Tiny devil horns sprouting from his glittery mask, “Averno” snaps the waistline of his fiery red spandex tights against his paunch and pounds his chest in a show of bravado. The crowd goes wild, unleashing a chorus of obscenities at the gall of the burly bad guy, whose stage name means “Hell” in English.
It’s a Tuesday night and one of the world’s oldest wrestling rings is packed with businessmen, tattooed youths, feisty grandmas and their rambunctious grandchildren, all watching as the “tecnicos” — fighters dressed as saints, priests and other noble figures — battle the “rudos” — wrestlers representing corrupt cops, drunkards and mobsters.
This bizarre cultural phenomenon is coming to the big screen this summer, as actor Jack Black spoofs Mexico’s second most-popular sport (behind soccer) with the June 16 release of “Nacho Libre.”
The movie is based on the true story of legendary Mexican fighter “Fray Tormenta,” or Brother Storm, a real Roman Catholic cleric who wrestled in more than 4,000 bouts to raise money for his orphanage.
The Rev. Sergio Gutierrez Benitez, who lives in Teotihuacan, outside Mexico City, fought for 23 years in Mexico’s professional wrestling circuit. He managed to hide his true identity behind his red and yellow mask until one of his parishioners, also a wrestler, recognized him.
“It just hit me as something so strange and wild. It was a story I wanted to tell,” said director Jared Hess, whose credits include “Napoleon Dynamite.”
Working-class heroesSuch stories are abundant south of the border, where masked men in leotards have rallied for presidential candidates and fought for low-income housing and clean drinking water, always appearing as superheros of the common man.
Professional wrestling, known as Lucha Libre, was largely the inspiration for the World Wrestling Federation, now known as World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE).
But unlike in other countries, wrestling’s impact reaches far beyond the ring in Mexico, where Lucha Libre is influenced by the country’s mystical Aztec and Mayan roots.
“We are part of the national patrimony,” said Blue Panther, still wearing his turquoise mask as he fastened his seat belt and drove away in his compact Sentra after a fight.
Lucha Libre is not an exclusive, corporate-dominated world of cable-TV celebrities. In Mexico, the gritty arenas appear in working-class neighborhoods across the country. And while there are many superstars, fights often feature entry-level contestants, including middle-aged, overweight men who slip on their own masks and become larger than life.
“There are so many ties to mythology, to people in the news, to politicians, to stars, to science-fiction characters,” said Lourdes Grobet, a photographer who has documented lucha libre for 26 years and who advised producers on “Nacho Libre.”
“In Lucha Libre, I found the true Mexico,” she added. “I discovered a marvelous world.”
That’s why Hess chose Mexico’s Lucha Libre and not the WWF as the basis for his film.
“There’s something so mysterious and unique about Lucha Libre,” Hess said.
Mask of honorProfessional wrestling reportedly came to Mexico in the 1930s after Mexican businessman Salvador Lutteroth Gonzalez witnessed a match in Texas. Backed by wealthy entrepreneurs, Gonzalez started the Empresa Mexicana de Lucha Libre and opened the Coliseo Arena 63 years ago in Mexico City.
Lutteroth is credited with introducing Mexico’s first masked wrestler, an Irishman from Boston whose leather mask, originally a gimmick, took on unexpected importance in Mexico, where masks are an integral part of Indian festivals.
Today, crowds gasp in horror when one fighter rips the mask off another — considered the ultimate disgrace for wrestlers who rarely reveal their true identity, even when they’re far from the ring and wearing a suit and tie.
“Whether attending a gala film premiere or sharing a martini with a hot little deb at a cocktail lounge — it’s done under the mask,” touts Rasslin’ Magazine, an online publication dedicated to masked wrestling.
Mexico’s most beloved fighter, El Santo, was buried in 1984 wearing his silver mask.
El Santo, whose acrobatic moves are commonplace in today’s professional wrestling, was a star not only in the ring. He appeared in more than 50 films and comic books, battling supernatural creatures, evil scientists and other societal ills.
Others have taken on the real world’s problems.
About more than just winningA rather paunchy superhero known as Super Barrio just resurfaced, decades after he made his name leading marches demanding better public housing for the poor. He organized a match between soccer players wearing masks to look like the conservative and leftist presidential candidates. The idea, Super Barrio said, was to encourage people to vote on July 2.
“Fighters in Mexico have always been like ‘Superman,’ someone who is going to resolve life’s problems, life’s solutions, and that is what has led to their political and social impact as heroes of Mexican society,” Grobet said.
Rosario Diaz, a 40-year-old maid, said there is no better stress reliever than yelling obscenities as the “rudos” body slam the “tecnicos.” She’s been going to Arena Coliseo, Mexico’s oldest ring, every week for 18 years.
“I love the fights,” said the single mother, who brings her 8-year-old daughter. “I can scream at them and no one beats the crap out of me.”
Diaz screamed as a wrestler hurled his opponent out of the ring and then flew after him into the aisles, fans scrambling to get out of the way.
On this night, good overcame evil with a double somersault and a mid-air kick to the chest.