Katharsis! Mexican Wrestling Images, 1940–2007
Introduced into popular entertainment during the 1930s, wrestling became something more than a mere diversion for sports fans. The modern practitioners of a tradition that echoes the gladiatorial combats of ancient Rome and Aztec warriors draw on the collaboration of audiences who refuse to conform to the role of mere spectators. The wrestling arena is transformed into places of complex and rambunctious theatricality.
Physical and symbolic, carnivalesque, bloody, and cathartic, the bouts between trained, violent, and unpredictable opponents evolved into inexhaustible founts of imagery that have transcended the confines of the ring. From television to the comics, from ordinary graphics to virtual animation, from journalistic coverage to the movies, there has been no medium of visual expression within the realm of the fine arts or 20thcentury popular Mexican culture that has not paid tribute to wrestling mythology.
The wrestlers Romero, Llanes and Osés posing during the filming of La Bestia Magnífica (Chano Urueta).
The physical appearance of the wrestlers, who are at once outstanding athletes and great performers, has had a legendary graphic, photographic, cinematographic, and videographic correlation. At the same time that it developed as a type of mass entertainment, Mexican wrestling succeeded in creating a highly polished and offbeat legendary aesthetic for itself.
On wrestling posters and programs is always present–either in its abbreviated or implicit form–the word versus, a term of Latin origin which, and not only in that particular sports spectacle, names the confrontation of two sides. Some etymology scholars of Spanish have described as a barbarism the derivation of an etymon that originally meant the action of moving or displacement –verso: go towards–, and blame the English for setting it into circulation.
Among the many war simulacra that compete for the free time of the Mexicans, there is no versus of greater versatility, colorfulness, and allegoric potential as the one raised and solved, only to be raised again in infinite combinatorials, on the wrestling stage. On the ring and its surroundings not only the bodies of fierce combatants are braided; but also the symbols, characters and powers they
represent are confronted.
Subduings, locks, blows, acrobatics, flights and drops of the gladiators are the alphabet of wrestling as a body language. The graphic reporters in charge of the journalistic chronicles of the events on the ring learned to decipher and foresee the evolutions of such dance.
Just as plays performed by actors, dancers and circus artists, those embodied by wrestlers are also ephemeral and unrepeatable. Only through images as those taken by such skillful and well-trained photographers like Rosalío Vera, official chronicler of today presentations held at the Arena Mexico, it is possible to appreciate those moments when the athletes become Icari.
Posing and Faking
At the same time that Mexican wrestling was establishing itself as a show between the 1930s and 1950s, the reincarnations of gladiators became transformed into material suitable for specialized publications. That process resembled what other sports went through whose fans were transformed into consumers of images, news, reportage, and trivia concerning the events and championships.
In Mexico, as in other parts of the Western world, the following of the adventures of heroes who vied for trophies and crowns (but had changed their armor for trunks and their swords for a bat or boxing gloves) became established as one of the epic bastions of the modern era.
In those recycled chansons de geste, there were no Mexicans with greater heroic presence than the wrestlers, perhaps because only for them did it become compulsory to authenticate their noms de guerre. The gladiator has to make and seem to be making character traits evident, that might or might not correspond to his real personality, and be very often the product of a polished faking.
Photographic portraiture was and is fundamental in the building of the characters that the wrestlers have chosen or accepted to play, aided by costumes, masks, hairdos, posturing and grimacing. Erected as statues of themselves, the ambiance or background that appears in the pictures of them usually reveals the mundane world in which their lives are spent as persons.
The gladiators are very well aware that without those images, a basis for other types of replicas, silhouettes, and montages, the splitting of personality that converts them into mythological figures is impossible.
Debtor and beneficiary of that collective taste for disguise and splitting personality, Mexican wrestling has made the mask one of the most colorful forms of expression. The experts still discuss the genealogy of the masked wrestlers. They place the first gladiators to enter the ring with the face hidden in New York in 1933: Jim Atts and Masked Marvel.
From the old days when El Murciélago Velásquez terrified the public with flying bats that accompanied his appearance, to the present day when Místico can be seen in the ring as well as in sitcoms, the masks that revived Mexican wrestling constitute a story to be read at various levels.
Not only good and evil, in all its types and mixtures, inspires the design of those hoods. World history, as well—events, ambitions, prejudices, fears, ideologies—leaves a trace in the appearance of the mask. The wrestler’s face disappears behind the mask and it, his new identity, reinvents his biography, giving it permanent residence in the terrain of mythology.
Women in the Ring
Owing to a hypocritical government ban that kept them from wrestling in the arenas of Mexico City for several decades, the history of Mexican female wrestling was confined largely to the urban periphery and provincial circuits. Despite that unfair exclusion, the women of the ring never ceased to be newsworthy and to hold a place in the affection of the fans.
Just like their male colleagues, women wrestlers were a subject for photographic portraiture and the cameras of reporters who supplied the specialized publications with graphic material. The photographer Hans Gutmann, of German descent—who changed his name to Juan Guzmán—was a correspondent in Mexico of Life and Time who covered the appearances of outstanding US women wrestlers, Mildred Burke, among others, in Mexico City.
Forty years later, Lourdes Grobet photographed La Briosa in her dual status of wrestler and mother. These and other images of female wrestling matches should not be regarded simply as documents relative to the evolution of a sporting spectacle. They become even more significant when accepted as evidence of the positive and transgressive activity of femininity not to be characterized in accordance with traditional standards.
Santo: The Man in the Silver Mask
Since the middle of the 20th century, there is a place reserved on Mexico’s Olympus for the glittering of a silvery mask. Few civilian or military heroes, athletes, movie stars, or other deservedly renowned personalities have attained the mythological heights of the wrestler who fought in such a hood and under a name with an explicit religious connotation: Santo: El Enmascarado de Plata.
Santo made his wrestling debut on July 26, 1942 wearing a crude leather hood and displaying the characteristic rambunctiousness of rough fighters. He fought in the Mexican arenas for the next four decades, winning championships and pitting his mask against other hoods and hairdos without ever revealing his identity.
In the movies, the ring without borders, Santo confirmed his standing as the invincible superhero. He made his way into wide screen in 1958 in a double filming that was shot in Havana, Cuba: Santo contra el cerebro del mal [Santo vs. the evil brain] and Santo contra los hombres infernales [Santo vs. the men from hell]. These films grew to a collection of over fifty pictures which became the centerpiece of the sole cinema genre that Mexico has contributed to the world: wrestler movies.
Santo contra las mujeres vampiro (1962) [Santo vs. the vampire women], Santo contra la invasión de los marcianos (1966) [Santo vs. the invasion of the martians], Santo contra las momias de Guanajuato (1970) [Santo vs. the Guanajuato mummies], Santo contra el Dr. Muerte (1973) [Santo vs. Dr. Death] are some of the titles in which The Man in the Silver Mask prevented dark forces from wiping out the happiness of humanity.
Once retired from wrestling, Santo devoted himself to escapist pursuits. His death on February 5, 1984 deeply moved the Mexicans who had seen in the silver mask the emblem of a guardian angel. One of Rodolfo Guzmán’s sons, El Hijo de El Santo [Son of El Santo], has followed the footsteps of The Man in the Silver Mask into the real and fictitious worlds in which the adventures of wrestling take place.
Society of the Show
Because of the intimacy, almost familial, between idols and fans, part of the wrestling show takes place at the seats and in the galleries. Collaborating in the creation of the mystique of wrestling are all those present in the arena: the souvenir vendor, a boy wearing the mask of a favorite wrestler, the woman inexhaustibly screaming insults, the photographers hovering around the ring.
The following images belong to the series La sociedad del espectáculo, made by César Flores and Gabriella Gómez Mont in 2003
Rafael Beltrán, mask vendor
“My dad was one of the first mask vendors in Mexico. I started helping him out when I turned eleven. I have a workshop in my house. We make the masks. They sell from 20 to 400 pesos, depending on the materials and how complicated it is (…) I trained for wrestling, but I couldn’t gain weight and I also had other commitments, so I gave it up. I wore a mask to fight. Masks are incredible…”
Alfonso Peñaloza, haircutter
“When I was six or seven years old, I looked after cars parked outside the Arena. Then I became a vendor inside, I sold potato chips, sweets, things like that. Many years later, it turned out one day that they needed a “haircutter”. The man working here before, don Miguel Hidalgo, had died. I cut a wrestler’s hair off for the first time on January 28, 1990. I’ve been using this jacket, over the last five years, every time I have to do a cut. If I wear another jacket, no one looks at me (...)”
Ceferino Gallegos (A.K.A. El Gran Chilicas), photographer
“I really admired El Santo. I, Chilicas, wanted to be him. I’d mimic his gestures, I’d stand like him. One day I went up to him and said: <<Look, Santo, I really admire you —you see how I hold my hands like you, stand like you?>>. Little by little I won him over. He gave me a camera and told me: <<Look, Chilicas, I’m giving you a top-notch camera, a first-class Retinette model 1>>. It’s thanks to El Santo that I became a photographer."
The exhibition Katharsis! Mexican Wrestling Images, 1940–2007 was presented for the first time in 2007 at the Eastmanhouse Museum (Rochester, United States). This 2022, after having been in 5 more venues, it is exhibited at the Arocena Museum, in Torreón, Coahuila. This virtual exhibition is an adaptation of the latest curatorship of this fruitful project.
Curatorship and texts: Alfonso Morales.
Content supervision: Héctor Orozco.
Archive research: Gustavo Fuentes.
Virtual exhibition: Cecilia Absalón Huízar.
Digitization and image editing: Saúl Ruelas.