Lucha Libre is Spanish for "freestyle combat" or "wrestling", but it is used in other languages to talk about a specific type of wrestling... Mexican Professional Wrestling! What sets lucha libre mexicana apart from other styles of this popular form of entertainment is its dynamic and often acrobatic moves, its folklore, and its use of distinctive, colorful masks. The masks you will see on this page are real lucha masks worn by people at events at the ESB-MACC, like Día de Los Muertos and MexAmericon.
Photos by Ulises García-Vela.
Las Máscaras - The Masks
The internationally recognized icon of lucha libre mexicana is la máscara de lucha libre (the wrestling mask). Although the idea originated in France, and a number of wrestlers in the United States have used them since 1915, it was in Mexico that they would become a cultural phenomenon. In 1934, the American wrestler Corbin "Cyclone Mackey" Massey, was to wrestle for the Empresa Mexicana de Lucha Libre ("Mexican Wrestling Company" - EMLL) as La Maravilla Enmascarada ("The Masked Marvel"). He approached Don Antonio Martínez, a shoemaker who had designed lucha libre boots, to create a mask for him.
The mask that Don Antonio designed and made for La Maravilla Enmascarada to wear was a big hit. Soon local wrestlers started to don masks, like Jesus Velásquez, who as El Murciélago Enmascarado (“The Masked Bat”), became the first luchador mexicano (Mexican wrestler) to wear a mask. Don Antonio's design became the basis for almost all the Mexican lucha masks that followed, including the mask he made for the legendary luchador that gave new significance to the mask, El Santo.
Kids aged 5-12 can follow along to design and make their own Lucha Libre mask in this video that was created for Stay Creative, the City of Austin Parks & Recreation Department’s 2020 Digital Summer Program.
Scroll to continue learning more about the unique world of lucha libre mexicana
El Santo - "The Saint"
Although enmascarados were becoming more common, the arrival of the man nicknamed El Enmascarado de Plata ("The Silver-Masked One") in the 1940s made them the phenomenon they are today. Starting his career under his real name, Rodolfo "Rudy" Guzmán Huerta played a number of other characters in the ring before taking on the identity of El Santo at the age of 24. As El Santo, he was not just a luchador, but a hero that stood up for the common person and fought for what is right. The first true Mexican superstar, he featured in comic books and movies as well as featuring in the early days of televised lucha libre, becoming a mythical symbol of hope and justice. Like a superhero, no one knew his real name, or what his face looked like. In fact, throughout the 40 years of his career as El Santo, he always wore a mask, even in his daily life, and even when he was away from cameras and the public. When he passed away in 1984 at only 66 years old, he was buried in his mask and was mourned by millions of people. His legacy is continued by his real-life son, El Hijo de Santo and grandson, El Nieto de Santo.
Learn more about El Santo in the videos from WhatCulture Wrestling (English) and aibobull (Español) below:
Tradiciones - Traditions
In lucha libre, there are two types of luchador/luchadora: técnicos/técnicas ("technicians/rule followers" or heroes) and rudos/rudas ("brutes" or villains). Although not all wrestlers are enmascarados/enmascaradas, fantastical masks and mysterious identities make them seem more mythical, like superheroes and supervillains. Over time, there were more and more masked wrestlers in Mexico, helped by the popularity of El Santo and other legendary enmascarados like Blue Demon, Mil Máscaras, Huracán Ramírez, Rayo de Jalisco, and Tieneblas.
Using masks also draws from Aztec and other native cultures of the areas now called Mexico. In many of these cultures, masks and other clothing can be worn to allow a person to "become" a supernatural being, or tap into the forces of nature and spirit during a ceremony or dance. They also continue to be used during carnaval and for other traditional celebrations throughout Mexico. This connection to ancient and living traditions may be why so many luchadores see their masks as sacred.
Watch: A short overview of some of the mask traditions of Mexico (YouTube, International Wood Culture Society)
Superhéroes Mexicanxs - Mexican Superheroes
Since luchadores can be seen as real life superheroes they have been used as a way to fight for social justice. In 1987, the Assamblea de Barrios ("Assembly of Neighborhoods") presented a luchador enmascarado named Superbarrio ("Super-Neighborhood") as a spokesperson for the group and even as their candidate for president of Mexico. He advocated to rebuild homes damaged in the 1985 Mexico City Earthquake. Since then, Superbarrio has continued to protest corruption, violence and crime.
Following Superbarrio's example, there have been other lucha social justice superheroes, like Ecologista Universal ("Universal Ecologist") who tried to stop a nuclear reactor from being built; Supergay, who fought for LGBTQ+ rights; Superanimal, who advocated for animal rights; Mujer Maravilla ("Wonder Woman"), who stood up for women's rights, Superniño ("Superkid") that fought for homeless children; and Super SME and Chica SME ("SME Girl") that protested for rights of fired workers, representing the Sindicato Méxicano de Electricistas ("Mexican Union of Electrical Workers").
Another superhero in a lucha mask is Fray Tormenta ("Friar Storm"). While addicted to drugs as a young man, Sergio Gutiérrez Benítez decided to change his life and become a priest. As a priest, he dedicated himself to helping others, and started La Casa Hogar de los Cachorros de Fray Tormenta ("The Home for Fray Tormenta's Cubs"), an orphanage for children in need. Father Sergio needed a way to pay for the costs of running the orphanage, so he put on una máscara de oro y rojo ("a gold and red mask"), and made money as a luchador. His story is so amazing that it inspired video game characters, and two movies, L'homme au masque d'or ("The man in the golden mask") and Nacho Libre.
Watch: The trailer for the documentary "Super Amigos" ("Super Friends"), featuring real life Luchador Superheroes (YouTube, Las Americas Films).
No Solo Hombres - Not Just Men
Another fight for social justice takes place inside the lucha ring: the fight for gender equality. Even though the first luchadora mexicana (female Mexican wrestler), Natalia Vázquez, fought as early and 1935, and lucha libre pioneers like Irma González, La Dama Enmascarada ("The Masked Lady"), Chabela Romera, and Toña la Tapatía competed regularly since the 1950s, women were actually banned from appearing in lucha libre shows in the capital from 1950 to 1986. This was a huge problem, because Mexico City was where all the most important lucha arenas were. Even today, with more and more popular luchadoras like Marcela, Lady Maravilla, and Lady Shani, women have to work harder to be accepted as lucha professionals, and fight against sexism within lucha libre and from fans.
Watch: Mexican Luchadoras explain why they wrestle and their struggles as women in a macho culture (YouTube, BBC News).
Another group fighting against discrimination in Mexican society are gay men and transwomen. Being homosexual or transgender has historically been looked down upon in many countries. In professional wrestling in the U.S. and Mexico, characters were created to make fun of people that were seen to be men "dressed like" or "acting like" women. In Mexico, this type of character came to be called an exótico ("exotic one"). Even though early exóticos claimed to be just acting - which in some cases could be out of fear of the consequences of coming out - since the 1980s many exóticos proudly identify themselves as gay or trans. This includes lucha stars Cassandro, Pasión Kristal ("Crystal Passion"), and Estrella Divino ("Divine Star"). LGBTQ+ people today still face discrimination, hatred, and negative representation inside and outside the wrestling ring. Some argue that the visibility and acceptance of exóticos today is at least a step in the right direction, while others see the stereotypes used as harmful.
Watch: An interview with lucha libre exótico pioneer Cassandro (YouTube, Fusion)