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'Mexican American Mojo' by Anthony Macías and 'The World of Lucha Libre' by Heather Levi

What happens when cultural customs become hip and mainstream? Too much gets lost in the process, argues this reviewer.

January 25, 2009|Gustavo Arellano | Arellano is a staff writer with OC Weekly and the author of "Orange County: A Personal History."

The author knows her lucha libre: The introduction takes readers to the 1988 Mexican presidential election, during which survivors of the devastating 1986 Mexico City earthquake thumbed their noses at politicians and backed a luchador named Superbarrio, who had spent the previous two years railing against bureaucratic ineptness and enthralling the poor with his activism and ringside derring-do. Levi doesn't snort at the idea of a politicized wrestler, which is what many pundits did to Jesse Ventura during his run for Minnesota governor in the 1990s. "The success of figures like Superbarrio lay in the capacity of lucha libre to invoke a series of connections between sometimes contradictory domains: rural and urban, tradition and modernity, ritual and parody, machismo and feminism, politics and spectacle," she writes. And in that tight sentence, Levi nails the appeal lucha libre has had among working-class Mexicans for decades. The various intersections she describes -- class, sexuality, gender, xenophobia -- are frequently lost on American audiences but make the sport so enjoyable.

At times, "The World of Lucha Libre" reads as if Levi strung together various term papers on the subject (no book should ever use the tired rhetorical device, "In this chapter, I will explain," yet she does this a couple of times). And Levi is occasionally highfalutin, quoting Barthes and Octavio Paz to justify arguments.

Those are quibbles, however: This book entertains, informs and breezes by, although Levi ends on a depressing note, pointing out that lucha libre itself is becoming trendy in Mexico -- thus losing much of the sociopolitical layers that made it so popular and potent.

"It seems to me that its capture as a tool of commerce empties its use as political counter-theater," Levi worries. "What meaning is it to have when it is consumed by the Mexican middle class (whether as mexicanidad or as kitsch)? How does it change as a signifying practice when it travels to the United States to be consumed as yet more Mexican kitsch and then is shipped back to Mexico as Spanish-language versions of 'Mucha Lucha' and 'Nacho Libre'?"

It's a question you should ask yourself next time you eat at a taco truck, don a lucha libre mask or put on a sombrero come Cinco de Mayo.

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