During my senior year of college, I applied for the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, which required–amongst other things–a lengthy personal statement. I later adapted large portions of this statement into a short memoir that was published in Arches Magazine in 2012. Quite a bit has changed since this was originally written, but I find it compelling to revisit internal and emotional state as I was just beginning lucha libre. When I completed the personal statement, it was the most candid and self revelatory piece I had ever written, and the emotional toll was oddly draining. Perhaps that seems dramatic, but being emotionally forthright in writing was something I had not done in over a decade, and so the statement was simultaneously cleansing and somewhat agonizing. When I set out to write it, I understood it as a attempt to draw some faux emotional attachment to my scholarship application. In hindsight, I now understand it as a self-analysis of personal identity, and its semi-devastating effect allowed me to explore my intellectual and personal connections to lucha libre as performance art, and served as a stepping stone towards a more coherently-realized cultural and racial identity—or at times, perhaps lack thereof.
“…its semi-devastating effect allowed me to explore my intellectual and personal connections to lucha libre as performance art, and served as a stepping stone towards a more coherently-realized cultural and racial identity—or at times, perhaps lack thereof.”
Because of a few changes suggested by the editor at Arches, this version feels a bit more sterile than my original personal statement. To be fair, the original was geared towards a specific end—obtaining a scholarship—thus some of the language was intended only for small, specific group of individuals. Thus I have elected to share the Arches version, as its language is better suited for a broader audience, and the core of it—insecurities, personal and cultural diaspora, recollections of my debut, and a general sense of awe and wonder—remain mostly intact. This memoir was, above all things, intended to expound my intellectual, personal, and cultural displacement from the space that I that I occupy in between cultural identities, as well as an attempt to articulate my undeniable drive towards doing lucha libre as an end in and of itself. If nothing else, this was the first time that I had managed to connect the two as being perhaps intertwined.
I have made a few minor changes in order to protect other luchador’s anonymity and mine.
* * * *
“There are at least 500 people out there,” Chicano says to me.
I am minutes away from my public debut as a luchador—a participant in lucha libre—literally “free fight.” It is a traditional form of acrobatic professional wrestling that began in Mexico City in the early 1900s and among sports in Mexico is second only to soccer in popularity. Lucha libre’s characters and costumes often draw upon Mexican cultural myths of good and evil, as well as traditions such as Día de los Muertos—the Day of the Dead. In the tradition of Aztec warriors, luchadors often wear masks, an iconic symbol that has become synonymous with lucha libre. The mask is regarded as a source of the luchadors’ dignity—a signifier of persona and therefore an inseparable part of the performer’s essence. The mask is also intended to conceal the identity of the luchador.
Historically, luchadors have gone to great lengths to protect their identities. The most notable example is perhaps El Santo, who after his death was buried wearing his mask. Having been in the performer’s tent for the past hour, I was completely unaware that the audience had swelled to a rather significant size.
Am I nervous? Maybe a little.
Scared? Not at all—the butterflies in my stomach, dry mouth, and shaking hands notwithstanding.
My mentor, José, startles me with a pat on the back.
“Listo?” he asks.
“Absolutely,” I respond with a burst of exhalation.
“Good,” José says as he squeezes my shoulder and walks away.
The bell rings—show time. I tug at the laces on my mask a final time, throw my shoulders back to straighten my posture, and walk out into the ring. The most intense 20 minutes of my life proceed in what seems like a linear progression of infinitely long moments, wherein I am so intensely focused that each second seems to stretch on for minutes while being simultaneously independent of the previous and following moments: I was swimming through time—and flying from turnbuckles, vaulting over opponents, crashing to the mat, and taking kicks to the chest.
Does it hurt? Of course it does: Every fall, bump, and strike actually happens.
Is it fake?
It depends upon how one defines “fake.” It would be difficult to fake a 20-foot drop onto another person in front of a live audience. We are trained to perform that drop without risking life and limb. Professional wrestling is performance-based, but most pro wrestlers have gone through countless hours of practice to learn to protect themselves.
On the surface, any type of professional wrestling seems like a peculiar pursuit for a liberal arts student, let alone something as high-risk as lucha libre. I had started watching professional wrestling in my early teens, and I carried an intellectual curiosity about it with me into adulthood. I was captivated by the athleticism and strength of pro wrestlers. Admittedly, I was comparably struck by the theatricality and spectacle of the show in all of its ceremonial excess—something that my high school sports, baseball and basketball, both lacked. My father joked that I was drawn to lucha libre because I am part-Mexican.
But for me lucha libre’s cultural significance made it an intimidating prospect. I had been adopted at a very young age by an English-speaking, non-Hispanic family. As a teen, my insufficient Spanish-speaking skills and my life in a non-Latino household made me feel too self-conscious to openly identify as a Mexican. Consequently I always felt displaced amongst my fellow Latinos. My insecurity was exacerbated by the fact that I look Mexican, and others seemed disappointed in me for lacking substantial ties to any sort of Latino culture. I saw this cultural disconnection as problematic for any future I might seek in lucha libre. I believed trying to perform an art that is such an integral part of Mexican culture would appear contrived, and I feared outright rejection from the other luchadors.
After high school I stopped playing sports, but my love for pro wrestling continued. Because physical activity had always been an essential part of my life, I decided to take my interest in pro wrestling a step further by seeking out a local professional wrestling coach, an endeavor that proved fruitless until shortly after I came to Tacoma to attend [The University of] Puget Sound. I had been training for almost a year as an American pro wrestler when I was introduced to luchador Vagabundo. I shyly shared my adoration for lucha libre with him. When I told him that I am part-Mexican and explained my lack of connection to Mexican culture, he appeared confused.
“Oh,” he responded flatly.
I was hurt but not terribly surprised, for he had merely reified my fears of rejection. Despite this, Vagabundo came to watch me practice a handful of times. Initially I thought nothing of it, but much to my surprise he invited me to train with him. His invitation marked the last day that I practiced American pro wrestling.
After a few weeks of training in a dusty, dilapidated judo room at a local gym, Vagabundo introduced me to José Gómez, who was in the process of starting a troupe that later came to be known as Lucha Libre Volcánica. José is a luchador of more than 30 years’ experience and was one of the most infamous rudos—or villains—throughout Mexico. José’s training is a rigorous combination of physical conditioning, concentration drills, and technique instruction. I trained with José five nights per week, two to three hours per night. Sometimes on Saturdays. I was completely enamored. I caught myself sketching concepts for my mask, crafting mannerisms for my stage persona, and choreographing entire performances. Lucha libre had become both an indispensable and integral part of my athletic, artistic, cultural, and professional life.
Despite my newfound adoration for the art, I still felt culturally and socially inadequate. One evening after practice I shared my concerns with Vagabundo. His response was unforgettable.
“It’s lucha libre: We all work together. I know it’s different for you because you are not from Mexico, but we are like a family, and we will learn from each other. Keep training hard, Fénix.”
And so my dedication to lucha libre became married to a foundation of communal unity. As I made relationships with other luchadors, they referred to me as a fellow Latino, although adoptado. I started to learn both Spanish and the language of lucha libre, and my luchador colleagues did indeed become like family. Lucha libre became a means through which I began to explore my Hispanic heritage and my academic interests. Every major at UPS has an academic capstone. As a communication studies major my capstone was a seminar in advanced media studies, which inspired my Honors thesis about the ideological and hegemonic constraints upon professional wrestlers with respect to race, class, gender, and national identity. Because I also value lived experience, I sought to have a personal capstone to my undergraduate experience, which came in the form of sharing the art of lucha libre— my passion—with nearly 800 of my student colleagues in the first-ever lucha libre show at UPS—Lucha de Sound.
A year has passed since my debut in Seattle. After the Lucha de Sound show I return to the locker room, my mind reeling as if recovering from an accident, struggling to recall the details of my experience. As I remove my mask and begin to unlace my boots, some things do make sense to me: the hundreds of hours of training and conditioning, being stiff, sore, bruised, and exhausted. I feel alive, vindicated, and simultaneously inspired. I am a luchador. Wearing my street clothes now, I walk out onto the field house floor to greet a few friends who are waiting for me at ringside. I pass a handful of students who attended the show and overhear an exchange: “One of the luchadors is a student here,” says one. To which another responds, “Yeah! I have no idea who he is, though.”
I smile. Probably even blush. But then I am swept into an epiphany: I realize that personal recognition is not important. This show was never about me as an individual. I had accomplished precisely what I wanted to, which was to share my art with my colleagues and classmates. Perhaps even more significant and unexpected, I had managed to bring together two worlds that hitherto had seemed irreconcilable. After the show, my university colleagues, and my fellow luchadors gathered and ate homemade tamales, danced to cumbia, and shared wine—I have never felt more complete and coherent than I did on that evening. While my tenure at Puget Sound was initially inspired by curiosity, my departure is attended by a sense of completeness—personal and intellectual.