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.”