Family Night with the Lucha Libre
Guadalajara’s wrestling spectacles offer less profanity on Sundays. (But don’t let that worry you. These battles of good versus evil are still lots of fun.)
By Elke Hautala
The boy in the black and gold mask is on his feet again. His small hands clench into fists as he holds his breath in anticipation.
He directs his gaze on the center of the arena. His hero, a tanned wrestler in silver and gold tights, a cape, and a mask, is struggling. The wrestler is pinned on the mat, writhing in his opponents grip. But then, in a swift, acrobatic leap, the hero is up again. The young fan whoops with joy. Good has vanquished evil.
It’s Sunday evening at Guadalajara’s Arena Coliseo – time for lucha libre, Mexico’s flamboyant answer to professional “wrestling.”
I’m in Guadalajara working on a documentary project for school about lucha libre and gender. I’ve visited Mexico plenty of times on vacation, but I’ve never been to the middle of a large city. Nothing could prepare me for being thrown into the deep end – the heart of Guadalajara, with barely two years of college Spanish.
I’m feeling a kind of culture shock many travelers experience, beginning with a wide-eyed stare and an inability to conjugate. I decide my best tactic is to calm down, take it all in, and let my new best friend and host, Yelina, do most of the talking.
The Arena Coliseo sits in a part of town with crumbling stucco and walls full of colorful graffiti. Yelina cheerfully refers to the area as the “Zona Roja,” Guadalajara’s own little red light district. Outside the dark blue building, a large crowd has gathered. The street bustles with energy – policemen, food vendors, and couples canoodling by the bar. Stores offer rainbow selections of lucha masks, t-shirts, and pictures of the wrestling greats. Inside, the smell of stale beer and sweat hint at a history of revelry.
The dark entrance opens to a ring illuminated by glowing white lights, a ramped runway, and an enormous video screen. A sea of seats lines the concrete floor for those with a bit more cash. A chain-link barrier separates the first class spectators from the cheap seats. The upper section crowd is taunted with comments of “pobres” – “poor ones” – but it’s all in good fun. The audience gathers into groups with custom made T-shirts. They yell not only at the players, but each other too, with colorful phrases I won’t repeat.
Sunday is family night, however, so things are toned down a notch. The yelling isn’t quite as dirty, the ring girls are wearing pants, and the entertainment is geared more toward the kids (and their mothers). I’m here with my own posse of ladies – my mom, my twin sister, Yelina, and Yelina’s mom.
The luchadores’ moves are spectacular. Lean wrestlers in horned masks jump from the ropes. Larger opponents with long hair knock them to the ground. The lithe acrobats, known as técnicos, are the good guys. The bigger brutes are called “rudos” for their rude behavior.
The audience is a part of the spectacle too. Even Teresita, a five-foot-tall, stylish woman in her 60’s, swears like a sailor with the crowd. Vendors weave through the aisles hawking chips with hot sauce and limon, luchadores action figures, and paper cups of cerveza. Only one size of beer is available: Two bottles of Corona poured into one large cup.
As the matches play out, I’m on my feet snapping photos, but I sit down just in time for the grand finale – a star named Mistico – a classic técnico with his lean physique and blazingly bright costume. Oh and did I mention he was in good shape? Really good shape.
Waves of excitement ripple through the crowd as he and his partner, La Mascara, who’s wearing sky blue pants and a tight shirt with pink lettering, fight two guys who could have been henchmen in “Lord of the Rings.” Suddenly, one of the henchmen, with very buff arms, falls into the audience. (This type of stuff happens in lucha libre.)
A middle-aged woman with long dark hair touches his arm. She lets out an excited squeal and all of us ladies in the next row give an approving thumbs up. The gentleman behind us (I’m guessing he knew her) adds in Spanish, “Let’s go home right now!”
The match proceeds and Mistico is lifted above the head of one of the rudos. My mom seizes the opportunity and puts her arms out in the universal gesture of “Throw him over here! I’ll take care of him!”
That’s right. Stay classy, Mom.
In the end, true to all superhero fantasies, Mistico saves the day. The children have a moment to believe in something good. The ladies have a moment to… well, I think we all know what the ladies get out of it. As for me, I have a new cultural experience, shock averted.
As we weave our way home through darkened streets, I think about what one wrestler said when I interviewed him in Seattle. “Why do people like lucha libre?” I’d asked, and he had answered, “Because they go to shout, to let go of their euphoria – because they want to know, who is the person behind the mask? Is it the person that they hate or the person that they love?”
Now, I think I finally understand.
Elke Hautala is a Seattle-based actress, singer, and former tour guide. Her alternative folk album, Love Songs for a Post-Modern Paradise, is available on bandcamp.com. You can follow her on Twitter at @sinatrasiren.
Elke is currently studying filmmaking at the University of Washington. She has produced a documentary about the construction of gender in lucha libre entitled, “Técnicos y Rudos Take Over Renton!” Check out her project below!