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'The fiesta of the people'

March 16, 2009|Kevin Baxter

Blue Demon Jr. is in trouble.

His tag-team partner has been knocked into a stupor and the other men in the ring have pinned Demon in a corner, where one pounds at his midsection while the other pulls at the blue-and-silver Lycra hood that envelops his head down to his Adam's apple.

Big mistake.

You don't tug on Superman's cape, you don't spit into the wind and you don't -- under any circumstances -- pull the mask off Blue Demon Jr.

In a flash, Demon vaults off the top of the turnbuckle, scissoring one foe with his powerful legs and flipping him to the mat with an acrobatic twist. The other wrestler, in a glistening gold mask, cowardly climbs between the ropes and dashes into the grandstands of the Pico Rivera Sports Arena.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, March 28, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Wrestling at Pico Rivera Sports Arena: In Section A on March 16, a photo caption with an article about the growing popularity of lucha libre wrestling in the United States said the Pico Rivera Sports Arena is in Whittier. It is in Pico Rivera.

But Demon quickly gives chase, catching him from behind and knocking him silly with a plastic garbage can as the crowd goes wild, with some joining in on the pummeling.

Welcome to lucha libre wrestling, where villains and superheroes, most in trademark masks, fight two-out-of-three-fall battles that are part gymnastics, part vaudeville.

In Mexico, the popularity of lucha libre, literally "free struggle" or "free fight," is rivaled only by soccer. Wrestlers star not only in the ring, but in movies, comic books, commercials and magazines. Now the sport's following in this country is beginning to swell, driven by the desire of many assimilated Mexicans to reacquaint themselves with a part of their heritage and by the nostalgia more-recent arrivals have for their homeland.

"This is part of the culture. It's the fiesta of the people," says Donovan Garcia, a Whittier warehouse worker several border crossings removed from a Mexico City neighborhood where lucha was among the few distractions from crushing poverty.

"Family, music, lucha libre and futbol. That's all there was," Garcia recalls in Spanish as he awaits the start of a two-hour wrestling card in a drafty community center in Cudahy.

The idea for the sport actually surfaced in the United States 76 years ago, when an enterprising businessman named Salvador Lutteroth happened upon a masked wrestler at a show in Texas.

He took that concept to Mexico City where he launched a movement that would grow from quirky exhibitions into a pop-culture phenomenon. In the ring and on the movie screen, masked luchadores, known as enmascarados, battle the forces of evil in nuanced morality plays. The fact that evil sometimes wins -- or can be put down only with the help of a plastic trash can and enthusiastic spectators -- is a big part of lucha's appeal.

Lucha shares several traits with U.S.-style professional wrestling. The choreographed matches, for example, are usually between good guys and bad guys -- known in lucha as technicos and rudos -- with well-known back stories.

The dissimilarities are numerous, however, with Mexican luchadores typically smaller, faster and more acrobatic then their American counterparts, producing a quicker, more athletic show with higher throws, more leaps and a lot more action.

The key difference, though, is the mask many luchadores wear -- skintight, often brightly colored Lycra hoods that cover the entire head and face, concealing the wrestler's true identity while revealing a larger-than-life persona.

"You put on a mask and you become an idol," says Juan Guerrero, a former bakery chef and lucha fan from Michoacan who became a self-taught mask-maker 10 years ago.

"For a lot of people, the mask is magic. In the ring, the fans aren't interested in the person. They're interested in the mask."

So much so that the three greatest luchadores in Mexican history are known not by their names -- Rodolfo Guzman, Alejandro Munoz and Aaron Rodriguez -- but by their masked personas, El Santo, Blue Demon and Mil Mascaras. Guzman and Munoz, who starred in more than 75 cult films with such titles as "Santo and Blue Demon vs. Dracula and the Wolfman" were even buried in their masks -- Santo in the metallic silver hood he removed in public just once, on Mexican TV 10 days before his death, and Blue Demon in a dark blue mask with silver outlines circling his nose and mouth and silver wings around his eyes.

Their memories live on, with Blue Demon's son assuming his father's mask and ring persona, sometimes wrestling, as he did in Pico Rivera, alongside El Hijo de Santo (Son of the Saint), who wears a replica of the glistening mask with teardrop eyeholes his father made famous.

A decade ago, lucha was available in Southern California only on Spanish-language TV or in grainy black-and-white Mexican movies. Today, more than two dozen promoters, many with their own stable of masked wrestlers, put on regular shows in American Legion halls, sports arenas and community centers in Ventura, Newhall, Compton and the Coachella Valley, drawing a few dozen to several thousand fans.

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