Friday, September 23, 2016

The Wrestler's Daughters

When I was about 8 years old, a new family moved into the apartment building next door. The father was a large, imposing Samoan man and the mother looked like a lovely Tahitian beauty. Our new neighbors operated one of the two bars in our neighborhood. I can't recall the name of it, but it was a small bar on Union Pacific Avenue. The couple had 4 daughters, including a girl about my own age who was named Claudia. The youngest daughter was always called Baby, even though she was probably about 5 years old. I don't know if Baby had any other name, because nobody ever called her anything else.

Claudia and Baby told me that their father was a wrestler. A wrestler! How glamorous and exciting a profession that must be! Thanks to my dad, I was an avid spectator of professional wrestling, or lucha libre, as it is known in Mexico. I had grown up watching Blue Demon, Mil Mascaras and the original wrestling movie star - El Santo - battle vampire women, zombies and satanist cults. We watched wrestling on TV, broadcast live from the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles as well as lucha libre bouts from the Arena Coliseo in Mexico City. Some of the Mexican wrestlers worked the American circuit. In Los Angeles, some matches were designed to appeal more to lucha libre aficionados. I always found the Mexican bouts more colorful and eclectic than the American wrestling match ups. On lucha libre nights, it was not unusual to see women's wrestling or little people on the bill. Many of the costumes rated high on the tacky scale but I always thought of that as a plus.

Matches were not just for a title; titles were for ordinary athletes. Luchadores were more than athletes - they were real life superheros with near mythic status. They didn't just stand for might and brawn, they often championed causes. Their matches were for higher stakes than a trophy or a belt; a masked wrestler might risk his anonymity by staking his mask against another man's prized Samson mane. But it was not just the hair or the mask that would be lost by the defeated wrestler, it was seen as a blow against whatever cause the wrestler stood for.

Heroes like Ray Mendoza stood for the indigenous underdogs, the Indians throughout Mexico who made up the poor and often marginalized lower classes. In Mexico, to say someone looks or behaves like an "Indio" was considered an insult, akin to being called a savage. It was widely rumored that Ray Mendoza was illiterate, but instead of that being a source of shame, it was seen by his fans as a sign of how far one could rise despite the lack of a formal education. El Indio, Ray Mendoza, was one of my childhood idols. Ray Mendoza had been a rudo who turned technico (aka scientifico); a bad guy who turned good. He always kept the rough edges of a rudo, but being 8 or 9 years old, I didn't need to do a lot of analysis of what he stood for; El Indio was clearly for the common people. His brown skin and long black hair were a source of pride for him and for his fans who saw a bit of themselves reflected in this powerful wrestler.

I had the opportunity to see Ray Mendoza fight a bout in which he wagered his long, Indian locks. My parents and I went to the Olympic Auditorium that night to cheer on our hero. The place was loud, raucous and the crowd was fired up. Ray's fight was the main event. I wish I could tell you who he was wrestling but I don't remember because it didn't matter. Ray fought valiantly in what turned out to be a very bloody brawl. We shouted and cheered him on until we were all hoarse but in the end, he was defeated. As soon as the winner was announced, a chair was dragged into the middle of the ring and Ray's beautiful long black hair was cut off, right there in front of the packed audience at the Olympic and thousands of fans watching at home. I was nearly in tears. My hero had lost.

Through this seemingly vapid sport of lucha libre, I learned to understand the concept of duality at an early age. It was the same kind of duality that I experienced when I realized that I both loved and hated my father, that a "rudo" - a villain - could also be a good guy. It was as much a part of Mexican culture as eating a sweet apple with salt and chili, or celebrating the bleak inevitability of death by making brightly colored sugar skulls with your name on them.

Claudia and Baby's father turned out to be a completely different type of wrestler. He was an athlete, not a superhero. I, on the other hand, was a daughter of duality, a violence girl wanting both to destroy and coexist with love in a wrestling match that would last for years.

No comments: