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The History of the Mask

Masks were once common in rural Mexico. On a village’s saint’s day, peasants donned masks and performed in the dances and parades of the fiesta. The masks were made of wood, bone, cloth, and wax and represented tigers, goats, donkeys, bats, lizards, deer, birds, serpents, rabbits, caimans, monkeys, and armadillos. These animalistic images were usually vestiges of pre-Hispanic gods. Death and various demons were also popular. Other masks were based on post-Conquest imagery: La Malinche, the Spanish Swain, Moors and Christians, black slaves, old men, the Virgin of Guadalupe, cowboys, and Satan. Community values and history were taught and reinforced through these dances. They were also a welcome entertainment in the village’s poverty-stricken existence. The peasants believed that their identities rested in their faces; when they wore a mask, they hid their true identities and were transformed. They became gods and had the power to convert the brutal world of animal spirits they inhabited into one that was fertile and life-giving.

These traditional ways begin to be forgotten when paved roads arrive at a village, bringing with them urban Mexican culture. The natural world recedes, replaced by the pressing demands of television, newspapers, comic books, and Mexico’s intrusive government apparatus. Nobody puts on masks at the fiesta anymore, because they have learned that they are already wearing them. The essence of the new life is combat, which in the end they must always lose. Perro Aguayo, one of the great maskless wrestlers, told me: “Why do I need to wear a mask? I’m already wearing one!” He pointed to his scarred and battered face. Rage, jealousy, treachery, and violence are everywhere and the only way to endure them is to put on a mask of stoicism and resignation every time they step outside their home. “We are frightened by other people’s glances,” says Octavio Paz, “because the body reveals rather than hides our private selves.” If they take off their masks and open themselves up, all that will be revealed is that they are weak, lonely, crying, and mortal.

With the arrival of the greater urban culture, rural villagers learn that they are impoverished. The only option becomes to move to Mexico City in the hope of a better life. In the 70 years since the Mexican revolution, millions have streamed to the capital, leaving women, children, and old people back in the villages. If they are lucky enough to have spare time and spending money, the new city dwellers divert themselves in cavernous, government-owned movie palaces and enormous sports arenas holding tens of thousands. One of these new entertainments was imported from the United States in 1933 by Salvador Lutteroth, a retired revolutionary army colonel; it is lucha libre or “free fighting,” the Mexican version of professional wrestling. Through it, real masks—not symbolic ones—have found their way back into Mexican life.

The first lucha libre mask was a gimmick, a device used to excite the audience. In 1934, an American wrestler brought the leather mask down from Chicago, and Lutteroth liked the idea. He was dubbed El Enmascarado, “The Masked Man,” and fought a few matches against other Americans in Mexico City (there were only a handful of Mexican wrestlers at this time). This mask provided the model for all those that have followed: form-fitting and covering the entire head. Two years later the promoter decided to bring back masks. Antonio Martinez, a sporting goods retailer, sewed a leather mask for Cyclone McKay, another American, who became El Maravilla Enmascarado. Soon the Masked Marvel was drawing crowds, and the newspapers were calling him “hated and mysterious”—the mask was a hit. Perhaps a reason for the Masked Marvel’s success was that masks were suddenly the rage in Mexico City’s popular culture, and Lutteroth was following the trend.

The impulse for this craze came from abroad, the United States and France. In 1936, a New York newspaper published the debut of The Phantom, featuring the first great masked and costumed comic strip vigilante. Also known as the Ghost Who Walks, the phantom wore a skintight purple jumpsuit, striped trunks, and a black mask over his eyes. Unlike most later masked heroes (Batman, for example) he almost always wore his mask, even when he was relaxing at home in his skull-shaped cave. In fact, he usually appeared unmasked as a disguise when he was trying to infiltrate some enemy hideout and not tip them off that he was the Phantom. The strip was an instant success and soon sold to newspapers worldwide, including many in Mexico. Suddenly the Mexican public demanded to see wrestlers in masks, and the promoters realized they were on to a good thing.

Another popular adventure tale in Mexico City of the 1930s was The Man in the Iron Mask by Alexander Dumas. The title character is Philippe, who is the identical twin of Louis XIV of France. The king imprisons his brother in a castle and tortures him until the end of his days by having his head encased in a mask that is impossible to remove. When Philippe’s true love finds him at the end, the interior of the mask is rusted with his tears. The mask meant pain, and it was unchangeable—that was life in Mexico City. After reading this book, a young wrestler named Rudy Guzmán decided to model his masked character after The Man in the Iron Mask. He became El Santo, El Enmascarado de Plata (“The Saint, The Man in the Silver Mask”), the most famous Mexican wrestler of all time.

Rudolfo Guzmán Huerta moved to Mexico City as a youth and quickly fell in love with lucha libre. He trained at Police Casino gym and in 1939 made his wrestling debut as Rudy Guzmán in one of the city’s smaller arenas. He was rudo, the Mexican version of the heel or bad guy. Guzmán had some impact on the wrestling world, but not enough for his ambition. All his friends were donning masks, so he decided to follow suit. His first adopted persona was Murcielago II (The Bat II); this name was a ploy to catch some of the glory of the original Murcielago, the Mexican champion. Unfortunately, Murcielago objected, and Rudy quickly had to drop the idea. A promoter suggested a new name, El Santo; Rudy added “The Man in the Silver Mask,” and the legend was born. Santo’s costume was silver, and his mask sported the distinctive teardrop-shaped eyeholes.

El Santo moved quickly to build his name. He switched from the rudos camp to the científicos, the “babyfaces” or good guys, who were naturally more popular. He cultivated his reputation out of the ring and became known for being polite, generous, honest, and kind to children. And most important: he never removed his mask. Rene Cardona, the late film director who made dozens of Santo movies, said: “He was Santo because he never showed his face. He would leave the set with his mask still on. In the studio commissary he ate wearing a mask with a hole for his chin so he could move his jaw.” When a film crew traveled to Miami for a shoot, Santo flew on a different plane so nobody on the production would see his face when he removed his mask for customs. In his films he even wore his mask when sleeping and making out with the beautiful female Interpol agents.

Through wrestling, and also films and comic books, Santo became the first Latin American superhero, popular in places as far away as Lebanon. His mask was the equivalent of Superman’s “S”—instantly and universally recognizable. Journalists assured fans that despite his fame, when he walked the streets without his mask he blended with the crowd, just a humble member of Mexico City’s millions. When he finally retired in the early 1980s, Santo halted his career by publicly unmasking himself. Underneath he was humble; bald, with dark bags under his eyes, he looked like a retired factory worker or craftsman. In 1984 he died of a heart attack, and he lay in state once more masked as in life. Other masked wrestlers attended the wake, tears flowing from their eyeholes. The homely Rudolfo Guzmán Huerta hardly existed; the person buried in the Mausoleo del Angel crypt adorned with a silver bust of the masked hero was El Santo.

In the wake of Santo’s success, lucha libre began to become more distinctly Mexican. The mania for masks, which few wrestlers wear in the United States, was one of the many changes. The conflict in U.S. professional wrestling is usually defined as a fight between the good “American” wrestler and the wicked, treacherous foreigner. This did not play for long in Mexico, because the country has not had the same experience of waves of new immigrants arriving and stirring up racist and nativist feelings. In the 1940s the essential struggle in every lucha libre bout was redefined as a battle between rudo and científico, also known as técnico. Santo exemplified the técnico side; modest, upstanding, and clean-fighting, he was the pride of the community. The rudo was his antithesis. These were the ugly, hairy, and misshapen bullies, mean drunks, and corrupt cops that stalked honest, hardworking citizens and made life hell. Lucha libre represented the daily battle on the streets of Mexico City.

As the plot became more Mexican, the characters followed suit. The earliest masked characters were simplistic—Santo’s brother donned a black mask and became Black Guzmán—but wrestlers soon realized they were limited only by the power of their imaginations. Characters began to appear that exemplified the rigors of life in urban Mexico. The white masked Medico Asesino (“Assassin Doctor”) was a doctor in real life, but in the ring he was a rudo, because that’s how you survive, by being tough and mean. Within a few decades audiences could see characters tumbling across the ring that represented athletes, animals, professions, religious figures, cowboys, Greek gods, body parts, science, Indians, weather, comic-book characters, and, most prominently, death, horror, and violence.

Another Mexican innovation in the 1940s was the mask-versus-mask match. The promoters saw that the audience loved the mystery of masks; how better to excite them than with a glimpse of what lay below? The rules are simple: the loser of the bout is stripped of his mask and can never wear one again. His face is exposed to the multitudes, and his real name is published throughout the country. The unmasking is a moment of the highest drama; a mythic figure is about to plunge back down to the ranks of the all-too-human. From now on, no matter how threatening and defiant the wrestler is, the audience will always have something on him: his true identity. He is an object of ridicule and almost of pity. Every Mexico City resident knows that events—from an earthquake to a run-in with a cop—can strip their brave facades in an instant, exposing them, naked and helpless, to the outside world. Wrestlers agree to mask-versus-mask matches because to lose means a big payday. They can lose their mask only once in a career, so they can demand up to a year’s salary for one night’s work. The winners are given the mask, and every champion wrestler has a trophy room in which opponents’ masks hang on the walls like scalps. Masks are also forcibly removed during regular matches to heat up the fans, but this is technically illegal and these mask losses are never permanent. Promoters rarely schedule mask-versus-mask matches because of the expense and to avoid overexposure of what for the fan is the ultimate moment of lucha libre.

The last Mexican transformation of professional wrestling involves the action inside the ring. In the United States, there are rarely more than two people fighting at once, and the fight has a simplistic logic: one move leads inexorably to another, and is held long enough for the audience to catch the meaning. This is too slow and obvious for Mexican audiences. Most lucha libre matches feature two or three wrestlers to a side. They are often in the ring at the same time, hurling themselves off the ropes at each other in intricate and daring sequences of prearranged moves, resembling an aggressive ballet on fast forward. I asked one American wrestler about lucha libre, and he responded, “That’s not wrestling! It doesn’t make sense.” For Mexican audiences, the speed, complexity, and excitement of the moves overwhelm any need for logic. They have a different taste in storytelling, although the basic plot, the battle between heroes and villains, remains the same.

Lucha libre is now Mexico’s second most popular spectator sport after soccer. Any night of the week, it can be seen in any one of at least 10 arenas across Mexico City, some holding more than 15,000 fans. It has spawned a whole genre of cartoonish adventure movies, dozens of wrestling magazines, and the most-watched weekly sports shows. Serious newspapers report the outcome of the previous night’s fights, and intellectuals ponder the meaning of professional wrestling in essays and on talk shows. If a Mexican had never seen a lucha libre match before, he would at once understand the meaning of the battle unfolding before him. His response to a rudo’s obscene gesture to the audience would be automatic—whistles and catcalls. If the concerns of its audience change, lucha libre adapts; recently invented rudo characters include Texas Rangers and the L.A. cops. The sport is so successful because the entire show—characters, masks, moves, obscene gestures—is employed solely to excite and amuse urban Mexico.

Today nearly every young wrestler starts his career masked. The streets in front of Mexico City’s many arenas are filled with vendors selling wrestling masks; wrestler dolls are the most popular children’s gifts. A masked wrestler named Superbarrio is the symbol of the Asamblea de Barrios, a grass-roots movement to defend Mexico City’s poor neighborhoods. He leads marches, disrupts the Mexican Congress, and has become a respected national figure of the left-wing opposition. The popularity of the wrestling mask has led to grumbling by some veteran wrestlers who owe their career to their mask. They fear that the mask has been debased, that there is no mystery left anymore. Huracan Ramirez told me, “It’s mascaritis—a disease!”

Nevertheless, back in the arenas the magic still holds sway. When the announcer blows the whistle to start the match, the crowd erupts into shouts and catcalls. The rudo and the técnico jump into the ring, the first to humiliate the forces of Good, the second to avenge the years of injustice endured by honest citizens. No matter what happens during the match—injuries, the spilling of blood, gross unfairness by the referees—it is the loss of the mask that is the ultimate defeat, the one a wrestler can never come back from. After a mask-versus-mask-match, the audience files out into the street shaken yet relieved: for once the primal conflict took place within the fantasy world of the wrestling ring and not for real on the streets of this vast and dangerous city.