Fans Understanding Madness and Mental Health Through Lucha Libre
Luchas Libres remind me of the advice I got on my first roller coaster ride: “You have to scream the whole time. It’s only fun if you scream.”
After a year of long-distance dating, I convinced Atenea, the woman I’d marry, to let me come see her and her family in Mexico City. If this visit went well, if I liked Mexico, if Mexico—her family, really—liked me, I could move in with her on the picturesque Calle Anaxagoras in Narvarte. I arrived on a Thursday. That Sunday, we approached her father’s stall in La Lagunilla, the open-air tianguis that takes over the Tepito neighborhood every week.
We walked past secondhand sellers, past the CD and vinyl dealers with their faded pictures of great singers, and past a guy who specializes in World War II memorabilia, including a garish and jarring Nazi flag. We made it almost all the way to the migas sellers. That’s where I met my father-in-law for the first time.
Atenea went up to her father while I waited two stalls away, pretending to look over some antique musical instruments. When she finally waved me over, Arturo politely frowned at me. “We came too late,” Atenea said, translating Arturo’s words from Spanish. “Everything interesting he had to sell has been bought already.”
Arturo sells rare and used books. I spotted a yellowed booklet with stunning scarlet lettering. I recognized the name on the cover: Ricardo Flores Magón—printer, revolutionary, anarchist. I motioned to it in pantomime. Arturo beamed at me and insisted I take it. It was a lucky overlap of our interests: mine in anarchism, Arturo’s in Mexican authors and history, both of ours in old and pretty books. Atenea and I wanted to catch a Lucha Libre match at Arena México, so we left, but not before Arturo and I shook hands.
Later that night, after the fights, we met up again at the family house in Tacuba, where all the streets are named after rivers and lakes. Arturo told us that though he had been sworn to secrecy, he knew the real identity of the legendary high-flying luchador Mil Máscaras. The man of a thousand masks was, in fact, an elderly client of his who played piano beautifully. When Atenea scoffed, Arturo doubled down: “He went to Columbia, like where you met Mo!” That same night, he found out my birthday was quite close to his. Happily, he told me, “Ah, all of us Aquariuses are the same!”
As we prepared to leave, Arturo was in a more solemn mood. He gestured to his own face, then Atenea’s sister’s face. He pointed out that they were both darker skinned than Atenea. He asked something in Spanish, and Atenea blushed. At first, she refused to translate the question, but ultimately she told me, “He’s asking if you’re aware that our children might be brown, that you will be a white father of brown children.”
I had to walk a line between further embarrassing Atenea and answering Arturo. I said simply yes, and that was fine by me.
There is more that I’m not telling you. Love is complicated and difficult and it is, by rights, private. Even secret. Like Mil Máscaras, like every luchador, my father-in-law and I don’t ever want to lose our masks. But still, you should know that, at some point, on that first day, between the rare books, the leaping luchadores, the Aquarian stars, and a promise of children, my father-in-law and I cemented a love almost as important as the love I have for his daughter. A love on which family can be built. I moved in with Atenea that April. I quickly became a regular at Arena México’s Friday and Tuesday shows.
Wrestling in Mexico is family oriented. It’s not just that the stands are filled with grandparents and parents and children on their Sunday outings to the Arena México or the Arena Coliseo. Luchadores, promoters, managers, trainers, the whole community of the sport refer to themselves as “la familia luchística.” Names, characters, gimmicks, and sometimes even masks are passed down as a loving inheritance between friends, between students and teachers, between blood relations. In a country that hosts animal blood sports like cockfighting and bullfighting, that has been embroiled in a brutal drug war for the last thirty years, wrestling has become good clean family fun. To watch two men in elaborate costumes leap over and beat each other savagely is to have a cathartic outlet for the rage that builds in the heart.
Perhaps it’s the clear-cut morality of it all. In Mexico, everyone knows who’s good and who’s bad. As anthropologist Heather Levi, who trained as a luchadora for her book The World of Lucha Libre , puts it, “Lucha Libre presents good and evil, not as mutual exclusions, but as mutual necessities.” In one corner stands the team of brutal, rule-breaking, rough, and fiendish Rudos. In the other are the noble, high-leaping, wiry, and clever Técnicos. Locked in titanic, universal conflict, Luchas Libres always remind me of the advice a friend gave me on my first roller coaster ride: “You have to scream the whole time. It’s only fun if you scream.”
That year I moved to Mexico, it was easy to scream at the luchas. Back home in the US, Trump and the Republicans kept winning—and on my first night in Arena México, out came Sam Adonis. Sam Adonis was a Rudo, a bad guy, the villain of the tragicomedy unfolding in the ring. He was six feet plus of lean, blue-eyed, and blond muscle, an Aryan daydream, waving a US flag with the beaming con man face of Donald Trump superimposed on it. I hated Sam. His teammate, the Rudo Bobby Z, working an ultra Mexican charro gimmick, all silver sombrero and bandoleras, hated Sam. In Arena México, we all hated Sam. At one point, the good-guy Técnicos got us to shout “sí, se puede” as they pummeled him. I screamed Obama’s vague campaign promise with more conviction than I ever had in 2008.
To watch two men in elaborate costumes leap over and beat each other savagely is to have a cathartic outlet for the rage that builds in the heart.
That’s probably my best Lucha Libre story, with Sam Adonis’s stunning visuals, its blatant political subtext, the liberating sensation of booing and hissing at the country of my birth. I have others though. There’s always more stories in the ring. The Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre, the largest promoter of the sport, puts on at least three shows a week in Mexico City. They aren’t all political social commentaries. Sometimes they’re just good old-fashioned stories of a half-naked man in a mask leaping onto his enemy and hitting him with great force. But they are all stories of triumph, whether that’s good over evil, evil over good, or man over gravity. And every story is better if you scream through it, scream until your throat is ragged and dry.
That feeling of a raw bleeding throat, that’s a familiar one for me. Not just from roller coasters and wrestling rings, but from psychosis, life, Madness. I’ve spent weeks with a raw spot on my forehead where I had rubbed it against a rough carpet over and over, seeking to punish and soothe myself during an anxiety attack. I have a history of self-loathing and misery beyond all reason, out of proportion. There’s a time in my life I don’t remember well, because I was not well. The world got very dismal and thin, and I poked holes in it all the time. All this to say, at twenty years old, I had a depressed psychotic episode and have spent most of my adult life recovering from it.
I was a college dropout, and Madness was my education for many years. It taught me how to swallow pills without water or questioning. Madness taught me how to follow meandering conversations with my schizoaffective comrades in outpatient programs. Madness taught me how to be far from home, alone in the residential psychiatric programs my parents and I turned to in desperation. And Madness taught me kindness, gentleness, even love. During my experience in recovery, I was able to cultivate a devoted care ethic for all people, but especially those with whom I suffered the traumas of psychiatric distress. We would trade diagnoses: What are you in for? as if to say, I am a collected butterfly too. Here is where the pin went in. I was healing when I met Atenea. She saw something in that process, in me, that she respected and could love. And then she brought me home to Mexico, to meet her father.
Like me, Arturo is a college dropout. At nineteen, he left Catholic seminary and quickly got married to Irma, my mother-in-law. He struggled for many years to find a career that suited him, chafing in offices, exhausted by factories. Arturo came to antiquarianism by picking up trash off the streets and finding the gold it hides. If Madness taught me what I needed to know to love Atenea, Arturo’s obsessive love of collecting taught him what he needed in order feed her and her sisters.
Arturo has his own problems with an unruly mind. Panic attack sounds like a Lucha Libre move, and like Lucha Libre, panic attacks are a little real and a little imagined. To Arturo, panic attacks are a sensation like dying, like his world coming to an end, a possibility that he won’t get to see his friends or family again. He is struck by strange fits of anger and concern. He feels under attack a lot. Sometimes, his family urges him to get rid of the mountains of found and bought objects and books that fill his small apartment of rooms. He tries, sometimes vociferously, to explain that we don’t understand, that his things are him in some way. Like the luchadores in their masks, what he’s hiding behind has become his essence. Other times, he fears he is getting very sick: He has pain in his back and his side; no medicines help. He can’t breathe, even on days in Mexico City when the smog is minimal.
I used to think Lucha Libre echoed the black-and-white thinking that dominates my depression and Arturo’s anxiety. Everything is either all good, a Técnico in his bright mask, leaping over the hapless Rudos. Or it’s a savage beatdown, the blows falling like rain and my body shuddering under them. Sometimes I think that we take on the masks we wear, that my father-in-law, insisting he’s right about some small worry that is consuming him, believes it when he says, “I’m worried about it because I pay attention. I’m not blind like the rest of you.”
Arturo is the vindicated Técnico, outrageously assailed by Rudos who don’t understand him, who refuse to follow the rules that are so obvious to him. Meanwhile, at my most depressed, I knew exactly who was the cruel, thoughtless, and merciless Rudo who deserved shameful defeat: I was. Hit me, pound me, throw me out of the ring. I’m done. A broken fighter with no more grace or dignity, and every real fan booing me.
Now, I think Lucha Libre is like Madness because of its delicate, strange balance of fantasy and reality. Was I in danger when I wanted to die every day? Only as much danger as I imagined. So too the wrestler in the ring. If he loses his sense of what’s real, of the arrangements made in rehearsal, of his training in leaps and falls, of the solidity of the man who is about to catch him, he’ll break his neck.
I think Lucha Libre is like Madness because of its delicate, strange balance of fantasy and reality.
Throughout her book, Heather Levi ponders the question of what makes a Técnico the good guy he is universally acknowledged to be. Some luchadores she talked to would try to convince her that it was the attitude to authority, the referee and the rules of wrestling. A Técnico tries to cooperate with the referee’s ruling, even with an obviously corrupt or foolish ref. But Levi noticed in more than a few matches a departure from this norm, with Técnicos going behind the referee’s back to use illegal moves in order to avenge themselves on the Rudos. Similarly, there was no consistent physicality to the “technicians” of the ring; they would often indulge in brutish methods supposedly pioneered by Rudos. So what then makes a good guy in Lucha Libre?
Levi finds an answer in the way both teams function. Rudos regularly quarrel among themselves, accidentally or intentionally injuring each other, much like Bobby Z and Sam Adonis. Meanwhile, Técnicos “recognize each other and stop in midaction if they are about to hurt a teammate. If they crash into each other by accident or through Rudo manipulation, they apologize, hug or slap one another on the back, and return to the fray. They assist each other, avenge each other, protect each other. The hallmark of the Técnico, then, is solidarity.”
This is the lucha, the struggle my father-in-law and I fight. It is half-imagined and deadly real. We have our secrets, even from each other. Only we know who will win and who will lose. Only we know who is behind the mask. But we always have our allies, we always have solidarity. With each other, our fellow madmen, and our familia luchística, we take on the world, screaming all the way.