Artist Xavier Garza was 8 years old and flipping through the channels on a Saturday afternoon when he discove red the masked heroes of Mexican wrestling, or “lucha libre.”
“I came across an old Santo movie,” says Garza, now 37 and living in San Antonio. “They wore the tights, the boots, the cape and the mask. They were like superheroes come to life. I got really hooked on it.”
El Santo, or the Saint, was one of lucha libre’s most beloved characters and appears in “Las Super Luchas,” a collection of 15 paintings by Garza that pay homage to the sport. The collection is on display through Aug. 20 at the Arizona State Museum in Tucson.
“It’s a bit nostalgic,” says Garza of the collection. “I wanted to take (visitors) back to when they were younger and they idolized the heroes and villains (of lucha libre).”
Salvador Lutteroth Gonzalez brought lucha libre to Mexico in the 1930s. The story goes that Gonzalez saw his first wrestling match in Texas in 1929 and decided the spectacle would be a hit in Mexico. He was right.
Go to a curio shop in Mexico and you’ll see figurines of wrestlers along with those of cultural icons such as the Virgin Mary, singer Pedro Infante and Emilio Zapata. Fans quickly took to the masked figures representing good and evil in everyday life. People who couldn’t afford theater tickets could take their children to lucha libre for a few pesos.
“Lucha libre is poor man’s theater,” says Garza.
The struggle between good and evil, and the duality of the wrestlers, who rarely removed their masks in public to protect their identities, fascinated Garza.
“In essence they are leading a dual life,” says Garza. “As long as they wore the mask they ceased to be Juan Anaya or Rodolfo Gonzalez (El Santo’s true identity).”
And the mask was the single most important character in the ring. El Santo, for example, refused to remove his mask in public until shortly before his death in 1984. In the world of lucha libre, being unmasked equals failure, even though every wrestler is eventually unmasked once over the course of his or her career.
For many years lucha libre was strictly a Mexican phenomenon. But Americans are catching on thanks to Cartoon Network’s “Mucha Lucha” and the film “Nacho Libre,” which opens June 16.
Las Super Luchas
What: Artist Xavier Garza’s homage to the sport of lucha libre
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday through Aug. 20
Where: Arizona State Museum, 1013 E. University Blvd., Tucson
Cost: $3 suggested donation
Information: (520) 621-6302 or www.statemuseum.arizona.edu