According to aficionados, Mexican masked wrestling—lucha libre—has its roots in an inspired act of old-fashioned cross-border imagination. In 1929, a Mexican sports promoter named Dr. Salvador Lutteroth Gonzalez reportedly attended a wrestling match in Texas and decided to bring a jazzed up version of the sport back to Mexico. With unique moves in the ring and the added twist provided by masks, lucha libre—loosely translated as “free fight”—was a big hit and soon created its own niche within Mexican popular culture. The Blue Demon, Mil Máscaras (One Thousand Masks), El Cavernícola (the Caveman), and the biggest star of all, El Santo, played out their dramas as sports entertainment pop stars in their wrestling matches, a long string of B movies, and the daily life of the nation. Part of the lucha libre craze was the wrestlers’ refusal to remove their masks. In film after film, El Santo repeated a single line of dialogue: If he were ever unmasked, he would surely die. In 1984, knowing that he was severely ill, Rudolfo Guzmán Huerta—better known as El Santo—appeared on a national television show and publicly unmasked himself. Several weeks later he died. His funeral was televised and El Santo/Guzmán was buried wearing his silver mask.
Today, lucha libre is enjoying a renaissance on both sides of the border—and Hollywood has taken notice. Currently filming in Mexico is Nacho Libre, based on a true story. Comic actor Jack Black plays a priest who secretly moonlights as a Mexican wrestler to save an orphanage. Among the many avid lucha fans in Texas is artist and writer Xavier Garza, who teaches art at Jordan Middle School in San Antonio and is the author of several books. His most recent is Lucha Libre: The Man in the Silver Mask: A Bilingual Cuento (Cinco Puntos Press), which he also illustrated. Recently the Observer caught up with Garza in his studio. Surrounded by his vivid portraits of masked wrestlers, Garzas talked about the heroes and villains of what he calls “poor man’s theater” with natural enthusiasm, acting out moves and outlining the history of the sport. Mexican wrestling, he says, “is as real as you want to get.” Pop culture of all kinds has meaning for Garza, who grew up in the Rio Grande Valley and could be across the border in an instant. From the old-school romantic music of Mexican film stars like Pedro Infante to Adam West’s “Pow!” and “Wham!” in the 1960s television hit Batman, Garza absorbed it all as inspiration his art.
The following are excerpts from a recent interview with Garza:
Texas Observer: Your illustrations aren’t typical children’s book illustrations.
Xavier Garza: I’m a painter first and foremost. I always loved to read. One day I started writing little short stories. Lucha Libre was originally “Santo, Santo, Santo,” which basically dealt with a boy’s first encounter with lucha libre. And then the story developed. When it came time to do the book, I asked if it would be possible for me to do my own illustrations. They weren’t traditional children’s book illustrations because I didn’t approach it as a children’s book, but as doing these different paintings, the way I’ve always painted. The colors are brushed on hard, putting a lot of accent on the eyes, even exaggerating the eyes on a lot of these characters.
I grew up with all this. When I was working on the story, a lot of it was reliving my own childhood, basically. I would go see lucha libre and I remember the first time that I saw it. When you’re a child, it’s a play—the oldest play in the world—good versus evil. Evil is winning and then somehow good will triumph in the end. As an adult, I see lucha libre as being a little bit more than just a show. To me it’s a poor man’s theater, “el teatro de los pobres.” It comes complete with protagonists and antagonists, and they work from a script. Perhaps the biggest tie to theater is the fact that they wear the costumes. While they wear this mask, this costume, they become bigger than life. They’re no longer someone named Alejandro Lopez or Horacio Baldera. They become Chicano Power, they become the Red Devil. They become this bigger-than-life persona. The beauty of it is after the show is over, they can go to the dressing room, they can remove the mask, put on everyday street clothes, and they walk out and they blend with everybody else. That’s part of the allure, the mystery of lucha libre. It’s the closest thing you can come to having, I guess, the American counterpart of a Superman standing in front of you in real life.
TO: You’ve been working on the paintings for a long time, right?
XG: I started painting wrestling around 1996. I’ve known that I wanted to be an artist since I was 16 or 17 years old and started actively pursuing it since I was 18. I wasn’t sure what direction it was going to go, but I knew that I was going to be an artist in one way or another. I loved painting, I loved to draw, and I’ve always loved storytelling and I’ve always had a love for reading. I’m very glad the way that it all just kind of combined into one.
I grew up in Rio Grande City, which is literally a stone’s throw away from Mexico. Mexico was right there. Growing up, I didn’t realize what I was doing, but I was culture hopping. I was getting the best of both worlds.
We didn’t have cable growing up. We had an antenna, and that antenna pretty much dictated what we saw on television. We turned it to the U.S. side, which was headed toward McAllen. We caught all the American stations and would watch The Brady Bunch and Adam West as Batman. We would watch Bonanza and The High Chaparral. And then we would turn the antenna toward Mexico and catch all the Mexican stations. And we would watch all these characters that are big parts of the Mexican culture. We would watch Pedro Infante [beloved star of the Golden Age of Mexican cinema, who was killed in an airplane crash in 1957] and Santo [one of the best-known lucha libre characters] movies. It didn’t dawn on me until later, until I was an adult, that that was an incredible thing that I was doing—culture hopping without breaking a beat. That’s why so many of the Mexican and American icons figure into my work.
My Grandma rocked me to sleep singing Pedro Infante songs. Some people have told me that all those icons are the past. But it doesn’t matter that they’re the past. You cannot know where you are headed if you don’t know where you came from. When you go to a market where they have a lot of Mexican curio shops—you see all these pictures of Emiliano Zapata or Pancho Villa, or you have a picture of Pedro Infante or El Santo. But why is it important? Why is it such a big part of the culture? You have to understand that there is a reason, that they’re a symbol, that they represent something. To some people, Pedro Infante is just a singer or El Santo is just a wrestler—but to others they’re cultural icons that represent what the people love and adore. It’s all in the interpretation of the images.
TO: Why did you start painting wrestling?
XG: I always had a love for it, and then I was trying to figure out what to work on, what I wanted to do, and started making these little preliminary sketches. I was looking for something that I could work on for an extended time, something that I truly, truly loved.
The backgrounds are very limited intentionally that way. I wanted the primary focus to be on the mask itself. They’re all a little bit different, but they’re not meant to be like real-life portraits.
TO: When you’re doing lucha libre, in addition to just enjoying it, what else does it mean to you?
XG: To me it’s an ongoing theater. These heroes, these villains, are probably the closest thing that some people have to celebrity that they can see and touch. They can actually go to the arenas and see these people wrestle. And a lot of the people that they see wrestling are no different from them. Some of them are very educated; some of them are not educated at all. Some of them are just putting on a show in the evenings, but they work at a convenience store. They have a dream of someday making it big. Part of the whole allure is that they’re wearing the mask. To me, that just kind of adds to the whole mystery.
TO: I always assumed that Mexican wrestling had a very long history. It’s been interesting to find out that it’s something that really developed in the 1930s.
XG: First Salvador Lutteroth was hiring foreigners, people to come in from Russia, from the U.S., to wrestle in Mexico. But he wasn’t making any money having to pay all these people to travel. He said, “You know what, I’m going to make my own wrestlers.” The first masked wrestlers were villains, they were the bad guys, and then the good guys started coming in. It was taking off, but it needed something. That’s when El Santo came out. El Santo had “angel” —just something about him that people loved. People compare it a lot to the whole mariachi question—who was the greatest? Some say Jorge Negrete was a better singer than Pedro Infante; he had a professional voice. But if you ask who was the greatest mariachi in Mexican cinema, most of the time they’ll say Pedro Infante. He had that something that people adored him. They felt a connection, they felt he was one of them, that there was no wall—he was Pedro Infante and he was like us. The same thing with El Santo: He was one of the people.
TO: I get the impression El Santo is your favorite. Is this book homage to him?
XG: It’s homage not only to him, but to the whole idea of lucha libre. The characters that I feature are like collages of different wrestlers.
TO: Was it difficult to go from these portraits, to incorporate that into the storytelling aspect?
XG: In the beginning it was a little slow, then it just started flowing. It took me about six or seven versions of the story that I ended up not using. I knew that this was going to be approached differently. As I said, I did not want it to look like your traditional children’s book. That’s why there are big color splashes in the background. A lot of it I based on my own childhood, and more recently, with my own son, I know the way we are attracted to things, to solid colors. I tried to make it as colorful as I possibly could.
I’m really thankful for Lucha Libre. For almost 10 years I couldn’t get a publisher. For almost 10 years, it was nothing. I always tell people—writer friends—this ain’t gonna happen overnight. But just keep going. Eventually it’s going to happen for you.
Soll Sussman lives in Austin. He frequently writes about culture in the Americas.