Trade secrets and revelations

The World of Lucha Libre

by Heather Levi

For a secret to be realized, someone must not only conceal something, but someone else must know or suspect this concealment (Bellman 1981). Consequently, while the import of a secret may remain hidden, the act of concealment must be revealed if the secret is to have an audience and hence a social existence.

— Beidelman 1993:6

I would like to begin this chapter with a confession. Everything I have written or published about lucha libre has felt like an act of betrayal. In order to write about lucha libre, I must reveal a secret. It is a secret, however, that every likely reader probably already knows: professional wrestling matches are fixed. Even though “everybody knows,” even though no one ever asked me to keep it a secret or even said that it was a secret, it still doesn’t feel right to say it in print. My personal relationship to this (public) secret is complicated, as I trained in lucha libre for a year and a half. Often, during that time, I idly contemplated “going native,” maybe staying long enough to get my wrestling license and then . . . but being an anthropologist seemed more practical and (sadly) more lucrative. At no time in the course of that training did any wrestler, trainer, or fellow trainee ever explicitly communicate to me the fact that lucha libre was fixed. Even though I “knew” (I had been told as much by two wrestling reporters, a retired official of the commission of lucha libre, and a wrestler’s ex-girlfriend—besides, everybody knows that professional wrestling is fixed), I always wondered if everybody might not be wrong.

Photo of book cover: The World of Lucha Libre

The World of Lucha Libre: Secrets, Revelations, and Mexican National Identity

Heather Levi (Author)

Duke University Press, 2008
288 pages

The sensation of doubt came to me in particular moments. The first, I suppose came at a match I attended in Puebla in 1994. In one of the most interesting matches I’ve ever seen (to which I will return in chapter 5), I watched El Loco Valentino (captain of the rudos) throw the técnico Seminarista out of the ring and begin smashing his head against the frontrow seats. When blood began to flow from behind Seminarista’s mask, I assumed that he was using blood capsules—everyone knows that professional wrestling is “fake.” But then, as the match wore on, I realized that I didn’t just see blood, I smelled it, metallic and unmistakable. The smell of blood seemed to bear witness against my belief that it was all just an act. If it was real blood, how could the match not be equally “real?” In all my time studying lucha libre—training as a luchadora, watching classes, matches, interactions, I was always troubled by the doubt that it might not be fixed. At the same time, I never understood why I doubted what everybody knows to be true.

That understanding finally came very late in my research when I returned for a visit in 1998. The summer after I completed fieldwork, I returned twice to visit my wrestling teacher and my old classmates. Between the two visits, my classmates and some of the other wrestlers who hung around the gym were scheduled to go to give what, for most of them, would be their first public display of lucha libre. As with many aspiring wrestlers, their debut would take place in the plaza of a rural village as part of the festivities celebrating the local patron saint’s day. An employee of the gym had asked my teacher, Luis Jaramillo, if he would put together an event for the annual festival in his hometown in Oaxaca in exchange for transportation, housing, food, and drink. He organized a group of nine participants to go. In my absence, my classmates chose their personae, designed and bought their costumes, and began to train more intensively in preparation for the event. A month before they were to go, I came back for a visit. The smell of blood seemed to bear witness against my belief that it was all just an act.

Class started that night with the usual warmups, then those of us who were not going to Oaxaca were asked to clear the ring. As my friends stood around the Profe, he explained that they would start with a batalla campal (a battle of each against all) and that they should eliminate each other in the following order: starting with Pedro, then Santiago, and ending with Arturo and Garibaldi. Before they started, he paired them up, Santiago with Pedro, Garibaldi with Manuel, Jorge with Rafa and, for the last match, Gabi and Garibaldi against Arturo and Pedro. Profe warned them to look out for each other, reminded them that he would be playing the referee, and gave them the signal to start.

From my perspective on the sidelines, all hell broke loose. Manuel kicked Rafa in the stomach and, as he doubled over in pain, grabbed him by the head and threw him across the ring. Others threw forearms, leg tackles, and arm twists, seemingly at random. When Gabi pinned Pedro, all the others jumped on top of him to make sure he stayed pinned. He left the ring, and soon the same thing happened to Santiago, then Garibaldi, and so on, until only Arturo and Gabi were left. Since the order of defeat determined the order of the subsequent matches, Santiago returned to wrestle with Pedro (as Jaramillo had instructed at the beginning).

The two ran into problems right away. Pedro threw Santiago, grabbed him by the arm, pulled him to his feet, and tried to fling him by one arm into the ropes so he could clothesline him on the rebound. Pedro jerked Santiago’s arm, but Santi didn’t move toward the ropes. He tried it again, but Santiago just stumbled forward. Finally Jaramillo, rather than scold Santiago, admonished the more experienced Pedro: “He isn’t catching your drift because you’re pulling him by the wrist,” instead of grabbing him near the armpit. Without the proper hold, Santiago couldn’t feel how he was supposed to react. Pedro adjusted his grip, and Santiago flew to the ropes, rebounded straight into Pedro’s forearm, and fell to the ground. Pedro pinned him to win the first fall.

The two returned to their corners until the Profe signaled them to enter the ring again. Pedro circled behind Santiago, and put him in a compression hold from the back. Santiago, gasping for breath, tried to give up. He waved his hands, wiggling his fingers in the gesture of “I surrender,” but Jaramillo wouldn’t allow it. Finally, after great effort, he escaped the hold, threw Pedro and pinned him to win the second fall. As the two stood in their corners waiting for the signal to start the last round, Jaramillo walked up to each in turn and said something too quietly for the rest of us to hear. The third round started and ended quickly, Pedro pinning Santiago to the mat. Without the proper hold, Santiago couldn’t feel how he was supposed to react.

Then Jorge and Rafa replaced them in the ring. More agile than the first pair, they worked faster, using more throws, but still relying on the fling-to-the-ropes-and-clothesline-on-the-rebound sequence. After a particularly hard throw, Jorge, dizzy, tried to leave the ring, but Jaramillo made him get back in. Rafa, playing against his usual type, was transformed into a smirking, violent rudo, as Jorge fell into the role of abject técnico. Again and again he suffered through Rafa’s joint locks, throws, and blows. He landed hard on the mat and writhed in pain but somehow won the first fall. Rafa won the second. Then, once again, I saw Jaramillo go up to Jorge and, this time, heard him (in his official capacity as referee) give explicit instructions for how he should end the last fall. Immediately afterward, he went up to Rafa and let him know how he was supposed to lose.

The rest fought their matches in turn. I could see that the wrestlers were working incredibly hard. They were not so much performing a choreography as they were mounting an improvised display of exquisite sensitivity. In the middle of the last match, Pedro and Garibaldi (two of the most experienced students) threw in a short choreographed sequence that I had seen them practice together before class. Here it was: the link between training and performance, a link that had never been made explicitly before (at least for me). For the first time in nearly two years of training, I finally got to watch how the techniques and sequences we had practiced together could be realized in front of an audience. I could see where the match was improvised, where it was choreographed, where it was free-form, and where there were restrictions. After class I wished everyone luck and went back to New York.

Two months later I came back for another visit. The first person I saw as I entered the gym was Arturo. In June he had worn his hair long, well below shoulder length, but now he sported a crew cut. Jaramillo and Gabi came out of the locker room, and I asked them how the Oaxaca trip had gone. “Great,” they said. “They loved us. They asked for our autographs! We even did a lucha de apuesta (betting match) of Gabi’s mask against Arturo’s hair.”1 1. In a lucha de apuesta (betting match), wrestlers make a public bet on the outcome of the match. The most common forms are the mask-against-mask, hair-against-hair, or mask-against-hair matches. A wrestler who loses his or her mask has to remove the mask after the match. A wrestler who loses his or her hair has his or her hair shaved immediately afterward. (That explained Arturo’s haircut.) “Gabi won, of course,” said Jaramillo. And then, as if I hadn’t seen them practice, as if I had no idea how it was done, he added: “Because Gabi, as you know, is much bigger than Arturo.”

In the world of lucha libre, the story is always under construction. Even if “everybody knows” that the matches are fixed, that does not excuse wrestlers from presenting an alibi, from constantly recreating a story of what is really going on. And the question of what is “really” going on is complicated. Some fans and commentators (for example, Nonini and Teraoka 1992) point to the list of injuries suffered by wrestlers as evidence that it is not fixed. The real damage to real bodies is represented as an indication of the reality of the contest. That was my assumption when I smelled Seminarista’s blood in Puebla. Yet, in that instance, as in others, the status of “realness” was complicated. Wrestlers are sometimes paid extra to bleed. Before the wrestler is supposed to bleed, someone (the wrestler, or sometimes the referee) makes small incisions on the wrestler’s forehead. At the proper moment, the opposing wrestler hits the cuts to reopen them, and the victim appears to bleed from the blow.2 2. The practice of blading has been reported elsewhere (Rugos 1994). Two people in the business, who asked to remain anonymous, told me about the practice in Mexico. Blading explains the number of short, vertical scars, or little band-aids that line many wrestler’s foreheads just below the hairline. A trick? Sure, but it is their real blood. Perhaps that is the real secret—that there is no blood capsule, no ketchup, no chicken blood: just the real human blood of the wrestler.

Lucha libre is thus constructed around the public secret of the fixed ending. Yet the secret of the fixed ending is only one of a number of back secrets, of stories told and stories hidden, of secrets revealed to conceal still others. The secrecy of the fix stands for a series of dissimulations, for the mystery that animates the genre.

The socialization of the wrestler and the revelation of secrets are embodied processes. Professional wrestling is inscribed in the body. It is the result of corporeal training, of gradual changes in habitus.3 3. The term habitus, as it was used first by Marcel Mauss and later Pierre Bourdieu, refers to the totality of skills, preferences, tastes, dispositions, and so on that, while essentially cultural (and thus learned), are anchored in the body. One’s social identity is the product of essentially physical acts and experiences. Most of the ways in which habitus is formed and experienced lie beyond the level of consciousness for most people. There are, however, practices in which the cultivation of habitus is conscious and explicit, as in sports, dance, or other explicity physical disciplines. 4. For an important exception, see De Garis 2005. It is an experience had by few of the academics or journalists who write about wrestling.4 It was in the context of training that the theme of the secret repeatedly emerged during my fieldwork. Indeed, my teacher and others often described our interactions as that of teaching me the secrets of lucha libre. One might thus expect the training process to be one of revelation of secrets, of getting “let in on the game” (Mazer 1998: 53). Yet, as I’ve said, there was no moment in which I was explicitly let in on the secret. Knowing the secret aspects of lucha libre did not come as moments of revelation of the hidden, but as a gradual decoding of the discreet.

Learning the secrets

The gym I trained in was not well known as a center of lucha libre training. Like most spaces where aspiring luchadores learn the ropes, it was used for a variety of activities: weight training, handball, tae kwon do. It was located less than a block from Metro Hidalgo, probably the busiest metro stop in the city center. Busy during the day, with a reputation of being dangerous at night, it is located at a crossroads of the city: the transfer point between the two longest lines that cross the greatest spatial and (arguably) social distances of the metro system. The station is known as a cruising ground for gay men, especially cross-dressers, and was the site in 1997 of an apparition of the Virgin of Guadalupe in a floor tile, discovered by a worker during a renovation (the floor tile was subsequently placed in a small shrine outside of the entrance where it was found). The gym itself was located above a convenience store, announced by a plastic figure, about three feet tall, of a half-naked man with bulging muscles, flexing both biceps. Below him a sign read Gimnasio metropolitano: body building, weights, judo, karate, lucha libre.5 5. The gym moved from this location to a smaller space down the block late in 1999. (Greg Gransden, personal communication, 2000). When I looked for it in 2001, it had moved to about ten blocks away, My profe no longer tuaght there and was said to be giving classes somewhere in the neighborhood of La Merced The entrance to the gym itself was on the second floor. Two or three middle-aged men would play endless card games between handing out locks and collecting monthly dues in a tiny glassed-in office at the entrance. The glass wall of the office was covered with memos—various jokes, reminders about fees, and the grim warning: Anyone caught urinating in the steamroom will have his membership canceled.

Most of the space in the gym was dedicated to free weights and rudimentary weight machines. At one end, a ten- by twenty-foot space was walled off on three sides and used as a handball court. At the other end there was a large glassed-in area for tae kwon do classes. The tiny women’s locker room was located in the center of the gym, and the men’s locker room was near the tae kwon do room. The men’s locker room, a large area, had a space in the back with a cast-iron spiral staircase. The lucha libre ring was at the top of the staircase, only a little smaller than the room that held it. In that ring, two-thirds of the size regulated by the Commission of Lucha Libre (for performance), Luis Jaramillo Martinez gave classes three days a week.

A gray-haired, stocky, muscular man in his early sixties, Jaramillo was deeply committed to teaching the classical Mexican style of professional wrestling. In his prime, he had wrestled as Jefe Aguila Blanca (Chief White Eagle), a character based on the Apaches and other Indians from Hollywood westerns. He started his career in the 1950s, and had been retired (or at least semiretired) for at least a decade. When I first met the profe and explained my project, he shook my hand, sat me down, and told me that if I wanted to learn the real lucha libre, he was willing to teach me. But, he warned, he would not teach me the “clownshow you see on television,” but the real, Mexican item. Then he looked at my sneakers and sweatpants, advised me to get a pair of lycra shorts, and, to my surprise, told me that we would start that night. That night turned out to be the monthly endurance class, given downstairs in the handball court. It started with light jogging, then lap after lap of leapfrog and of jumping over a row of students as they waited on all fours. Then we ran some more, vaulted more, and finally did a series of rolls on the bare floor. I woke up the next day my back one big bruise, and so became his student.

The classes in which the “secrets” of lucha libre are imparted to students follow a set structure. At the beginning of class, students line up outside of the ring in the order of their length of time training. The most experienced student stands at the front of the line, the newest at the back. The class begins with a series of rolls and break falls, collectively referred to as maromas (tumbling), that serve as a warm-up. Once the warm-up ends and class begins, the students line up to one side of the ring while the teacher calls the first student into the center of the canvas. He or she then teaches the class a short routine, one move at a time. The teacher shows the first student the first two moves of the routine, and then calls in the second student to perform the moves with the first. Student one goes to the end of the line, the third student steps in, and student two takes over the first student’s role. The students continue to work in round-robin fashion. Every time the first student begins a new cycle, she or he is taught the next move of the routine and incorporates it into whatever came before. Eventually an entire set of moves leading to a finishing hold is built up and practiced by all the students. In Jaramillo’s classes, once the class performed a set, it was never repeated. The goal was not to learn choreographed sequences, but to train the body to respond to physical cues.

Hence, the essence of lucha libre training was found in the maromas practiced at the very beginning of class. These initial exercises teach the student how to fall without injury and condition his or her body to perform with a partner. For this reason, they are sometimes referred to (by luchadores, but also by fans and journalists) as the secrets of lucha libre. The basic falling skills that a luchador(a) must master are the maroma de frente (forward roll), the tres cuatros (three-quarters roll), the maromas pa’tras (backward roll), the caida (rear break fall), a front break fall called a plancha (iron), and the salto mortal (death leap). Although these techniques are related to the rolls and break falls used in Asian martial arts, the body mechanics are quite different. For example, in the jujitsu or aikido forward roll, the player contacts the ground with the arm and shoulder, which are held in a relaxed curve. The idea is to make the body resemble a wheel, with the arm, the shoulder, and a diagonal line across the back forming its rim, the center of the body its axis. In lucha libre front rolls, the wrestler contacts the ground with the hands. The maroma de frente is done like a somersault, starting with the feet parallel. The tres cuatros roll resembles the aikido forward roll, but it begins with the left foot and hand slightly forward. The wrestler then places both hands on the ground, and pushes off with the back leg to begin the roll, while keeping the right leg bent behind the left. In the tres cuatros larga (long threequarters), the hands don’t actually touch the ground, and the left hand slaps out as one completes the roll. In contrast to related rolls in Asian martial arts, the wrestler looks straight ahead and keeps the body extended until the last moment.

The roll that my teacher emphasized as the key technique of lucha libre was a flip with a rear break fall, called a salto mortal (death leap). In the salto mortal, the wrestler jumps, does a flip in midair, and lands on his or her back, weight distributed between the soles of the feet, the upper back and the arms (which slap out with the landing). At the beginning of class, wrestlers do repetition after repetition of each roll. Sometimes they combine them into sequences and add short excursions onto the ropes, or vault over other students into the roll. In our classes, Jaramillo would tell new students to do just the warm-up for the first night or nights, and then watch the rest of class, paying close attention to everything the other students did.

Like most trainers and wrestlers I interviewed, Jaramillo insisted that a professional wrestler must have a solid base in Greco-Roman, Olympic, and Freestyle wrestling. Accordingly, we had irregular lessons in Olympic or Freestyle wrestling. On those nights, Jaramillo would sometimes teach techniques that he identified as Olympic, but usually we were just given a partner, informed of the rules, and told to start wrestling. He and others often cited grounding in amateur wrestling as a key difference between real professional wrestlers and “the clowns on television,” but despite its ideological importance, we seldom practiced it. There may have been several possible reasons for our relative neglect of amateur wrestling techniques. Perhaps it was because we were there to learn professional wrestling, and that was Jaramillo’s area of expertise. But in addition, the mechanics of amateur wrestling, which seemed to depend on extremely close body contact and raw power, appeared to have little in common with the mechanics of professional wrestling.

Also, my presence in the class may have inhibited Jaramillo from scheduling Olympic wrestling sessions. Our amateur wrestling classes were one of the few situations in which attention was called to my gender, since I was generally not expected to wrestle Freestyle or Olympic with the men (who ranged in size from about 121 to 242 pounds). During the professional classes, I worked with whoever stood next to me in the line, but Profe preferred that I practiced amateur wrestling with another woman. His few other female students attended classes only occasionally, however. The three times that I did wrestle (Olympic style) against men, I was paired against not the smallest, but the most mature opponents: once against Pedro, one of the more experienced students (who outweighed me by at least 50 pounds), and twice against Jaramillo himself. It seemed that we were more likely to do an Olympic class if there was another woman present for me to wrestle, and it may be that he would have scheduled them more often if it hadn’t been for me.

In the beginning, because I came to lucha libre after training in Asian martial arts, I had a hard time making sense of the maromas. Placing my hands on the floor in order to roll disrupted harmonious circularity I had learned in my sporadic encounters with aikido or jujitsu. Eventually, though, I came to understand that the mechanics were entirely different. In aikido rolls, contact with the mat stands for contact with the ground. In lucha libre rolls, however, the contact of the wrestler’s hands with the floor stands for contact with the other wrestler’s body. Thus every throw, every lock is a technique of mutuality. For a throw to work correctly, the arms of both partners form a frame, like spokes of a wheel with the attacker at the hub. The first thing one has to learn of the basic mechanics is where to put one’s hands on the partner’s body in order to maintain a framelike contact. Most throws start from joint locks or head locks, and there is always a configuration within the lock where the defender can release pressure on the locked joint by using his or her free arm to form a triangle between him- or herself and his or her opponent. The frame allows the wrestler to anticipate the next move and his or her part in it. A painless and beautiful fall is the outcome of both familiarity with the “basic steps” of lucha libre and exquisite sensitivity to the opponent’s body. Like following in tango, one has to feel one’s partner’s intentions and respond instantly. The process of learning to fight is one of learning to cooperate.

The next thing that a wrestler has to learn is physical courage, especially on the ropes. During the first year of training, wrestlers learn to jump onto the ropes and throw themselves off of them into somersaults, planchas, and saltos mortales.6 6. The plancha, which literally means iron or press, is called a “flying crossbody” in English. It’s a move where one wrestler belly flops onto a supine opponent. They learn to leave instinct behind, to jump from four feet off the ground to land face down on the mat. Technique is important, but faith, the belief that they can and will do it, is even more so. Courage is also important when a wrestler learns to catch a partner leaping or somersaulting off of the ropes. As students progress, they learn other skills: special finishing holds, how to enter and exit the ring, orientation in the physical space of the ring, and so on. All of these and other skills are taught within the same format—in the context of sets learned from week to week, but then forgotten. There was always a level of ambiguity, then, in the relationship between the routines we learned and professional performance (to which we aspired). Were we supposed to think of them as examples of the kind of choreography we were supposed to perform, or were they just skillbuilding sequences, to teach us techniques? In short, the structure of the training process allowed one to suspend disbelief (in the “reality” of wrestling) even as one learned to be a professional wrestler.


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