Cultural Studies, lucha libre, party

Who Will Protect the Piñatas? White Savior Syndrome Strikes Again

I recently had the pleasure and honor of being a guest judge at the 2015 Annual Piñata Bash in Seattle, Washington. A day or two preceding the event, a random individual posted on the Bash’s event page on Facebook, asking if we were partnering with any Latino organizations, and (not so) subtly accused the Bash of co-opting Mexican culture. Initially I was only put off by the condescending—yet blissfully ignorant—tone of the post. However through 30 seconds of Facebook stalking, I was instead offended by the fact that the perpetrator was white. And by “white,” I don’t mean just physically white in appearance, I mean clearly in no way a Latina. Chicana. Mexicana. Hispanic. Whatever nomenclature you prefer.

Which of course, brings me to the focus of this discussion: white people, please stop trying to tell us how to conduct our culture.

Before you assault me with angsty retorts in the comments section (I’m looking at you, recent liberal arts graduates), let me clarify two things: I’m not saying that you ought not to align yourselves with historically oppressed peoples, as we love and appreciate your support; I am *also* not trying to speak on behalf of oppressed peoples everywhere. What I *am* saying, is that not everything which vaguely resembles a thing that you understand as a tenet of a specific culture is a potential battleground against cultural appropriation.

Let’s take the case in question: the Piñata Bash is, in fact, organized by a group of white individuals. Never mind the fact that less than a minute of research would have revealed that the event was being sponsored by Lucha Libre Volcánica, which is owned by a Mexican and is an exhibition of a Mexican folk art. The point of contention for this person seems to be the central theme itself: the piñata.

This is one place where her critique breaks down: another minute (I know! So much time…) of research yields that the piñata may originate in China well before it ever became a Spanish tradition. For those of you who are unaware, China is not in fact, in Mexico. Further, Spain (if you’re following, happened to have adopted the Chinese tradition) was an imperialist occupier of Mexico. Essentially this means that the piñata is at least two-steps removed from Mexico—Spain’s cultural imperialism notwithstanding, of course. This is where I encounter a second problem with the critique: at what point do we judge something as cultural appropriation?

Had the Bash utilized reductive Mexican stereotypes of poncho-wearing, brown-skinned Mexicans in sombreros, I would have had nothing to do with the event. However, the event consisted of people building piñatas of any theme, none of which were in any way reductive or in any way demeaning towards Mexicans (such themes include one piñata titled “The Patriarchy”). If anything, the Bash was a celebration of the piñata in and of itself as an an idea: a demarcation of cause for celebration.

But beyond assaulting papier mâché (spelling and accents courtesy of the internet) with a stick, this misguided inquiry provoked further questioning about how authenticity and culture are policed. Where would such a conception of cultural currency put a luchador like me: a half-Mexican adoptee who was raised functionally lacking of any relationship to Mexican culture? What about my white colleagues in the sport, who are sometimes better performers than their Mexican counterparts? What about my friend La Avispa, who is white but speaks way better Spanish than I do? Do her language skills have more cultural currency than my skin tone and Mexican blood? Does it matter that she’s a white woman performing within an arena that is traditionally occupied by Mexican men? Sex and gender aside, how ought we to go about quantifying one’s ethnicity, and at what point does one lose the “cultural privilege” of being “ethnic?” Did I even technically qualify as a “supervisory Mexican” for the Bash? Did she know that I am adopted, and that’s why she insisted that we partner with a local Latino non-profit to “legitimize” the event?

I am the byproduct of a Mexican immigrant father and a white (mostly German, with a hint of French, and tidbits of Native American) mother; I was later adopted as an infant by a white family. During the course of my life I’ve been told by several (usually white) adults that I should “connect with my culture.” As a child I was completely unclear as to what that meant, short of learning Spanish or eating exclusively Mexican food. As I have become an adult, I am not any less confused as to what it means to “connect with my culture”: I am unclear as to where culture ends and begins. Regardless of my “connection” (or lack thereof) to Mexican culture, I grew up as a person of color. The quality of being Mexican is always already thrust upon me by a culture that identifies white as normative, and thus my “authentic” Mexicanness is largely irrelevant to my life experiences as a brown male. Regarding the Bash, this particular individual was out of her depth in the attempt to level a critique about the event. And although frustrating, I found myself asking more questions about cultural appropriation and who has the right to officiate public events involving (not white) culture. While I do not have the answer, I know for damned sure it was not this particular person.

Image source: http://manichysteriastock.deviantart.com/art/Greek-Statue-303276398
art, Cultural Studies, diet, exercise, gender, lucha libre, masculinity, Mexican wrestling, observations, performance, Performance Art, strength

The Body (image) Issue: Aesthetics & Ideology in Pro Wrestling (Part I)

I’ve been pretty open about my lack of interest in American pro wrestling. I am however, a fan of Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, and I recently listened to his interview with former WWE star CM Punk, who at the end of his interview stated how he often feels fat and out of shape. Not that I enjoy the misery of others, but it was affirming to know that I shared an insecurity with another—although significantly more prominent—pro wrestler.

I want to make clear that this is not a covert public confession to an eating disorder, something with which I am not affected. If anything this could be considered an admission that for years I struggled with insecurities regarding my physical appearance. More broadly it is an attempt to illustrate that such insecurities are not uncommon, and further, are exacerbated by aesthetic ideal conceptions of masculinity proper. In doing so we will look at a series of case studies that will illustrate how the physicality of pro wrestlers bear signs which adhere to particular conceptions of the otherwise complex milieu of social constructs such as race, class, gender, and so on. That being said, it should be immediately obvious that it would impossible to give such a topic a proper treatment within the average blog post length. Consequently this will be the first of a series of installments: this discussion will primarily set up the theory within which I understand the aesthetic and physical expectations of the masculine body; subsequent additions will examine case studies such as the Ultimate Warrior, Viscera, and other pop-culture icons.

Further it should be noted that this is not an attempt to equivocate the physical and aesthetic expectations of men’s and women’s bodies, but rather to explore the social and cultural expectations of beauty that are particular to male performers—and perhaps men in general, although such a broad claim is well beyond the scope of this discussion.

The dominant cultural presupposition holds that body image issues are inherently a women’s problem. For example the phrase “manorexia” is clearly a verbal play on the eating disorder anorexia: the addition of the “m” masculinizes the word thereby distinguishing it from “anorexia.” But this action presupposes that anorexia is inherently a female disorder, and thus the anorexic man is an anomaly as he is suffering from something that is thought to only afflict women. While this example is specific to a particular condition, it indicates a broader cultural understanding of body image issues as being exclusive to women.

My interest in this topic was rekindled by ESPN’s decision to feature professional baseball player Prince Fielder on the cover of their annual Body Issue, which subsequently fueled a public discussion about men’s physique. Despite the fact that Fielder is a professional athlete, his perhaps “husky” appearance incited public criticism of his “less than ideal” physical appearance—in other words he wasn’t svelte enough to conform to the masculine ideal aesthetic that we’ve attached to athletes.

Image source: http://espn.go.com/mlb/player/_/id/5915/prince-fielder
Above: man.

Such aesthetic expectations are omnipresent in sports, and given the hyperbolic, theatrical nature of professional wrestling, such aesthetics tend to be overrepresented. But the representation of ideology within the body is not new, and is in fact a somewhat intentional and integral part of pro wrestling sport. Despite the athleticism of pro wrestlers, it differs from sport proper in that pro wrestling is simultaneously steeped in theatre. This theatrical nature gives professional wrestling a sort of license to intentionally draw upon ideological conceptions of beauty, heroism, and masculinity.

In his famous essay The World of Wrestling, Roland Barthes states “What is portrayed by wrestling is therefore an ideal understanding of things; it is the euphoria of men raised for a while above the constitutive ambiguity of everyday situations and places before the panoramic view of univocal nature, in which signs at last correspond to causes, without obstacle, without evasion, without contradiction.” In other words professional wrestling distills otherwise complex intersections of—among others—race, class, gender, good and evil, and reifies them as physical signifiers within the body of the wrestler which in itself constitutes a basic sign. These signs are constructed to resonate with and conform to dominant ideologies of the audience, and thus are simplified and hyperbolized so that there is no need to connect the signs to what they signify—they are immediately readable.

Barthes also helps us understand the importance of the appearance of the body in pro wrestling. Unlike most sports wherein a particular body type is produced from repetitive movements and actions, pro wrestling’s theatrical nature means that the body of the professional wrestler is crafted in order to fit an ideal aesthetic: a continuous cast of Spartans.

Image source: http://www.history.com/photos/sparta/photo6
Above: historical conception of “man.”
Image source: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/ultimate-warrior-death-wwe-hall-of-famer-died-from-heart-disease-autopsy-concludes-9262036.html
Above: modern hyperbolic conception of “man.”

While Barthes wrote specifically about wrestling, he wasn’t the only academic to understand how the human body is used as a conduit of signs. The late French philosopher Michel Foucault noted that “the body is directly involved in a political field; power relations have an immediate hold upon it; they invest it; mark it, train it” and force it to “emit signs.” The signs themselves are a product of “an overall effect” of the “strategic positions” of hegemonic power. By using Foucault’s and Barthes’ ideas as lenses through which to view professional wrestling, we understand the body of the wrestler as a hyperbolized sign which functions as a signifier for pre-existing ideological conceptions of race, class, gender, good and evil, and national identity.

But how does all of this theory relate to body image issues? Given that their bodies are a central feature to the sport, wrestlers are often hyperaware of their physical appearance. The narrative structure within professional wrestling—from long-form storylines of the WWE to the minute narrative of a single match itself—are constructed upon these very ideological conceptions. When these popular conceptions break down there is a sort of ideological disruption. The most relevant and obvious example lies in the aforementioned Fielder case, wherein Fielder’s masculine form failed to conform to the ideal athletic body.

I am specifically interested in a variety of things: if the theatre of pro wrestling functions as a sort reflective field of ideological conceptions, it can be used as a means through which to gain perspective on how a particular culture understands itself. What do I mean by this? In case studies—which we will examine at length later—we will look at Hulk Hogan’s (Terry Bollea) super-patriotic gimmick from the 1980s. I argue that his “American hero” character would have been unsuccessful if, for example, Hogan had been a man of color. This claim, of course, is an historical one and thus cannot be divorced from the context, a context that we will examine in order to illustrate the conversation around race and national identity during Hogan’s run as the “Real American.” Thus we can use this information to gain a particular understanding of how viewers perceived American identity itself—i.e., American identity proper—during that time.

Peripherally I am also suggesting is that these “ideal” masculine forms are hyperbolized and distilled within pro wrestling in such a way that drives wrestlers to aspire towards an unrealistic—and often times unattainable—physique. Repeated failures to achieve such perfection undoubtedly lead to a sense of inadequacy, and many wrestlers end up altering and sometimes destroying their bodies striving to such ends.

As someone who has to continually fight back impulses to try semi-promising fad diets or health supplements from body building websites in order to drop to an unhealthily low body-fat percentage, I often find myself contemplating this fleeting sense of inadequacy. While some of the aforementioned theory may seem obtuse on its face, it can be instructive to help trace a sort of metaphysics of masculinity, as well as a broader means through which to inductively unpack cultural self-identity. I find both of these ends to be simultaneously intellectually and personally fulfilling, and the former can be a theoretical framework with which one can confront their own body image issues.

We’ll continue the discussion with a series of case studies. This is an open-ended project, and thus I cannot enumerate subsequent entries. However anticipate a multifaceted analysis including not just pro wrestling photos, images, videos, and excerpts from interviews, but also social and political history where contextually relevant.

Sources:

Barthes, Roland. “World of Wrestling.” Steel Chair to the Head: The Pleasure and Pain of Professional Wrestling. Durham: Duke UP, 2005. 23-32. Print.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Pantheon, 1977. Print.

 

 

academic, art, Cultural Studies, gender, lucha, lucha libre, masculinity, Mexican wrestling, observations, performance, Performance Art, training

The Burden of the Public Eye: A Performer’s Social Responsibility

Creative performance is my driving inspiration. As a professional luchador, I become a character through my performance: my very persona is created by the nuances and broader actions within the ring. Ave Rex then is the end product of that which I create: it is the individual words I choose and the consistency of my actions which give shape to my identity and breathe life into the performance. [1]

Continue reading “The Burden of the Public Eye: A Performer’s Social Responsibility”

...color me surprised.
art, lucha libre, Mexican wrestling, performance, Performance Art, school, school of lucha libre, Seattle, Washington

All Politics Is Local – Freeing Lucha Libre in Washington State

As some of you may have noticed on Facebook, both myself and Lucha Volcánica recently expressed support for Washington State HB 2573, which would help to lower the initial costs to host a lucha libre show—for that matter any type of professional wrestling show—in Washington State.

I am in no way a deregulation mongerer, but the rigor of the State’s requirements is as such that opening and maintaining a professional wrestling promotion—both financially and logistically—is nearly impossible. Based upon the requirements, here’s a rough breakdown of expenses a wrestling promotion incurs for a single event:

  • A promoter’s license: $500
  • 6% of the gross receipts paid for admission must be paid to the state
  • …plus $1 per ticket sold
  • Protective guardrail around the ring: $100-$170
  • An ambulance plus 2 EMTs must be onsite for the entirety of the event (usually 2-3 hours): $110 per hour, plus a minimum charge of one hour of drive time.
  • “Adequate” (definition unclear) security staffing, but clearly this could create additional costs.

This of course, is all before the promoter pays any space rental fee, and pays her performers, the emcee, ring announcers, DJs, and so on.

Additionally when a promoter intends to have an event, he or she is required to have an inspection by a state licensed inspector. The DOL site lists only three inspectors: two of whom have expired licenses and one of whom is “pending documentation.” The latter of which illustrates that even if a promoter wants to eat all of the costs to have an event, odds are she would have trouble doing so legally by the State by the sheer inaccessibility of an inspector.

It’s also worth noting that each individual wrestler must be licensed. This Combative Sports License must be renewed and paid for annually by the performer, and requires:

  • a physical examination
  • an STD blood panel
  • a urine test
  • a $25 fee to the state

In my experience, the full cost of this exam is roughly $150-$200 to the performer.

A priori these costs alone appear crippling to a small company. This is perhaps best illustrated by the Washington Department of Licensing’s numbers. Of the 27 promoters licenses for the state, only 2—WWE and TNA—are active. Similarly only two Pacific Northwest announces are licensed, with the remaining 10 or so licenses belonging to WWE announcers. Further, of the 200 viewable wrestling licenses listed, the only active licensed belong to WWE wrestlers°. This lacking diversity within the licensure illustrates a system that prevents small companies from flourishing, or pushes them underground often forcing performers to wrestle in less than ideal conditions. In either case the State is not benefitting financially, and the potential for a lucha libre or pro wrestling scene—and all of the business therein—is being squandered. The net gain for performers, local business, and the State alike ultimately lies in changing the current regulations, which are proving to keep lucha libre and pro wrestling in a perpetual chokehold.

News footage: Seattle-area performers talk about problems with Washington State’s regulation of wrestling.

° Only A-D portions of the alphabet are viewable on the DOL website.

Sources:
Licensing statistics: WA State Department of Licensing: http://www.dol.wa.gov/business/athletics/prowrestler.html

EMT & Ambulance Pricing Quote: American Medical Response: http://www.amr.net/Locations/Operations/Washington/Tacoma—-Pierce-County.aspx

Guardrail rental quote: National Barricade Co. 6518 Ravenna Ave NE, Seattle, WA 98115

art, Cultural Studies, culture, gender, lucha, lucha libre, masculinity, Mexican wrestling, observations, performance, Performance Art

Duality and Identity: Some Notes

In theatre the principal goal of an actor is to perform as another person on a stage in such a way that becomes believable to the audience—to become another person via performance. Such is also common in movies and TV, of course.

Source: http://4playernetwork.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/lucha.jpg
Above: acting.

However in lucha libre, such is always not the case. Despite external forces (promoters, advertisers, sponsors, audience expectations, etc.) some luchadors are merely themselves in the ring. However the vast majority of individuals are hardly charismatic enough to hold an audience’s attention, and therefore even those who choose not to perform a gimmick have to exaggerate something in the ring. Because no person is merely one-dimensional, we then might ask: what aspects of self does one perform on stage?

I, for example—and this is not uncommon—take a facet or two of my personality and magnify them for the stage. If you’ve ever listened to one of my interviews, it’s immediately obvious that my in-ring antics, yelling, and hypermachismo are hardly my modus operandi. Yet my performance as non-luchador, as myself in the world, would hardly make for interesting lucha libre. Thus I take the assumptions and expectations of the audience (male, luchador, champion, muscles, tattoos, and so on) and extrapolate to create a character that is believable within said parameters. Although I try to play with these expectations from time to time, I am keenly aware that should I make a complete break from hegemonic normativity, I will likely lose the interest of the audience. In short, being cognizant can make character creation a bit tricky.

As a luchador enmascarado, I am afforded the luxury of fading into anonymity after removing my mask. For me this separation of character and self is important.

For one lucha libre is a theatre of violence: it’s ontology is constructed of nothing but fierce conflict and the solvency of these battles depends upon its actors being able to destroy each other physically. Historically, of course, this is the realm of masculinity (for the particular challenges this presents to luchadoras—female luchadors—check out La Avispa’s blog) and therefore machismo is presupposed and expected by the audience. Although I am no pacifist, I have no intentions of becoming a person who quickly resorts to violence, and thus this separation provides both an outlet for energy that may have been diverted towards violent behavior. Further this creates distance between said behavior and myself outside of the ring, as I am only “Fénix” in the ring, and I am never “Fénix” outside of the context of lucha libre.

"ACTING."
Alter ego: a dramatization.

This distance is not an excuse for offensive behavior, however. Although some hacks might argue otherwise (e.g., at a wrestling show last year, I watched a white male “performer” use the phrase “beaners” in attempt to evoke heat from the predominantly Latino crowd), being in character does not absolve the performer from all responsibility for his or her actions in the ring. But this is not to say that the stage cannot be used to explore ideas or for social commentary, for theatre is nothing if it is not exploring some state of the human condition, whether abstract (e.g., existentialism in Samuel Beckett’s End Game) or social commentary (race relations/socioeconomic inequality in Suzan-Lori Parks’ In The Blood). For a modern example of this within professional wrestling, check out the feud between Border Patrol and Blue Demon Jr. Exóticos also have great capacity for criticism via satire and hyperbole, but more on that later.

Secondly, anonymity allows us luchadors to be in the world uninterrupted. While few luchadores in the USA have any fame resembling that of celebrities, I am comforted knowing that regardless of my popularity, I can fade into the crowd and go unrecognized.

Not all luchadores put this much forethought into crafting a persona, and admittedly many of these are a posteriori deductions from interrogating my own performances, which I have put in conversation with my personal values and understanding of lucha libre as performance art. More at a later date on how lucha libre can function as criticism, but for now check out performances by exótico Maximo, and—as previously stated—the ongoing conflict between Border Patrol and Blue Demon Jr.

art, diet, exercise, lucha, lucha libre, Lucha Libre Volcánica, Mexican wrestling, performance, Performance Art, training, travel, wrestling school

Self-Dramatization of My Love for Lucha, also known as “Oh God, this luchador quoted Nietzsche”

Some time ago I was asked why I spend 10-15 hours per week training for lucha libre, despite the fact that it is physically taxing, exhausting, and not exactly lucrative. The short answer?

Continue reading “Self-Dramatization of My Love for Lucha, also known as “Oh God, this luchador quoted Nietzsche””

Image originally found at: http://yeshivadaze.wordpress.com/
culture, exercise, gender, masculinity, observations, performance, training

On Gay Men in Locker Rooms: A Knee-Jerk Reaction to (Not So) Subtle Homophobia

As you may well know by now, I tend to spend a bit of time at the gym, which often includes time in a locker room. It follows then, that I have had a plethora of interactions in the locker room as well. Locker rooms are a peculiar space, especially with respect to masculinity.  Continue reading “On Gay Men in Locker Rooms: A Knee-Jerk Reaction to (Not So) Subtle Homophobia”