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spring
2012
arches
17
simultaneously independent of the previous
and following moments: I was swimming
through time—and flying from turnbuckles,
vaulting over opponents, crashing to the mat,
and taking kicks to the chest.
Does it hurt? Of course it does: Every fall,
bump, and strike
actually
happens.
Is it
fake?
It depends upon how one defines
“fake.” It would be difficult to fake a 20-foot
drop onto another person in front of a live
audience. We are trained to perform that drop
without risking life and limb. Professional
wrestling
is
performance-based, but most pro
wrestlers have gone through countless hours
of practice to learn to protect themselves.
On the surface,
any
type of professional
wrestling seems like a peculiar pursuit for a
liberal arts student, let alone something as
high-risk as lucha libre. I had started watch-
ing professional wrestling in my early teens,
and I carried an intellectual curiosity about it
with me into adulthood. I was captivated by
the athleticism and strength of pro wrestlers.
Admittedly, I was comparably struck by the
theatricality and spectacle of the show in all
of its ceremonial excess—something that my
high school sports, baseball and basketball,
both lacked. My father joked that I was drawn
to lucha libre because I am a Latino.
But for me this cultural significance made
lucha libre an intimidating prospect. I had
been adopted at a very young age by a non-
Hispanic, English-speaking family. As a teen,
my insufficient Spanish-speaking skills and
my life in a non-Hispanic household made
me feel too self-conscious to openly identify
as a Latino. Consequently I always felt dis-
placed amongst Latinos. My insecurity was
exacerbated by the fact that I look Latino, and
others seemed disappointed in me for lacking
substantial ties to Hispanic culture. I saw this
cultural disconnection as problematic for any
future I might seek in lucha libre. I believed
trying to perform an art that is such a cen-
tral part of Mexican culture would appear
contrived, and I feared outright rejection from
the other luchadors.
After high school I stopped playing sports,
but my love for pro wrestling continued.
Because physical activity had always been an
essential part of my life, I decided to take my
interest in pro wrestling a step further by seek-
ing out a local professional wrestling coach,
an endeavor that proved fruitless until shortly
after I came to Tacoma to attend Puget Sound.
I had been training for almost a year as an
American pro wrestler when I was introduced
to luchador El Vagabundo. Vagabundo is one
of the most prominent professional wrestlers
in the Northwest, and one of the few in the
region who practices traditional lucha libre.
I shyly shared my adoration for lucha libre
with Vagabundo. When I told him that I am a
Latino and explained my lack of connection to
Hispanic culture, he appeared confused.
“Oh,” he responded flatly.
I was hurt but not terribly surprised, for
he had merely reified my fears of rejection.
Despite this, Vagabundo came to watch me
practice a handful of times. Initially I thought
nothing of it, but much to my surprise he
invited me to train with him. His invitation
marked the last day that I practiced American
pro wrestling.
After a few weeks of training in a dusty,
dilapidated judo room at a local gym,
Vagabundo introduced me to José Gòmez,
who was in the process of starting a troupe
that later came to be known as Lucha Libre
Volcánica. José is a luchador of more than
30 years’ experience and was one of the most
infamous
rudos
—or villains—throughout
Mexico and Central America. José’s train-
ing is a rigorous combination of physical
conditioning, concentration drills, and tech-
nique instruction. I trained with José five
nights per week, two to three hours per night.
Sometimes on Saturdays. I was completely
enamored. I caught myself sketching con-
cepts for my mask, crafting mannerisms for
my stage persona, and choreographing entire
“There are at least 500 people out there,” Chi-
cano says to me.
I am minutes away from my public debut
as a
luchador
—a participant in
lucha libre
literally “free fight.” It is a traditional form of
acrobatic professional wrestling that began
in Mexico City in the early 1900s and among
sports in Mexico is second only to soccer
in popularity. Lucha libre’s characters and
costumes often draw upon Mexican cultural
myths of good and evil, as well as traditions
such as Día de los Muertos—the Day of the
Dead. In the tradition of Aztec warriors,
luchadors often wear masks, an iconic sym-
bol that has become synonymous with lucha
libre. The mask is regarded as a source of the
luchadors’ dignity—a signifier of persona and
therefore an inseparable part of the perform-
er’s essence. The mask is also intended to con-
ceal the identity of the luchador. Historically,
luchadors have gone to great lengths to pro-
tect their identities. The most notable example
is perhaps El Santo, who after his death was
buried wearing his mask.
Having been in the performer’s tent for the
past hour, I was completely unaware that the
audience had swelled significantly in size.
Am I nervous? Maybe a little.
Scared? Not at all—the butterflies in my
stomach, dry mouth, and shaking hands
notwithstanding.
My mentor, José, startles me with a pat on
the back.
“Listo?”
he asks.
“Absolutely,” I respond with a burst of
exhalation.
“Good,” José says as he squeezes my shoul-
der and walks away.
The bell rings—show time. I tug at the
laces on my mask a final time, throw my
shoulders back to straighten my posture, and
walk out into the ring.
The most intense 20 minutes of my life
proceed in what seems like a linear progres-
sion of infinitely long moments, wherein I
am so intensely focused that each second
seems to stretch on for minutes while being
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In lucha libre mexicana, Michael Leveton ’12 finds a passion, a starting point
for understanding his cultural identity, and a topic for his honors thesis
senior moments