Lucha Book Review: Fragments Of A Golden Age, Masked Media

By Joe Babinsack

Fragments of a Golden Age
The Politics of Culture in Mexico Since 1940
Editors: Gilbert Joseph, Anne Rubenstein & Eric Zolov
Duke University Press

Masked Media: The Adventures of Lucha Libre on the Small Screen, by Heather Levi

My first impression of picking up this book from the stack of stuff was that there may be a serious issue with relevance. Here’s a piece talking about Lucha Libre from 1996 or so, a form of professional wrestling not known to the mainstream, not respected by the decision-makers of the sport, not appreciated by polarized fans of this era; the ones that know only one promotion, and one promotion only.

On another level, there’s the perspective of and ideological look at cultural issues in Mexico, and how that lines up with the perspectives of the artform from a hardcore/historian/journalist not entirely interested in the political aspects of the discussion, but vastly more interested in the nuts-and-bolts of professional wrestling itself.

Yeah, I’ll admit to having a bad, first impression. No one should expect me to comment on phrases like “lackeys of foreign imperialism”, the workrate of “Superbarrio”, the label of “Neopop” or the controversial, peculiar and/or socially charged terms like pelados, nacos, peladitos or mestizos. But many may be surprised that I’ve learned tremendously about Lucha Libre, and more importantly a lot about the recurrence of hardcore criticism of the artform and the damaging aspects of television and a fascinating take on a sport I am passionate about.

I kinda knew Heather Levi was respectable when she named Sharon Mazer, and read much into the statement “lucha libre remained and evolved as a fundamentally gestural performance”, but further reading proved her to be credible, insightful and a real observer of the sport. Actually, more than that.
Further research shows that Levi fully immersed herself in training with Luis Jaramillo Martinez, a retired Luchadore who wrestled as Jefe Aguila Blanca. The influence of his perspective is palpable – for one thing, there’s not an ounce of condescension in the fifty-some pages of writing. And his opening commentary is, well, amazing.

Levi writes that Martinez is “sincerely worried about its degeneration” and conveys the opinion that Lucha Libre experienced a decline (economically and aesthetically) because of television. But this is the priceless commentary, direct from Chief White Eagle: “If you want to learn the real lucha libre, you have to learn it step by step. First, falling, tumbling, then Olympic wrestling, Greco-Roman wrestling, intercollegiate wrestling, locks from jiu-jitsu, strikes from karate. Only then can you learn professional wrestling.”

Remember, this is in the mid 1990’s, and no matter how “worked” the references to Olympic and Greco-Roman and intercollegiate wrestling may be, there’s something about the fundamentals and foundation of credibility that puts a smile on my face. Levi explains the “paradox” of Lucha Libre, in that the traditions and “old art” are “vulgarized” by the modern wrestlers. Well, she does say “mass media” as well, so she was likely prescient of the internet and social media buffoons that would dominate most pro wrestling talk from that point forward.

What was further amazing is the avoidance of simplistic explanations and a depth understanding of professional wrestling on levels most mainstream fans cannot help but to flip-flop. It’s not just that Lucha Libre means “free struggle” or that it focuses on “Agility & Acrobatics” but that the Mexican version of the sport “plays to the third balcony, not the cameras”.

And, that the Mexican center of professional wrestling, very much unlike Japan or the U.S., never associated professional wrestling and television. Which makes TV the central bogeyman of traditionalists in the Lucha Libre industry, and not so ironically, an underpinning of a lot of traditionalists in other places.

Levi tells the stories surrounding Salvador Lutteroth, Antonio Pena, the various Commissions, lawsuits that got wrestling banned from TV in the 1960s’, the changes in the sport since then, the changes that ensued after powerful Commissioners died or retired in the mid 1980’s, and especially the emergence of Lucha Libre on television. And Levi doesn’t fail to explain AAA, PromoAzteca and Renovacion 2000.

But to avoid a book review, let’s hit some of the interesting points, but not all of them:

  • There was a time when wrestling audiences had “front rows full of ‘well dressed, stylish men & women’”. That’s something I hear all the time from a certain Living Legend, about the 1960’s.
  • In the 1990’s, Lucha Libre suffered from “estrellitis”. Which is strongly relevant today: the term means that TV limited opportunities for only a few stars. Maybe there’s not enough to tie it into promotions holding down new talent, but I’ll take it as that, too.
  • TV took the focus of the industry away from the arenas and killed the “relationship between the wrestlers and the audience” to quote Ecologista Universal.
  • I learned a new word in Payasado (clown show) that I can’t wait to use in practice.
  • “And really, without the rudo, there is no lucha libre”. Ain’t that the truth for professional wrestling in general?

Setting aside some of the political, Levi does paint the picture of the connection between Lucha Libre and the “Story of Mexicans”. She talks of the Mask, and how the “values of Mexican culture” found in that imagery. She talks of the dynamics of the tecnicos vs rudos, the drama and the parody, and how professional wrestling shows that “life is a struggle”. But where she really hits home is when she says that the sport is “ritually enacted every week”. No doubt about that.

Levi closes with El Canek, a true blast from the past, but I read a tremendous amount of irony in his gruffly stated response to her, that “There haven’t been any changes. It’s like Mexican history; it never changes”. Somehow I think El Canek was working that, and not shooting.

There are stranger places to find respectful and informative takes on professional wrestling, but Heather Levi, through Duke University Press, printed one very interesting paper on the subject, and one that is even more relevant today to mainstream US professional wrestling than can be imagined.

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