Lucha libre invades California

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Sun May 10 20:55:37 UTC 2009

SACRAMENTO — It was billed as an invasion. On a chartered tour bus
carrying two dozen fighters, promoters of the wrestling style known as
lucha libre rode through California last month to stage matches
replete with the colorful masks, sexual slapstick and frenetic,
acrobatic fighting style that have propelled their sport to rival
soccer for popularity in Mexico. The headliners were long-haired,
muscle-bound and handsome, promising crossover material for the
American market.

But in the heart of the fight card, a deeper conflict played on the
racial tensions and stereotypes of a downtrodden immigrant audience.
Among the wrestlers, the vilest of the vile were the members of La
Legíon Extranjera, the Foreign Legion, gringos who openly disparaged
the spectators, their language and their country. The invasion, in
this sense, referred to the chance for the Mexican heroes to drive out
the Foreign Legion.

Just as American wrestling leagues enjoyed broad popularity in the
waning days of the cold war with villainous Soviet characters like
Nikolai Volkoff and Krusher Khrushchev, the lucha libre promoters have
tailored their story line to the times. With immigration policy and
the violent Mexican drug wars consuming the attention of policy
makers, the cartoonish confrontation of north and south in the ring
has found an eager audience in California, home to 37 percent of the
nearly 12 million Mexicans estimated by the nonprofit Migration Policy
Institute to be living in the United States.

“We’re still in the early stages in the U.S. with this, and we’re
still focusing on the Hispanic market,” said one of the promoters,
Steven Ship, a former music executive who made a deal with the Mexican
league known as AAA to promote the sport in the United States. “We
don’t solicit mainstream media, and we don’t advertise in the
mainstream. We want this to be the authentic thing coming up from

Here in Sacramento, a city that ranks 19th among destinations for
legal permanent residents, the promoters admitted nearly 6,000
spectators on a Saturday night in late March. Tickets cost $20 or
more, though some children attended free. From here, the wrestlers
rode on to San Jose, Los Angeles and San Diego, all ranked among the
top 11 immigrant destinations by the Department of Homeland Security.

“It’s good for the Mexican people,” said Hugo Navarro, a spectator
from Stockton, Calif., who carried his son Daniel, 5, through Arco
Arena in search of photographs with the wrestlers. “It’s traditional.
It’s spectacular for the kids.”

Among the performers, the invasion theme was strictly maintained.

“It’s good to see the children who look up to them, because they’re
role models,” said a ring girl, Alycia Armstrong, 20, who wore a
patriotic, if hard to see, bikini in colors of red, white and green.

Lucha libre, or free fighting, is staged. It is also improvised,
grueling and undeniably athletic. Individual luchadores like Rey
Mysterio have crossed over to fight in American wrestling leagues, but
the full production has received little attention in the United States
beyond Hollywood parody.

The AAA league lost its founder, Antonio Pena, to a heart attack in
2006. The next year, Mr. Pena’s heirs agreed to stage exhibitions on
the Warped tour, a traveling celebration of hard-core rock music,
energy drinks and sullenness. The Mexicans came across as sideshow

For the invasion tour, the promoters scheduled five matches a night.
The theme was a marketing ploy doubling as plot advancement. In
authentic lucha libre, the action merely punctuates an operatic
narrative of inconstant loyalties, complex alliances and dark

The opening match included Pimpinela, a transvestite who humiliates
opponents with flamboyant smooches, and his partner, Mascarita
Sagrada, a masked acrobat who stands about 4 feet 6 inches. The finale
pitted the stars La Parka and Mesias against teams known as the Black
Family and the Psycho Circus.

Between those matches, the centerpiece featured a showdown with the
Foreign Legion. In the ring, the conflict unfolded in terms beyond
simple racial caricature. Several members of the legion, including
their leader, are Latino traitors.

And the champion of the Mexican side, Vampiro, was born Ian R.
Hodgkinson, a white Canadian. Now 41, Mr. Hodgkinson played music in
the Los Angeles glam-rock scene of the 1980s before reinventing
himself as a wrestler. When he first crossed the border, he was
wearing his makeup thick and his hair purple, a look that inspired his
ring name. He dressed in black, covered his upper body in 84 tattoos
and entered the ring to the sound of AC/DC singing “Back in Black.”
How he eventually became seen as the pure-hearted champion of Mexican
honor would be better explained in a folk song.

Vampiro has nursed his feuds across the better part of two decades, to
the point where he can make his appearances in street clothes and a
barber-shop haircut. His adventures are storied. His loyalties are
known. His character symbolizes more than the sum of his allegiances.

On a Sunday in San Jose, Calif., as the lights of a hockey arena
dimmed, a wrestler called Jack Evans entered the ring with a
microphone. He was young, white and muscular, an unmistakable member
of the Foreign Legion.

“Hey, San Jose, how’s it going?” Mr. Evans said. “I’m just kidding; I
don’t care what you think. This is my country.”

To a chorus of boos, he went on: “I get to teach the Mexican people
how to be what they always wanted to be, Americans.”

Switching to Spanish, which he called “your dirty little language,”
Mr. Evans told the spectators they were too stupid to learn English
and become true Americans. Silver King, a turncoat member of the
Foreign Legion from Torreon, Mexico, took his side.

By the time it was all done, the villains were pummeled, the tectonic
guitar crunch of Vampiro’s theme song was proclaiming the victory of
the Mexican side and hundreds of children were standing in line for
$20 Polaroid photographs. And then the wrestlers rode on to another

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