Mexican wrestling has social conscience

By Julie Watson Published: June 11, 2006
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MEXICO CITY -- Tiny devil horns sprouting from his glittery mask, "Averno" snaps the waistband of his fiery red spandex tights against his paunch and pounds his chest in a show of bravado. The crowd goes wild, unleashing a chorus of obscenities at the gall of the burly bad guy, whose stage name means "hell" in English.

It's a Tuesday night, and one of the world's oldest wrestling rings is packed with businessmen, tattooed youths, feisty grandmas and their rambunctious grandchildren, all watching as the "tecnicos" -- fighters dressed as saints, priests and other noble figures -- battle the "rudos" -- wrestlers representing corrupt cops, drunkards and mobsters.

This cultural phenomenon is coming to the big screen as actor Jack Black spoofs Mexico's second most-popular sport (behind soccer) with the Friday release of "Nacho Libre."

The movie is based on the true story of legendary Mexican fighter "Fray Tormenta," or Brother Storm, a real Roman Catholic cleric who wrestled in more than 4,000 bouts to raise money for his orphanage.

The Rev. Sergio Gutierrez Benitez, who lives in Teotihuacan, outside Mexico City, fought for 23 years in Mexico's professional wrestling circuit. He managed to hide his true identity behind his red and yellow mask until one of his parishioners, also a wrestler, recognized him.

"It just hit me as something so strange and wild. It was a story I wanted to tell," said director Jared Hess, whose credits include "Napoleon Dynamite."

Such stories are abundant south of the border, where masked men in leotards have rallied for presidential candidates and fought for low-income housing and clean drinking water, always appearing as superheroes of the common man.

Professional wrestling, known as Lucha Libre, was largely the inspiration for the World Wrestling Federation, now known as World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE).

But unlike in other countries, wrestling's effect reaches far beyond the ring in Mexico, where Lucha Libre is influenced by the country's mystical Aztec and Mayan roots.

"We are part of the national patrimony," said Blue Panther, still wearing his turquoise mask as he fastened his seat belt and drove away in his compact Sentra after a fight.

Lucha Libre is not an exclusive, corporate-dominated world of cable-TV celebrities. In Mexico, the gritty arenas appear in working-class neighborhoods across the country.

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