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date: 23 November 2017

Lucha Libre

Summary and Keywords

Lucha libre, or professional wrestling, has become a staple of urban Mexican culture over the course of the 20th century. In the past twenty years, it has gained international acclaim for its distinctive style and culture. Best known for the masks that luchadores often wear, lucha libre has become a distinctly national rendition of an imported product. Along with Japan and the United States, Mexico is one of the most influential nations in the world of professional wrestling. The sport allows fans to root for técnicos, rudos, and exóticos and it provides theater that upends societal norms in Mexico. Banned from performing on television by Federal District authorities from the 1950s to the early 1990s, wrestlers like El Santo and Blue Demon took to the silver screen to film “Mexploitation” horror and science fiction films. Although the sport has become an urban tradition, it reflects the cosmopolitan nature of working-class urban culture as well as the influence of Mexican culture on other nations.

Keywords: Mexico, sports, popular culture, spectacle, wrestling, El Santo, Mexploitation, cinema, nationalism


The sport of lucha libre is the Mexican version of professional wrestling. Like its North American and Japanese counterparts, it involves staged combat within a ring. Although there is a predetermined winner, much of the action is improvised, based on years of practice and training. Within Mexico, the sport has taken on specific cultural meanings. Today, the most famous element is the mask, which is known throughout the world. In addition, the acrobatic ring style has greatly influenced professional wrestling in the United States, Japan, and Bolivia, especially after the 1990s.

Lucha libre features an ongoing battle between rudos (the rule breakers) and técnicos (the rule followers). In the United States, the rule followers are traditionally the fan favorites; in Mexico, however, there is a more ambiguous relationship between rule following and popularity. According to Heather Levi, técnicos have come to signify technocratic masculinity, whereas rudos represent a tough, urban masculinity.1 Sometimes the only way to move around corruption is to break or circumvent the rules. As a result, spectators often split along técnico/rudo lines. There are also exóticos, homosexual characters who have increasingly become fan favorites for their flirtations and exaggerated behavior in the ring.

The mask is central to lucha libre. Originating in the 1930s, it became one of the defining aspects of the sport. To lose one’s mask could have a detrimental impact on one’s career. It is rarely lost and only for special occasions. The most famous luchador of all time, El Santo, did not reveal his face until well near his death. After his death, his son assumed the persona and the mask under the name El Hijo del Santo. Later, in the middle of divorce proceedings, his soon-to-be ex-wife released photographs of El Hijo de Santo’s real face. The wrestler and his lawyers quickly asserted that those photographs were of another man.2

Lucha libre also differentiates itself from U.S. professional wrestling with its acrobatic moves. This has an impact on the athletes’ bodies, as luchadores are not as muscular as their North American cohorts. The overly muscular builds of North American wrestlers prevent them from engaging in the skillful and aerial style that luchadores employ. This style includes moves like the Huracánrana, a flying headscissor move that ends with the luchador using his legs to pin his opponent. It is named for Huracán Ramírez, who is credited with inventing the move.3

Lucha libre must also be distinguished from the sport of boxing. Both sports take place in rings, and they often share arenas. In addition, many domestic and international magazines cover both sports. That said, important distinctions exist. First, boxing, like most sports, does not have a predetermined finish, at least in theory. In lucha libre, the match winner is determined before the match starts. Therefore, it is possible to bet on boxing matches, but not on lucha libre matches. Second, while both sports display transnational characteristics, such as matches featuring both domestic and foreign participants and an international flow of ideas and innovations, Mexican boxing held more international ramifications than lucha libre, especially during the middle of the 20th century (1930s–1980s). Luchadores also influenced the world of professional wrestling in the United States and Japan, but they did not completely transform their respective business in the United States the way boxers did with the assistance of Mexican and Mexican-American fans. Lucha libre was a more insular activity than boxing and exploded as a cultural force in the 1990s and 2000s. Its distinctiveness from U.S. professional wrestling lent it an aura of authenticity.

With their masks and capes, luchadores have also crossed over into superhero status. El Santo was the protagonist in his own fotonovela series, and he starred or co-starred in over fifty science fiction films. In the films, he fought aliens, werewolves, zombies, vampires, and other monsters. Other wrestlers like Blue Demon and Mil Máscaras starred in films, but they did not match El Santo in terms of output or success. This association with superheroes would later lead to the emergence of wrestling-mask-wearing activist Superbarrio.

The Early Years

The early years of professional wrestling are a bit unclear. According to the website for the Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre (CMLL), professional wrestling arrived in Mexico in the 1840s.4 The first domestic wrestler may have been Antonio Pérez de Prían, who learned some Olympic wrestling techniques from a French instructor in 1863, then traveled and performed in circuses and bull fighting arenas. After defeating a North American, he became known as “the Mexican Hercules,” but then left the country to travel Europe. By the turn of the century, Europeans like Michaud Plancet controlled the promotions dedicated to wrestling.5 Other Europeans promotors included Giovanni Relesevitch and Antonio Fournier.6 There were many foreign wrestlers at the turn of the century in Mexico, including Billy Clark, Yamato Maida, who wrestled as El Conde Koma, “Nabutaka,” and “Romulus,” who came from Italy.7 During this time, Mexican Enrique Ugartechea became famous, and his battles against Romulus received significant coverage in local daily newspapers. He also wrestled in the United States, trained wrestlers domestically, and established Club Ugartechea, which cemented his status as a “professor” of physical culture. Ugartechea frequently employed African Americans on his boxing and wrestling cards. David LaFevor argues that there is a direct link in training from Ugartechea to the popular luchadores in the 1930s and 1940s.8 In the 1920s, European Constant le Marin imported more foreign wrestlers, including Sond from Romania, Basque wrestler “El León Navarro,” and Japanese wrestler Kawamula.9

It was during the Porfiriato that many “modern” sports came to Mexico. According to William Beezley, Porfirian elites desired to emulate the “progress” of more industrialized nations like the United States and France, and believed that in order to advance to this status, they would have to partake in the same cultural activities. Thus, sports like baseball and boxing became popular attractions for the Porfirian elite, as they initially watched European and North American athletes. Later, domestic wrestlers like Ugartechea gained popularity. Elite Mexicans also started participating in sports like mountain climbing and bicycling during this period.10 From these cosmopolitan roots emerged an activity that would come to symbolize national authenticity.

The 1920s experienced an explosion in sporting activities among the working class. The Federal District created a boxing commission in 1923, and the first national baseball league formed in 1925. After the revolution, both men and women experienced a plethora of options for entertainment, including boxing, cinema, and theaters.11 Whereas many of these activities featured foreign athletes or actors, spectators imbued them with their own meanings. The federal government also advocated sporting activities through its physical education program, which used sports like baseball, volleyball, and basketball to promote healthy bodies and “the teamwork that the Yankees speak about.”12 Lucha libre fits outside this characterization of sporting activities, as the activity lacked governmental promotion and differed from other sports due to its fixed endings.

Álvaro Fernández notes that lucha libre rose in popularity after the 1910 revolution, mainly through small promotions at improvised locations in working-class neighborhoods throughout Mexico City. Theaters were often the sites of these improvised wrestling arenas and, by the 1920s and 1930s, they hosted foreigners like Alí Kaba Shaba and Mike London, as well as Mexicans like Charro Aguayo and Pancho Segura. Both Aguayo and Segura fought in the revolution, the former for Pancho Villa, the latter for Emiliano Zapata. Many of these theaters, such as the Tívoli, constructed in 1925, were outdoor venues. In 1927, the Arena Degollado was constructed, while in 1930, the Frontón Nacional was remodeled and renamed the Arena Nacional.13

Over the course of the 20th century, Salvador Lutteroth played a substantial role in organizing and promoting the sport of lucha libre. Born in a small town in Jalisco in 1897, Lutteroth fought for the Obregonistas in the revolution, joining the cause in 1915. Because of the European and North American influences on lucha libre, it should come as no surprise that he became impressed with wrestling while watching it along the U.S.-Mexico border. Lutteroth returned to Mexico City and founded the Empresa Mundial de Lucha Libre (EMLL) in 1933 with the help of Mexican American Jimmy Fitten and Mexican national Carlos LaVergne, the top promoters of boxing in Mexico City during its “Golden Age,” which lasted from 1933 to 1937. In the early years, the functions were held at the old Arena México and featured several foreign and national wrestlers, such as Yaqui Joe from Sonora from the United States, and Leong Tin Kit Achiú, known as “Chino” Achiú. In the beginning years of the EMLL, Lutteroth experimented with women’s wrestling one evening, but would not return to it until 1948. Lutteroth’s promotion also benefited from his close relationship with sports journalist Fray Nano of La Afición, and the sports daily promoted Lutteroth’s business, much like it did with Fitten and LaVergne’s boxing operation.14

By 1934, the main centers for lucha libre in the capital were the Arena Nacional, run by Fitten and LaVergne, and the Arena México. There was also a surge in the construction of new arenas during this time, including the Arena Coliseo in 1943.15 These arenas were constructed in a rapidly urbanizing society. As the federal capital’s population exploded in the 20th century, more working-class families could attend wrestling matches and follow their favorite wrestlers. Because of the performative aspect of lucha libre, audience participation has been important. Today, fans continue to taunt wrestlers, and wrestlers sometimes confront fans in the audience, which has given the audience some control over the narrative of the match, albeit in a temporary way.16 Thus, lucha libre gave working-class fans access to a form of entertainment that required their participation.

It was also in 1934 that the now-famous Mexican wrestling mask was invented. Antonio Martínez was a shoemaker and fan of professional wrestling who designed the boots of Charro Aguayo. A North American wrestler under the name Cyclone MacKay approached him about creating a mask so he could wrestle as the “Masked Marvel,” a gimmick that had been used with great frequency throughout the United States. MacKay wanted a hood, something that looked like a Ku Klux Klansman. Martínez created this first wrestling mask with two pieces of suede, but later switched to cotton for greater comfort. In 1936, Jesus Velásquez became the first Mexican wrestler to don a mask as he performed under the name “El Murciélago” (“the Bat”) Velásquez.17

El Santo and the Golden Years of Lucha Libre

The years of the economic “miracle” (1940–1970) had a profound effect on lucha libre and Mexican sports in general. Historian Joseph Arbena has noted that sports became increasingly commercialized and the government’s emphasis on physical education decreased.18 Daily sports periodicals like La Afición (founded in 1930) and ESTO (founded in 1940) helped this process of commercialization. In addition, replacing the post-revolutionary government’s fervor for healthy bodies was a desire for spectacles that would announce Mexico’s economic progress and political stability to the world. The government also promoted athletes as role models for the nation’s youth, as they demonstrated that self-discipline was supposedly the key to success in modern society. This need for a self-disciplined and respectful role model played an important role in the rise in popularity of the most popular Mexican wrestler of all time, El Santo.

Rodolfo Guzmán Huerta started wrestling in either 1934 or 1935 as Rudy, and later as Rudy Guzmán. By 1942, he had taken on the name El Santo, after Jesús Lomelí suggested the name based on a character from the police novels of Leslie Charteris. During his career he won several middleweight and light heavyweight world championships. He often teamed up with Gory Guerrero, Cavernario Galindo, el Médico Asesino, and Henry Pilusso. His rivals included domestic wrestlers like Blue Demon, Black Shadow, los Hermanos Espanto, and Perro Aguayo and foreign wrestlers like Jack Blomfield and Jack O’Brien. He retired due to health problems in 1982 and died just two years later, in 1984. His death came just one week after the television broadcast of an interview with Jacobo Zabludovsky in which he removed his mask for the first time ever in public.19

The first medium explored by El Santo was television, which first aired wrestling matches in Mexico in 1950. By 1953, there were four broadcasts a week. By 1955, transmission of the broadcasts was banned in Mexico City, as both president Adolfo Ruiz Cortines and Federal District regent Ernesto Uruchurtu attempted to control and sensor cultural activities. There was apparent concern about children trying to emulate the moves they saw on television. In addition, others in the wrestling business were concerned about the decreased revenue due to a drop in ticket sales from spectators staying at home to watch the matches.20

Another medium outside the ring that El Santo explored was the fotonovela, an innovation by cartoonist José Guadalupe Cruz. From 1953 to 1977, Cruz produced three weekly installments of Santo: El enmascarado de plata. Toward the end of the series’ run, Cruz was printing nine hundred thousand copies of each issue. The series ended in 1977, when Guzmán Huerta sued Cruz for royalties, only to find that the publisher and cartoonist owned the copyright for the name and image of El Santo. It was in these fotonovelas that El Santo first displayed the middle-class persona that appeared in his later films, wearing a suit (with the wrestling mask), maintaining an office, and using a plethora of sophisticated devices.21 El Santo was not the only celebrity to have his own historieta. María Félix, Pedro Infante, and Agustín Lara had their own series, as did fellow luchadores Cavernario Galindo, Blue Demon, and Mil Máscaras.22

In his films, El Santo played a superhero who defended Catholic values and Mexican nationalism. As a result of the films’ success, he had to switch from rudo to técnico in the ring. Frequent tropes in the films included professors and scientists looking to profit from national treasures. Another trope involved El Santo fighting the devil or people under possession of the devil. In the films, El Santo also incorporated elements of Batman and James Bond into his character, including his masked persona, his headquarters that resembled the Batcave, his array of modern gadgets, and his popularity with women.23 The comparisons with James Bond are especially apt for his films produced in the late 1960s and early 1970s.24

The image of El Santo on paper and film coalesced with his “clean” public image. His companions in the field discussed his dedication to his family and his ability to refrain from vices like alcohol. His devotion to daily exercise and to Catholicism reflected his self-discipline, a characteristic emphasized by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) during its seventy-one year rule.25 This, in part, helps to explain why he shifted from rudo to técnico in 1963. Because Guzmán Huerta was a migrant to Mexico City like many of his fans, his character provided a stable role model in a society where many were dislocated from their homes and thrust into urban and industrial environs.26

Although most of the popular luchadores during the Golden Years were Mexican, there were many popular foreign-born wrestlers as well. Dorrel Dixon was a Jamaican-born weightlifter who immigrated after competing in the 1954 Central American and Caribbean Games in Mexico City. Dixon trained as a luchador and enjoyed a thirty-year career in Mexico, where he wrestled under nicknames like “El Apolo” and “El Coloso Negro,” and in Texas, where he sometimes wrestled under the moniker “The Calypso Kid.” Like his peer El Santo, Dixon espoused a clean and healthy lifestyle, claiming that “a well preserved fifty-year-old luchador could outdo a twenty-year-old undisciplined wrestler anytime.”27 Dixon also traveled to Guatemala with his fellow luchadores throughout his career.28 In addition, he appeared in both credited and uncredited roles in the films of El Santo and Blue Demon.29 Dixon’s popularity emulates that of other Afro-Caribbean athletes in the “miracle” era, such as Cuban-born boxers José “Mantequilla” Nápoles and Ultiminio “Sugar” Ramos and baseball Hall of Famer Orestes “Minnie” Miñoso, who went by the nickname “Charro Negro” in Mexico.

Gory Guerrero also exemplifies the border-crossing nature of lucha libre during the Golden Years. Born in Arizona in the early 1920s, Guerrero moved with his family to Guadalajara when he was thirteen. He started wrestling professionally around the age of sixteen and joined the Empresa Mundial de Lucha Libre (EMLL) at the age of twenty-two. Winning welterweight and middleweight championships, Guerrero later teamed with El Santo as La Pareja Atómica (The Atomic Pair). Guerrero’s bilingual abilities allowed him success in the United States. After retirement, he promoted wrestling cards in El Paso, Texas, and trained several wrestlers, including his sons Chavo, Hector, and Eddie, all of whom found success in Mexico and the United States.30 Chavo was the main draw in Los Angeles in the 1970s, particularly at shows at the Olympic Auditorium, which also served as a boxing venue popular among working-class ethnic Mexicans.31 Eddie rose to the ranks of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) champion before his premature death in 2005.

Although female wrestlers were not as popular as male wrestlers, female spectators played an important role at the events. Heather Levi notes that, in the early 1940s, the Arena México had a ladies’ night once a month, but women were more likely to show up at the weekly Sunday shows and were, and continue to be, a vocal presence among the fans. One fan, known as Doña Vicky (real name Virginia Aguilera) earned the moniker “La Abuelita de Lucha Libre” (“The Granny of Lucha Libre”) for her constant and vocal presence at the Arena México from the 1930s to her death in 1997.32

Amid the role models and Catholicism, a new category of wrestler emerged during this era: the exótico who dressed in drag. Heather Levi describes their movements as “campy, often silly, seldom dignified.”33Exóticos use their “gayness” as a weapon against their homophobic opponents, as “there as no rules against kissing, inappropriate touching or just pretending to be in love with somebody.”34 The first exótico appeared in the 1940s in the form of the character Gardenia Davis, a North American who threw gardenias to the audience. The most famous exótico of the 1970s and 1980s was Rudy Reynosa, who always maintained a separation between his sexuality and that of his in-ring character. In the late 1980s, more exóticos identified as homosexuals outside the ring.35 In fact, in recent years, homosexual exóticos have become popular among Mexico’s gay community, especially in light of recent gains for gay rights.36

The first lucha libre films appeared around the same time as Cruz’s fotonovela series about El Santo. In 1952, El Enmascarado de plata and Huracán Ramírez became the first Mexican films centered on the topic of wrestling. Whereas the early films about lucha libre were part of the Golden Age of Mexican cinema, the films starring El Santo and later luchadores were part of the “Mexploitation” era. The Mexploitation era lasted from 1957 to 1977 and featured low-budget horror and science fiction films, often starring luchadores.37 Cinema helped develop a fan base for luchadores, specifically among the middle-class families that did not deign to enter a wrestling arena. Although more successful on film than his wrestling peers, El Santo was not the only wrestler to star in a full-length feature. Alejandro Muñoz, who wrestled and acted under his Blue Demon moniker, made his film debut in 1964. Eventually Blue Demon and El Santo would appear in eight films together.38 The popularity of luchadores in cinema even reached women in mid-1960s films like Las Luchadoras contra el Médico Asesino (1963) and Las Lobas del Ring (1965).39

By the 1960s, many wrestling films had reached the United States. They often appeared at Saturday matinees at drive-in movie theaters as part of the “Spookies” package of films that were marketed toward children and adolescents. When shown in the United States, these films were often doctored to appear less Mexican: they were dubbed in English; El Santo was rechristened “Samson;” and rock ‘n’ roll was added to the fight scenes. Furthermore, many of the U.S. adolescents watching apparently felt more sympathy for the monsters than the luchadores.40 In the 1980s, newly edited versions of the films appeared in the United States on late-night television, and many were included in the comedic series Mystery Science Theater 3000, “where the films’ cultural origins [were] ignored and their aesthetic strategies explicitly mocked and derided.”41 Mexicans may have also seen humor in the films, however. For example, Carlos Monsiváis called the film El Santo contra las mujeres vampiro “a classic of universal kitsch.”42

Responses to Neoliberalism and Globalization

In the 1980s, neoliberalism and corporate globalization brought tremendous changes to Mexican society and to sports on a global scale. The federal government’s default on its debt payments in 1982 and the ensuing collapse of the peso brought about structural changes to the nation’s economy, of which the poor, the working-class, and the middle-class bore the brunt. The shift from the welfare state to the free market impacted sports domestically and abroad. For example, the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles were the first Olympics to rely upon corporate investment rather than state investment. The sponsorship of transnational companies such as Nike further commercialized sporting activities.43 In addition, national boundaries became less important in the neoliberal era, and lucha libre exerted a stronger international influence as a result.

From a national standpoint, neoliberalism and lucha libre initially intersected with the rise of social activist and performance artist Superbarrio in the second half of the 1980s. Superbarrio embraced the luchador/superhero motif for his activism after he had heard a woman evicted from her home declare that only Superman could save her and her family. Working with the Asamblea de Barrios, Superbarrio helped prevent close to two thousand evictions from 1987 to 1994. For his work as a performance artist and as social activist, Superbarrio became an international celebrity, unofficially running for president of the United States in 1996 and meeting with Fidel Castro and fellow mask-wearer Subcomandante Marcos.44 Superbarrio’s success prompted the Institutional Revolutionary Party to create their own character, Superpueblo, to counteract the activist’s popularity; it also inspired the rise of anti-homophobia activist Super Gay.45

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, several major shifts occurred in the lucha libre business. Salvador Lutteroth died in 1987, and his Empresa Mundial de Lucha Libre (EMLL) changed its name to the Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre (CMLL) in 1991.46 In that same year, lucha libre returned to television for the first time in thirty-five years. Television station Televisa developed an interest in broadcasting the sport based on the respect journalists and artists gave it and due to the success of televised wrestling in the United States. In addition, the Federal District Commission of Boxing and Lucha Libre started to lose its power over the regulation of the sport. It was in this milieu that Televisa began its broadcasts. With the sport’s return to television, the viewership of lucha libre changed, much like it had in the 1950s, with middle-class families tuning in with greater frequency. Rival companies also sprang up in this new era of economic competition, the most successful of which was Asistencia, Asesoría y Administración (AAA). The owners of AAA wanted to internationalize the business of lucha libre and promote the sport in the United States, Europe, and South America.47 The AAA was not the first challenge to the EMLL/CMLL’s hold on the business of lucha libre. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Universal Wrestling Association/Lucha Libre Internacional unsuccessfully challenged the EMLL.48 The fact that AAA still exists, however, highlights that it has succeeded where other promotions failed.

The era of globalization intensified professional wrestling’s international connections and cosmopolitan aesthetic. Mexican luchadores started to extend their influence internationally in the late 1960s and into the 1970s. Mil Máscaras officially debuted in the United States with his appearance at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles in 1968. In the 1970s, he made his debut in Japan and headlined a card at Madison Square Garden in New York City, the first masked wrestler to do so. The luchador’s popularity in Japan had a tremendous impact on Japanese wrestling by introducing the wrestling mask and the acrobatic wrestling style.49 By the late 1970s, Japanese wrestlers like Hiroaki Hamada (“El Gran Hamada”) and Tatsumi “The Dragon” Fujinami were heading to Mexico in order to train in the luchador style. The popularity of “Lucharesu,” which Japanese aficionados consider different from the U.S.-influenced “Puroresu” (rooted in the term “pro wrestling”), continued throughout the 1980s with the popularity of Tiger Mask, a character with roots in a comic book of the same title about a professional wrestling superhero. In 2003, Japanese masked wrestler the Great Sasuke was elected to a state legislature and wore his mask during legislative lessons.50

Lucha libre also impacted Bolivia. In the mid-1960s, Mexican luchadores made trips to South America to promote the sport. El Santo, Blue Demon, el Rayo de Jalisco, and many others appeared on cards in Bolivia. Daniel García, also known as Huracán Ramírez, spent much time in Bolivia and married a Bolivian woman. The wrestling scenes in Buenos Aires, Santiago, Lima, and other South American cities were also greatly influenced by these luchadores. By the 1980s, Bolivian luchadores were borrowing names and costumes from their Mexican counterparts.51 A major innovation to Bolivian lucha libre (or catchascan) occurred in the early 2000s with the rise of the cholitas, who wrestle in the acrobatic luchador style but do so in multi-layered pollera dresses and embroidered blouses. Entering the ring with dresses, shawls, and bolo hats, the cholitas have become an international sensation and now draw more fans than their male counterparts.52

In the decade in which Superbarrio was making waves in U.S. politics, luchadores made large inroads into the U.S. wrestling business. In 1994 and 1995, both World Championship Wrestling (WCW) and Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) featured Mexican performers in their shows, with the latter promotion arranging visas for the luchadores to perform for the company on a regular basis. Eventually, World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) began to incorporate the wrestlers as well, and by the 2000s Mexican and Mexican-American luchadores became household names in the United States.53 The acrobatic wrestling style helped the popularity of these wrestlers, with one North American wrestler noting, “You couldn’t help but admire them: The moves that some of these guys performed were out of this world.”54 By 2006, the topic of lucha libre was the center of the plot for the U.S.-produced film Nacho Libre, based on the life story of Father Sergio Gutiérrez Benítez, a priest who used the income he earned from his lucha libre career to support the orphanage he ran in Oaxaca.55

One of the strangest developments over the last twenty years concerns the association of lucha libre with the first woman ever declared a serial killer in the history of Mexico. Juana Barraza Samperio, who wrestled under the moniker “la Dama del Silencio” (“the Lady of Silence”) gained infamy in 2006 when she was arrested and accused of killing several elderly women in Mexico City. Her infamy was such that she inspired cultural productions such as “La Mataviejitas,” a song and music video by underground singer Amandititita and the novel Ruda de corazón by Victor Ronquillo.56 That Barraza Samperio has received more attention from academics, artists, and journalists than other female wrestlers speaks to the uphill battle women face in the world of lucha libre, especially in achieving renown.

With the large increase in emigration after the passing of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994, there was a rise in the number of lucha libre cards in the United States, especially in areas with large Mexican immigrant populations. Displaying lucha libre’s ability to adapt to current events and audiences, in recent years there has been an increase of anti-immigrant North American rudos at these shows. These include characters like RJ Brewer (real name John Stagikas), who plays the “son” of Arizona governor Jan Brewer, and Sam Adonis, who wrestles in the CMLL as a Trump supporter, entering the ring with a U.S. flag with Donald Trump’s face imposed on it.57 In many ways, these characters build off of Anglophone Caucasian wrestlers such as Rowdy Roddy Piper who wrestled as “heels” (similar to rudos) in Los Angeles in the 1970s against “faces” (similar to técnicos) such as Mexican-American Chavo Guerrero. Lucha libre also has had an impact outside the United States and Japan, as Russian punk band Pussy Riot has used luchador-inspired masks to conceal their member’s identities during performances.58

Discussion of the Literature

The historical literature on lucha libre is quite sparse and merits more consideration from historians. So far, the topic has received the most attention from scholars specializing in anthropology, communications, and media studies. For those interested in studying lucha libre, Heather Levi’s The World of Lucha Libre is an excellent start. Levi combines analysis of the symbolism and meanings of the sport with the lived experience and practice of the activity. Levi incorporates historical analysis of lucha libre’s past, but is more concerned with more recent years.59 Another starting point should be Dan Madigan’s Mondo Lucha a Go-Go. Although it is not an academic treatment of the subject, Madigan’s volume includes essays by him and others that provide excellent background on the dates and important figures of lucha libre. The volume does an excellent job of analyzing the international impact of lucha libre, particularly on Japan and the United States.60 From Mexico, harder-to-find volumes like Rafael Barradas Osorio’s personal memoirs and José Luis Vera’s chronology of Mexican wrestling chronicle the sport’s development in Mexico.61

Much of the literature on lucha libre focuses on the films, particularly those of El Santo. Much of this analysis focuses on the symbolism of Mexican wrestling. Others place the wrestling films within different contexts, such as Mexican fantasy films, the marketing of these films in the United States, and their impact on gender identities.62 Of course, El Santo receives the most attention, with a whole volume on his multimedia stardom by Álvaro A. Fernández that examines his career in the ring, in fotonovelas, and in movies.63 Kerry Hegarty’s article on El Santo places him within the political context of the time, particularly how he fit Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) standards for acceptability.64 Tizziani Bertaccini’s chapter on El Santo is part of a larger volume on heroes in Mexico during the “miracle” years.65 There also exist many analyses of Superbarrio, with Mauricio-José Schwarz’s Todos somos Superbarrio the most thorough chronicle of the performance artist and activist.66

Despite these impressive studies, serious gaps remain in the historiography of lucha libre. For instance, there is no study on the European and North American roots of the sport, particularly in the second half of the 19th century, when foreign wrestlers far outnumbered Mexican ones. Second, much of the literature places lucha libre within a fixed relationship between the politics of the PRI, disregarding the political, social, and cultural changes that took place during the party’s seventy-one-year rule. For instance, in the late 1960s, there existed a rudo tag-team known as “Los Hippies.” Such a team would have not existed before the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. Therefore, a more dynamic understanding of how lucha libre has maintained the timeless categories of rudo and técnico amid a century of cultural and political fluctuations is needed. In general, there needs to be more historical studies that challenge the historical narrative put forth by the Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre, as it is surprisingly accepted by many people documenting lucha libre’s past. In addition, much of the attention on lucha libre takes place on the national level or focuses upon Mexico City. There is very little written on the sport’s development in regions and cities outside of the Mexican capital.

Primary Sources

The best source for understanding the performances of lucha libre are magazines like Box y lucha, ARENA de Box y Lucha, Lucha Libre, and Nocaut: Lucha y Box. These sources are occasionally cited in studies like Álvaro A. Fernández’s and Heather Levi’s, but there exists no exhaustive examination of these sources. Even more understudied is the sporting media’s coverage of professional wrestling. Mexico has had a large number of sports daily newspapers such as La Afición, ESTO, and Ovaciones. In addition, daily newspapers covered wrestling events, especially in the era before sports dailies (the 1930s). What little there is written on the subject at the turn of the century is based on newspaper accounts. The Hemeroteca Nacional at National Autonomous University of Mexico is an excellent place to start for these sources, as it contains boxing and wrestling magazines, national newspapers, and local newspapers from all over the republic. It even has a short run of Black Shadow’s historieta. In the United States, useful periodicals include the Los Angeles Times and La Opinión.

With all the films that were made about lucha libre stars, a great place to visit is the market at Tepito, which has a better collection of Mexican cinema and sporting events on DVD than probably any other place in the world. There have also been several short documentaries on the sport of lucha libre. Much like most of the academic scholarship, they tend to focus on the present. For old matches, YouTube is another excellent source of lucha libre matches on both sides of the border. Although it may be difficult to verify places, these videos are an excellent introduction to the sport, especially to see past performances in the United States and Mexico. In addition, videos of live performances are the best way to understand the passion, enthusiasm, and excitement that lucha libre generated for its fans. To understand the influence of Mexican-American wrestlers in California, the song “The Legend of Chavo Guerrero,” by the rock band the Mountain Goats is a good start.

In terms of government archives, municipal archives are the best option, since each city had its own Boxing and Wrestling Commission. Unfortunately, the most powerful commission, in Mexico City, is hard to access because the Archivo Histórico de la Ciudad de México is not organized after the early 1930s. The Archivo Municipal de Guadalajara has some materials from the early to mid-1960s, which could be of use to an historian. The Archivo General de la Nación in Mexico City also has the graphic collection of Mexican films, which feature stills and posters from movies, and the Hermanos Mayo collection, which features photos of El Santo and Blue Demon. For information about Mexican wrestlers in California, the State Archive of California, which has materials from the California State Athletic Commission, which oversaw wrestling and boxing, is another valuable archive.

Further Reading

Bertaccini, Tiziana. Ficción y realidad del héroe popular. Mexico City: Universidad Iberoamericana, 2001.Find this resource:

Carro, Nelson. El cine de luchadores. Mexico City: Filmoteca de la UNAM, 1984.Find this resource:

Fernández, Álvaro A. Santo, el enmascarado de plata: Mito y realidad de un héroe mexicano moderno. 2d ed. Guadalajara, Mexico: Editorial Universitario, Red Universidad de Guadalajara, El Colegio de Michoacán, 2012.Find this resource:

Hegarty, Kerry T. “From Superhero to National Hero: The Populist Myth of El Santo.” Studies in Latin American Popular Culture 31 (2013): 3–27.Find this resource:

Hernández Ramírez, Humberto. Drama, roles y herramientas de comunicación en la lucha libre mexicana: Una exploración interdisciplinaria en la lucha libre en México. Guadalajara, Mexico: Instituto Jalisciense de Antropología e Historia, 2012.Find this resource:

Levi, Heather. The World of Lucha Libre: Secrets, Revelations, and Mexican National Identity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008.Find this resource:

Madigan, Dan, ed. Mondo Lucha a Go-Go: The Bizarre and Honorable World of Wild Mexican Wrestling. New York: HarperCollins, 2007.Find this resource:

Möbius, Janina. Y detrás la mascara . . . el pueblo: Lucha libre: un espectáculo mexicano entre la tradición y la modernidad. Translated by Gonzalo Vélez. Mexico City: UNAM, Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas, 2007.Find this resource:

Neustadt, Robert. “(Ef)facing the Face of Nationalism: Wrestling Masks in Chicano and Mexican Performance Art.” Studies in 20th Century Literature 25.2 (2001): 416–432.Find this resource:

Pereda, Javier, and Patricia Murrieta-Flores. “The Role of Lucha Libre in the Construction of Mexican Male Identity.” Networking Knowledge: Journal of the MeCCSA Postgraduate Network 4.1 (2011), 1–19.Find this resource:

Schwarz, Mauricio-José. Todos somos Superbarrio. Mexico City: Editorial Planeta, 1994.Find this resource:


(1.) Heather Levi, The World of Lucha Libre: Secrets, Revelations, and Mexican National Identity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), 83.

(2.) Mark Lipson, “Lucha Libre: World without Borders,” in Circus Americanus, ed. Ralph Rugoff (London and New York: Verso, 2005), 162.

(3.) Dan Madigan, “The Match,” in Mondo Lucha a Go-Go: The Bizarre and Honorable World of Wild Mexican Wrestling, ed. Dan Madigan (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), 59–64.

(4.) Historia,” Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre, n.d.

(5.) Tiziana Bertaccini, Ficción y realidad del héroe popular (Mexico City: Conaculta and la Universidad Iberoamericana, 2001), 77–78.

(6.) Hector Villareal, “Simulacro, catharsis y espectáculo mediático en la lucha libre,” Razón y Palabra 14.69 (2009).

(7.) Villareal, “Simulacro, catharsis y espectáculo mediático en la lucha libre”; and Israel Torres Hernández, “Un carácter empresarial forjado por balas, golpes y pesos: Salvador Lutteroth González (1897–1987)” (Master’s thesis, Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla, 2008).

(8.) David C. LaFevor, “Forging the Masculine and Modern Nation: Race, Identity, and the Public Sphere in Cuba and Mexico, 1890s–1930s” (PhD diss., Vanderbilt University, 2011), 42–43, 81–86.

(10.) William H. Beezley, Judas at the Jockey Club: And Other Episodes of Porfirian Mexico, 2d ed. (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2004), 13–66.

(11.) Reid Gustafson, “‘He Loves the Little Ones and Doesn’t Beat Them’: Working Class Masculinity in Mexico City, 1917–1929” (PhD diss., University of Maryland, College Park, 2014), 137–185.

(12.) María Monserrat Sánchez Soler, “Introducción,” in Formando el cuerpo de una nación, ed. María Monserrat Sánchez Soler (Mexico City: Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y Las Artes, Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes, Museo Casa Estudio Diego Rivera y Frida Kahlo, 2012), 23.

(13.) Álvaro A. Fernández, Santo, el Enmascarado de Plata: Mito y realidad de un héroe mexicano moderno, 2d ed. (Guadalajara, Mexico: Editorial Universitario, Red Universidad de Guadalajara, El Colegio de Michoacán, 2012), 43–45.

(14.) Torres Hernández, “Un carácter empresarial forjado por balas, golpes y pesos.”

(15.) Fernández, Santo, 47.

(16.) Lauren Barberena, “Lucha Libre: Mexican Wrestlers and the Portrayal of Politics in the Arena,” in Sporting Rhetoric: Performance, Games, & Politics, ed. Barry Brummett (New York: Peter Lang, 2009), 163.

(17.) Levi, The World of Lucha Libre, 110–111.

(18.) Joseph L. Arbena, “Sport, Development, and Mexican Nationalism, 1920–1970,” Journal of Sport History 18.3 (1991): 358.

(19.) Fernández, Santo, 97–104.

(20.) Levi, The World of Lucha Libre, 180–185.

(21.) Anne Rubenstein, “El Santo’s Strange Career,” in The Mexico Reader: Culture, History, Politics, ed. Gilbert M. Joseph and Timothy J. Henderson (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002), 572–573.

(22.) Fernández, Santo, 111–113.

(23.) Kerry T. Hegarty, “From Superhero to National Hero: The Populist Myth of El Santo,” Studies in Latin American Popular Culture 31 (2013): 3–27.

(24.) Javier Pereda and Patricia Murrieta-Flores, “The Role of Lucha Libre in the Construction of Mexican Male Identity,” Networking Knowledge: Journal of the MeCCSA Postgraduate Network 4.1 (2011): 9–10.

(25.) Bertaccini, Ficción y realidad del héroe popular, 104–106.

(26.) Levi, The World of Lucha Libre, 190.

(27.) Lourdes Grobet, Espectacular de lucha libre: Fotografías de Lourdes Grobet, 2d ed., eds. Alfonso Morales Carrillo, Gustavo Fuentes, and Juan Manuel Aurrecocoechea (Mexico City: Trilce Edicioines, 2006), 195.

(28.) Luis Javier Piril, “Dorrel Dixon se despide de Guatemala,” Historia de la lucha libre en Guatemala, November 14, 2011.

(29.) “Dorrell Dixon,” IMDB, n.d.

(30.) Dan Madigan, “La Edad Dorada,” in Madigan, Mondo Lucha a Go-Go, 190–193.

(31.) In regard to ethnic Mexican boxing fans at the Olympic Auditorium, see Gregory S. Rodríguez, “Raza Boxing: Community, Identity, and Hybridity in the 1960s and 1970s in Southern California,” in Mexican Americans and Sports: A Reader in Athletics and Barrio Life, eds. Jorge Iber and Samuel O. Regalado (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2007), 181.

(32.) Levi, The World of Lucha Libre, 171–172.

(33.) Levi, The World of Lucha Libre, 152.

(34.) Pereda and Murrieta-Flores, “The Role of Lucha Libre in the Construction of Mexican Male Identity,” 12.

(35.) Levi, The World of Lucha Libre, 156.

(36.) Jasmine Garsd, “In Macho Mexico’s Lucha Libre, The ‘Lady’ is Often the Champ,” NPR, September 7, 2013.

(37.) Doyle Greene, Mexploitation Cinema: A Critical History of Mexican Vampire, Wrestler, Ape-Man and Similar Films, 1957–1977 (Jefferson, NC, and London: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2005), 1.

(38.) David Wilt, “Masked Men and Monsters: Mexico,” in Mondo Macabro: Weird & Wonderful Cinema around the World, ed. Pete Tombs (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1998), 140.

(39.) Pereda and Murrieta-Flores, “The Role of Lucha Libre in the Construction of Mexican Male Identity,” 10.

(40.) Andrew Snyder and Dolores Tierney, “Importation/Mexploitation, or, How a Crime-Fighting, Vampire-Slaying Mexican Wrestler Almost Found Himself in an Italian Sword-and-Sandals Epic,” in Horror International, eds. Steven Jay Schneider and Tony Williams (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2005), 44–51.

(41.) Snyder and Tierney, “Importation/Mexploitation,” 51.

(42.) Carlos Monsiváis, Los rituales del caos, 2d ed. (Mexico City: Ediciones Era, 2001), 131.

(43.) Mark Dyreson, “Global Television and the Transformation of the Olympics: The 1984 Los Angeles Games,” International Journal of the History of Sport 32.1 (2015): 178.

(44.) Robert Neustadt, “(Ef)facing the Face of Nationalism: Wrestling Masks in Chicano and Mexican Performance Art,” Studies in 20th Century Literature 25.2 (2001): 420–423.

(45.) Neustadt, “(Ef)facing the Face of Nationalism,” 422; and Pereda and Murrieta-Flores, “The Role of Lucha Libre in the Construction of Mexican Male Identity,” 12.

(46.) Torres Hernández, “Un carácter empresarial forjado por balas, golpes y pesos.”

(47.) Levi, The World of Lucha Libre, 24, 200–205.

(48.) Levi, The World of Lucha Libre, 24.

(49.) Dan Madigan, “Los Enmascarados (The Masked Men),” in Madigan, Mondo Lucha a Go-Go, 99.

(50.) Ranjan Chhibber, “Lucharescu: The International Impact of Lucha Libre Wrestling,” in Madigan, Mondo Lucha a Go-Go, 261–264.

(51.) Nell Haynes, “Chola in a Choke Hold: Gender, Globalization, and Authenticity in Bolivian Lucha Libre” (PhD diss., American University, 2016), 19–25.

(52.) Haynes, “Chola in a Choke Hold”; and Ken Lehman, “Fighting on the Edge: Cholitas Luchadoras in Bolivia’s Cholo Revolution,” in Sports Culture in Latin American History, ed. David M. K. Sheinin (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015), 39–60.

(53.) Ranjan Chhibber, “Paul Heyman: Messiah of the Luchadores,” in Madigan, Mondo Lucha a Go-Go, 143–149.

(54.) Chhibber, “Paul Heyman,” 146.

(55.) Barberena, “Lucha Libre,” 159.

(56.) Susana Vargas Cervantes, “Performing mexicanidad: Criminality and lucha libre,” Crime Media Culture 6.2 (2010): 185–203.

(57.) Linsey Davis and Ben Newman, “US Wrestler Promotes Anti-Illegal Immigration Agenda on Mexican Wrestling Tour,” ABC News, January 28, 2013; Flora Charner, “And in this Corner: The ‘Donald Trump’ Mexicans Love to Hate,” CNN, February 18, 2017.

(58.) William Finnegan, “The Man without a Mask: How the Drag Queen Cassandro Became a Star of Mexican Wrestling,” The New Yorker, September 1, 2014.

(59.) Levi, The World of Lucha Libre.

(60.) Madigan, Mondo Lucha a Go-Go.

(61.) Rafael Barradas Osorio, Fuera mascaras: La realidad de la lucha libre Mexicana (Mexico City: Mi Lucha Para Limpios y Rudos, 1990); and José Luis Valero, 100 años de lucha libre en México (Mexico City: Anaya Editories, 1978).

(62.) Greene, Mexploitation Cinema; Pereda and Murrieta-Flores, “The Role of Lucha Libre in the Construction of Mexican Male Identity;” Snyder and Tierney, “Importation/Mexploitation;” and Wilt, “Masked Men and Monsters.”

(63.) Fernández, Santo.

(64.) Hegarty, “From Superhero to National Hero.”

(65.) Bertaccini, Ficción y realidad del héroe popular.

(66.) Mauricio-José Schwarz, Todos somos Superbarrio (Mexico City: Editorial Planeta, 1994).