A Lucha Libre Gender-Bending Star
Pop culture has embraced lucha libre, the form of Mexican wrestling featuring colorfully masked wrestlers. But what is the tradition all about and why is it so popular? We'll also learn about a new genre of luchadores called "exóticos," including a rising star from Tijuana who goes by Ruby Gardenia.
Bill Nericcio is a professor at SDSU and the director of the Master of Arts and Liberal Arts Sciences program (MALAS http://malas.sdsu.edu ). He's written extensively on Lucha Libre most recently in Tex[t]-Mex: Seductive Hallucinations of the "Mexican" in America http://www.utexas.edu/utpress/books/nertex.html .
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CAVANAUGH: Can this is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. If you think the antics of American wrestling on Monday night raw are over the top, then let us introduce you to the world of Lucha Libre. Mexican wrestling features a host of heroes, villains, and exotic, most wearing mask? Feather boas. Its popularity has crossed the border into San Diego. And one of the exotic wrestlers is the subject of a feature story in this week's San Diego City beat. I'd like to introduce my guests, Enrique Limon is San Diego City beat's man about town, and author of the feature story, the gorgeous lady of wrestling.
LIMON: Thank you so much for the invite.
CAVANAUGH: And Bill Naricho is a professor the SDSU and has written about the phenomenon of Lucha Libre. Welcome to the show.
NARICHO: It's great to be here.
CAVANAUGH: You've both been to Lucha Libre matches. Let's start by taking listeners to a match. Enrique, let's start with you. You were recently at a match at San Ysidro. What's the atmosphere like? .
LIMON: It's insane. Imagine a combination of modern day Roman coliseum, vaudeville, and Cher's farewell tour. It really is that magical. On one side, you've got rabid fans, the ancestral battle of good versus evil, Spandex, and copious amounts of beer. So really you can't go wrong.
CAVANAUGH: No. Well, bill, give us an insight into this. I know you've attended matches, what's your experience been like?
NARICHO: It is. It's a felliniesque circus world. The matches I've been to in south Texas are exciting and dangerous. You don't know if you're going to get hit in the head with a metal chair or if the abuelita behind you is going to hit you. Because especially the old lady, they get so into it! Into their stars! And so it's memorable. It's quite a scene.
CAVANAUGH: What is fundamentally different about it from going to an American wrestling match?
LIMON: Well, it's different in the fact that it's a lot more comfortable and just a hell of a lot more visceral. Throughout the areas, US wrestling has borrowed some elements from Lucha, and vice versa. Technically it is proper Greco Roman wrestling with added bells and whistles thrown in here and there. Those being foldable chair smacking, head shaving, dancing, and masks.
CAVANAUGH: Head shaving on stage.
LIMON: There's bouts with the masquerados, the guys with the masks go up against the guys with no mask on.
CAVANAUGH: How did the masks get incorporated into this?
NARICHO: There's two theories, the straight theory and the queer theory.
LIMON: Give me the queer one.
NARICHO: No, I'll start with the straight. Theorist of mask 20th century is Octavio Paz. He talks about the Mexican mask culture, the meaning of the mask, the opportunity for anonymity. And in PAS, it's a little sad, it's angst filled, and the artist is trying to find himself and is lost in the mask. Severo Sardure, queer theory, he's got this other theory. The masks are there to allow someone to hide themselves to become whoever they want on a given night. So when you go to -- one of the reasons that of course mas in Mexican culture are so exciting and the Lucha Libre is the embody. You've got this -- you've got straight world, you've got queer world coming together. Everybody loves the mask.
CAVANAUGH: This is fascinating to me, the in fact that there's so much theory about Lucha Libre. And masks and so forth. How deep do these roots go into Mexican culture?
NARICHO: Well, they go back to the deep, dark ancestral Aztec roots of our people. You know? It's -- you can say that it's fundamental, at the -- if you go to Octavio Paz, that's something fundamentally tragic about the masked Mexican soul. If you look from the Cuban perspective, we're changing the way we along because we don't want ourselves, and we don't want to be with the same person tomorrow. So --
CAVANAUGH: Let's get back to the ring.
CAVANAUGH: 'Cause this is wild. There are different genres of Lucha Libres. And let's talk about the traditional genres, the Rudos, and the Tecnicos.
LIMON: Much like a good telenovella, there's always the heroes and the villains. It's the spice of life. Tecnicos, have always been the good guys. They're the ones you can count on for the most acrobatic moves and keeping it above the belt. Then the Rudos, the bad guys of the bunch, who are rude, tough, and will resort to under handed tactics to win the match.
CAVANAUGH: The famous el Santo was a Tecnico. Tell us about him.
NARICHO: Santo is remarkable because he's a popular cultural folk hero and a movie star. Especially in the 1950s when everybody in the United States was going to watch these giant radioactive monsters attacking the landscape. In Mexico, you've got el Santo fighting everything from zombies to vampires. He was remarkable and he continues through his reproduction, you know, to produce stars in Mexico. The son of Santo, the son of the son of Santo. El primo de Santo.
CAVANAUGH: Like Shamu.
LIMON: Exactly. Never ending.
NARICHO: I think he's remarkable because of the way he crossed all kinds of borders. He becomes an icon of entertainment in Mexican 20th century cultural history.
CAVANAUGH: You go down the lineup, it's not just Rudos, and Tecnico, there are a lot of other genres U.
LIMON: There's a whole female division in professional Lucha Libre, as well as an entire branch called the Nina estrellas, which consists exclusively of little people. Then you have the gender bending world of the exoticos.
CAVANAUGH: Which you wrote about in your feature article. The cover story is about Ruby Gardenia.
LIMON: What a name, right?
CAVANAUGH: Tell us about ruby.
LIMON: Ruby, real name, Fernando Covarubias, is hands down one of the most fearless subjects I've ever had the pleasure of coming across. I had the great opportunity of interviewing him, who in the article I refer to as she as soon as the lipstick comes on, much like you would in the case of say a drag queen. And it was fitting that I witness her transformation, and that we conducted the interview, not in the machine's locker room or in the ladies' change room, but in the gender neutral family restroom of the San Ysidro YMCA. From over coming to drug use to a Salina impersonator, to her life's mission of trying to make her family proud, she's really led an entering life.
CAVANAUGH: Describe her for us.
LIMON: Okay. As soon as I met Fernando, he was just a regular, short stature, unassuming swishy, if you will, Mexican man. He takes me backstage, he pulls out his little bag of tricks, and as soon as those pantyhose went on, 'cause there's a couple of lairs to keep everything contained, and the knee pads everything and. And he has some knee pads. I was jealous. As soon as everything and the makeup goes on, it was such a transformation. It was capped up with a pinacho, sort of Montezuma like, flashy, silver, black feather, a little bit of silver in the hair, and then she was ready to go.
CAVANAUGH: Does ruby, as in her ruby gardenia manifestation, does she wrestle with men or women?
LIMON: Men and women. It's a very interesting dichotomy, having to prove your macho nature with other men. Of because there's always going to be the cat calls, and everything you have to encounter just based on the attendees alone, let alone your fellow wrestlers. She's also fought against women. And funny enough, that night that I had the pleasure of interviewing her, she was not aware of this, she fought in an all female match where she was the only nonbiological woman, so to speak.
CAVANAUGH: And she lost.
LIMON: She lost unfortunately. On a technical: Yeah, that was -- I was going for that rocky moment, I had the story in my hand. I said we're going to end on a high note. Then she lost on a technicality. But let me tell you, once the lights went up and the ring was dismantled, she had the largest line of fans that were ready to approach her, take a picture with her and that's when she turned to me and in sort of a norma Desmond moment, if you will, and said did you hear them call my name? They all knew my name. That alone is a victory, having them screaming for me. I think that was the proper ending for the story, to end it with a bow.
CAVANAUGH: If people listening would like to see ruby garden why in addition to buying CityBeat, you can go on our website at KPBS.org.
CAVANAUGH: Bill, you recently saw a match in London where some exoticos performed. What was that like?
NARICHO: It's great. I'm on a study abroad trip with SDSU, various majors. And I saw this advertisement for Lucha Libre in London. And I thought, like, wow. Yeah, okay, cool, I'm home sick. I'll go watch some Lucha Libre. With my mates in England. And so we went. The students and I. And it was -- this wasn't Fellini, this was Pasolini. This was a great scene. You've got Mexican wrestlers, Latino wrestler, you've got English wrestlers, and you've also got a very anything -- let's just say the latex crowd was there. It was a club scene. So you've got people who love wrest lick of course people who love to dress up and act out in clubs, and they're all smashed together for this wrestling match. The one that was most memorable was the one that began with a man parading around in a horse head. Let's just say if the horse head came off, other things came off and --
LIMON: Are you sure this was a Lucha Libre match?
NARICHO: It was a Lucha Libre match! One of the most striking things I've seen in London. Anywhere, legal.
CAVANAUGH: We're talking about this, I think people are getting the idea that things are a little looser or rowdy, raunchy even at a Lucha Libre match. And I'm wondering, I think in your article you point out really well that no matter how choreographed these matches might be, these are rough and tumble thing, and these wrestlers take a beating.
LIMON: Oh, yeah. Some might argue that it's choreographed to the T, but I saw blood, welts. Those tears hurt. Those falls, I don't care if they're rehearsed or not, against that wood board hurt. Sometimes the fights spill out to the first rows of the public, right bill? There was a kid, and I felt kind of sorry for him, I don't mention it in the article, about seven years old, maybe, this 250-pound Lucha door landed on him. He was crying for a good ten minutes. Until he got a free mask and then he was kind of over it. But they're really rough and tumble. Some things might be rehearsed, but when it comes down to it, they're out to win. And if nay have to bruise here and there and cause some black and blue spot, they'll do it.
CAVANAUGH: Go ahead, bill.
NARICHO: I was just gonna say, this is not for the blue haired ladies. It is teatro, but it is for the working class. As I grew up learning about Lucha Libre in south Texas, you're appealing to a group of people -- the bilge audience. They work. They're looking for some excitement, some teatro, maybe some blood spatter. Some pain. And it becomes participatory. Especially if you're sitting near the ring, look out.
CAVANAUGH: Right, right into this rough and tumble world, this highly match is mow world, comes the gender benders of exoticos. How are they received?
LIMON: Well, it's very interesting because Mexico, you know the cradle of machismo, is pretty much still shrouded in homophobia. And homosexuality is still very much a taboo subject. Yet these wrestlers in particular are crowd favorites. And mostly just regular lives as men. So they're not drag queens, per se. They're not transsexuals. They're just extremely flam buoyant athletes, and entertainers. But like I mention in the article, the biggest battles for them are usually outside the ring. The battles are finding a partner who loves them for who they and are who they do. Of the battle to be accepted by their family members is a constant one, and a heart felt one. And the battle to be respected by their more straight laced lucha peers.
CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you, how popular is Lucha Libre here in the United States?
LIMON: It's gang a lot of momentum. It's extremely popular. Sadly there's not as many matches as there should be. There's a huge circuit in LA called lucha vavoom, which combines Lucha Libre, cabaret, stand up comedy, and these regular events in the Mayan theatre in LA. And they are huge. San Diego would definitely benefit from something like that. In this case, you know, people can always cross to Tijuana. There's regular matches there at the municipal auditorium. San Diego had not seen a proper lucha match in over seven years. So hopefully, after the success that this one was, the promoters will come back eventually.
CAVANAUGH: Have you heard of anything else being lined up?
LIMON: Yeah, there was supposed to be a match in a couple of weeks. Unfortunately it got postponed because of issues with the venue. I think after they saw the rowdiness of the last one, maybe the YMCA got a little bit scared. So they are hooking. I spoke with the top brass there at the promotions company. And they told me that they are looking for a proper venue because they have to fit the fans, the regulation size. They have to have all the required emergency exits, all the requirements for the event in the states with of course a Mexican flare. So they are still looking.
CAVANAUGH: You were apparently, Enrique, destined to write about this because of a celebrated luchador in your family.
LIMON: ? The that insane? I didn't even know this until I was a teenager. And I went to see this traveling museum show. And I think it was my mom who told me, you know, he's related to you. And it was this luchador named Bobby Guanales, who I'm related to, apparently on my father's side. And he was one of the top lucha stars in the '40s and '50s. And he beat el Santo a bunch of time, not that I'm bragging. And the legacy lives on with his son, Daniel Eceves, who has won the only gold meddle in Mexico history, and the Greco Roman category in 1984. And in years since he has founded the yearly Bobby Guanales cup, which is a trophy that is considered one of the highest accolades in the lucha world.
CAVANAUGH: I have to tell everybody again that this -- the article is the front page article in this week's San Diego City beat. And it is by my guest, Enrique limon. And also my guest SDSU professor bill Naricho is director of master arts and liberal arts science department at SDSU. I want to thank you both so much for coming in.
LIMON: Thank you.
NARICHO: Thank you.