La lucha continua: Mexican wrestling in the Mission

About twice a year, a high school gym in San Francisco’s Mission District fills with hundreds of Latino families for an unusual fundraiser. Kids wear facemasks, grandmas yell, dads blow plastic horns for Lucha Libre. It’s a form of Mexican wrestling, a hybrid of sport and spectacle that pits good guys against bad. The idea first hit the U.S. mainstream with the film Nacho Libre and now there are lucha-themed restaurants and even lucha-dance clubs. But it’s not just a form of entertainment: it’s also a theater for social commentary. Independent producer Lisa Morehouse takes us ringside at John O’Connell High School in San Francisco.

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LISA MOREHOUSE: 10 year old Enrique Herrerra is standing on his chair, waiting for his heroes of Lucha Libre to enter the ring.

ENRIQUE HERRERRA: These are the ones; these are the ones! Now everyone is going crazy!

Lucha Libre is a form of Mexican wrestling that’s been around nearly 100 years. Wrestlers take on personas, wearing colorful capes and masks. They do somersaults, dive off of ropes into the stands, and egg on the crowd.  In Mexico, it’s nearly as popular as soccer.

Many people in tonight’s audience came to see a young member of the famous wrestling family, Los Mysterios. Rey Mysterio Junior says Lucha represents both sides of life.

REY MYSTERIO JUNIOR: For the people, Lucha Libre represents both sides of life: the white and the black, the good and the bad.

BOB GAMINO: They’re the best bad guys you could get.

Bob Gamino is a teacher at John O’Connell High School. He organized tonight’s event.

GAMINO: Everyone’s on their feet…[Border Patrol] eggs them on, guys come out put hands in form of “C” like do you have your green card. It’s the bad guy who brings the show because the crowd loves to hate him. 

 Herrera is also rooting against the Border Patrol.

 HERRERRA: That one, the one in the green hates all Mexicans.  He’s from the Border Patrol.  I don’t really like them, because I’m kind of Mexican, and that’s why I want Mr. Wrestling to win.

Maria Luisa Ruiz is a professor at St. Mary’s College of California who studied lucha libre.

MARIA LUISA RUIZ: You can’t go up and beat up a [Border Patrol] agent, but you can at least see it happen in the ring in a very, very spectacular way, and in a way where you can root for the other guy.

HERRERRA: Right now, the bad guy is doing a submission on Mr. Wrestling. I think the bad guy hates the horns right now, so I think everyone should blow their horns.

This Border Patrol act is part of a long Lucha Libre tradition of fighting against symbols of power. Other bad guys have been Texas Rangers and corrupt government officials.  

HERRERRA: Oh, I think Mr. Wrestling hit him on the face with his knee really back.

A bell rings, indicating a winner—and an upset. The Border Patrol wins the match. Herrera and the rest of the crowd are outraged.

HERRERRA: Oh that guy was cheating; he was cheating! You saw him put his leg up on the ropes. The bad guys always cheat when no one’s looking.  He doesn’t deserve this. Mr. Wrestling doesn’t deserve it. I think he needs a rematch. That guy was cheating.

MOREHOUSE: I thought in Lucha the good guys usually win.

HERRERRA: They do, but when the bad guys cheat, they can’t. Right now everyone’s cheering, everyone’s cheering back for him. Who cares that he lost, everyone still likes him; everyone’s his #1 fan…he’s a very good guy. He doesn’t let the crowd down; he doesn’t talk about other countries.

Even in a melodrama, the villain wins sometimes. But here, what’s most important is la lucha continua – the struggle continues. 

For Crosscurrents, I’m Lisa Morehouse, in San Francisco.

John O’Connell High School will be hosting their next Lucha Libre match this Saturday.