Behind the mask: lucha libre’s cultural legacy

Y en esta esquina...”

That line, always said by vociferous referees during the beginning of a lucha match, was a staple of my childhood. My father used to watch lucha libre on Saturdays while he worked in the garage, and sometimes I’d watch with him. I was extremely intrigued by the “flying-masked-men” who beat each other up all the time.

Like most kids, I saw luchadores as elusive creatures with a mysterious life, and I wanted to know everything about them. Did they ever take off their mask? How did they recover so easily after almost dying in the ring?

All I knew was that El Santo was a badass, Blue Demon’s mask was the best, and La Parka was incredibly scary. And even when I learned about kayfabe and lucha/wrestling being “fake”, I was still fascinated by it.

Growing up watching lucha made the transition to watching pro wrestling that much easier. Just like lucha, pro wrestling has characters, storylines, crazy moments and gravity-defying spots that make watching wrestling an enjoyable experience. Still, as much as I love pro wrestling, I’ve always felt like there is something missing.

Lucha libre is pro wrestling, but pro wrestling isn’t lucha libre. John Cena is a superhero. Luchadores are gods.

Of heroes, saints, and demons

 

Masks are sacred. Or, they used to be sacred in ancient Aztec times, when masks were used as physical representations of gods. They were used for worship, to represent life, to represent death.

Mythology is an irremovable part of Latin American culture; tales of gods battling demons are often used to teach the most important aspects of good versus evil, death versus life. Mexican culture in particular is saturated with hero-like figures; extraordinary “good” men who always win against the “bad” guys.

In a country where corruption is prevalent, and poverty is rampant, fictional heroes are needed by the masses. It’s a distraction. It’s hope.

Lucha libre has provided these heroes for Mexicans and Latin Americans for generations. Borrowing heavily from Mexican mythology, lucha has turned masked men into folk heroes, into undeniable symbols of justice.

El Santo (Saint) is the greatest example of a true Mexican hero. A luchador who started his career in the mid-30s, Santo gained notoriety after debuting as a ruthless rudo (heel) in 1942. It didn’t take long for Santo to become a household name, and fans all over the country couldn’t get enough of him.

Santo didn’t become an idol until 1952, after being immortalized in several comic books, where he often defended innocent citizens from nefarious villains. Years later, his fame skyrocketed when he appeared in several action movies, in which he battled supernatural creatures such as zombies and vampires. Another popular luchador, Blue Demon, usually appeared in these movies as well. 

Santo was untouchable.  

Most importantly, Santo became a folk hero because kids had someone to look up to, someone to be inspired by. When holding a Santo action figure, children saw someone who could protect them from cruelty, from injustice. For some, he was the man who would save them from scary nighttime creatures; for others, he was the fearless luchador who would get rid of corrupt, greedy men.

However, as odd and contradicting as it might seem, people (adults) were also able to relate to Santo. He was a hard-working man who was always fighting against terrible odds, and fans, particularly blue-collar workers, were able to identify with him. Peopleloved the man behind the mask, even if they had never seen his face.

This brings us to one of the most fascinating aspects about lucha: the concept of identity, both cultural and personal. Identity is, without a doubt, the most valuable thing a luchador can possess.

In luchas de apuestas, or betting matches, the wrestlers involved wage their masks. This usually happens after a long, intense feud. In kayfabe, if a masked luchador loses his mask to a rival, his identity and reputation is irrevocably damaged. It’s the ultimate insult.

Santo never lost his, and the one time he almost did, he was wearing another mask underneath. It could have been comical, but it wasn’t. It just proved that Santo was committed to keep his identity until the bitter end. Santo often said that his mask was the perfect expression of his personality, the perfect symbol of the mystery surrounding him while he worked the ring.

Santo wore his mask everywhere, going to great lengths to prevent people from seeing his face. There are stories of Santo avoiding traveling with his crew or other wrestlers, afraid they might see him without his mask when going through customs.

It wasn’t until 1984, two years after retiring, that Santo revealed his face to his fans during a national broadcast. By taking off his mask and finally showing his face, he was bidding his audience goodbye. 

 

Santo died a couple weeks later, and he was buried wearing his mask, just like he wanted. Santo, the ultimate folk hero, was gone.

His legacy, however, is still very much alive.

That’s the thing about lucha; it’s a tradition that doesn’t die. It’s resilient, just like the men and women who enjoy it. For children who live every day in countries plagued by violence and real-life villains, enjoying lucha is their way of thinking that someone might show up and save the day.

And maybe, just maybe, that someone will be wearing a mask.