Photos by Art Torres

It’s 7:30 on a cloudy Saturday night, and men, women and children wearing masks of blue with white, silver with black, and red with green begin to line up along the perimeter of The East Los Angeles Community Youth Center. They soon fill the seats around the gym’s boxing ring, snacks in hand, for a night of Lucha Libre.

As soon as the night’s first two masked warriors are introduced by the referee, the crowd of about 150 goes wild, jumping off their seats and rooting for their favorite wrestler. A rainstorm outside is drowned out by the yells of “rudo, rudo, rudo” inside, where fans wave Mexican and American flags.

Lucha Libre –literally free wrestling– has a decades-long history in Mexico, where it is considered a national sport. Combining traditional wrestling with dramatic storylines, luchadores perform extreme stunts in unique costumes. The love of the sport has come to the United States, where it is popular in communities like Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles because it provides an affordable family outing that gives immigrants a taste of home.

“It’s a tradition,” said Alicia Rodríguez, a 58-year-old resident of East Los Angeles who likes to take her grandchildren to the match. “My uncles and my mom liked it. I don’t like it, but I come to bring the kids.”

A long history 

Amateur wrestling first appeared in Mexico in the late 1800s, but did not become a national phenomenon until the 1930s, when a promoter brought in the personalities and storylines he had seen in matches in El Paso, Texas. An element introduced in 1952 changed lucha forever: the debut of El Santo, bare chested with white pants and a silver mask, left fans with open mouths.

The máscaras allowed luchadores to take on a whole new personality, complemented by the colorful shapes and designs of their costumes.  In lucha, a wrestler wears his mask to keep secret his identity. If he is unmasked, it usually means the end of his career.

Lucha eventually migrated to the United States, where many in Hispanic communities prefer its more acrobatic style and almost mythical storylines to U.S. versions, such as the World Wrestling Entertainment, which is known for harder, more direct blows.

Lucha matches are so popular in Boyle Heights that the producers of “Lucha Underground,” a TV show on Robert Rodríguez’s El Rey Network– chose an abandoned warehouse near the Fourth Street Bridge as its location.

But while “Lucha Underground” is a grungy, almost artsy version created for a wide U.S. television audience, bouts in local arenas stay closer to the traditional lucha style where the “técnicos”, or good guys, fight it out with the “rudos”, or bad guys.

A home in East LA

The twice-monthly matches in East Los Angeles are presented by MWF Lucha Mex, an enterprise run by Manuel de los Santos, once known in the ring as El Kiss. When he lost his mask in a 1998 bout, he and his wrestler wife, La Texana, turned to promoting and to training their three boys, who now fight as part of La Dinastía Kiss (The Kiss Dynasty).

His oldest and youngest sons, who fight as Kiss Jr. and Kiss III, are often the top-billed good guys on his matches.

“We are fortunate to be born with this. We have it in our blood,” said Kiss Jr., 28, who said he began training when he was 14.

“We are practically born with our masks on,” agreed Kiss III, 20. “Being part of a lucha family is an honor.”

Honoring the family tradition, the sibling’s masks were inspired by the makeup of the rock group Kiss, just like their father’s. They wear similar black body suits with flame-like details, Kiss Jr. in red and Kiss III in purple.

“Kids like the masks, and the adults like the controversy of the rudos and the técnicos,” explained 33-year-old Punisher, a rudo whose persona is inspired in the Marvel superhero of the same name.

While most of the action on the ring is staged, the high jumps, body slams and tap outs are as real as it gets, and injuries are inevitable.

“My lower back is injured. So are my ankles. I was bitten on the forehead,” detailed The Punisher, who said that wrestlers face risks of dislocated and broken bones and in extreme cases, even death.  Last March in Tijuana, a popular wrestler, El Perro Aguayo, died during a match.

All about the audience

Rudos and técnicos agree that audiences influence their performances.

“They give us energy with their support,” said The Punisher, who often taunted the audience during his match. “We may be rudos, but we also get support.”

“We give the audience the best that we have,” said Kiss Jr. “We truly give ourselves wholeheartedly to the audience that feeds us every day.”

At the East Los Angeles Community Youth Center, families, groups of friends and even couples on dates were part of the audience. Many said ticket prices —$10 for adults and $3 for children– made it an affordable entertainment alternative in the neighborhood.

“This is the first time we come,” said Ralph González, 40, whose family group included two other adults and two children. “We always pass by, and we always see it, so we said, ‘We gotta go, we gotta go,’ and we finally made it.”

Dressed in black slacks and black shirt and wearing a silver mask, 19-year-old Refugio Zazueta sat with his mother in a row close to the ring. He said he has been a fan of lucha libre since he was 14. “Lucha libre has a lot to do with family,” he said, pointing to La Dinastía Kiss. “They’re a family, they’re united.”

Juan Ávila, 54, drove from San Bernardino with his girlfriend for the show. He grew up enjoying lucha matches in the Mexican twin cities of Torreón, Coahuila and Gómez Palacio, Durango.

“Lucha libre is merely entertainment,” he said. “It’s something different, to clear the mind.”

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