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Lucha Libre!
Popular Sport Figures Prominently in Mexico’s Mask Traditions

With a final grunt of exertion, the silver-masked hero sent his opponent sailing across the ring. Then, holding him to the ground with a crippling arm lock, he used his free arm to rip off his adversary’s mask, revealing his humiliated face to the roaring cheers of the crowd.

Move over Hulk Hogan, step aside Batista, you don’t have anything on the wrestlers in lucha libre (loosely translated as “free-style fighting”), a sport popular in Mexico since the 1930s. Promoter Salvador Lutteroth is credited with bringing the first masked wrestler, an Irishman from Boston named John “Cyclone” MacKey, to Mexico City in 1934. The leather mask was originally a gimmick, but MacKey and Lutteroth did not realize until later the importance masks play in Mexican culture.

Masks have long been an integral part of Mexico’s rich festival life. Aztec, Mayan, and other cultures of prehistoric Mexico used masks to commemorate life cycles, marriage ceremonies, and death rituals, to ensure favor from nature and the gods, in battle, and for entertainment.

Aztec warriors are believed to have disguised themselves as jaguars and eagles to fight against the conquistadors. Early church missionaries tried to eliminate Native masked ceremonies, replacing them with dramas that were rooted in Christianity. Rather than disappearing, many of the indigenous festivities became intermingled with Christian beliefs. The resulting rituals recreate historical events, teach Christian doctrine, and celebrate religious holidays, but in a distinctly Mexican manner where pre-Columbian worldviews are still apparent.

In contemporary Mexico, masks are commonly used in the sport of lucha libre. This is not as surprising as it might first appear. During the latter part of the twentieth century, large numbers of Mexicans began moving from the villages to the cities, particularly Mexico City, and the use of traditional masks declined. In the city, lucha libre took on the role that traditional masked dramas played in rural Mexico. Just as community values and the struggle of good versus evil are taught and reinforced in traditional masked dances and processions, lucha libre serves a vital social function as the masked wrestlers entertain and educate their spectators.

The luchadores are classified into two groups: the técnicos (good guys) and the rudos (bad guys). The técnico is the epitome of the working class hero—modest, upstanding, and clean fighting. The rudo is the opposite of the técnico. Treacherous and backstabbing, he embodies the forces of evil. There may be as many as six luchadores in the ring at the same time. The classic match is máscara contra máscara (mask versus mask) in which two masked luchadores wager their masks. The loser is unmasked by the winner, revealing his true identity, as well as his mortality. If one of the luchadores does not wear a mask, the battle is known as máscara contra cabellera (mask versus hair), in which the loser either has his mask removed or his head shaved in the arena for all to witness. The longer a wrestler retains his mask or hair, the greater his prestige.

El Santo, Mexico's most famous and well-loved luchador, kept his mask until after retirement, revealing his true identity only in old age. He was buried wearing his mask; the character had transcended the person. Also a very popular Mexican film star, El Santo burst onto the scene in the 1950s and 60s to vanquish his foes in over 54 movies (twice as many as Elvis) that have since become cult classics. Many more wrestlers such as Blue Demon, Huracán Ramirez, and Mil Máscaras also found fame on film.

Lucha libre is second only to soccer as Mexico’s most popular sport, but it is more than just a sport. Lucha libre is also theater, and it is unique in that there is a profound respect for the luchadores and their heroic, larger than life personas. They serve not only as symbolic champions of justice, but also champions for social causes. For example, the wrestler Superbarrio, literally “Super Neighborhood,” gave voice to some of the poorest inhabitants of Mexico City, who were evicted from the city center after the 1985 earthquake.

Lucha libre differs from professional wrestling in the United States and Canada in that the luchadores cannot rely on sheer size and strength to win. Luchadores are true athletes, renowned for their physical prowess, quick moves, and high-flying acrobatics.

Thanks to the old movies that have become cult classics, and popularity of the Cartoon Network’s current Mucha Lucha program, lucha libre has crossed the border to make fans of many nórteamericanos as well. Whether live, or on the big or little screen, many fans on both sides of the border thrill to the action as luchadores reenact the age-old battle of good versus evil.