Saturday, November 15, 2008

Behind the Masks

"¡Cervezas! ¡Refrescos!" call the men in the Corona-branded dress shirts, plying the aisles, pushing beverages, trinkets, and bizarre snacks I'm sure I'll never learn the names of. "¡Cervezas!"

The calls are drowned out by a sudden roar from the crowd. In the center of Arena México, a man has just jumped up on the ropes lining the small square ring. Spotlights glare. Sweat glistens on the bloated muscles of his chest. His arms are thrown out towards the crowd in a gesture of incitement, and his face is a patchwork of color extremes, glaring eyes, triangular nose, and three-inch fangs protruding wickedly from a black gape of a mouth.

Standing on the seats next to mine, a little old lady and her granddaughter are waving their fists and hurling every Spanish insult I've ever heard, and many I haven't, at the man on the ropes. Heavy metal blasts from speakers high up in the ceiling, and a half-naked model hip-walks down a runway parading a placard that reads "Primera Caída."

This is lucha libre.

The Mexican version of WWE, literally "free fight," or "fight without rules," is unarguably more entertaining than its American relative, despite being just as scripted. Luchadores are half wrestler, half acrobat. They sling their bodies around one another in intricate series of technical moves, fly from the ropes in impressive back flips and somersaults, and often dive (literally) from the ring to tackle an opponent who has retreated into the crowd.

But most significantly, the majority of luchadores are masked.

The tradition of the máscara dates back to the earliest era of lucha libre, in the opening decades of the twentieth century. A unique identity is bestowed upon the wearer, and great shame comes to a luchador who is unmasked. Evolving from simple color schemes, today's masks can be complex, containing various depictions--animals, mythological figures, indigenous symbols, even popular themes from other genres, like Spiderman--which speak to the character of the luchador.

And that character is important. Most bouts, whether between individuals, duos, trios, or foursomes, pit the good guys (técnicos) against the bad guys (rudos). The honorable, rule-abiding técnicos face an uphill battle against the double-crossing, underhanded rudos, but usually prevail in the end. Both sides have their fans, although the average spectator will probably be cheering for the técnicos, investing him or herself emotionally in this symbolic triumph of good over evil.

Which brings me back to the little old lady and her granddaughter. Lucha libre is, extraordinarily, a family event. Mexicans of all ages crowd the arena. Toddlers, set atop their parents' shoulders, line the runway leading to the ring, hoping for a kiss on the cheek or a pat on the head from their luchador heroes, and giving a wave of the fist to the villains. In the confines of Arena México, it is apparently acceptable to let the heat of the event envelop you, to cast modesty aside and let the obscenities fly.

Outside, after the fifth and final lucha has concluded, stall after stall hangs strands of masks, rows of masks, all colors, all designs, an almost irresistible purchase after the excitement of the fights. Fans, decked out in the masks of their favorite luchadores, rehash the matches over plates of tacos, guide their masked children through the late-night crowds, and hail cabs for the trip home.

Místico has defeated Mephisto tonight. But next week, the arena will be packed once more to see these two masked archetypes wage yet another epic battle in the ring. Tickets are yours for 30 pesos.


Dominic said...

That brought me right back to Mexico, D.F. and the crazy Luche Libre scene - especially with the kids and the obscenities flying around. Good stuff!

hal said...

Thanks Dominic! I was fairly hooked after the first fight. Unfortunately, I didn't have time to go again before I left.