Story & Photos By Maria Esquinca
On a regular Sunday evening the Houchen Community Center is packed with people eagerly anticipating the first anniversary of Mamá Lucha, a local lucha libre company.
Inside the gymnasium the lucha libre ring is set up in the center. Metal chairs and bleachers surround it on all sides, making every angle of the ring viewable for the audience. Although most of the chairs, people still buy tickets and filter in.
Inside the ring, kids climb the sturdy, green, rope. They bounce against it and use it like a slingshot to fling themselves into the air. Others, climb the rope like a ladder. Most excitedly run, jump and scream inside the ring. They push each other and mimic their heroes while sporting a colorful lucha libre mask. Cumbias play over the speakers; the lively music matches the energy reverberating through the audience. They anxiously wait for the fights to begin; more than 20 luchadores will compete.
Three hours and four matches later the final match, “Lucha Super Estrella” or Super Star Match, begins. The match has come to a standstill between Cassandro El Exótico and El Ultimo Samuray– both are loved and cherished by the community. They’re both relentless. Fatigue exudes from glistening bodies through their heavy breathing. They’ve exhausted their muscles through jumps, shoves, flips, and falls.
But the audience clamors for more. A vocal battle ensues among the audience members. Some scream Cassandro! Others Samuray! And both jump up from the floor the second before the referee has a chance to declare a loser.
However, they couldn’t be more different from each other. El Ultimo Samuray is tall, and muscular. His bulky arms emerge of the thin strips of his black muscle tank top. While Cassandro’s eyes are covered with eye shadow, eyeliner and mascara. He wears a black body suit with swaths of glittery bright pink, displaying a balance between masculinity and femininity.
“Yes, it’s a performance, but it’s part of my essence,” Cassandro says. “I’m not playing the role of an artist or of somebody else. I’m playing me. That’s the difference in lucha– that you’re making your own history, your own role.”
Cassandro squeezes El Ultimo Samuray’s head under his arm, grabs his mask and begins to tear it off. El Ultimo Samuray screams as his identity slowly slips from his face.
“I have a feminine side,” Cassandro says. “When I go inside the ring, that’s where the manliness comes in. That’s where masculinity enters me.”
Cassandro was 16 years old when he was exposed to lucha libre. He became friends with other luchadores who encouraged him to train with them. At first he didn’t want to, but then he fell in love with the profession.
Cassandro says he loved, “the men, the bodies, the masks, the capes. I loved watching the women fight. How they got ready, all pretty, and then how they would end up all bloody.”
He was still studying to become a medical assistant when he started training with his friends. For about a year his schedule consisted of going to school early in the morning, then crossing the border to go train in Juárez, and finally returning home to finish his schoolwork. His day would end at 2 a.m. and begin all over again at seven in the morning.
He graduated from college with honors and worked in a nursing home, but it became too painful for him to watch many of his patients pass away often. “I left to become a lucha libre fighter and the rest is history,” Cassandro said.
He traveled to Tijuana, Mexico, and trained for 10 months with his coach and mentor, Rey Misterioso. But, he hadn’t become Cassandro yet. He fought as an “enmascarado,” a lucha libre fighter who wears a mask as Mister Romana and Rosa Salvaje, characters from a popular telenovela in the late 1980s.
His coach who encouraged him to fight with a mask so that he would be less afraid of the crowd, but Cassandro says the mask made him feel oppressed.“Right away I took off the mask because I would say ‘no, that’s not me.’ The people knew, they’d say ‘oh there goes that homo, that guy is a faggot,’” Cassandro says.
While in Tijuana, he and Rey Misterioso met Cassandra, a prostitute who used her earnings to fund a shelter that housed homeless children and women who were victims of domestic violence. “I really liked her story,” Cassandro says. “She gave me a book and autographed it, and she gave me a blessing, and my career has turned out to be a bleassing.”
Rey Misterioso had originally suggested that he take up the name Cassandra, but he refused. “I’m not a woman,” he says. “Even though I have that duality, I’m still a man, no? Even though I feel I’m a woman on the inside, I’m trapped inside the body of a man. And many people can understand that and many people can’t, but I understand my body.”
In the late 1980s Cassandro, alongside two other luchadores; Pimpinela and My Flower, began to dress in drag when they fought at the national coliseums such as the Toreo de Cuatro Caminos in Mexico city, one of the most recognized lucha libre coliseums. They were the first openly gay luchadores to fought in drag. In Spanish they are called exoticós.
“We were the first ones to get on stage with make-up and swimsuits and tights,” Cassandro says. “We said, ‘well let’s see what the people say.’ The people loved us. And since then I’ve been one of the crowd favorites. The people always welcome me, and the people know who I am.”
While the people were accepting, the promoters, the press and the commission that regulates lucha libre were not as welcoming.
Some of the other luchadores were also homophobic, and said offensive slurs to them when they were in the dressing room. “There were two fights,” he says. “You had to fight as much on the outside of the ring as you did on the inside.”
After 28 years of professional fighting, he continues. He shows me pictures of the X-rays of his knee on his phone. The images reveal eight screws beneath his flesh. They hold his knee together. Two years ago, a fighter in McAllen, Texas, fell on Cassandro’s knee and popped it.
His surgeon tells him that he needs to stop fighting. He is going to have to get reconstructive surgery, but that doesn’t stop him.
“It’s lucha libre, not a beauty salon,” Cassandro said.
On the anniversary of Mamá Lucha, Cassandro walks into the gymnasium confidently. The crowd chants his name over and over. The long, purple train of his coat trails behind him. Someone carefully rearranges it so it doesn’t crumple.
Unlike the other luchadores, he takes his time before he gets inside the ring. He goes around the stage, greets people, shakes their hands, and kisses their cheeks. Then, he takes off his coat, steps into the ring and fights.
In the final moments of the Super Star Match, Cassandro unties El Ultimo Samuray’s mask. The mask is shredded and reveals specks of Samuray’s cheek. Cassandro stands tall in the ring, the floor is splattered with sweat and blood. He lifts his fist into the air, all around him people scream. He won the fight.
“My work has worth–good or bad–I have my story,” Cassandro says.