Read Time: 5 min 29 sec
Mexico. When many people think of Mexico, they think of beaches, sunsets and margaritas. Those images popularized by the resorts of Cancun, Puerto Vallarta and Cabo San Lucas, places overpopulated by Northerners escaping the long, cold winters. However, Mexico has so much more to offer the adventurous traveller. Beyond the resort areas are incredibly rich and diverse cultures, some specifically Indigenous and others a fascinating mix of traditional and European societies. Mexico is also home to many delicious cuisines, musical genres and architectural styles. And then there is popular culture - the telenovelas, football and... Lucha Libre!
A visit to Mexico is not complete without experiencing an evening of Lucha Libre - a particularly Mexican phenomenon of freestyle wrestling which features outrageous characters, colourful masks and hilarious antics. It's low-brow entertainment popular with Mexicans from all walks of life. And it has to be seen to be believed.
My first Lucha Libre experience came in March of this year in Guadalajara, Mexico's second largest city. Lucha Libre has been around since the late 19th century and it was popularized in the 1940's by the arrival of television and El Santo ("The Saint"), the silver-masked wrestler whose career spanned five decades. Today it is as popular as ever, transcending Mexico's borders and attracting fans from around the world.
On Tuesdays the Arena Coliseo in Guadalajara hosts Noche de Glamour ("Night of Glamour"), which attracts several thousand raucous fans who scream and roar obscenities at the wrestlers (or luchadores) and audience alike. Upon entering the arena, anyone can be subjected to good-natured harassment from crowd. This typically happens when passing by the "cheap seats" section, which is cordoned off by a chain link fence. Here hundreds of fans who purchase discount tickets yell colourful profanities at others in the crowd. They follow a long-standing tradition of when those from the marginalized classes could berate those of the so-called upper classes during a match and without fear of retribution. Of course, it is all in good fun and sets the tone for the evening.
How do you describe Lucha Libre to the uninitiated? Well, it is a variation of Greco-Roman wrestling characterized by high-flying attacks, submission holds and tag team matches. There are different weight classes, there are female luchadoras, and then there are the mini and micro-stars, which include dwarves. The luchadores are either rudos ("bad guys"), técnicos ("good guys") or exóticos (wrestlers in drag). During the Noche de Glamour in Guadalajara, there is all of that and so much more.
Lucha Libre is not for the politically correct or faint-of-heart. Some might be offended by the raucous crowd and the air of violence. Or find that women and dwarves are being objectified (although both have their own matches). The action is non-stop and usually spills out of the ring into the first few rows of seating. Beer cups go flying as the audience scrambles to avoid being crushed. The luchadores are performers, playing to the arena and eliciting cheers of adoration or screams of scorn. They wear colourful spandex uniforms and many of them don masks, a tradition that began in the 1930's. In addition to the luchadores, there is a bevy of beautiful but bored looking women who parade between matches. And, of course, there are video screens, strobe lights and dry ice to complete the visual extravaganza.
The audience is as much a part of the performance as the luchadores. Even if you're not a fan of wrestling (like me), you can't help but get swept up in the exhilarating spectacle. It's impossible to sit still or be quiet, as the action in the ring demands participation from the audience. A feast for the senses, Lucha Libre is more than just an entertaining evening of Mexican popular culture. What is just as memorable are the things I love most about Mexico - the warmth, passion and humour of its people.
© All photos taken by Michael Shea