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'The fiesta of the people'
Blue Demon Jr. is in trouble.
His tag-team partner has been knocked into a stupor and the other men in the ring have pinned Demon in a corner, where one pounds at his midsection while the other pulls at the blue-and-silver Lycra hood that envelops his head down to his Adam's apple.
FOR THE RECORD:
Wrestling at Pico Rivera Sports Arena: In Section A on March 16, a photo caption with an article about the growing popularity of lucha libre wrestling in the United States said the Pico Rivera Sports Arena is in Whittier. It is in Pico Rivera. —
You don't tug on Superman's cape, you don't spit into the wind and you don't -- under any circumstances -- pull the mask off Blue Demon Jr.
In a flash, Demon vaults off the top of the turnbuckle, scissoring one foe with his powerful legs and flipping him to the mat with an acrobatic twist. The other wrestler, in a glistening gold mask, cowardly climbs between the ropes and dashes into the grandstands of the Pico Rivera Sports Arena.
But Demon quickly gives chase, catching him from behind and knocking him silly with a plastic garbage can as the crowd goes wild, with some joining in on the pummeling.
Welcome to lucha libre wrestling, where villains and superheroes, most in trademark masks, fight two-out-of-three-fall battles that are part gymnastics, part vaudeville.
In Mexico, the popularity of lucha libre, literally "free struggle" or "free fight," is rivaled only by soccer. Wrestlers star not only in the ring, but in movies, comic books, commercials and magazines. Now the sport's following in this country is beginning to swell, driven by the desire of many assimilated Mexicans to reacquaint themselves with a part of their heritage and by the nostalgia more-recent arrivals have for their homeland.
"This is part of the culture. It's the fiesta of the people," says Donovan Garcia, a Whittier warehouse worker several border crossings removed from a Mexico City neighborhood where lucha was among the few distractions from crushing poverty.
"Family, music, lucha libre and futbol. That's all there was," Garcia recalls in Spanish as he awaits the start of a two-hour wrestling card in a drafty community center in Cudahy.
The idea for the sport actually surfaced in the United States 76 years ago, when an enterprising businessman named Salvador Lutteroth happened upon a masked wrestler at a show in Texas.
He took that concept to Mexico City where he launched a movement that would grow from quirky exhibitions into a pop-culture phenomenon. In the ring and on the movie screen, masked luchadores, known as enmascarados, battle the forces of evil in nuanced morality plays. The fact that evil sometimes wins -- or can be put down only with the help of a plastic trash can and enthusiastic spectators -- is a big part of lucha's appeal.
Lucha shares several traits with U.S.-style professional wrestling. The choreographed matches, for example, are usually between good guys and bad guys -- known in lucha as technicos and rudos -- with well-known back stories.
The dissimilarities are numerous, however, with Mexican luchadores typically smaller, faster and more acrobatic then their American counterparts, producing a quicker, more athletic show with higher throws, more leaps and a lot more action.
The key difference, though, is the mask many luchadores wear -- skintight, often brightly colored Lycra hoods that cover the entire head and face, concealing the wrestler's true identity while revealing a larger-than-life persona.
"You put on a mask and you become an idol," says Juan Guerrero, a former bakery chef and lucha fan from Michoacán who became a self-taught mask-maker 10 years ago.
"For a lot of people, the mask is magic. In the ring, the fans aren't interested in the person. They're interested in the mask."
So much so that the three greatest luchadores in Mexican history are known not by their names -- Rodolfo Guzman, Alejandro Munoz and Aaron Rodriguez -- but by their masked personas, El Santo, Blue Demon and Mil Mascaras. Guzman and Munoz, who starred in more than 75 cult films with such titles as "Santo and Blue Demon vs. Dracula and the Wolfman" were even buried in their masks -- Santo in the metallic silver hood he removed in public just once, on Mexican TV 10 days before his death, and Blue Demon in a dark blue mask with silver outlines circling his nose and mouth and silver wings around his eyes.
Their memories live on, with Blue Demon's son assuming his father's mask and ring persona, sometimes wrestling, as he did in Pico Rivera, alongside El Hijo de Santo (Son of the Saint), who wears a replica of the glistening mask with teardrop eyeholes his father made famous.
A decade ago, luchalucha was available in Southern California only on Spanish-language TV or in grainy black-and-white Mexican movies. Today, more than two dozen promoters, many with their own stable of masked wrestlers, put on regular shows in American Legion halls, sports arenas and community centers in Ventura, Newhall, Compton and the Coachella Valley, drawing a few dozen to several thousand fans.
National circuits are attracting impressive crowds in El Paso, Chicago, Denver and Omaha. Coca-Cola named an energy drink and a Slurpee after Blue Demon. There's a lucha-themed restaurant, El Carmen, in Los Angeles, and lucha-inspired burlesque shows at the Mayan Theater downtown. Even Paris (the one in France) has a nightclub called La Lucha Libre that features wrestling matches.
The fact that lucha has cut such a wide swath through the cultural landscape comes as no surprise to Heather Levi, an anthropology lecturer at Temple University.
"It did several things at once," says Levi, who trained as a wrestler in Mexico while researching her book "The World of Lucha Libre: Secrets, Revelations, and Mexican National Identity." "It figured both as a display of these larger-than-life heroes but heroes that everybody . . . knew came from their social class or quite possibly [were] their neighbors."
It even parodied the political system, because it was an unspoken secret that the results of lucha matches were decided in a smoke-filled room long before they began -- just as many Mexicans suspected the outcome of most elections was predetermined.
Fittingly, the most popular and successful luchadores have come to represent political causes; some crusaded for animal and gay rights or for women's equality and the environment.
The most powerful of these, the red-and-gold-masked Superbarrio, rose from the rubble of a deadly earthquake to advocate for the homeless and working poor -- with surprising results.
"When Superbarrio addressed politicians, politicians who were very good at this very slick self-presentation, they would start to stammer," Levi says. "They wouldn't know where to look or how to look at [him]. And so the power dynamic shifted.
"There was no way to co-opt him because he didn't exist. He was incorruptible because he both existed but at the same time didn't exist."
For more than two decades, Sergio Gutierrez, a Mexican priest, concealed his identity and wrestled as Fray Tormenta (Friar Storm) to support the orphanage he founded outside Mexico City. That story was the basis for the film "Nacho Libre," which starred Jack Black.
The anonymity benefited these masked men (there are female luchadoras, but few wear masks): Nobody knew who they were, which meant they could be anyone.
"In America, you knew Bruce Wayne is Batman," says Dan Madigan, a Sherman Oaks screenwriter and author of "Mondo-Lucha a Go-Go: The Bizarre and Honorable World of Wild Mexican Wrestling." "You didn't know who Santo was. You didn't know who Blue Demon was. You didn't know Mil Mascaras. That was the thing."
And that's kept Guerrero, the self-taught mask maker, in business. The masks, he says, are more than a disguise. They can actually transform ordinary people into something superhuman.
"The personality is the mask," explains Guerrero, who says he's seen wrestlers limp into his Van Nuys workshop, try on a mask they've commissioned and then walk out cured.
Working on a weathered Japanese-made sewing machine in a spare bedroom of the tiny apartment he shares with his wife and two sons, Guerrero makes as many as 15 masks a week, most of which sell for between $50 and $100. Some were seen in "Nacho Libre," in commercials for Foster Farms and AT&T and on the heads of some of Mexico's most famous luchadores.
His work space is a shrine to lucha, crowded with dozens of masks, wrestling tights, boots, capes and hundreds of old lucha magazines and black-and-white movies starring El Santo and Blue Demon.
"Lucha comes from the time of Zorro, who covered his face and helped the poor," Guerrero says.
Like the legend of Zorro, lucha has become something that's passed down from generation to generation -- sometimes by happenstance.
Fabian Gonzalez, a paramedic and second-generation Mexican American, was raised on a Coachella ranch by grandparents who grew up as huge lucha fans. But they never talked about it with their grandson until Gonzalez discovered the sport on his own as a teenager, after which his grandfather sat him down and talked about lucha's long history in Mexico.
"The fascination with the masks and all the costumes. That's what got me into it. It's straight out of a comic book," says Gonzalez, 25, who has wrestled on local lucha circuits under the name Fabian Furia (Fabian Fury). "I felt like a sense of nationalism . . . It just made us closer."
As Gonzalez talks on a bright Saturday morning in the backyard of a Norwalk tract home, several wrestling hopefuls -- some Latin, some not -- are put through their paces by another veteran luchadore, Joey Munoz. His ring name, Kaos, matches the mayhem he's managing, with students leaping off the turnbuckles, tossing opponents into the ropes or pinning them hard to the canvas with a loud thwack.
Back in Cudahy, Garcia has brought his son Dylan to experience the passion of his homeland alongside 500 mostly Mexican fans. The 3-year-old is wearing the dark blue, ornately adorned mask of '50s lucha idol Hurcan Ramirez.
"Many people can't return to their country," Garcia says as Dylan teeters on a folding chair, straining to get a better look into the ring. "If they can go and see a little bit of the Mexican luchadores [here], even though it's just for an hour, two hours. . . . it's like a little visit home."