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TALES OF MASKED MEN: FULL REVIEW OF PBS SPECIAL ON LUCHA LIBRE

By Eric McHugh on 2012-10-02 09:05:00

This past weekend, PBS presented an episode of "Voces", a program co-produced by Latino Public Broadcasting that features elements of latino culture, primarily historical culture of Latin America and South America.  The installment featured most recently was entitled "Tales of Masked Men", a documentary by Carlos Avila about lucha libre pro wrestling.  Actor Miguel Sandoval was its narrator.

The program opened with a quote about Mexican culture being mythical and colorful, and often containing a series of rituals.  Lucha libre contains all of those characteristics as well and is among the most obvious embodiments from Mexican culture of what this culture is all about.  Clips were shown of the inside and outside of the famous Arena Mexico, with a fan saying that what opera means to the Italian populace, lucha libre means the same to the Mexican populace.  Many quick clips were then shown from numerous wrestling events of lucha highspots, dives, matwork and the like.  We also see vendors selling literally hundreds of different styles of t-shirts, masks and plastic masked heads.  Legendary Mexican wrestler Solar said lucha is very much a contact sport, not false theater.  If it were the latter, there would be no training necessary.

Lucha libre's literal translation is "free fight" or "free struggle".  The term "luchador" is what Mexico calls pro wrestlers, but we habitually call all Mexican pro wrestlers this.  In actuality, that term is for those who don't wear masks.  The term for a masked Mexican wrestler is "enmascarado".  The mask is very sacred to Mexican wrestlers and they wear them at all times in public and even often at home when there is a possibility of being seen.  Those masks only come off for good usually as the result of match stipulations, or when a wrestler retires.  The terms used in the United States for good guys and bad guys are "babyfaces" and "heels", while in Mexico they are "tecnicos" and "rudos".  There is very little, if any, use of "tweeners" in Mexican wrestling.  The lines are much more clear-cut than in U.S. wrestling.  Lucha has a large following in the U.S. and Japan, but the cradle of lucha libre has always been Mexico City, Mexico.

Pro wrestling existed in Mexico going all the way back to the 1900's decade, but that was your greco-roman Olympic-style and it often featured wrestlers from the States.  In the 1930's, Salvador Lutteroth decided to create the lucha style as entertainment for what was then a growing and changing Mexican society.  As explained by lucha archivist Christian Cymet, Lutteroth would run the old Arena Modelo with mostly main events from U.S. stars such as Yaqui Joe and Bobby Sampson, but the majority of the undercard would feature the Mexican wrestlers.  The first show was September 21, 1933, and this was the founding of Empresa Mexicana de Lucha Libre (EMLL).  Lutteroth also opened a wrestling school and even ran some smaller arenas to get the product out there.  With this new group of wrestlers, Lutteroth was creating characters, not just wrestlers.  There were a few mentions of documented masked wrestlers in 1934 such as The Masked Basque, but the first true masked star was Ciclon Mackey wrestling as The Masked Marvel.  Mackey, a U.S.-born wrestler, had been a journeyman floundering around the country for several years.  He decided to get a mask made up and began wrestling under it with the Masked Marvel moniker, and would always swear he would unmask if anyone could beat him.  This caught on with the fans.  (Interesting to note that the mask even in 1934 was very similar to the style of today.)  It only took a year for many more masked wrestlers to start popping up, and by the 1950's about half of all Mexican pro wrestlers were under hoods.

Heather Levi spoke next.  She is a cultural anthropologist and a professor of anthropology at Temple University.  She also is a very knowledgeable authority on lucha libre, having actually trained in Mexico years ago.  She has even published numerous books and articles about lucha libre.  As explained by Levi, the masks had ties to pre-Hispanic culture where many warriors wore ritual masks and would embody a character.  This was happening with lucha libre as well.  Wrestlers weren't just wrestling under a mask with a name for the fun of it.  The mask would embody the wrestler and he would become that name in the eyes of fans.  The mask became so iconic that wrestlers would often put them up in mask vs. mask matches, or mask vs. hair if one of the men didn't wear a mask.  To lose one's mask would create a "loss of identity" to some, especially in the eyes of their fans.  (A clip is shown of an apparently-accidental unmasking during a match as Levi is speaking here.  The wrestler, who's face was blurred, very quickly put it back on.)  Lucha also became theatrical with overacting and melodrama, but it wasn't considered corny, it was part of the appeal.

The program then tells three stories of three enmascarados.  The first is arguably lucha's all-time greatest star, El Santo.  El Santo debuted in July of 1942, wearing plain silver tights and a plain silver mask.  He was disqualified for ignoring the referee's commands.  Over the next 40+ years, El Santo would turn out to be an icon that transcended the wrestling business.  Born in Hidalgo as Rudolfo Huerta, he began his career at age 16 without a mask.  An audio recording of El Santo himself explained that after a while, he began to wear different masks and try out different names.  Finally he came down to three that he liked:  The Saint, The Devil or The Angel.  Obviously, he chose the first option.  As El Santo, promoters didn't know what he had to offer so he was first booked into a battle royale.  Despite being a rudo, he impressed the promoters and the fans heavily with his aerial offense.  The character immediately took off.  The turning point was a 1952 match against hated rival Black Shadow, where the loser would have to unmask.  After a 70-minute match, El Santo was victorious.

From this point on, the El Santo Express rolled nonstop as he became lucha's first true superstar.  Comic books featured El Santo.  TV commercials featured El Santo.  Even movies featured El Santo, as he starred in over 50 of them, usually in the role of an action hero.  The biggest surprise of all this was he still wrestled as a rudo until 1962, when he finally altered his style to tecnico.  Many statements were made by wrestlers, historians and culturists, and they all raved about El Santo's generosity.  Fame never went to his head.  One anecdote shared by Cymet is that El Santo wrestled at an event that didn't draw well for whatever reason.  The promoter handed El Santo his pay.  El Santo asked if everyone else got paid as well.  The promoter said unfortunately, the house was bad so he couldn't pay them outside of buying them dinner.  El Santo handed the money back and said to split it amongst everyone.

El Santo retired in 1982, and passed away two years later.  His death was a national event with tens of thousands attending the public service, and many world media outlets covering the passing.  His son wrestles today with the same silver mask.

A funny story is told about audience interaction to segue into the second featured story.  Fuerza Guerrera was getting verbally hammered one night during his match by an older woman.  She was cursing him out, talking about his family, saying he was a bum, etc.  Finally, Guerrera had enough and went over to the woman.  She continued to scream at him, so he grabbed her purse and just dumped all of its contents onto her.  Fans were both laughing at his antics, but at the same time booing him mercilessly.  This type of interaction has always been very common at lucha events, with women being especially vocal.  Lucha has always been family-oriented and it's not abnormal to see a large crowd being made up of over 50% women and children.

The second story then began and focused on Mascarita Sagrada.  Midget wrestling, as it was called in the 1930's-1980's before the term became viewed as derogatory, was popular mostly in the States.  Lutteroth saw this and decided he should bring this to Mexico as well, so in the mid-1940's he did just that.  They were never the star attractions though until the 1970's.  In early years it was considered more of an afterthought to most fans.  However, a 1970 film featured several little people as criminal henchmen, and they actually employed lucha libre as their fighting style.  Several of those actors even continued training after the movie and wound up in the business, one of the most famous being a man who went by Gulliver.  Antonio Pena introduced these "minis" as smaller versions of the full-size characters, and fans ate it up.  This practice continues today with Mascarita Sagrada being a smaller version of Mascara Sagrada.

Mascarita Sagrada was one of 14 children, born in Zacatecas.  His sister, Rosa, stated that he never let his small size bother him even though he wound up having to fight obstacles growing up because of it.  One time a teacher told him to fetch some folders from a high shelf.  His friend said to the teacher that he wouldn't be able to reach it, and the teacher simply replied, "That's his problem."  Sagrada never hesitated though, he just got a chair, climbed on it and retrieved the folders.  He explained to not get the folders would be admitting defeat and stunting himself.  Sagrada ultimately grew to be 4'5".  He said there were times when he'd ask himself why God was punishing him, but nowadays he wouldn't have his life any other way.  "You don't have to be big to do big things."  Clips are shown of Sagrada being absolutely mobbed by fans, mostly children, as he makes his way to the ring for a match.  Sagrada said as he was growing up, he got into martial arts and actually thought that lucha libre was demeaning.  However, once he decided to try it out, he found himself to be completely wrong about the sport.

We see several minutes of Gulliver and Mascarita bantering as they tell stories to the camera, and the camaraderie is hilarious.  Gulliver's biggest thrill is to still be recognized today and to be accepted by wrestling fans as not just a sideshow, but as legitimately athletic and entertaining.  Sagrada ultimately enjoys showing that any adversity can be overcome.

The third and final story is of Solar, who we were introduced to earlier in the hour.  Solar is called one of the few remaining active and living legends of the Silver Era of lucha libre.  Clips are shown of Solar wrestling in Austin, Texas, and also we see Solar with his wife and grown son at home.  Both men are wearing their masks as they head out for an arena show.  Born in Jalisco, Solar grew up on a farm where, as his wife explains, he had to survive quite literally.  Resources were scant.  Finally, the family moved to Guadalajara, and his father took him to a lucha event.  Solar wound up enamored with the spectacle almost immediately and he took a particular liking to a wrestler named El Solitario.  The look, the wrestling, the colors...it all spoke to him.  Solar told his father at that moment that he would be doing this later in life.

Solar trained and moved to Monterrey, quickly impressing promoters and peers.  As it turned out, he wound up working an event with his idol, and El Solitario took him under his wing.  They became good friends quickly.  However, life changed for Solar on April 6, 1986.  After a match, El Solitario felt ill and went to the hospital with stomach pains.  It was found that he had internal bleeding.  During surgery, he went into full cardiac arrest, and he passed away on the operating table at age 39.  Solar was hit hard by this, but to this day he said he feels El Solitario by his side every time he wrestles.

Solar talks about his grown son wanting to follow in his father's footsteps.  Solar said he never wanted his son to do so, but he from Day One supported him 100%.  Both father and son wear similar designs on their masks.  Solar's wife hates seeing her husband in pain but he perseveres just the same.  However, she has no idea how to tell him he isn't eternal.  Solar knows this, though, and says his career is winding down.  If his son (who has been in the business about a year at this point) chooses to continue this for a career and carry on the Solar name, that's great.  If not, then so be it.  He has no regrets now nor will he in the future.  Lucha libre let him see the world, meet his wife, have his children and live his life to the fullest.

Some final clips show and narration tells how lucha masks are sold everywhere in Mexico.  Lucha libre embodies passion and emotion, and this reaches not only the target audience but the Mexican mainstream as well.  With many young fans attending shows to this day, lucha libre should continue to thrive for a very long time.  With that, the documentary ended.

All in all, a great program that showed definite knowledge and respect of the product, the culture, its wrestlers and its fans.  Wrestling fans and non-wrestling fans should enjoy this.  It's informative, it's educational and it provides great historical background to the business.  The DVD of "Tales of Masked Men" is available from the PBS website for pre-order with a fitting release date of October 31.