Clothes make the man. But what about the man who makes the clothes? ... In this case, for characters in the colorful, uber-dramatic world of Mexican freestyle wrestling.
Manuel Quiroz is a well-known mask and gear maker for fighters across the globe, many in L.A.'s popular lucha libre circuit. His journey to be known as the "best of the best" as he puts it, is as finely detailed and at times dramatic as a character plot constructed for the very fighters he clothes.
When he was an aimless teenager in Aguascalientes, Mexico, Quiroz's curiosity led him to toy around with his mother's sewing machine. Soon after, he took up an apprenticeship with a local tailor, who doubled as a luchador in the wrestling ring.
Quiroz learned to sew wedding suits for grooms, before the wild personas and physical action of lucha libre enticed him. His sewing teacher became his mentor and wrestling trainer -- a nurturing relationship the now 54-year-old mask maker holds dear decades later. "He give me [advice]," Quiroz reflects with a thoughtful pause. "He give me a lot."
With that training, Quiroz moved up the local lucha libre ranks and gained renown as an amateur champion under character names such as El Cachorro, Reptilico and Atlantico. He even went pro in 1982. But after a big championship win, a follow-up match in Mexico City would change the fabric of the luchador's life forever.
Quiroz's voice cracks and tears well up in his gentle brown eyes as he recalls that match. "In a moment, everything is black. Supposedly, somebody jumped me off the rope." Quiroz toppled onto the first line of bolted chairs in the audience. The fall had broken his back. Doctors gave the wrestler six months to re-learn how to walk, or else, they warned, he'd permanently lose the use of his legs.
...The fighter triumphed, and walked in three months.
In an effort to leave behind his painfully dashed dreams of luchador fame, Quiroz relocated to Texas, then Los Angeles -- a journey wrought with financial struggles. Quiroz sang in a mariachi band and stitched suits for his friends to make money before taking up available sewing gigs at various clothing manufacturers. He found a renewed focus on tailoring, and lucha libre was a distant memory.
Until eight years ago, when his son rekindled his father's dream. "Daddy, I want to wrestle," Quiroz's son admitted one day. His son asked his father -- now a master tailor in his own right -- to sew his lucha gear. "When he started training, he knew the gear is no good," Quiroz explains, adding, "So he tell me, OK, Daddy, you know how to do this job … Do it."
His son's request awakened a new dream for Quiroz.
The mask maker now spends 15 hours a day in the dusty, tight sewing room of his South L.A. home, cutting, stitching, creating gear to be donned by larger-than-life characters in the ring -- a place he's learned to happily observe from the outside. "My dream is no more lucha, but more mask," the tailor says.
Quiroz charges $100 for a simple mask, and up to $300 for a more detailed one, many of which are showcased at events thrown by the L.A.-based wrestling, burlesque and comedy act Lucha VaVOOM. "If you put something in your mind, I'll make it on my machine."
Quiroz dedicates a balanced amount of effort in each piece of gear he creates. "Every guy coming to me is really important and they're all equal," he says. The tailor knows all too well that people go through tough times. "One time, someone paid me with a crate of Jarritos [Mexican soda]," he chuckles, making the tailor's humble beginnings and passion for creating lucha gear even more apparent.
"The rich men is [not] the men have more money. Is the men have more love," Quiroz sweetly reflects.
Though, he admits with a smile, he does enjoy the celebrity treatment he and his wife of 35 years receive at local lucha matches as Mr. Quiroz, "el mascarero."