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Origins and reality of Lucha Libre

We fight dirty and they love it

Choking with extension cord - Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
Choking with extension cord

Sunday nights at the Lagunilla wrestling gym at Calle Primera and Ninos Heroes in Tijuana have not been designed to seduce the pacifist or the coward. Already from the street — that sloping section of Ninos Heroes cluttered with tape stalls, shawled beggarwomen, and mini-skirted whores gobbling palm-sized tacos — the frenzy in the hall is audible.

The kids are in an uproar. “Miedo! Miedo!” they are screaming.

It is seven o’clock, and children are pouring up the dark flight of stone steps between the dank walls of Luganilla, past the hole-in-the-wall shampoo shop and hairdressers where an old woman with a clotted eye sits on a stool, and into the I.uganilla itself—a bare concrete room with smashed, glassless windows and tiered wooden benches. This is Lucha Libre night, popular Mexican wrestling, and about 200 tiny urchins, grandmothers, and sundry fans have turned out to watch the likes of Pulpo Sagrado, El Coyote, and Pensamiento Negro beat the daylights out of each other in one of Tijuana’s favorite but least commercialized gyms,

You know who the most vicious spectators are? The old ladies!

Lagunilla is a shock to those familiar with the stadiums of the U.S. or even the larger arenas within Mexico itself. The place seems half exposed to the open sky. Whitewashed brick walls, naked arc lamps, and a flimsy tin roof encircle a ring that seems to have been improvised from bits of rope, foam, and tattered leather. The arena is, in fact, a converted bus station. The walls are plastered with huge cartoon images of masked faces: a Ghenghis Khan with webbed lids sewn into his eye slits, helmeted robots, and three black-faced demons in Al Johnson make-up, called the Payasos Diabolicos, the Diabolical Clowns.

Thunderbird on left, Joni on the mat

Above these grinning masks, a spectator balcony of yet more tiered benches is screened off with panels of wire net.-Here the hordes of tots sit like a Roman rabble presiding over a gladiator show. The floor of the ring tilts and undulates as if stuffed with straw, and the padded posts lean at dubious angles. Along one wall are pinned dozens of photographs of the Luganilla’s favorite stars, which are on sale to the public, and by the two exit doors where the wrestlers appear — one marked rudos and the other tecnicos — a smattering of adoring children sit patiently with their autograph pencils ready.

Kid Norteno on the ground

The Luganilla may be populist wrestling at its most basic, but the passion underlying both its star system and its demonology are remarkable. For, as in all wrestling, some fighters are demons and some angels. And for the Luganilla’s crowd, most of them under the age of 12, the battle of Good versus Evil is as vivid here as it is anywhere else. The Sunday night fight on Ninos Heroes is not just a scrap in a rundown old abattoir. It is a weekly morality play in which the forces of Light and the forces of Dark dress up in tights and gaudy masks and enact an ancient drama.

Gladiator in flight

Lucha Libre wrestling has become one of the biggest spectator sports south of the border. National newspapers run weekly comic strips based on the lives of famous wrestlers. Mexico City’s great wrestling venues like the Coliseo and the Pista Revolucion are as important to the city as a baseball stadium is to an American one. And the biggest wrestling stars— Blue Demon, Vampiro, Konan, and Octagon — are as famous as any TV personalities. The Mexican press frequently refers to them as “grandes representantes de nuestra republica."

“It’s all a game. No one really gets hurt."

This national craze was born out of the catastrophic earthquake of 1984, which demolished huge areas of the poorer districts of Mexico City and left hundreds of thousands of people homeless. The Mexican government was forced to promise that massive and rapid rebuilding of the devastated areas would lead to an eventual improvement in living conditions — a clearing and reconstruction project that was already years overdue. However, little actually happened.

"El Santo was my idol — although I’ll tell you right now that the greatest was not El Santo but Blue Demon. Blue Demon was untouchable."

Popular resentment at the plight of the homeless left by the earthquake intensified, and the Lucha Libre, in a surprising transformation, became the manifestation of that resentment. Its protagonists were masked, and so, anonymous. Overnight, Lucha Libre's greatest star, El Santo, had become the mouthpiece of populist outrage, able to conceal his identity while delivering stinging criticisms of the authorities.

Essentially, the wrestlers still remain masked and can only be unmasked when they are defeated. Formerly, this might have been a fatal humiliation, but now it is common to see unmasked fighters in the ring, including Faraon, the Pharaoh, one of the country’s most famous wrestlers. Yet the concealed nature of most of these popular heroes is still striking. Like bulky Lone Rangers, they seem to be symbols of insurrection, symbols of the fears of ordinary people faced with a corrupt judiciary and an equally corrupt government. El Santo, the Robin Hood of the earthquake debacle, is, to this day, incognito, and the mask is still a potent symbol to wrestlers and spectators alike.

The Lagunilla begins to fill at about 7:15. The $5 cover charge is met without grumbling by people for whom such a sum is equivalent to a day’s or even two days’ wages. Before sitting down, the children file past the photos pinned to the wall. There are certainly some spectacular takes — “Kid Norteno volando sobre Thunderbird the Kid in midflight, spread-eagled, about 20 feet from the ground; Octagon, with some crazy tassel flying out from his head in an “espectacular vuelo” over Zorro de Oro, who seems to be gazing up at him in pure astonishment. In yet an- other snap, we see Starman flat on his belly with his face in his hands, seemingly out for the count, while Rocketeer gloats over him with his massive, chubby fists raised in triumph. Rocketeer and Star-man — sci-fi wrestlers in a primeval setting.

These men move with the agility of the very beasts, astronauts, and demons they represent. Rocketeer flies through the air as if propelled by a rocket. Pulpo, the Octopus, coils around his opponents. Vampiro does a veritable bat act over the ropes.

By 7:30 the hall has filled to capacity. The balcony is crammed to the limits, little grubby hands poking through the wire barrier. Street girls come in with bags of sweets and sit on the terraced benches ready to admire some masculine hardware; the grandmothers form a large contingent, menacingly armed with umbrellas and walking sticks. By the wrestlers’ doors, a couple of groupies in tight sequined skirts wait for the hulks to come forth in their strutting splendor. Everyone is screaming and shouting. The children overhead sound like a demented school bus on the last day of school, breaking out now and then into wild choruses of whistles and stamping feet. A brass bell begins clanking, and a small, ponderous referee in a vertically striped shirt clambers into the ring.

“Welcome to the Lagunilla,” he bawls through a megaphone.

“Welcome to the Sunday match. The first bout on tonight’s menu will be... [everyone falls silent for a second]...Pen-samiento Negro ...[screams, boos]...and the one and only...Pulpo Sagrado!” (Screams, boos.)

Pulpo Sagrado, the Sacred Octopus, in a tight cerulean mask with silver orbits and hip-length matching cape, like something from a Captain America comic, circa 1950, comes bounding through the audience in dainty blue booties, waving his muscles and menacing excess fat in all directions to infantile shouts of “Pul-po! Pul-po!" He soars into the ring (it is the only word) by means of a spectacular two-handed leap from the ropes and twirls about in his fancy cape, bowing and baring a set of pugilistic teeth. He looks pretty invincible. “;Pulpo Sagrado!” the referee repeats through the megaphone.

But Pensamiento Negro is now on the scene. From the tecnicos door, a brooding dark figure in fur-lined cape and black boots has started his prowl — the Campeon Completo de California, Pensamiento Negro, Dark Thought, is out for the kill, and he has his eyes set on Sacred Octopus in the ring.

"Pen-sa - m ien - to Neg - ro!”

"Pul-po! Pul-po!”

The adolescent connoisseurs on the benches are more than happy to explain to bewildered yanquis the differences between tecnicos and rudos.

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Hugo Jesus, 16, rooting for Pensamiento, while occasionally blowing through a tin whistle and throwing the odd piece of detritus into the ring, explains. “A rudo is a completely different kind of wrestler from a tecnico. A rudo is a tough guy, a real warrior, a real bad boy. He’s unpredictable and moody. We call wrestlers gladiadores, gladiators, and a rudo is a kind of Dirty Harry gladiator. We love to hate them.

“Take La Parca, one of young, upcoming rudos at the moment. He’s up with the dirtiest of them — Fishman, Blue Panther, you name it. One of La Parca’s most macabre dreams, he says, is to rip off Octagon’s mask, because he considers him a lousy luchador. He wears a skeleton outfit that really freaks people out. Yeah, he’s gonna be a tough nut to crack for the tecnicos, all right. -

“Then there’s the team Superbowl y Quarterback, Magnate, the great Ice Killer, and Fuerza Guerrera. The rudos are usually heavier, about 90 or 95 or even 100 kilos, and more brutal, more macho. They can’t do the fancy stuff, leaps and somersaults, which is where the tecnicos come in. Even a real muscular tecnico like Kid Boxer, a great guy from Veracruz, will weigh only about 80 kilos.

See, the tecnico pits his acrobatics and his charisma against the brute force and cunning of the rudo. That’s like everything in life — which is why we respond to it in the way we do. It strikes a chord. It’s more complicated than just Good and Bad. The tecnicos show us the beautiful side of wrestling. It’s beautiful to watch — an art form. But the rudos bring us back to earth.

“It’s all a game, of course. No one really gets hurt. The blood you see isn’t real, it’s pig’s blood in pellets that they smash against their faces when you aren’t looking. But we still get excited by the violence of the rudos. And some rudos stand for definite things. Magnate, for example. He’s a gold-digger. He wears black and loves to humiliate everyone. He struts about in gold chains and medals, showing off his dollars. Arrogance itself. He wears black to emphasize his elegance. On the front of his mask, which kind of shows off his economic power, he has all these glittering gold dollar signs. Down the sides of his legs, too. We call him a ricachon, which means several things — a fabulously rich guy, a nouveau riche, a slick bourgeois, a dirty capitalist. He’s all these things. So we feel toward him the same way we feel toward rich people. Hatred, contempt, envy — and a little fear. With his shiny black mask and black vest, he also looks like an executioner.

“So the violent feelings we have towards these rudos isn’t surprising. Everyone likes a real bad guy, don’t they? It sort of cleans you out emotionally. You get to have a kind of revenge on the real bad guys.”

Jesus displays a picture of his favorite rudos team, the notorious I.os Hermanos Maldad — Doctor Maldad y Mister Maldad. Doctor and Mister Evil wear white shirts and leotards offset by black latex masks with white eve holes veiled with silver gauze. Their mouths are covered with the fixed white teeth of pre-His-panic ceremonial skulls. Like La Parca, their garb deliberately evokes the imagery of Mexico’s populist death cults — the skeleton masks in traditional dances. La Parca himself, it seems, comes into the ring accompanied by a half-naked woman with wild blond hair who is dressed in a black hat. One side of her face is painted to imitate the grinning rictus of a skull. “She’s more scary than La Parca himself,’’ Jesus says and then gets up to blow his whistle in disapproval.

The bout has begun with a deafening smack of copious flesh on canvas, and having described an incredible cartwheel that has sent him spinning across the ring like a dervish, Pulpo has just been laid on his back by Pensamiento Negro. The kids are in an uproar. “Miedo! Miedo!” they are screaming, “Fear!” Pensamiento shakes his fist at the gallery, and the fans cheer.

It is difficult at this point to see who is the good guy and who the bad. But octopuses have a dim reputation, and so when, a moment later, Pulpo Sagrado grabs Pensamiento Negro’s foot unawares and twists him into a fall, the fans squeal with delight. Pulpo is a sneak. A slippery mollusk. And for the next five minutes, Pensamiento is thrown like a rag doll from rope to rope, groaning, lolling, and wobbling.

"Miedo! Miedo!"

The Lucha Libre, even as far up s the Triple A, the premier league of Mexican wrestling, is carefully choreographed. The moves are balletic, executed almost in slow motion. A feint, a pass, a complicated arm-twist, or a somersault are all visible well in advance. You can see each move coming in the one that has just been executed. The two antagonists separate to opposing corners, pause for a moment to prepare the move, then run toward each other at full tilt, launch themselves into space at exactly the same moment, and connect in mid-air to form a dazzling but morn e n t a r y geometry of limbs. They then crash to earth in poses of agony and triumph. A moment later, they have mysteriously disengaged, separated, and are beginning the whole sequence all over again.

These ceremonial, eerily beautiful dances go on and on as the battle swings from one side to the other and back again. Of course, most wrestling, including that in the United States, is a game arranged in advance in which protagonists act out the latent hysteria and emotion in the audience itself. But in Lucha Libre, the game is even more elaborately contrived than usual. Pulpo Sagrado and Pensamiento Negro are collaborating in a dance with clear roots in the occult, in the myriad supernatural cults of the Mexican underclass and in the demonology of the pre-Columbian world.

As soon as the striped referee has declared Pensamiento the victor, the crowd dissolves into laughter and sarcasm.

The wrestlers troop out, pursued by tiny autograph hunters and the beam of a spotlight, and the referee announces the second bout of the night — Johnny Bayoni (“come to avenge his insult at the hands of Pensamiento Negro!”) and Thunderbird. People rush out to buy soft drinks and tacos on Ninos Heroes. They talk about the match to come later in the evening between the violent Blue Birds and Faraon de Oro. And when the spectators return to the arena, the hairy and redoubtable Johnny Bayoni, rudo extraordinaire, will be throwing his fantastical weight around the ring.

So, how d’you like the fight?’

A massive silhouette has deposited itself on the bench next to the only gringo in.the house. The sombreroed guy who sells nuts in crystal-bright polythene bags has a few things to say about Pensamiento Negro.

“He owns virtually all the taco stalls on Ninos Heroes. A really good tecnico. See that cartwheel he did? Incredible. Wait till you see the Blue Birds, though. They really let rip.” Since there is an interval of about ten minutes, his suggestion that we go backstage, as it were, and seek out the Dark Thought himself seems a good one. At the I.uganilla, everybody knows everybody.

The secretive changing rooms are crude cubicles of bathhouse tiles with the stubs of defunct taps and pipes still protruding from the walls. The gladiators use them as coat hangers. Folding metal seats, opened suitcases, and scraps of showbiz clothing clutter the floors. The wrestlers are not at all keen to be interviewed here, since few people are ever allowed to see them putting on or taking off their masks. But Pensamiento Negro is already uncostumed and is now wearing a dapper leather jacket. He seems much smaller than in the ring. Plump and ruddy, he exudes benevolence and good humor.

“My name?” he chortles. “It’s just the business. A persona. My real name’s Miguel Alvarez. And really, I’m the artistic sort. That’s why I’m a tecnico. I’m a kind of dancer.” He nods with sudden seriousness. Tecnicos are known to be extremely proud of their artistic skills.

“Oh, I’ve fought with everyone. I’ve fought with the two greatest estrellas of them all — Blue Demon and El Santo. El Santo was my idol — although I’ll tell you right now that the greatest was not El Santo but Blue Demon. Blue Demon was untouchable.

“Anyway, when I was a kid, I adored the wrestlers. It wasn’t as big then as it is now, after the earthquake and all that, but we still watched it all the time. I began in Guadalajara, then moved to Mexico City. That was about nine years ago, and I was fighting in the capital at the great arenas.

Now I only fight in Tijuana. And sometimes in the States.

I’ve got my taco stalls here, so I don’t want to travel all the time like some of these guys do. But the States... that’s quite close. Did you know I was the Gold Falcon champion in California?

But I have my likes and dislikes, and I have to say, there are two things I don’t like: rudos and American wrestling. See, in Mexico we make it very real, very realistic. Very emotional. I mean, people get really worked up. I’ve been physically attacked by people in the audience — followed outside and beaten up. They take it very personally. Myself, I take that as a compliment. It shows I’ve gotten through to them, for good or bad. And then again, I’m a tecnico, which means that what I do is really pretty, artistic. Didn’t you think I was beautiful out there? That’s why I hate rudos. They’re all brawn and brag. Me, I’m a tightrope walker and always have been. A rudo can become a tecnico if he wants to and works hard. But the other way around? Once a tecnico, my friend, always a tecnico."

Almost immediately, an unmasked rudo (could it be the formidable Pulpo himself?) comes bowling up as if needing to express a counter-view. He pats Pensamiento fondly on the back and winks.

“Hi, I’m the biggest tough guy in Baja, and proud of it. Don’t listen to everything the tecnicos say. People need us just as much as they need them. And what he says about people getting violent with the wrestlers...well, they get really furious with us bad guys. We fight dirty and they love it. But God help us if things get out of hand. Here — feel that?” (There is a sort of notch on the back of his neck.) “That’s a knife wound. They went for me one night, and the cops had to get me out of town for a while.

“Sometimes I go north of the border illegally with my crossing card and fight there. They teamed me up with Goliath himself! I may have lost my mask in Mexico City, but I know they’re scared of me out there. One hundred kilos. In the U.S. they hate my guts. I’m the ultimate rudo. The ultimate bad guy.”

Both men start guffawing and bang each other gently on the shoulders with their fists.

One of the main differences between wrestling in the States and in Mexico is that in Mexico children are very involved. The Luganilla may be something of a kids’ venue compared to some of the other arenas in Tijuana, but the prominence of children in the wrestling cult is unmistakable.

“Yeah, that’s absolutely true. Lucha Libre is big with everyone, but especially kids. Look around you. If you read the wrestling mags, El Halcon, Colosos, or Mi Lucha, you’ll see that every week they have dozens of pictures and letters sent in by kids. Some wrestlers go out of their way to reach them, organizing meetings with them, getting them started if they want to be wrestlers themselves...Laddy Galaxia, for example. I started at 24, but many kids now are starting at 10 or so learning the first moves. You’ll see; tonight, after the bouts, the kids will take over the ring. That’s their dream, to become luchadores in the Triple A.

“As for the adults, I don’t know. I guess they come here instead of getting drunk and being bad. The Lucha helps them get their aggression out without actually doing anything dangerous themselves. Everyone has their reason for liking wrestling. And you know who the most vicious spectators are? The old ladies! Yeah, the old ladies really get it off. They really go for you when they get worked up. I’ve been hit with purses, walking sticks, umbrellas....”

In reality, the wrestlers themselves seem a little nonplussed by the overwhelming presence of children in their audiences. It’s not something that everyone understands. Ernesto Ramirez, a journalist with the magazine Colosos de Lucha Libre in Mexico City, offers some opinions. “Well, there’s no doubt that it’s difficult to understand the phenomenal success of the Lucha Libre without reference to the support which children give it. They’re an outstanding sector of the public support that keeps the coliseos running. It’s well known that a large number of the adults present at these fights are taken there by their own kids, even if they end up being fans themselves.

“And it’s the kids, who by manifesting a sincere adoration for a particular gladiator, end up making him a star. However, don’t think that kids elect just anyone to star status. They have a strange intuition when it comes to sorting out the most talented from the rest. For example, kids don’t just go to the matches at the gyms and halls. They’re assiduous readers of the wrestling press. We can’t underestimate them when, in fact, we wrestling journalists are writing principally for them. Equally, children are the consumers who underpin the present commercialization of Lucha Libre. It’s they who buy the masks and gear of their favorite fighters at the accessory stores, as well as a lot of other stuff.

“Now to really understand the relation that exists between children and wrestling in Mexico, we have to try and see what it means to them. The thing that most attracts them is the color of the masks and the costumes. Of course, the strength of the luchadores and the spectacular acrobatics that they execute in the cuadrilatero, the ring, attract them also, as well as all the scrapping and quarreling that goes on outside it. And above all, the struggle between Good and Evil that the Lucha represents so vividly. All of this forms a kind of super-reality that fascinates kids.

“But at the same time their wrestling idols are men of flesh and bone with whom they can talk and chat, unlike the superheroes in comic books or the movies, who are totally inaccessible. I think it’s quite moving to see these kids at the wrestling gigs. With their eyes fixed on the ring, enraptured with the flights and what we call the llaves, the wrestlers’ holds. They go crazy with joy or with grief, according to how their hero fares, as if they were at the movies. The difference being that in the wrestling hall the protagonists are only a few steps away.

“These days it isn’t rare for Lucha stars to be role models for millions of Mexican children, regardless of their backgrounds. Kids sometimes copy every detail of their idol, including their behavior — which is why many stars make an effort to behave responsibly in the public eye. This is why wrestlers are so important in this society now. We can’t forget that for a moment. They are actively shaping the citizens of tomorrow.”

The bell has now sounded a second time, and the next bout is underway. Johnny Bayoni, a small, rotund warrior in a black singlet, unmasked and hairy (his tight, frizzy curls hang down almost to his shoulders), has bounded into the ring, followed by Thunderbird, a masked fighter rigged out to suggest a Marvel superman.

“Thunderbird...idolo de la aficion!" the referee bellows.

“Johnny Bayon!...jura vengar su afrenta!"

Bayoni the bad boy struts about, beating his chest and looking wild. The kids boo and scream. The bell clangs, and the two mountainous forms come rushing toward each other in the center of the ring, Bayoni charging like a roly-poly bull, Thunderbird skipping like a puppet on wires. Rudo versus tecnico. Bayoni sticks out his enormous belly and brutally pushes the artsy-fartsy Thunderbird six feet back into the ropes, bellowing insanely.

“;A huevo!nhe screams, “I’ll beat you by sheer nerve and guts!”

Thunderbird picks himself up and screams back, “;A huevo!”

They taunt one another for a minute or so then crash once more in the center. Thunderbird goes down again. Johnny insouciantly stamps on his head, kicks him in the groin, throws his 100-kilo mass into the air, and lands like a falling girder onto his belly, then walks off wiping his hands and beaming. The audience is ecstatic. How bad can a bad boy rudo really be?

A moment later, though, the elegant Thunderbird has executed a neat scissor kick and sent the bullying Johnny reeling back onto the ropes himself.

Blood flies everywhere. Johnny’s face is streaming with it, and it has run down into the fabulously tangled doormat on his chest. He reels all over the place, cursing the kids in the balcony. He shakes his fist at them and threatens to go up there and sort them out. Hysteria. An old woman runs up to the ring and tries to hook his ankle with the handle of her umbrella. Things can be said to be heating up when the umbrellas come out. Sundry objects fly left and right, hitting Johnny on the head. He rolls his eyes like a comic demon on a carnival float and roars.

"A huevo!"

During the match, one of the other luchadores, a fighter who used to be called Ramses I before his promoter suggested that he remove his mask, points out that a genuine rudo like Bayoni has to really ham it up. “My uncle was like that. They used to call him Caveman. I think it’s a matter of personality; either you have a rudo personality or you don’t. I’m a tecnico because I have a generous spirit — I’m limpio, clean. I can’t fight dirty like Bayoni because that would be out of character.

“Actually, we’re all friends outside the ring and sometimes we train together. We all eat the same diet — half a pound of beef liver and a bottle of V-8 mushed in a blender and then drinks made of fruit and milk — and we practice our moves co-operatively. Really, rudos and tecnicos are just two sides of a single coin. We’re all wrestling together, in the end, and we put on these shows together. Johnny’s a great guy — a real sweet guy. He’s just a bastard when he’s in the ring.”

The fight has now spilled into the hall itself. Johnny chases Thunderbird around the ring while half the audience pelts him with nuts. The wrestlers wade into a crowd of old ladies who pound the fighters’ heads with rolled newspapers. Johnny finally gets Thunderbird into a corner, whacks his face five times against a concrete pillar, and then drags him supine back to the ring by one of his boots. Thunderbird mumbles incoherently as if in a coma.

“Ah, look at that,” Ramses murmurs admiringly. “There’s no denying that the guy’s a real artist.”

Lucha Libre has always tapped into a collective unconscious ruled by very different laws from the ones that govern the state and Mexico’s high colonial culture. Its imagery is completely atavistic. In Tijuana, as in most Mexican cities, hole-in-the-wall shops selling satanistic and occult paraphernalia are legion. Masonic and apocryphal Christian imagery sit side by side with pre-Hispanic undercurrents. The wrestlers reflect this with their names and costumes. Many of them appeal to the popular and familiar demonic or black magic imagery — Vampiro, with his Star of David devices; Cadaver de Ultratumba (Body from Beyond the Tomb); La Parca, the skeleton, Death himself; Ojo Diabolico (Devil’s Eye); Octagon (a satanist symbol); Ultimo Dragon, with his enigmatic runes, and countless others.

Many wrestlers take on the personae of cultic animals (El Coyote is a popular performer at the Lagunilla). In pre-Hispanic times, these were devil animals known as nahuals — incarnations of dead spirits associated with terror, darkness, and violence. The satanist accessory stores proliferate with parodies of jackal-headed Indian gods that bear an eerie similarity to the headgear and costumes of Lucha Libre wrestlers.

Lucia Carrasco, another journalist involved in the wrestling world, explains the pagan, occult roots of Lucha Libre in terms of the love of masks. “In the magical atmosphere of a dance, a carnival or, in this case, Lucha Libre, a person transforms himself into a mythological super-being — feared, idolized, invulnerable, whether as angel or as demon. The mask makes this possible. The mask is admired and venerated; it imposes respect. It’s a symbol of power.

“In primitive societies, masks are more important than in our own. They materialize deities in front of our eyes. They also enable a person to transcend himself and everyone around him, too. With masks we assume different personalities, which is a great liberation, a psychological necessity, even. In Mexico masks have been evolving since the beginning of the pre-Hispanic era, and masks were a favorite object among Mexican artists and artisans.

“Between the 10th and 15th Centuries, they were used extensively to adorn the faces of the dead during burial, at least among the noble and warrior castes. In a war-like indigenous culture like Mexico, masks were symbols of military rank. You could rise to be ‘tiger knight’ or an ‘eagle knight’ with the appropriate mask.

“Now, the magical, pre-Hispanic uses of masks definitely continued in the Mexican countryside for centuries. It’s a deep folk memory. Popular masks are still produced beautifully in Chiapas, Michoacan, and Guerrero. In actuality, masks are now part of our people’s spiritual makeup. They’re a profound part of our ‘pagan-religious’ celebrations. There’s the combat between Christians and Moors, played out with masks and the combat between angels and demons. Most of our folk dances use masks. If you look at Inca dances in Peru, you’ll be amazed to see that the masks used are almost identical to the ones used in Lucha Libre.

“I suppose you could say that with a mask, the human individual supplants and dislocates himself. He becomes part of a symbolic drama bigger than himself. Life by itself is monotonous; we nourish ourselves with myth. The mask makes the spectator feel that he or she is protected by a kind of patriarchal order. And the masked person converts himself into angel or demon, into a ‘galactic being,’ a limitless protector, a fiction of flesh and bone.’’

It is doubtful whether any of this makes sense to the hefty luchadores slugging it out in the ring in their black tights and glittering latex helmets. For them, the Lucha bout is like a humorous gangster movie in which some actors like to play criminals and others private detectives. They are the folklore of modern Mexico, its underground media stars, and every fantastical exaggeration is permitted them.

At the end of the evening, after the Blue Birds have messed with the Diabolicos — a veritable melee resembling some chaotic medieval battle, complete with blood, “broken” arms, head butts, screamed oaths, and fisticuffs with the audience — Pensamiento Negro’s prediction comes true and the kids come pouring down from the balcony to invade the ring. They start hurling themselves around it in perfect imitation of the gladiadores, turning somersaults, executing cartwheels, arm locks, and scissor kicks. The arc lamps die out, and the hall slowly empties as the children fill the ring in ever greater numbers.

When most of the audience has left, Johnny Bayoni comes out in a clean T-shirt and winks at the men in shades who run the Lagunilla — members of a family who also run several bars and clubs in Tijuana. Before making for the back exit into the parking lot where the groupies sometimes wait, he says, “I really did Thunderbird in, no? How d’you like my drop kick? See my last jump? You wouldn’t think 100 kilos could move that fast, would you?”

The wrestlers are now all in the parking lot exchanging notes and analyses. They seem pleased with the performance. Their gaudily painted pickup trucks and minibuses will soon disperse them in all directions, but not before Pensamiento Negro has made one last gesture of munificence towards his fellow supermen.

“These are all extraordinary people,” he says, indicating the luchadores with a sweep of the hand. “Where else in the world would you see wrestlers like these? We’re more than wrestlers; we are artistic heroes! That’s all. Good night.”

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Events December 11-December 14, 2022
Choking with extension cord - Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
Choking with extension cord

Sunday nights at the Lagunilla wrestling gym at Calle Primera and Ninos Heroes in Tijuana have not been designed to seduce the pacifist or the coward. Already from the street — that sloping section of Ninos Heroes cluttered with tape stalls, shawled beggarwomen, and mini-skirted whores gobbling palm-sized tacos — the frenzy in the hall is audible.

The kids are in an uproar. “Miedo! Miedo!” they are screaming.

It is seven o’clock, and children are pouring up the dark flight of stone steps between the dank walls of Luganilla, past the hole-in-the-wall shampoo shop and hairdressers where an old woman with a clotted eye sits on a stool, and into the I.uganilla itself—a bare concrete room with smashed, glassless windows and tiered wooden benches. This is Lucha Libre night, popular Mexican wrestling, and about 200 tiny urchins, grandmothers, and sundry fans have turned out to watch the likes of Pulpo Sagrado, El Coyote, and Pensamiento Negro beat the daylights out of each other in one of Tijuana’s favorite but least commercialized gyms,

You know who the most vicious spectators are? The old ladies!

Lagunilla is a shock to those familiar with the stadiums of the U.S. or even the larger arenas within Mexico itself. The place seems half exposed to the open sky. Whitewashed brick walls, naked arc lamps, and a flimsy tin roof encircle a ring that seems to have been improvised from bits of rope, foam, and tattered leather. The arena is, in fact, a converted bus station. The walls are plastered with huge cartoon images of masked faces: a Ghenghis Khan with webbed lids sewn into his eye slits, helmeted robots, and three black-faced demons in Al Johnson make-up, called the Payasos Diabolicos, the Diabolical Clowns.

Thunderbird on left, Joni on the mat

Above these grinning masks, a spectator balcony of yet more tiered benches is screened off with panels of wire net.-Here the hordes of tots sit like a Roman rabble presiding over a gladiator show. The floor of the ring tilts and undulates as if stuffed with straw, and the padded posts lean at dubious angles. Along one wall are pinned dozens of photographs of the Luganilla’s favorite stars, which are on sale to the public, and by the two exit doors where the wrestlers appear — one marked rudos and the other tecnicos — a smattering of adoring children sit patiently with their autograph pencils ready.

Kid Norteno on the ground

The Luganilla may be populist wrestling at its most basic, but the passion underlying both its star system and its demonology are remarkable. For, as in all wrestling, some fighters are demons and some angels. And for the Luganilla’s crowd, most of them under the age of 12, the battle of Good versus Evil is as vivid here as it is anywhere else. The Sunday night fight on Ninos Heroes is not just a scrap in a rundown old abattoir. It is a weekly morality play in which the forces of Light and the forces of Dark dress up in tights and gaudy masks and enact an ancient drama.

Gladiator in flight

Lucha Libre wrestling has become one of the biggest spectator sports south of the border. National newspapers run weekly comic strips based on the lives of famous wrestlers. Mexico City’s great wrestling venues like the Coliseo and the Pista Revolucion are as important to the city as a baseball stadium is to an American one. And the biggest wrestling stars— Blue Demon, Vampiro, Konan, and Octagon — are as famous as any TV personalities. The Mexican press frequently refers to them as “grandes representantes de nuestra republica."

“It’s all a game. No one really gets hurt."

This national craze was born out of the catastrophic earthquake of 1984, which demolished huge areas of the poorer districts of Mexico City and left hundreds of thousands of people homeless. The Mexican government was forced to promise that massive and rapid rebuilding of the devastated areas would lead to an eventual improvement in living conditions — a clearing and reconstruction project that was already years overdue. However, little actually happened.

"El Santo was my idol — although I’ll tell you right now that the greatest was not El Santo but Blue Demon. Blue Demon was untouchable."

Popular resentment at the plight of the homeless left by the earthquake intensified, and the Lucha Libre, in a surprising transformation, became the manifestation of that resentment. Its protagonists were masked, and so, anonymous. Overnight, Lucha Libre's greatest star, El Santo, had become the mouthpiece of populist outrage, able to conceal his identity while delivering stinging criticisms of the authorities.

Essentially, the wrestlers still remain masked and can only be unmasked when they are defeated. Formerly, this might have been a fatal humiliation, but now it is common to see unmasked fighters in the ring, including Faraon, the Pharaoh, one of the country’s most famous wrestlers. Yet the concealed nature of most of these popular heroes is still striking. Like bulky Lone Rangers, they seem to be symbols of insurrection, symbols of the fears of ordinary people faced with a corrupt judiciary and an equally corrupt government. El Santo, the Robin Hood of the earthquake debacle, is, to this day, incognito, and the mask is still a potent symbol to wrestlers and spectators alike.

The Lagunilla begins to fill at about 7:15. The $5 cover charge is met without grumbling by people for whom such a sum is equivalent to a day’s or even two days’ wages. Before sitting down, the children file past the photos pinned to the wall. There are certainly some spectacular takes — “Kid Norteno volando sobre Thunderbird the Kid in midflight, spread-eagled, about 20 feet from the ground; Octagon, with some crazy tassel flying out from his head in an “espectacular vuelo” over Zorro de Oro, who seems to be gazing up at him in pure astonishment. In yet an- other snap, we see Starman flat on his belly with his face in his hands, seemingly out for the count, while Rocketeer gloats over him with his massive, chubby fists raised in triumph. Rocketeer and Star-man — sci-fi wrestlers in a primeval setting.

These men move with the agility of the very beasts, astronauts, and demons they represent. Rocketeer flies through the air as if propelled by a rocket. Pulpo, the Octopus, coils around his opponents. Vampiro does a veritable bat act over the ropes.

By 7:30 the hall has filled to capacity. The balcony is crammed to the limits, little grubby hands poking through the wire barrier. Street girls come in with bags of sweets and sit on the terraced benches ready to admire some masculine hardware; the grandmothers form a large contingent, menacingly armed with umbrellas and walking sticks. By the wrestlers’ doors, a couple of groupies in tight sequined skirts wait for the hulks to come forth in their strutting splendor. Everyone is screaming and shouting. The children overhead sound like a demented school bus on the last day of school, breaking out now and then into wild choruses of whistles and stamping feet. A brass bell begins clanking, and a small, ponderous referee in a vertically striped shirt clambers into the ring.

“Welcome to the Lagunilla,” he bawls through a megaphone.

“Welcome to the Sunday match. The first bout on tonight’s menu will be... [everyone falls silent for a second]...Pen-samiento Negro ...[screams, boos]...and the one and only...Pulpo Sagrado!” (Screams, boos.)

Pulpo Sagrado, the Sacred Octopus, in a tight cerulean mask with silver orbits and hip-length matching cape, like something from a Captain America comic, circa 1950, comes bounding through the audience in dainty blue booties, waving his muscles and menacing excess fat in all directions to infantile shouts of “Pul-po! Pul-po!" He soars into the ring (it is the only word) by means of a spectacular two-handed leap from the ropes and twirls about in his fancy cape, bowing and baring a set of pugilistic teeth. He looks pretty invincible. “;Pulpo Sagrado!” the referee repeats through the megaphone.

But Pensamiento Negro is now on the scene. From the tecnicos door, a brooding dark figure in fur-lined cape and black boots has started his prowl — the Campeon Completo de California, Pensamiento Negro, Dark Thought, is out for the kill, and he has his eyes set on Sacred Octopus in the ring.

"Pen-sa - m ien - to Neg - ro!”

"Pul-po! Pul-po!”

The adolescent connoisseurs on the benches are more than happy to explain to bewildered yanquis the differences between tecnicos and rudos.

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Hugo Jesus, 16, rooting for Pensamiento, while occasionally blowing through a tin whistle and throwing the odd piece of detritus into the ring, explains. “A rudo is a completely different kind of wrestler from a tecnico. A rudo is a tough guy, a real warrior, a real bad boy. He’s unpredictable and moody. We call wrestlers gladiadores, gladiators, and a rudo is a kind of Dirty Harry gladiator. We love to hate them.

“Take La Parca, one of young, upcoming rudos at the moment. He’s up with the dirtiest of them — Fishman, Blue Panther, you name it. One of La Parca’s most macabre dreams, he says, is to rip off Octagon’s mask, because he considers him a lousy luchador. He wears a skeleton outfit that really freaks people out. Yeah, he’s gonna be a tough nut to crack for the tecnicos, all right. -

“Then there’s the team Superbowl y Quarterback, Magnate, the great Ice Killer, and Fuerza Guerrera. The rudos are usually heavier, about 90 or 95 or even 100 kilos, and more brutal, more macho. They can’t do the fancy stuff, leaps and somersaults, which is where the tecnicos come in. Even a real muscular tecnico like Kid Boxer, a great guy from Veracruz, will weigh only about 80 kilos.

See, the tecnico pits his acrobatics and his charisma against the brute force and cunning of the rudo. That’s like everything in life — which is why we respond to it in the way we do. It strikes a chord. It’s more complicated than just Good and Bad. The tecnicos show us the beautiful side of wrestling. It’s beautiful to watch — an art form. But the rudos bring us back to earth.

“It’s all a game, of course. No one really gets hurt. The blood you see isn’t real, it’s pig’s blood in pellets that they smash against their faces when you aren’t looking. But we still get excited by the violence of the rudos. And some rudos stand for definite things. Magnate, for example. He’s a gold-digger. He wears black and loves to humiliate everyone. He struts about in gold chains and medals, showing off his dollars. Arrogance itself. He wears black to emphasize his elegance. On the front of his mask, which kind of shows off his economic power, he has all these glittering gold dollar signs. Down the sides of his legs, too. We call him a ricachon, which means several things — a fabulously rich guy, a nouveau riche, a slick bourgeois, a dirty capitalist. He’s all these things. So we feel toward him the same way we feel toward rich people. Hatred, contempt, envy — and a little fear. With his shiny black mask and black vest, he also looks like an executioner.

“So the violent feelings we have towards these rudos isn’t surprising. Everyone likes a real bad guy, don’t they? It sort of cleans you out emotionally. You get to have a kind of revenge on the real bad guys.”

Jesus displays a picture of his favorite rudos team, the notorious I.os Hermanos Maldad — Doctor Maldad y Mister Maldad. Doctor and Mister Evil wear white shirts and leotards offset by black latex masks with white eve holes veiled with silver gauze. Their mouths are covered with the fixed white teeth of pre-His-panic ceremonial skulls. Like La Parca, their garb deliberately evokes the imagery of Mexico’s populist death cults — the skeleton masks in traditional dances. La Parca himself, it seems, comes into the ring accompanied by a half-naked woman with wild blond hair who is dressed in a black hat. One side of her face is painted to imitate the grinning rictus of a skull. “She’s more scary than La Parca himself,’’ Jesus says and then gets up to blow his whistle in disapproval.

The bout has begun with a deafening smack of copious flesh on canvas, and having described an incredible cartwheel that has sent him spinning across the ring like a dervish, Pulpo has just been laid on his back by Pensamiento Negro. The kids are in an uproar. “Miedo! Miedo!” they are screaming, “Fear!” Pensamiento shakes his fist at the gallery, and the fans cheer.

It is difficult at this point to see who is the good guy and who the bad. But octopuses have a dim reputation, and so when, a moment later, Pulpo Sagrado grabs Pensamiento Negro’s foot unawares and twists him into a fall, the fans squeal with delight. Pulpo is a sneak. A slippery mollusk. And for the next five minutes, Pensamiento is thrown like a rag doll from rope to rope, groaning, lolling, and wobbling.

"Miedo! Miedo!"

The Lucha Libre, even as far up s the Triple A, the premier league of Mexican wrestling, is carefully choreographed. The moves are balletic, executed almost in slow motion. A feint, a pass, a complicated arm-twist, or a somersault are all visible well in advance. You can see each move coming in the one that has just been executed. The two antagonists separate to opposing corners, pause for a moment to prepare the move, then run toward each other at full tilt, launch themselves into space at exactly the same moment, and connect in mid-air to form a dazzling but morn e n t a r y geometry of limbs. They then crash to earth in poses of agony and triumph. A moment later, they have mysteriously disengaged, separated, and are beginning the whole sequence all over again.

These ceremonial, eerily beautiful dances go on and on as the battle swings from one side to the other and back again. Of course, most wrestling, including that in the United States, is a game arranged in advance in which protagonists act out the latent hysteria and emotion in the audience itself. But in Lucha Libre, the game is even more elaborately contrived than usual. Pulpo Sagrado and Pensamiento Negro are collaborating in a dance with clear roots in the occult, in the myriad supernatural cults of the Mexican underclass and in the demonology of the pre-Columbian world.

As soon as the striped referee has declared Pensamiento the victor, the crowd dissolves into laughter and sarcasm.

The wrestlers troop out, pursued by tiny autograph hunters and the beam of a spotlight, and the referee announces the second bout of the night — Johnny Bayoni (“come to avenge his insult at the hands of Pensamiento Negro!”) and Thunderbird. People rush out to buy soft drinks and tacos on Ninos Heroes. They talk about the match to come later in the evening between the violent Blue Birds and Faraon de Oro. And when the spectators return to the arena, the hairy and redoubtable Johnny Bayoni, rudo extraordinaire, will be throwing his fantastical weight around the ring.

So, how d’you like the fight?’

A massive silhouette has deposited itself on the bench next to the only gringo in.the house. The sombreroed guy who sells nuts in crystal-bright polythene bags has a few things to say about Pensamiento Negro.

“He owns virtually all the taco stalls on Ninos Heroes. A really good tecnico. See that cartwheel he did? Incredible. Wait till you see the Blue Birds, though. They really let rip.” Since there is an interval of about ten minutes, his suggestion that we go backstage, as it were, and seek out the Dark Thought himself seems a good one. At the I.uganilla, everybody knows everybody.

The secretive changing rooms are crude cubicles of bathhouse tiles with the stubs of defunct taps and pipes still protruding from the walls. The gladiators use them as coat hangers. Folding metal seats, opened suitcases, and scraps of showbiz clothing clutter the floors. The wrestlers are not at all keen to be interviewed here, since few people are ever allowed to see them putting on or taking off their masks. But Pensamiento Negro is already uncostumed and is now wearing a dapper leather jacket. He seems much smaller than in the ring. Plump and ruddy, he exudes benevolence and good humor.

“My name?” he chortles. “It’s just the business. A persona. My real name’s Miguel Alvarez. And really, I’m the artistic sort. That’s why I’m a tecnico. I’m a kind of dancer.” He nods with sudden seriousness. Tecnicos are known to be extremely proud of their artistic skills.

“Oh, I’ve fought with everyone. I’ve fought with the two greatest estrellas of them all — Blue Demon and El Santo. El Santo was my idol — although I’ll tell you right now that the greatest was not El Santo but Blue Demon. Blue Demon was untouchable.

“Anyway, when I was a kid, I adored the wrestlers. It wasn’t as big then as it is now, after the earthquake and all that, but we still watched it all the time. I began in Guadalajara, then moved to Mexico City. That was about nine years ago, and I was fighting in the capital at the great arenas.

Now I only fight in Tijuana. And sometimes in the States.

I’ve got my taco stalls here, so I don’t want to travel all the time like some of these guys do. But the States... that’s quite close. Did you know I was the Gold Falcon champion in California?

But I have my likes and dislikes, and I have to say, there are two things I don’t like: rudos and American wrestling. See, in Mexico we make it very real, very realistic. Very emotional. I mean, people get really worked up. I’ve been physically attacked by people in the audience — followed outside and beaten up. They take it very personally. Myself, I take that as a compliment. It shows I’ve gotten through to them, for good or bad. And then again, I’m a tecnico, which means that what I do is really pretty, artistic. Didn’t you think I was beautiful out there? That’s why I hate rudos. They’re all brawn and brag. Me, I’m a tightrope walker and always have been. A rudo can become a tecnico if he wants to and works hard. But the other way around? Once a tecnico, my friend, always a tecnico."

Almost immediately, an unmasked rudo (could it be the formidable Pulpo himself?) comes bowling up as if needing to express a counter-view. He pats Pensamiento fondly on the back and winks.

“Hi, I’m the biggest tough guy in Baja, and proud of it. Don’t listen to everything the tecnicos say. People need us just as much as they need them. And what he says about people getting violent with the wrestlers...well, they get really furious with us bad guys. We fight dirty and they love it. But God help us if things get out of hand. Here — feel that?” (There is a sort of notch on the back of his neck.) “That’s a knife wound. They went for me one night, and the cops had to get me out of town for a while.

“Sometimes I go north of the border illegally with my crossing card and fight there. They teamed me up with Goliath himself! I may have lost my mask in Mexico City, but I know they’re scared of me out there. One hundred kilos. In the U.S. they hate my guts. I’m the ultimate rudo. The ultimate bad guy.”

Both men start guffawing and bang each other gently on the shoulders with their fists.

One of the main differences between wrestling in the States and in Mexico is that in Mexico children are very involved. The Luganilla may be something of a kids’ venue compared to some of the other arenas in Tijuana, but the prominence of children in the wrestling cult is unmistakable.

“Yeah, that’s absolutely true. Lucha Libre is big with everyone, but especially kids. Look around you. If you read the wrestling mags, El Halcon, Colosos, or Mi Lucha, you’ll see that every week they have dozens of pictures and letters sent in by kids. Some wrestlers go out of their way to reach them, organizing meetings with them, getting them started if they want to be wrestlers themselves...Laddy Galaxia, for example. I started at 24, but many kids now are starting at 10 or so learning the first moves. You’ll see; tonight, after the bouts, the kids will take over the ring. That’s their dream, to become luchadores in the Triple A.

“As for the adults, I don’t know. I guess they come here instead of getting drunk and being bad. The Lucha helps them get their aggression out without actually doing anything dangerous themselves. Everyone has their reason for liking wrestling. And you know who the most vicious spectators are? The old ladies! Yeah, the old ladies really get it off. They really go for you when they get worked up. I’ve been hit with purses, walking sticks, umbrellas....”

In reality, the wrestlers themselves seem a little nonplussed by the overwhelming presence of children in their audiences. It’s not something that everyone understands. Ernesto Ramirez, a journalist with the magazine Colosos de Lucha Libre in Mexico City, offers some opinions. “Well, there’s no doubt that it’s difficult to understand the phenomenal success of the Lucha Libre without reference to the support which children give it. They’re an outstanding sector of the public support that keeps the coliseos running. It’s well known that a large number of the adults present at these fights are taken there by their own kids, even if they end up being fans themselves.

“And it’s the kids, who by manifesting a sincere adoration for a particular gladiator, end up making him a star. However, don’t think that kids elect just anyone to star status. They have a strange intuition when it comes to sorting out the most talented from the rest. For example, kids don’t just go to the matches at the gyms and halls. They’re assiduous readers of the wrestling press. We can’t underestimate them when, in fact, we wrestling journalists are writing principally for them. Equally, children are the consumers who underpin the present commercialization of Lucha Libre. It’s they who buy the masks and gear of their favorite fighters at the accessory stores, as well as a lot of other stuff.

“Now to really understand the relation that exists between children and wrestling in Mexico, we have to try and see what it means to them. The thing that most attracts them is the color of the masks and the costumes. Of course, the strength of the luchadores and the spectacular acrobatics that they execute in the cuadrilatero, the ring, attract them also, as well as all the scrapping and quarreling that goes on outside it. And above all, the struggle between Good and Evil that the Lucha represents so vividly. All of this forms a kind of super-reality that fascinates kids.

“But at the same time their wrestling idols are men of flesh and bone with whom they can talk and chat, unlike the superheroes in comic books or the movies, who are totally inaccessible. I think it’s quite moving to see these kids at the wrestling gigs. With their eyes fixed on the ring, enraptured with the flights and what we call the llaves, the wrestlers’ holds. They go crazy with joy or with grief, according to how their hero fares, as if they were at the movies. The difference being that in the wrestling hall the protagonists are only a few steps away.

“These days it isn’t rare for Lucha stars to be role models for millions of Mexican children, regardless of their backgrounds. Kids sometimes copy every detail of their idol, including their behavior — which is why many stars make an effort to behave responsibly in the public eye. This is why wrestlers are so important in this society now. We can’t forget that for a moment. They are actively shaping the citizens of tomorrow.”

The bell has now sounded a second time, and the next bout is underway. Johnny Bayoni, a small, rotund warrior in a black singlet, unmasked and hairy (his tight, frizzy curls hang down almost to his shoulders), has bounded into the ring, followed by Thunderbird, a masked fighter rigged out to suggest a Marvel superman.

“Thunderbird...idolo de la aficion!" the referee bellows.

“Johnny Bayon!...jura vengar su afrenta!"

Bayoni the bad boy struts about, beating his chest and looking wild. The kids boo and scream. The bell clangs, and the two mountainous forms come rushing toward each other in the center of the ring, Bayoni charging like a roly-poly bull, Thunderbird skipping like a puppet on wires. Rudo versus tecnico. Bayoni sticks out his enormous belly and brutally pushes the artsy-fartsy Thunderbird six feet back into the ropes, bellowing insanely.

“;A huevo!nhe screams, “I’ll beat you by sheer nerve and guts!”

Thunderbird picks himself up and screams back, “;A huevo!”

They taunt one another for a minute or so then crash once more in the center. Thunderbird goes down again. Johnny insouciantly stamps on his head, kicks him in the groin, throws his 100-kilo mass into the air, and lands like a falling girder onto his belly, then walks off wiping his hands and beaming. The audience is ecstatic. How bad can a bad boy rudo really be?

A moment later, though, the elegant Thunderbird has executed a neat scissor kick and sent the bullying Johnny reeling back onto the ropes himself.

Blood flies everywhere. Johnny’s face is streaming with it, and it has run down into the fabulously tangled doormat on his chest. He reels all over the place, cursing the kids in the balcony. He shakes his fist at them and threatens to go up there and sort them out. Hysteria. An old woman runs up to the ring and tries to hook his ankle with the handle of her umbrella. Things can be said to be heating up when the umbrellas come out. Sundry objects fly left and right, hitting Johnny on the head. He rolls his eyes like a comic demon on a carnival float and roars.

"A huevo!"

During the match, one of the other luchadores, a fighter who used to be called Ramses I before his promoter suggested that he remove his mask, points out that a genuine rudo like Bayoni has to really ham it up. “My uncle was like that. They used to call him Caveman. I think it’s a matter of personality; either you have a rudo personality or you don’t. I’m a tecnico because I have a generous spirit — I’m limpio, clean. I can’t fight dirty like Bayoni because that would be out of character.

“Actually, we’re all friends outside the ring and sometimes we train together. We all eat the same diet — half a pound of beef liver and a bottle of V-8 mushed in a blender and then drinks made of fruit and milk — and we practice our moves co-operatively. Really, rudos and tecnicos are just two sides of a single coin. We’re all wrestling together, in the end, and we put on these shows together. Johnny’s a great guy — a real sweet guy. He’s just a bastard when he’s in the ring.”

The fight has now spilled into the hall itself. Johnny chases Thunderbird around the ring while half the audience pelts him with nuts. The wrestlers wade into a crowd of old ladies who pound the fighters’ heads with rolled newspapers. Johnny finally gets Thunderbird into a corner, whacks his face five times against a concrete pillar, and then drags him supine back to the ring by one of his boots. Thunderbird mumbles incoherently as if in a coma.

“Ah, look at that,” Ramses murmurs admiringly. “There’s no denying that the guy’s a real artist.”

Lucha Libre has always tapped into a collective unconscious ruled by very different laws from the ones that govern the state and Mexico’s high colonial culture. Its imagery is completely atavistic. In Tijuana, as in most Mexican cities, hole-in-the-wall shops selling satanistic and occult paraphernalia are legion. Masonic and apocryphal Christian imagery sit side by side with pre-Hispanic undercurrents. The wrestlers reflect this with their names and costumes. Many of them appeal to the popular and familiar demonic or black magic imagery — Vampiro, with his Star of David devices; Cadaver de Ultratumba (Body from Beyond the Tomb); La Parca, the skeleton, Death himself; Ojo Diabolico (Devil’s Eye); Octagon (a satanist symbol); Ultimo Dragon, with his enigmatic runes, and countless others.

Many wrestlers take on the personae of cultic animals (El Coyote is a popular performer at the Lagunilla). In pre-Hispanic times, these were devil animals known as nahuals — incarnations of dead spirits associated with terror, darkness, and violence. The satanist accessory stores proliferate with parodies of jackal-headed Indian gods that bear an eerie similarity to the headgear and costumes of Lucha Libre wrestlers.

Lucia Carrasco, another journalist involved in the wrestling world, explains the pagan, occult roots of Lucha Libre in terms of the love of masks. “In the magical atmosphere of a dance, a carnival or, in this case, Lucha Libre, a person transforms himself into a mythological super-being — feared, idolized, invulnerable, whether as angel or as demon. The mask makes this possible. The mask is admired and venerated; it imposes respect. It’s a symbol of power.

“In primitive societies, masks are more important than in our own. They materialize deities in front of our eyes. They also enable a person to transcend himself and everyone around him, too. With masks we assume different personalities, which is a great liberation, a psychological necessity, even. In Mexico masks have been evolving since the beginning of the pre-Hispanic era, and masks were a favorite object among Mexican artists and artisans.

“Between the 10th and 15th Centuries, they were used extensively to adorn the faces of the dead during burial, at least among the noble and warrior castes. In a war-like indigenous culture like Mexico, masks were symbols of military rank. You could rise to be ‘tiger knight’ or an ‘eagle knight’ with the appropriate mask.

“Now, the magical, pre-Hispanic uses of masks definitely continued in the Mexican countryside for centuries. It’s a deep folk memory. Popular masks are still produced beautifully in Chiapas, Michoacan, and Guerrero. In actuality, masks are now part of our people’s spiritual makeup. They’re a profound part of our ‘pagan-religious’ celebrations. There’s the combat between Christians and Moors, played out with masks and the combat between angels and demons. Most of our folk dances use masks. If you look at Inca dances in Peru, you’ll be amazed to see that the masks used are almost identical to the ones used in Lucha Libre.

“I suppose you could say that with a mask, the human individual supplants and dislocates himself. He becomes part of a symbolic drama bigger than himself. Life by itself is monotonous; we nourish ourselves with myth. The mask makes the spectator feel that he or she is protected by a kind of patriarchal order. And the masked person converts himself into angel or demon, into a ‘galactic being,’ a limitless protector, a fiction of flesh and bone.’’

It is doubtful whether any of this makes sense to the hefty luchadores slugging it out in the ring in their black tights and glittering latex helmets. For them, the Lucha bout is like a humorous gangster movie in which some actors like to play criminals and others private detectives. They are the folklore of modern Mexico, its underground media stars, and every fantastical exaggeration is permitted them.

At the end of the evening, after the Blue Birds have messed with the Diabolicos — a veritable melee resembling some chaotic medieval battle, complete with blood, “broken” arms, head butts, screamed oaths, and fisticuffs with the audience — Pensamiento Negro’s prediction comes true and the kids come pouring down from the balcony to invade the ring. They start hurling themselves around it in perfect imitation of the gladiadores, turning somersaults, executing cartwheels, arm locks, and scissor kicks. The arc lamps die out, and the hall slowly empties as the children fill the ring in ever greater numbers.

When most of the audience has left, Johnny Bayoni comes out in a clean T-shirt and winks at the men in shades who run the Lagunilla — members of a family who also run several bars and clubs in Tijuana. Before making for the back exit into the parking lot where the groupies sometimes wait, he says, “I really did Thunderbird in, no? How d’you like my drop kick? See my last jump? You wouldn’t think 100 kilos could move that fast, would you?”

The wrestlers are now all in the parking lot exchanging notes and analyses. They seem pleased with the performance. Their gaudily painted pickup trucks and minibuses will soon disperse them in all directions, but not before Pensamiento Negro has made one last gesture of munificence towards his fellow supermen.

“These are all extraordinary people,” he says, indicating the luchadores with a sweep of the hand. “Where else in the world would you see wrestlers like these? We’re more than wrestlers; we are artistic heroes! That’s all. Good night.”

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