Over the course of the 20th century, Lucha Libre—or professional wrestling—has become a stable of urban Mexican culture. Dating back all the way to the 1800s, professional wrestling has become a distinctly national rendition of an imported product. Within the past 20 years, it has gained international acclaim for its distinctive style: an incredible acrobatic ring style and the highly recognizable masks. Within Mexico, the sport has taken on specific cultural meanings, with its ongoing battles between ‘heroes’ and ‘villains’.
While you may know about the most famous aspect of Lucha libre (the mask), we compiled a list of the unique facts about this cultural and sporting phenomenon:
- Professional wrestling arrived in Mexico in the 1840s. The first domestic wrestler may have been Antonio Pérez de Prían, who learned some Olympic wrestling techniques from a French instructor in 1863, then traveled and performed in circuses and bullfighting arenas.
- Lucha libre rose in popularity after the 1910 revolution, mainly through small promotions at improvised locations in working-class neighborhoods throughout Mexico City.
- Lucha libre features an ongoing battle between rudos (the rule breakers) and técnicos (the rule followers). According to Heather Levi, técnicos have come to signify technocratic masculinity, whereas rudos represent a tough, urban masculinity. Sometimes the only way to move around corruption is to break or circumvent the rules. As a result, spectators often split along técnico and rudo lines. More recently there are also homosexual characters who are known as exóticos. They have increasingly become fan favorites for their flirtations and exaggerated behavior in the ring.
- In 1936, Jesus Velásquez became the first Mexican wrestler to don a mask as he performed under the name “El Murciélago” (“the Bat”) Velásquez. The mask, central to Lucha libre, has become one of the defining aspects of the sport. To lose one’s mask could have a detrimental impact on one’s career.
- The most famous luchador (fighter) of all time, El Santo, did not reveal his face until well near his death. After his death, his son assumed the persona and the mask under the name El Hijo del Santo. Later, in the middle of divorce proceedings, his soon-to-be ex-wife released photographs of El Hijo de Santo’s real face. The wrestler and his lawyers quickly asserted that those photographs were of another man.
- With their masks and capes, luchadores have also crossed over into superhero status. El Santo was the protagonist in his own fotonovela series, and he starred or co-starred in over fifty science fiction films. In the films, he fought aliens, werewolves, zombies, vampires, and other monsters.
- By 2006, the topic of Lucha libre was the center of the plot for the US-produced film Nacho Libre, based on the life story of Father Sergio Gutiérrez Benítez, a priest who used the income he earned from his lucha libre career to support the orphanage he ran in Oaxaca.
- Since there is always a predetermined winner it is impossible to bet on Lucha Libre matches.
- In the 1970s, Mil Máscaras headlined a card at Madison Square Garden in New York City, the first masked wrestler to do so.
- Juana Barraza Samperio, who wrestled under the moniker “la Dama del Silencio” (“the Lady of Silence”) gained infamy in 2006 when she was arrested and accused of killing several elderly women in Mexico City. That Barraza Samperio has received more attention from academics, artists, and journalists than other female wrestlers speaks to the uphill battle women face in the world of Lucha libre, especially in achieving renown.
Information from this post was sourced from “Lucha Libre,” an article by Stephen Allen from the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Latin American History.
Featured image: “función de Lucha Libre callejera durante el festejo anual 2017 en el pueblo de la Candelaria, Coyoacán” by Joe Hernandez. Public Domain via Unsplash.