Inside the Museum of Latin America Art right now, images of wrestlers dominate the walls. They are large, imposing figure, both male and female, whose mere presence suggests complete command of the ring. Most of the professional fighters are masked, their true identities concealed from the public eye. The wrestler– known here as the luchador (male) or luchadora (female) — is presented as an icon. They are real people who took on fictional identities that subsequently influenced decades of entertainment.
“Katharsis” is a traveling exhibit, produced by Fundación Televisa, that hit a few other cities before landing in Long Beach, where it will remain until September. While the greats of lucha libre are represented, the exhibition goes far beyond the famously masked faces. The exhibition also includes stories from non-wrestlers who work inside the arenas, such as a mask vendor and a photographer. The show delves not only into the world of the wrestlers, but into the lives of the people who surround them. It's an interesting look at characters who have taken on fabled roles in pop culture.
“Katharsis,” which opened at the museum last weekend, is a look at the history of lucha libre, well over half a century of professional wrestling, as it evolved in Mexico and became a pop culture juggernaut that caught global attention. Lucha libre has gained popularity in the United States in recent years, as there's even a Lucha Libre USA, complete with its own line of toys. “Katharsis” goes back to the the entertainment phenomenon's roots. You'll catch a glimpse of the the sport from its early years in the 1930s, to its mid-20th century heyday, when guys like Santo and Blue Demon ruled the ring, to its modern incarnation.
A lot has changed — costumes have grown more spectacular. The fighting styles, too, have developed significantly.
“Today, it is more theatrical,” says Idurre Alonso, MOLAA's curator, who worked on the exhibition. “They use fire and neon lights and they break chairs. Before, all those things didn't happen. It was more formal, more technical in some ways.”
Alonso adds, “Some people say that lucha libre today is not real lucha libre. There are people who are more traditional.”
Of course, there are similarities between lucha libre and U.S.-style professional wrestling. In both worlds, the moves go far beyond what's considered legit in the Olympic sport. It's wrestling as entertainment, complete with characters who are categorized as good and bad. Both have morphed from live spectacles into multi-media franchises. During the age of Santo, the luchadores also had a chance to become the stars of films and comic books. You can see similar parallels during the peaks of professional wrestling's popularity in the U.S. Take, for example, Sgt. Slaughter, the WWF star who became the basis of a G.I. Joe character.
There are, however, differences between the two. The biggest of those, the show's curators explain, are tied to the lucha libre masks.
“The idea of becoming another character and being another person wearing that mask is something that's very important in lucha libre,” explains Alonso.
U.S. wrestling uses that idea as well, but lucha libre takes it a step further. “The luchadores can never show their identity,” says Alonso. “If they do, they've lost. You can't be that character anymore.”
Alonso likens luchadores to U.S. superheroes. Both are carefully constructed alter egos that, in many instances, are created to battle the problems of the age. “Santo is fighting evil,” Alonso says. “It's like a very Mexican superhero.” Selene Preciado, associate curator at MOLAA, points to Santo's turn on the big screen as an example of this. “You'll see him fight monsters and vampires and werewolves,” she explains.
There's another layer to this analogy too. For both the luchador and the superhero, leading double lives is imperative to their missions. Alonso cites Batman as a parallel in the superhero world. Bruce Wayne works covertly as Batman, keeping those two personae as separate as possible. As documented in the exhibition, Santo went to great lengths to keep his true identity guarded.
Also like comic book superheroes, the legacy of individual luchadores persists for decades. Santo and Blue Demon died years ago, but El Hijo del Santo (“son of the Saint”) and Blue Demon, Jr. have sparred in arenas. Their famed masks are the ones you'll frequently see at any store that sells lucha libre accessories.
In the same respect that the mythology surrounding these characters has permeated multiple eras of entertainment, so has the fandom. Similar to the comic book world, a love of lucha libre can often be passed down from generation to generation. “As a family, you go to watch the show,” says Preciado. “I think that's also part of why it's so popular, not just in Mexico, but in L.A.”