimate humiliation. Santo won the match and unmasked the Black Shadow. In a curious twist of logic, the Black Shadow became even more popular as an unmasked wrestler, because he had conducted himself with dignity and stoicism in the face of defeat. He became a mentor to the Blue Demon, and the Blue Demon spent the better part of his wrestling career battling Santo, avenging his mentor's honour.

Honour. Respect. Tradition. These are the trademarks of superhero culture. Is it any wonder that in Mexico, when older masked luchadors retire, they unmask themselves and pass on the mask to an heir apparent? El Santo's son El Hijo del Santo wrestles, and is arguably as popular as his father ever was. Blue Demon Jr. wrestles today. Doctor Wagner Jr. does too.
Los Villanos, the father and sons team that I saw at Arena Mexico, are prime examples of not only families fighting together, but also of a luchador (Villano III: the father) getting unmasked. Here's that wonderful Mexican logic at work again: Los Villanos had been rudos their whole career until Villano III lost his mask to a luchador named Atlantis. Villano III had successfully kept his mask on for 25 years; Atlantis had held onto his for 15. Villano III lost the bout; fans, tecnico and rudo alike, were seen crying openly in the stands. When Villano III was being unmasked, he composed himself with poise and grace, never showing any shame. The Mexican fans cheered for him, and Los Villanos became tecnicos overnight. When I saw Los Villanos fight that night in Mexico City, I could not believe how easy it was for the unmasked Villano III to whip the crowd into a frenzy. He is a leader that had lost a battle, but still continues to fight, with his sons at his side. Is this heroic or what?
This kind of honour, tradition and respect is partly why North American professional wrestling leagues like WCW (World Championship Wrestling) are so disheartening. The WCW knows that Mexican wrestling is in vogue right now, and are doing their best to exploit it. Unfortunately, in this gringo's opinion, they are going about it the wrong way. Everyone is getting unmasked! Rey Mysterio Jr., one of the greatest, most gifted, high-flying Mexican masked luchadors ever, was unmasked in a in a WCW bout last year, and it made my heart sink. I didn't know who to be more mad at: Rey Mysterio Jr. for selling out a his own cultural traditions, or North American wrestling culture for letting it happen. His place in the tradition-oriented lucha libre culture has suffered for it too. Outside of Arena Mexico, there are hundreds of vendors selling photos, magazines, and thousands of masks, of practically every luchador to ever fight in the country's square circle. Tellingly, not one of Rey Mysterio Jr.

One thing that I'm grateful to the WCW for though, is at least giving these masked wrestlers exposure in North America and the world. That exposure has become an entry point for wrestling fans who are beginning to appreciate lucha libre on its own terms. Musically, an instrumental surf band called Los Straitjackets lead the way. The four-piece group all wear Mexican wrestling masks as part of their live show, and the leader of the band, Daddy O'Grande, has been going to Mexico City for years to watch lucha libre, and has written a guide to Mexico City on the Straitjacket's web site. Canada's own Tijuana Bibles, an evil surf and ‘60s punk band, also all wear Mexican-style wrestling masks when they perform live [see the "Manifesto of the Mask" sidebar]. The Bibles were put together to write music for my Parkdale Wrestler films — is it any wonder that they then decided to don masks for gigs, out of respect and admiration toward the star of the films, and what he stands for. The Superargos, a masked wrestling garage band from Italy, are also down with masked wrestling. They take their name from an Italian masked wrestler who starred in a series of action films in the 1960s. And the Coyotemen, a masked band from Britain, claim to actually be Mexican wrestlers when they're not playing music.

Signs of appreciation for Mexican masked wrestling are popping up in television and film also: MadTV has a hilarious recurring sketch featuring two luchadors. Lee DeMarre, an independent filmmaker from Ottawa, shot an excellent short film called Harry Knuckles & The Treasure Of The Aztec Mummy, co-starring an El Santo lookalike. His depiction of El Santo is perfect: Mr. DeMarre has fun with the character without making fun of him.

Finally, there are some dynamite fanzines and web sites that explore the wild world of Mexican masked wrestling. From Parts Unknown is a slick, glossy-cover American publication that comes out three times a year. They interview famous luchadors and review all things lucha-related. And their original photo essays starring buxom female luchadoras battling each other are well worth the cheap cover price. Panicos!, published by Toronto writer Steve Fentone, is more cut & paste-style, a kaleidoscope of masked wrestling imagery, film reviews, illustrations, and well written articles.
I've been back from Mexico for less than a month, and I'm already making plans to return next year. The eternal struggle between good and evil is being fought by masked wrestlers in a ring in Mexico City, and there's a ringside seat at Arena Mexico with my name on it.