Heather Levi emerges triumphant with this
in the arena
of lucha libre
The World of Lucha Libre: Secrets, Revelations, and Mexican National Identity
2009, Duke University Press
Reviewed by Georgina Jiménez
SALVADOR NOVO, Mexico’s great gay wit, made the first serious effort to undress the steamy sexual subtext of the lucha libre when he wrote in 1940:
“It is even possible to suppose … that one can predict which of the two opponents turn it is to receive, like a submissive wife, the weight of his opponent on his chest and back. When that happens, we already know that all is consummated. But while that happens, that is, during the delicious process that Havelock Ellis would call the tumescence – what brilliant improvisations we see!” 
But the last time I attended a lucha in Mexico City, it wasn’t the homo-erotic grappling going on in the ring but a little old lady in the audience that stole the show, as her bemused fellows watched on, mouths agape.
Shouting the most obscene expletives at the “rudo” – or bad-guy – in the sweaty duel taking place on the canvas, she hobbled up to the ropes and promptly tossed a glass of beer over the subject of her abuse then sat back imperiously in her seat. My partner later revealed that his grandmother had been one of those tough old fishwives who delighted in the joust and screamed at the wrestlers from her nicotine-stained chair.
So what is it about biddies that makes them put down their knitting and turn into such menacing participants in this most physical of spectacles?
Heather Levi provides intriguing clues in her groundbreaking study of lucha libre in Mexico which carries to new heights an anthropologist’s commitment to understanding her subject.
The old woman plays just one small role in the complex pattern of overlapping ethical, sexual and power dynamics by which lucha speaks to Mexican society about itself. She is not, as other writers have suggested, the embodiment of a catharsis for women of a certain age and class who suffer all week at the hands of their macho husbands, argues Levi. By contrast, the working-class public sphere of many urban areas is populated by women, and in particular older women, who voice its moral outrage. The author writes:
“Rather than (or in addition to) stealing a moment of expressiveness from their otherwise repressed lives, perhaps the older, female lucha fans are performing a role that is familiar to them: that of making moral judgments and expressing the will of the community around those judgments … More than simple catharsis, this form of lucha libre spectatorship might be seen as a playful exercise of a real moral authority.” (p. 174)
Semiotics and anthropology
The World of Lucha Libre is one of the most interesting cultural studies of a key pastime in Mexico for many years, bringing together semiotics and social anthropology in an original and highly accessible mix that engages the interested outsider as much as the dedicated student. And when it comes to dedication, Levi can teach her peers a thing or two: the author not only immersed herself as a social scientist in the world of professional wrestling in Mexico City, but even trained as a luchadora – a female wrestler – in order to understand the deeper social meanings of the grips, holds and throws favoured by the fighters.
She has provided a valuable ethnographic study and work of reference but also an important summary of the rise and fall of professional wrestling in Mexico, from its circus origins through its cinematic heyday under the great Santo (see accompanying review, The saint in tights) to the divisive decline that was inaugurated by what Levi describes as the “base treachery” of the Televisa network in the 1990s.
The sexual and gender undercurrents of professional wrestling in Mexico are just one of the more obvious themes to emerge as prominent in this study. Among the subjects that Levi’s keen eye for the unusual identifies is the “exótico”, the openly camp wrestler whose bellicose behaviour belies his role as the joto in the ring. Once insisting on a rigid (excuse the pun) division between their behaviour in the arena and their lifestyle outside it, in the 1980s openly gay exóticos began taking off their gloves and made no attempt to deny their homsexuality.
The author suggests that the exóticos, in fact, appropriate feminine signs and present an identity that is neither male nor female, posing a challenge to the notion of the degraded maricón by dominating publicly the masculinity of “real” men, that is, their opponents.
Another key theme to emerge in The World of Lucha Libre is the fixed moral code of the contests, in which good guys (“técnicos”) battle it out with the bad guys in a ritualistic contest set firmly within Mexico’s labyrinthine political process that is more like a modern morality play than a test of genuine sportsmanship – even if the wrestlers themselves insist this is a sport. The moral code is played out precisely through the identities that are superimposed upon the masked individuals.
One contemporary embodiment of this politico-moral role can be found in the character of Superbarrio, who emerged as the masked champion of Mexico’s urban underclass years before Marcos cocked his gun, primed his pipe and adjusted his balaclava in the jungles of Chiapas. Superbarrio has been joined on the progressive left by other masked champions voicing the concerns and grievances of the poorest sectors of society.
Levi provides a valuable survey of theoretical approaches to professional wrestling that draws upon a surprisingly rich bibliography, from classic works such as Roland Barthes’ Mythologies (1972) to more recent studies such as that of Sharon Mazer (1998). The author questions the underlying premise of many of these that the real meaning found in wrestling derives from its fakery. She concludes:
“… in Mexico, lucha libre developed as a way for people to think about different aspects of the postrevolutionary political system. It communicates complex and contradictory ideas: about gender, about national and regional identity, about moral and immoral codes of conflict. But the central statement that lucha libre makes about power in twentieth-century Mexico is made through its basic structure. The ambiguity of the genre that places it between sport and theater, fact and fiction, conflict and collaboration, coupled with the discourse of the mask, highlights the importance of secrecy to the operation of power.” (p. 219)
1. Salvador Novo, 1964 (1940). “Mi Lucha (Libre)” in La vida en México en el periodo presidencial de Lázaro Cárdenas. Mexico City: Empresas. Cited in Levi, p. 146