Ethnography of Mexican professional wrestling by a female wrestler and scholar, showing how the sport is linked to national affirmations and counter-narratives.
About the Author
Heather Levi is Visiting Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Temple University.
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THE WORLD OF LUCHA LIBRESecrets, Revelations, and Mexican National Identity
By HEATHER LEVI
DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2008 Duke University Press
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSTAGING CONTRADICTION
In the months leading up to my doctoral fieldwork, when I told people that I intended to study Mexican professional wrestling, their most common response would be to ask: "Is it totally corrupt there, like it is here?" This raised a fairly obvious question: Why did they consider professional wrestling to be corrupt? In fact, professional wrestling is often derided as simplistic, contrived, and full of gratuitous violence. Such criticism, however, is seldom extended to equally simplistic and dangerous practices like hockey, football, or rugby. Those performances are conventionally considered "real" contests of skill. While they may not be classified as high culture, they are not disparaged as "corrupt" or "false," like professional wrestling. Yet the goal of most sports-to score points-is as contrived and artificial as anything that happens in professional wrestling. Why, then, should professional wrestling be the object of more disdain than these other practices?
Perhaps it is because professional wrestling is a liminal genre, one that is closely connected with the category of "sport," but cannot be contained by it. Lucha libre, I have suggested, is a practice of staging contradictions. It is an embodied performance that communicates apparently conflicting statements about the social world. During its seventy-five-year history in Mexico, it has stood for modernity and tradition, urbanism and indigenismo, honesty and corruption, machismo and feminism. Why should lucha libre be the vehicle of such a complex and contradictory set of associations? I would suggest that its capacity to signify comes from the very fact that it occupies a space somewhere between sport, ritual, and theater and is thus capable of drawing its power from all of those genres.
Professional wrestling is a transnational performance genre that has been the object of the sporadic attention of academics since Roland Barthes's groundbreaking 1957 article "The World of Wrestling." It is a performance genre based on (but also parodying) the conventions of so-called amateur wrestling. Wrestling, in one form or another, is among the oldest and most widespread sports or games in the world. Like other sports and games, wrestling underwent a process of modernization in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, during which time its rules were codified and its practice organized within particular institutional contexts (such as the university or the club). At the amateur level, wrestling is divided into three main styles: Greco-Roman, Olympic, and Freestyle (or Intercollegiate). In the first two styles, a match ends when one wrestler pins the other's shoulders to the mat. Olympic rules allow leg holds, whereas Greco-Roman rules prohibit contact below the waist. In Freestyle wrestling, a match can end with a pin but can also end if the winner places the loser in an immobilizing hold.
These three forms of amateur wrestling are often called "real" wrestling and distinguished from another type of wrestling that was promoted as a popular entertainment, during the same period, in the United States and parts of Europe. Charles Wilson traces professional wrestling to a style called "collar and elbow" that was developed in Vermont in the early nineteenth century. (The name refers to the starting position, in which each wrestler grasps the other by the elbow with one hand, and the collar with the other.) Vermont soldiers brought collar and elbow wrestling to the barracks of the Civil War, where it became a favorite recreation among Union soldiers. After the army was demobilized, collar and elbow wrestling moved from the barracks to saloons in New York City where saloon owners promoted matches to draw customers.
By the end of the century, P. T. Barnum instituted wrestling as a circus "spectacular." With wrestling's transition from the barroom to the circus came an important change. In the beginning, Barnum's wrestlers would fight challenge matches against untrained marks from the audience. By the late 1890s, however, they began to fight fixed contests against shills planted in the audience instead. With this innovation, the performance changed from a contest to a representation of a contest. During the first decade of the twentieth century, this type of exhibition wrestling grew in popularity both in cities, and on the county fair circuit. The county fair circuit in turn spawned a system of intercity wrestling circuits by 1908 (Wilson 1959).
Exhibition wrestling, by then known as "professional" wrestling, grew in popularity during the first decades of the twentieth century in both the United States and Europe, reaching a peak in the 1920s. Greco-Roman wrestling was already a popular bar entertainment in late-nineteenth-century Europe, but in the early 1920s European wrestlers adopted the North American collar and elbow style (Oakley 1971). Promoters organized international tours for wrestlers from both continents. During this period individual wrestlers began to add theatrical gimmicks to their wrestling performance to mark themselves as memorable characters. In the United States, it became common for immigrants or children of immigrants (like the Italian Joe Savoldi, Jimmy "The Greek" Thepos, Polish Stanislaus "The Boxcar" Zbyszko, or Turkish Ali Baba) to stress their national origin as a gimmick in performance.
The conventions that govern professional wrestling today were fairly well established by the beginning of the 1920s. In common with amateur wrestling, the basic unit of performance in professional wrestling is the match. In contrast to amateur wrestling matches, the professional match normally takes place inside a boxing ring. A fall is defined the same way that it is in freestyle wrestling: the winner either pins the loser's shoulders to the ground for three seconds (as counted by the referee) or puts the loser in an immobilizing (and pain inducing) hold (either a joint lock, or a hold that hyperextends or compresses the losing wrestler's torso). In the United States a match usually ends with a fall, and in Mexico it usually ends when one side wins two out of three falls. In Mexico, a lucha libre event is called a función (show) or programa (program-in the United States this unit is called a "card") and usually consists of five matches played out over the course of about two hours.
Professional wrestling is distinguished from freestyle wrestling by three things. First, the wrestlers fight as morally coded characters. On one side is the "clean wrestler, in that he follows what are supposed to be, and what are perceived by the audience, as the rules." On the other side is "the wrestler who breaks these supposed rules in order to gain what the audience should consider an unfair advantage" (Birrell and Turowetz 1984: 263). Second, techniques that are forbidden in amateur wrestling are considered both legal and conventional in the professional version. These include some holds, but also hitting (as long as it's not with a closed fist), running away, bouncing or jumping off the ropes surrounding the ring, and so on. Finally (and decisively), in professional wrestling, the outcome of the match is decided in advance.
LUCHA LIBRE AND THE PROBLEM OF GENRE
The fixed ending in professional wrestling produces a category crisis similar to the one that J. Lowell Lewis has described in his study of capoeira. Capoeira is a Brazilian movement form that defies conventional genre boundaries. Even capoeira participants, he reports, disagree over whether it is a martial art, in which music, ritual, and other expressive aspects of performance serve to hide its applications from the uninitiated; or a form of "expressive, dancelike play;" or "something like a sacred path to righteous living" (Lewis 1995: 222). Professional wrestling, likewise, sits on the border between the normally separable categories of sport, theater, and ritual.
In general (as I will develop below), professional wrestling has been deemed worthy of scholarly attention because and insofar as it can be defined as a ritual confrontation between social categories and/or between representations of good and evil. In other words, academics have found it interesting insofar as it could be analyzed as a form of theater. But, while Mexican wrestlers are aware of this aspect of lucha libre, it is not one to which they themselves draw attention. Nearly all of the wrestlers I knew insisted that lucha libre had to be understood as a sport. Whenever I asked them to define it or describe it, they would emphasize the rigor of their training regimen, the years of physical preparation, and the hours spent in the gym. The wrestler Máscara Año 2000 explained away other interpretations of professional wrestling (at least in its Mexican incarnation) as instances of misunderstanding. The public may misrecognize lucha libre as something other than sport, he told me, because they don't understand the rules. The rules of the sport, he implied, are mistaken for a script.
Many outside of the lucha libre world view professional wrestling as a corruption of amateur wrestling and thus dismiss it as a kind of fraud. In Mexico, commentators usually expressed that view by describing lucha libre (profesional) as "circus, tumbling, and theater," and dismissing professional luchadores as mere "tumblers" (maromeros). Yet my teacher, who always insisted that lucha libre was a sport, would nevertheless embrace the "circus, tumbling, and theater" definition by resignifying its terms. It was circus, he would tell us, because the first professional wrestlers performed in the ancient Roman circus. It was tumbling because wrestlers use acrobatic rolls to escape from locks and pins. Finally, it was theater because people watched wrestling for the same reason they watched theater-to be entertained. Like most wrestlers, he saw no contradiction between lucha libre's spectacular and theatrical aspects and its categorization as sport.
It would be easy to attribute wrestlers' aversion to describing their activities as anything other than sport to their need to continue to fool the public (or at least not to force their public to acknowledge the fact of the fix). Like a magician, a wrestler's ability to entertain an audience depends on the maintenance of an illusion, on not showing the audience how the trick is done. But in Mexico, at least, the issue is more complex. The question of whether professional wrestling is a sport is complicated by the fact that the definitions and connotations of the term sport are not as clear-cut as they may seem. The placement (or nonplacement) of a given activity into the category of sport has historically been tied to discourses of modernity and, in the Mexican context, national progress.
I beseech you in the most attentive manner to interpose your valuable aid so that I might be given a new boxing license, which was taken from me by the mayor of this city who because he is antisport and backward-spirited is not bringing any [boxing] programs. You promote sports, and the Oaxacan constitution doesn't prohibit [boxing], just cockfights, bullfights and gambling. LETTER FROM JOSÉ JUAN CANECO TO ABELARDO RODRIGUEZ, PRESIDENT OF MEXICO, FEBRUARY 23, 1933
In 1933, a boxer in Oaxaca wrote to the president of Mexico, hoping for assistance in his dispute with the local mayor. His petition is one of many to be found in the files of the Archivo General de la Nación, in which citizens appealed to the president himself for all kinds of (usually economic and legal) assistance, and also for donations of balls, bats, uniforms, and other sporting equipment. I do not know if the president assisted him or not, but it is clear that the boxer felt entitled to press his case to the highest level. His was neither a defense of traditional rights, nor, strictly speaking, an assertion of his right as an individual to have a boxing license. He made his case, instead, by appealing to the president as a forward-looking promoter of sports.
The promotion of sport in postrevolutionary Mexico, as in many countries, was closely connected to the goals of the modernizing, paternalist state. Sport itself is a modern phenomenon, distinct from superficially sportlike practices such as games or ritual combats. In Bourdieu's terms, it is a field: a semiautonomous site "of quite specific social practices, which have defined themselves in the course of a specific history and can only be understood in terms of that history" (Bourdieu 1991: 358-59). Bourdieu traces the origins of sport per se to the nineteenth century English public school system as part of a pedagogy of bourgeois political philosophy exemplified in the ideology of "fair play." In the course of nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, political elites in Latin America and elsewhere viewed sport as both an index of modernity and a tool for its advancement.
The most popular sports in contemporary Latin America, such as soccer, baseball, and boxing, were developed in England or the United States during the nineteenth century and were introduced to Latin American elites by administrative personnel of European- and North American-owned corporations operating in the region (Beezley 1987; Stein, Carvallo, and Stokes 1987). For Mexican elites in particular, participation in and promulgation of sporting practices became a key index of commitment to the economic and cultural projects of the modernizing dictator Porfirio Díaz, who ruled Mexico from 1876 to 1910, a period known as the "Porfiriato." Díaz and his supporters (who referred to themselves as the científicos-scientists) promoted a broad economic program of state investment in infrastructure and encouragement of foreign investment. This economic program was coupled with a cultural program committed to the emulation of European and North American models, and with systematic and violent repression of dissent. Those of the "Porfirian persuasion" valorized leisure practices associated with European positivism, while traditional, popular pastimes (for example, cockfights) were discouraged and at times suppressed. For example, the bullfight, ambivalent symbol of Mexico's Iberian heritage, was banned in Mexico City and the port city of Veracruz from 1879 to 1886. Participation in sport, as opposed to participation in more traditional leisure activities served as a sign of distinction (in Bourdieu's sense), and marked identification with the Porfirian project (Beezley 1987).
The revolution that began in 1910 swept Díaz from power within a year, but fighting between different revolutionary factions continued until 1917 and beyond. Eventually, a political system was established under President Plutarco Elias Calles, who, with his allies, founded a single party that would integrate (albeit unevenly) the range of factions and interests that had achieved armed expression (as it were) during the revolution. That party, eventually known as the PRI (Party of the Institutional Revolution), remained in power from 1928 until the presidential election of 2000.
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations ix
1. Staging Contradiction 5
2. Trade Secrets and Revelations 27
3. Of Charros and Jaguars: The Moral and Social Cosmos of Lucha Libre 49
4. The Wrestling Mask 103
5. A Struggle between Two Strong Men? 137
6. Mediating the Mask: Lucha Libre and Circulation 177