Lucha Libre – Theatre, Sport or Critique of Capitalism?

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Every Tuesday evening a group of men gather together to put on tight spandex pants, form fitting masks, bright capes, and in some cases lather themselves with oil and enter a ring to try to pin each other down for three seconds.  Welcome to Mexican Wrestling, known in Spanish as Lucha Libre.

Lucha Libre differs from American style wrestling in that their goal isn’t to pummel the crap out of each other (although this does happen occasionally).  Rather Lucha Libre wrestlers, or luchadores, tend to be more agile and put more emphasis on aerial maneuvers making the show appear to be more acrobatic.  And really, who doesn’t like a good circus?

We walked into the arena and saw men leaping over each other and the ring itself, performing aerial stunts, untangling themselves from seemingly secure holds, and falling from great heights.  It was amazing that such large bodies could move with such ease and fluidity.  Their bodies become their only tool in the ring, and they use it however they can to get the job done.  It was obvious that they were well trained in the act of falling, jumping, twisting, and rolling.

The basics:  There are two teams, generally three against three.  One side represents the “good guys”, the técnicos or cientificos, and are generally dressed in lighter colours.  They follow the rules and are said to be more focused on technique.  The “bad guys”, or rudos, are generally dressed in black, are known for their crudeness, and never follow the rules.  In reality, both roles become ambiguous as both teams end up defying authority and can become crude.  The matches are overseen by a referee whose presence is largely symbolic since the luchadores do whatever they want anyway.

The point of course is to pin your opponent down for a count of three, which wins the round.  The winner of the whole match wins the best of three rounds.  If you’ve missed the pin and lose track of what round you’re on, a nice young lady smiling, and wearing a bikini and high heels walks up and down the ramp holding a sign high in the air indicating the round for you.  You’ll know she’s there when you hear the crowd whistling loudly and feel the level of testosterone rise.

Before each match begins each luchadores is introduced individually and has a moment to strut from backstage to the ring to music of his choice, embodying his character’s persona.  They have names like Sangre Azteca (Aztec Blood), Polvora (Dynamite), Angel de Oro (Golden Angel), Dragon Rojo (Red Dragon), Fuego (Fire) and my personal favourite Super Porky (Super Porky).

Throughout the match, they always stay in character.  The rudos do things like stand on the ring, expose their armpit to the crowd, rub their hand in it, then lick their hand.  One luchadores, Maximo, has chosen a homosexual persona.  He has a little skirt on his uniform, and runs away on tiptoe from the rudos when they unexpectedly come at him.  But the crowd cheers his motto “Beso! Beso! Beso!”  (“Kiss! Kiss! Kiss!”) and demands to see his ultimate form of insult where he kisses his opponents on the lips unexpectedly after nailing them to the ground.  Super Porky, himself a cientifico, turns to the crowd and fake cries when a rudos hurts him and the crowd shouts “Tirano! Tirano!”  (“Meanie! Meanie!”) at his opponent.

Yes, the whole thing is an over the top spectacle.  To what extent it is “real” or choreographed has been widely speculated, but does it matter?  It’s theatrical and melodramatic, yes.  Roland Barthes said that wrestling is more akin to a Greek drama.  But does that make it any less of a sport?  It’s easy to dismiss it as being ridiculous, but many many people watch it and find fulfillment from it.  Why?  Why do so many people create fan clubs, and find fulfillment from watching a competition where ultimately who wins or loses doesn’t matter?

Anthropologist Heather Levi says that the meaning of Lucha Libre doesn’t lie in the match itself, but rather in the performance and the relationship of the audience to that performance.  Lucha Libre then becomes the stage where societal anxieties are acted out and projected.

All sports are a kind of drama, Levi says.  Wrestling isn’t any less of a sport, it’s just different.  It’s different in that it represents sport in the form of melodrama, and its importance lies in the melodrama rather than the outcome.  It’s melodramatic in the way that each move is over-performed, each role is over-acted, and each emotion is externalized.  There’s an obvious “good” versus “bad” being played out, yet throughout the match these roles become ambiguous.  The referee acts as an authority figure, yet his position is largely pointless.

The ambiguity between good and bad, the ineffectiveness of authority, and the irrelevance of fair play are the constant themes within the melodrama of Lucha Libre.  These, according to Levi, portray the frustrations felt by the largely working-class audience with the capitalist system they find themselves in.  This is not to say that the wrestling relationships directly reflect capitalist ones, but the wrestling relations “coexists with [capitalist] relations yet simultaneously resists certain of their terms,” says Levi.  Thus the ring becomes a stage where fantasies of resistance can be played out.  The importance of Lucha Libre lies not in who wins or loses but the melodrama unfolding, where people can project their frustrations with the ideology of a “fair” and “free” capitalist system.  This critique is especially pronounced in Mexico, a place known for its political and economic corruption and ambiguity.

In an ironic twist, the arena itself serves as a bit of a showcase for an imperfect capitalist system.  Here the independent vendors are elderly men way beyond retirement age who carry heavy cases of beer down the aisles and sell souvenirs, while teenage boys try to sell popcorn.  Assuming they’re there out of desperation, it leads to that ultimate question: do I support the individual, or do I resist the system?  I don’t know, I rarely do.  But that night, I turned around and yelled Spanish profanities at the luchadores.

(Note, the image on this page is not mine)

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