Unmasking an Art Form
CHICAGO -- There was an early scene in the summer blockbuster "The Amazing Spider-Man" where Peter Parker walks into a dusty, abandoned hall with a dilapidated ring in the center. Hanging from the rafters are giant faded banners emblazoned with the faces of lucha libre fighters. Sitting in the movie theater, I squealed with delight: We are to believe the newly re-imagined Spider-Man based his iconic costume on the masks of Mexican wrestlers!
The Jack Black film "Nacho Libre" (a favorite of mine) notwithstanding, it turns out that luchadores, as the masked Mexican "free" wrestlers are known, are not at all new to the big screen -- they were international film sensations in the 1970s. Â
That's just one of the many fascinating tidbits I learned as I previewed a copy of "Tales of Masked Men," the season-opening documentary of Latino Public Broadcasting's arts and culture series "Voces on PBS," airing Friday at 10 p.m. Eastern time.
Although I knew a tiny bit about the importance of lucha libre in Mexican culture, I really knew next to nothing about the history of this wrestling form as it evolved in the early 1930s and came to be so popular that you can't go into a corner supermercado -- supermarket -- in any Mexican neighborhood in the U.S. without seeing an ample selection of colorful masks. (There are at least four in my home and though I bought some for my sons during my last trip to Mexico, at least one came from the grocery shop down the street where I get my Mexican essentials.)
When you grow up with something kitschy and fun like lucha libre permeating your awareness, it's a bit jarring, in the coolest possible way, to see it dissected on camera by professional intellectuals. Director Carlos Avila got an array of cultural anthropologists, film theorists, sociologists, wrestling historians, folk art experts and lucha libre archivists (who knew such a job title even existed?) to speak about this Mexican phenomenon with the same depth that presidential experts might discuss Thomas Jefferson's views on religious freedom.Â
Along the way we learn that lucha libre is to Mexicans what opera was to peasant Italians: the poor man's theater. We hear passionate defenses of the masked spectacle as a legitimate, physically demanding sport and see how it has been passed from father to son over the ages -- as well as how it has enriched the lives of the "little people" wrestlers who have overcome the odds to excel as masked fighters.Â
We learn about how the story lines of the masked characters reel in audiences with their promise to live out the fight between good and evil in the ring, and how the costumes inadvertently reflect the ceremonial dress of the ancient Aztecs.
But more so than all this -- and I've barely scratched the surface of the political, social, cultural and historical connections made in this beautifully edited documentary -- we are reminded what makes Mexican culture so special.Â
Just as lucha libre is, as one expert called it, "sport in the key of melodrama," so is Mexico a country that knows drama and how to laugh at itself. By extension, its sons and daughters are experts at laughing so they don't cry. This is the key to their enduring strength and a beautiful universal lesson that anyone can tap in to.
Esther Cepeda's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.Copyright 2012 Washington Post Writers Group