Americans have a tendency to think of Mexico in one of two ways: on the downside, there’s the violence, drug trafficking, and poverty; on the plus side, you have the ruins and the beaches and all the vibrancy of a paradise.
Visiting Mexico City’s tourist destinations with the study abroad group, I could understand why the second stereotype exists. Color is everywhere – in the bubblegum–pink taxis cruising the streets, in the flowers sold in bunches at street stands, in the graffiti and murals covering walls and stores’ security shutters. (It’s a fanciful theory, but I like to think the graffiti artists can’t see bare, gray concrete and let it stand.) There are the brightly painted houses – hot, electric blues and deep oranges and yellows that almost shout. Even the obsidian that comes from México has brilliant sheens of color – silver, gold, or purple-green rainbow. And in the waterways of Xochimilco, the air is full of white butterflies and songbirds and tufts of pollen floating like dandelion seeds, as if life had to take to the sky and spread out.
But colors start to fade at dusk, the time of day when we found ourselves at the Arena Mexico to see the lucha libre. Outside was an average street, full of hawkers selling tickets, food stands, and booths piled with flashy lucha libre masks. Inside, everything besides the arena in the center was in blue darkness. The roar of the crowd expressed an enthusiasm unlike any I have heard at other sporting events.
Officially, lucha libre is a version of professional wrestling that translates to “the free fight” – so the rules are bendable. That sentiment seems to apply what’s going on outside the ring, as well. At Lucha Libre, all Mexico’s vices come out to play: homophobia, objectification of women, violence (although fake), and really innovative vulgarity. The scene at the lucha libre is like a certain episode of the Star Trek original series. (Prepare yourself – my true nerdiness is about to come in full force). In “Return of the Archons,” the crew of the Enterprise lands on an unknown planet minutes before the beginning of the “Red Hour,” when all kinds of violence and crime are allowed. Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and the gang are taken aback by the rapid transformation of the otherwise repressed and quiet society. If this plots sounds familiar, it’s basically “The Purge,” minus the anti-Communism undertones. The lucha libre serves a similar purpose to the red hour, according to my trip’s group leader, in that it represents a kind of catharsis for the people of Mexican society, which is usually more buttoned-up and reserved.
At the beginning of each match, the announcer called the names of the luchadores (fighters), with pronounced rrrrrolling of his rrrrs. Some women in bikinis came out to “dance,” never in sync, which was pretty sad considering all they had to do was wiggle their hips and occasionally bust out some disco arms. The luchadores would appear at the top of a platform off to one side of the arena, wearing elaborate costumes, sometimes with capes and/or masks. All of their clothes were made of that stretchy shimmery material (Is it really fabric? Seems more like something developed in a lab accident.) usually seen in mass quantities at dance recitals. The luchadores then ran down a ramp to the arena, the limber guys vaulting over the ropes and sometimes throwing in a flip or two before striking poses with puffed-out chests.
With the beginning of the matches, people in the audience began to yell all kinds of profanities, cheering for their favorites or putting down the opponents. A common theme was insulting the luchadores’ mothers, but I admit my Spanish failed me in deciphering some of their inventions. Most of the yelling seemed to come from men, although there were a fair amount of women and children in the audience. Family fun!
Really though, the whole thing is pretty entertaining. It’s WWE with better costumes and fewer ‘roids. The physical feats were impressive – flips, kicks, jumping out of the ring, to the point that the performance was often closer to an acrobatic routine than an actual fight. The luchadores only pretended to hurt each other, as was obvious when fighters from opposite teams caught each other from jumps, or when someone who was down sat and waited for their opponents to finish running tricks on them. To fully understand, you really just have to see for yourself.
Of course, it wasn’t all fun and games. Remember those vices mentioned at the beginning?
First, the homophobia. Yikes. It’s common in the lucha libre to have an “exótico,” a luchador who acts flamboyantly gay. The exótico we saw wore a short skirt, twirled after knocking down other luchadores, and kissed his opponents on the lips even as they dramatically struggled to escape. This aspect of the show was both pretty uncomfortable, particularly given how entertaining the audience seemed to find it. However, if you think really, really optimistically, it was also kind of subversive in showing an effeminate “gay” man beating bigger and more “masculine” men.
Second, there were also female luchadoras, but they didn’t get the same fame as the male luchadores. The women fight at the beginning of the night, while people are still filing in. They’re like the opening act at a concert in that nobody goes to see them on purpose. They don’t get the same respect as the male luchadores, and they’re as objectified as the bikini dancers. During one of the womens’ fights, one women’s head hit another’s groin, inspiring a man in the crowd to shout, “Así es como le gusta, mi hija!” Translation: “That’s how my baby likes it!”
On the plus side, we got a little sexual objectification of men to balance things out. One luchador earned applause for the successful ripping-off of his breakaway pants, which revealed his underwear with “Papi” (“Daddy”) written across the butt. So that was a little gross, but at least then he and the bikini dancers were even as far as near-nudity. Another luchador, Máximo Sexy was a crowd favorite, at least in part because there’s no way to describe his physique that doesn’t sound like a line pulled from a romance novel. “The tall, bare-chested man turned away, displaying the muscles that rippled across his back…”
So the question is: should you go? FOR SURE. Expect to be both wildly entertained AND deeply disapproving. It’s really a two for one.