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Behind the mask — lucha libre wrestlers tap into Bremerton
After he was hit with a chair, thrown through a door and driven hard into the mat last week, the wrestler known as El Vagabundo spent an hour in the locker room, a Mexican grocery store’s meat locker, cleaning up his own blood with his mask still on. He won’t take it off, not even to greet friends. The Mexican-born luchador lost the main event to rival, and friend, Juvi 775, also from Mexico. One left the ring with his arm raised high in the air in victory, while the other limped out of sight. Both kept their masks on. For the grapplers, nothing is more important than the colorful mask that conceals their identities.
In the world of Mexican wrestling – lucha libre literally means “free fighting” – known to feature more acrobatics than its American counterpart, the mask is more than a piece of cloth that ties an outfit together. A luchador’s mask, normally homemade, is a symbol of a wrestler’s achievements in and out of the ring, a tribute to wrestlers who came before them, continuing a tradition from their homeland. Their faces remain hidden, knowing that their act is ruined if the mask is ever ripped away.
“It’s a part of my life, it’s everything to me,” said El Vagabundo, who declined to give his real name. “It’s part of our culture, a tradition for Mexican wrestlers, and it represents the man behind the mask.”
When El Vagabundo was 6 years old, growing up in Mexico City, he attended lucha libre fights with his older brother. He told his brother that he would wrestle someday, and at 16, he started training.
Now, at 37, the 14-year veteran was matched up against fellow Mexican luchadores and American wrestlers at a Cinco de Mayo celebration held at La Poblanita, a Mexican grocery store and restaurant in Bremerton on May 5.
Ron Sutherland, the co-owner of Suquamish Championship Wrestling, and the store’s owner, Saul Vargas, helped bring lucha libre to the city for food, drinks, raffles and a slew of bouts for a parking lot party. There was barbecue chicken and steak, beer, piñatas, but it wouldn’t have been lucha libre without the masks.
“The mask is crucial to everything,” Sutherland added.
Sutherland wrestled as his character, El Gringo Loco, who hectored the crowd with anti-immigrant and sexist insults. He wrestled in Mexico for a decade, never wearing a mask in lucha libre, which earned him the label as an arch nemesis to other luchadores and fans.
“When I wrestled, I was hated and I loved it,” he said. “I don’t wear one, I want the enemy to know who I am.”
Sutherland has the stories and scars to prove his 10 years in the ring, including an all-too-real near death experience when a deranged fan stabbed him in the head.
“I thought I was going to die,” he said.
El Vagabundo lost in the hardcore match finale, and amidst the shattered glass from broken light tubes that were smashed over his stomach, he walked away from the ring, hunched over and holding his mask in agony.
“This is not easy,” said El Vagabundo after the match, wearing only his blood-stained mask and pants. “This is not a game. This is not a job. This is a way of life.”
His homemade mask was partly ripped by Juvi 775 in the match, but El Vagabundo managed to keep it on. Both wrestlers decided not to take off each other’s masks out of respect. For luchadores, it’s an affront to enter the ring without the customary disguise. Removing another wrestler’s mask during a match is subject to disqualification.
The mask represents family, heritage and a great sense of pride, said Juvi 775. In addition, the masks hide expressions of pain, and the faces of men who wrestle in secrecy.
Despite wrestling for more than a decade, El Vagabundo’s family didn’t find out about his career choice until two years ago.
But El Vagabundo’s mother still doesn’t know her son spends his days flying off the top rope, getting pelted in the face with chairs, or pins down fellow luchadores who have secret identities of their own.
“My family doesn’t want to see me get hurt,” he said. “I wear the mask as a tradition, but I also don’t want people to know who I am out there.”
El Vagabundo, literally “vagrant,” has a sewing machine at his home where he makes his own masks.
Every day for the last three years, El Vagabundo finds time to build new designs that include a variety of shapes and colors. He prides himself on also stitching together his pants, tights and shirts. He’s currently working on a new mask design for his next match. The Mexican grappler currently has 20 masks in his closet, and he picks a different one for every lucha fight. The masks are made out of a special type of fabric, something resembling the same material used for swimsuits and dancer costumes, he said.
El Vagabundo is constantly improving the intricacies of his luchador masks by stitching with newer fabrics and adding double layers so he doesn’t sweat as much. Feeling the heat under the mask poses a problem for luchadors, but like most, El Vagabundo adapts by piecing together his own modifications, ignoring any distractions.
“It’s always going to get hot and sweaty under there, but it doesn’t bother me,” he said. “I just build my own mask to fit me and I go from there.”
Juvi 775’s disguise resembles an Aztec mask, designed to look like a demon in the ring, he said. The 11-year veteran dons a bright, shiny silver mask that opponents will recognize instantly. He also builds his own outfits with the help of friends.
“You remember the mask when I put it on,” he added. “You know it’s me out there.”
Juvi 775, who earned his name by combining a nickname and the area code of his hometown, Tulancingo, Mexico, is a friend of El Vagabundo.
Both men are originally from Mexico, but since moved to Tacoma to compete professionally. They became buddies three years ago when their wrestling careers crossed paths.
El Vagabundo likes to add variety to his wrestling attire, while Juvi 775 limits himself to four masks, staying consistent with the Aztec demon-looking character.
The shapes and colors of their self-made suits, and identities, contrast, but there is one thing they have in common.
They will never wrestle without their masks.
“Nope, not ever,” said El Vagabundo when asked if he will ever consider leaving the mask behind. “It’s like taking off one of my arms. It’s part of my body and who I am.”
Juvi 775 echoed his friend’s principles as a luchador.
“I don’t ever take it off,” he said. “I don’t want to ever lose it.”
Angel Azul dons a blue mask to represent the name that translates to “Blue Angel.”
He started wrestling in lucha libre six years ago in Auburn, and now competes in Tacoma with Juvi 775 and El Vagabundo.
Angel Azul has never fought without the mask, nor does he intend to ditch the Mexican tradition.
When he wrestled in Auburn, Angel Azul trained with Astro Imperial, a luchador who mentored the young athlete in lucha libre-style bouts. After Astro Imperial retired, Angel Azul continued with his own career, mimicking his teacher’s moves, and honoring him with the mask.
“It’s my way of keeping him around, and paying tribute to him,” Angel Azul said. “It’s my nod to a great mentor.”
Angel Azul also stressed that a luchador’s mask is directly connected to his or her persona in the ring.
“It’s everything to us,” he added. “It’s who you are. It’s your signature, all defined by that mask.”
When the luchadores put on their masks, they’re representing an alter-ego aimed at intimidating opponents, and entertaining the crowd. Depending on the character, luchadores are portrayed as either allies or enemies, and fans play along.
Anthony Abastilla, 31, of Bremerton, attended the lucha libre matches last week because he is a longtime fan of the sport. Hulk Hogan and The Rock are among his favorites.
“It’s one of my childhood things,” he said. “I can’t resist it, this is my town here. It’s a good way to get the community together.”
“I’m a broke college student, so I appreciate the free event. I hope there will be more events like this,” he added.
The start of organized Mexican wrestling is credited to Salvador Lutteroth, who founded the Empresa Mexicana de Lucha Libre in 1933. The name of the professional federation translates to Mexican Wrestling Enterprise.
The masks have been used since the start of lucha libre, originally designed to distinguish competitors from each other. The idea to wear a mask was inspired by the Aztecs. Juvi 775 said he builds his outfits to resemble the historic empire.
Now, the masks have become cultural icons.
El Santo, Gory Guerrero, Blue Demon and Mil Máscaras are considered some of the greatest luchadores in the history of the sport. El Santo and Blue Demon were longtime rivals.
Superbarrio is one of the most popular luchadores in recent years. The Mexican-born wrestler was once declared a hero by the poor for his activism during the nation’s 1988 presidential election.
His outspoken attitude, and red and yellow outfits, won over the slum neighborhoods in Mexico. He never won an election.
Mexico and the United States have a long history with professional wrestling. Each nation now has its own slew of organized federations.
However, there are differences between lucha libre and traditional American wrestling. Lucha libre has more weight classes and a larger pool of smaller grapplers.
Luchadores are also known for using more high-flying tactics than American wrestlers, who use strength to win.
Tag team matches in lucha libre include three members, while U.S. fights include two. A captain is chosen of the three wrestlers. In order to win the event, one either needs to pin the captain or both of his partners.
Popular luchadores who crossed over to the American circuit include Rey Mysterio, Jr., Eddie Guerrero, Juventud Guerrera, La Parka, Super Crazy and Psicosis.
Women and wrestling
The Cinco de Mayo bouts included one female wrestler, The Lovely Lylah, of Shelton, who lost her match to Toro Diablo.
She didn’t wear a luchador’s mask because she said it isn’t necessary for female wrestlers to do so in Mexico. Her intentions on the mat partly include participation from the audience.
“I love watching the fans,” said The Lovely Lylah, who tried being an enemy by taunting the crowd at the event. “I love the reactions and being able to control the love-hate relationship with the crowd.”
The Lovely Lylah, who dropped 50 pounds when she started wrestling three years ago, said she enjoys competing in a sport mostly dominated by males. Her challenge has been dealing with other peoples’ expectations of her dropping more weight to fit a Barbie-type structure, she added.
“I’m trying to be me, instead of what people want me to be,” said The Lovely Lylah, who thrice tried out for World Wrestling Entertainment in the past year. “It’s disheartening sometimes, but I have a lot of positive reinforcement in my life right now.”