Ex-wrestler El Padrino (The Godfather) stands in front of a chapel dedicated to Santa Muerte (Sacred Death), the folk saint who watches over Mexico’s poor and has been adopted by the cartels. El Padrino, a short, stocky man whose face is concealed behind a gold mask, watches as the steel framework of a large wrestling ring takes shape, a structure entirely in keeping with the heavy sky and concrete environment in Apatlaco, a working-class district of Iztapalapa, the poorest and most disadvantaged municipality in Mexico City. El Padrino is putting on a lucha libre match for his neighborhood to mark the Day of the Dead.

After his short speech praising Apatlaco and honoring the patron saint of outcasts, masked wrestlers somersault into the ring. Overexcited children crowd nearer, flanked by hawkers selling ice cream and masks. Behind them, adults are drinking beer.

The athletic El Sublime, in a light blue mask, shows off his moves: body locks, counterholds, flying kicks. He and his partners Enigma and Skyder make up the técnicos (the “faces” or “good guys”) team, who fight by the rules against the rudos (“heels” or rulebreakers who fight dirty), who represent brutality and cunning. Rudos and técnicos have vied for Mexicans’ support for almost a century.

The crowd in Apatlaco are backing the rudos. After a tough fight over three rounds, the técnicos concede defeat when bad-boy Aztlán (named after the mysterious mythic city whence the Aztecs began their migration towards the center of Mexico) ignores the referee’s helpless protests and jumps from the top rope of the ring, crushing his opponent to cheers of approval.

After the match, all the fighters pay their respects to El Padrino and Santa Muerte, then sit down to a banquet. El Sublime has taken off his mask and is once more Oscar, a bespectacled art teacher from Tepito. He asks to remain anonymous: It’s vital to his prestige. He doesn’t resent his defeat: “It’s the universal struggle of good and evil. The rudos flout the rules like politicians do. The people do their best to remain honest. That’s what we live through daily in Mexico. Powerlessness, but also humor. Mexico City invented lucha libre so that it could laugh at its own tragedy.”

“I have to win”

In a few months El Sublime will stake his mask in a bout in Veracruz where the winner will tear off his opponent’s mask, the ultimate humiliation that can end a career. It’s common for large sums to change hands in advance to fix the outcome of a match, but in lucha libre, it’s the public who ultimately decide a wrestler’s fate. “I have to win,” Oscar says.

Tepito, Oscar’s neighborhood, is another district known for its poverty and petty crime. Like many other luchadores, he comes from a family of fighters: His father, who worked for the national electricity company, was also an amateur wrestler. “I grew up in that world. Kids in these neighborhoods need a way to forget their problems. Clowns and wrestlers provide that fantasy.”

Roland Barthes celebrated the world of French wrestling—ancestor of the North American version and lucha libre—in an essay in Mythologies (1957) and drew a comparison with the ancient Greek theater. “We are dealing here with a veritable Human Comedy, where the subtlest nuances of intense feeling (complacency, entitlement, refined cruelty, retribution) invariably encounter the most explicit signs which can express them triumphantly to the last rows of the arena.… It no longer matters whether or not the passion being expressed is authentic.” Barthes contrasts wrestling, in which the outcome is fixed, with boxing, “a Jansenist sport, based on a demonstration of excellence; one can bet on the outcome of a boxing match…. The rational future of the combat does not interest the fan of wrestling, whereas on the contrary a boxing match always implies a science of the future.”

Lucha libre became popular during Mexico’s post-revolutionary industrialization in the 1920s, when the country urbanized and developed. It originated among the chilangos, the children and grandchildren of migrants who came to the capital seeking a better life. Its most famous figure, El Santo (The Saint), also known as “the man in the silver mask,” was born Rodolfo Guzmán Huerta in Tulancingo, Hidalgo, in 1915; and before his family migrated to the capital’s El Carmen district, he had turned to a poor boy’s only hope of betterment: sporting success. Boxing offers this, but so does freestyle wrestling, which was popularized by visiting European wrestlers and by the creation in 1933 of the first professional company, the Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre.

This was also a fertile time for Mexican culture, partly because of the arrival of the cinema. El Santo appeared in illustrated reviews and magic lantern shows, and between 1952 and 1973 starred in over 50 films as the defender of widows and orphans against Martians, zombies, the mummies of Guanajuato, vampire women and media moguls. But after 40 years, he took his last bow, removing his mask for the first time on live television shortly before his death in 1984.

Golden Age dialogues

Photographer Lourdes Grobet captured this golden age of wrestling. She shows the intertwining of the ordinary and the mythic, male and female wrestlers in their fights before a transfixed crowd of sin-calzones (as the wealthy call them; it means “no underwear”) and the splendid arenas, symbols of architectural modernity that look in her pictures like places of worship. She has been publishing her work for 25 years, an avant-garde testament to the “theology of lucha libre,” as the late writer and poet Carlos Monsiváis describes it in his foreword to Grobet’s book Lucha Libre.

Monsiváis holds that the high point of lucha libre was also that of Latin American popular culture: “Its Golden Age dialogues with other Golden Ages in cinema, bolero, tango, Peruvian waltz and ranchera music…. an urban sensibility that begins with pride in one’s barrio and ends up transforming that boastfulness etc. into an individual capacity to survive.” The popular should be understood “not [as] the opposite of that which is aristocratic or bourgeois,” but rather as a response to the “institutionalized invisibility” of the anonymous masses.

Lucha libre is now becoming popular with the educated middle class. The first university conference on it was held in Mexico City in September 2014 and dozens of theses have analyzed it using Marxism, situationism, and queer theory, seeing in its kitschiness and masks a postmodern construction of multiple identities. A new category of wrestler has joined the técnicos and rudos: transgender exóticos, who wear make-up and dress as women. Cassandro, an exótico from Ciudad Juárez and 1992 world champion, has become an international gay icon.

Lucha libre used to be looked down on and thought of as a low form of entertainment. People thought it was for ruffians, beasts,” historian Orlando Jiménez told me. “Now it’s a symbol of modernity.” Jiménez, an expert on lucha libre and an occasional referee, believes this change reflects wider transformations in Mexican society, especially the growth of mass media. “When television arrived in 1954, wrestling was banned because it set a bad example for children. Then in the 1990s, TV imposed conditions on fighters at a time when the unions were breaking up because of corruption.” These unions, the first of which was set up by El Santo, had previously backed the wrestlers against the promoters, given them status, and demanded medical control of the sport. But they limited their activities to Mexico City’s two large arenas.

Lucha libre’s new promotional body, Asistencia Asesoría y Administración (AAA), established in 1992, organizes bouts in Mexico, the United States, and Japan. The Triple A benefited from the deregulation of television in the 1990s and helped develop the sport on the US model, with bodybuilding luchadores, giant screens, cheerleaders, and dwarf fights. This has forced lucha libre to adapt its style to television, scripting the drama for the cameras rather than the public.

The death on live TV of well-known rudo El Hijo del Perro Aguayo (Son of the Dog Aguayo) caused profound shock. He died of cardiac arrest after a flying kick from his opponent in Tijuana on March 21, 2015. His dying moments were filmed in close-up while the show went on. The accident showed how vulnerable wrestlers are; despite being the ultimate symbols of Mexican machismo, almost none have any social security or medical cover.

Jiménez believes that the consequences of lucha libre turning into a global phenomenon go beyond loss of authenticity. “It’s a reaction that surprises even gringos. They thought they were conquering us, but it’s lucha libre that’s conquering the continent—not just Latin America, where it is gradually spreading, but also North America, thanks to the Mexican-American population. It’s bringing about cultural integration.”

Used to taking blows

Jiménez sees this as a sign of wrestling’s universality: “You can talk about differences in style, but in the United States, Japan, and Mexico—industrial countries with a great tradition of wrestling—you find the same thing: populations who are suffering from a socially destructive capitalist economy and who are used to taking blows.”

Jiménez maintains that professionalization allows wrestlers to defend their rights. “The problem with this country is a lack of organization. In the 21st century, that’s changing. Wrestlers are organizing against exploitation by promoters. The Fundación Equidad y Dignidad Lucha Libre, which is run by three female wrestlers, has managed to start a debate on social security.”

He believes lucha libre has always possessed strong political symbolism, “the symbolism of the social.” From Zorro to Subcomandante Marcos of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, the mask has been a popular accessory. Many wrestlers are prominent in the social struggle, such as Fray Tormenta (Friar Storm), the priest who took to the ring to fund his orphanage, which he made a training center for future wrestlers. Lucha libre has also inspired activists looking for symbols of unity.

In 1985, after a major earthquake, the masked figure of Superbarrio Gómez in his red-and-gold cape took up the cause on behalf of those left homeless and helpless by the government. In conjunction with the Asamblea de Barrios (neighborhood assembly) organization, he ensured their demands were heard. Superbarrio Gómez continued his protest role, challenging the huge electoral fraud that enabled Carlos Salinas de Gortari to become president in 1988. Salinas, the candidate for the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which had run the country for over half a century, beat Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) candidate, who had embodied hopes of change, though he too later succumbed to cronyism and corruption. Marco Rascón Córdova (Superbarrio Gómez’s real name) wrote in his “superdissidence” manifesto: “I wanted lucha libre, its whole symbolism, real and cosmic, to be faithfully transposed, unadorned, to the daily social and political struggle…and for the cities and their streets gradually to be converted into big [wrestling] rings.”

“Superbarrio, the social wrestler, captured the symbol,” Jiménez admits. “But later he converted to super-PRD—in other words to the ranks of corporatism and partisan practices. He turned into a rudo. He showed that a hero can help, but also betray. That’s the political lesson of lucha libre.”