DRAG ADDICTION: Cassandro, Black Mamba, and Diva Salvaje excite the 200-person crowd.

During his 25-year-career, Cassandro estimates, he has wrestled 4,500 times in nine countries. He has won three world titles. He owes his longevity in part to blue-collar Mexico's appreciation of gay wrestlers. "One of my colleagues calls it opera for the working class," says William A. Nericcio, a professor at the Center for Latin American Studies at San Diego State University. "Maybe Latinos are just a little more embracing when it comes to the spectrum of sexual possibility."

Unlike in the U.S.—where professional wrestling is widely acknowledged to be both homoerotic and homophobic—the sport is comfortable in its own spandex south of the border. Yet the stream of gay-bashing epithets coming from the neighborhood crowd in Martin Carrera indicates that this event is far from a pride parade. "Mexican culture has two realities," says Daniela Herrerías, a Mexico City photographer who has toured with a wrestling company. "There's homophobia, but in wrestling it's different. Exóticos are more free. They can do things a normal wrestler can't—kiss the ref, kiss the people, pull a woman's hair. They're like goddesses."

A group of fans has formed a tunnel to the ring, and Black Mamba is the first exótico to appear. He grimaces as his 65-year-old mother zips the back of his figure-hugging homemade black, gold, and red one-piece bathing suit with thunderbolts pointing at his anus, then says, "Sexy, sexy." Next is Salvaje, in leather boots, a silver robe, and a blue boa. Reeking of bourbon from the night before, Salvaje shakes off a drunken man who tries to hug him. The fan immediately punches another audience member, falls over, and is ejected.

The trio's star, Cassandro is the last to enter the ring, walking slowly and defiantly. An exótico will typically kiss a fan during his entrance, and as Cassandro approaches, a cluster of middle-aged men in trucker caps poke each other in the ribs and catcall. Cassandro moves to plant his lips on one, but the man ducks. Smiling, Cassandro sashays into the ring to take on the devil-masked Pandemonium Trio. What follows is a mélange of Starlight Express, high-school football, and tango as the exóticos perform with coordinated, if campy, athleticism. Cassandro jumps and bounds off the ropes, pins an opponent in a hold resembling an act of sodomy, and then stands atop a post, raising his arms to cheers. Salvaje spins opponents to the mat, while Black Mamba does backflips. At one point, all the wrestlers run around in a Benny Hill–style chase sequence. As a finale, the triumphant exóticos line up and kiss the masked mouths of their opponents, who then remove their disguises and spit in disgust as the crowd howls. A child, maybe 4 years old, shouts "¡Punto!" (slang for fag) as a wheezing Cassandro exits the ring along with Salvaje and Mamba.

Eduardo Torres, a 23-year-old taxi driver in a red hoodie, takes a break from yelling to explain the appeal of the exóticos. "People just like to have fun," he says. "They scream at Cassandro, but people love it. Gay people are accepted. Young people don't care."

The exóticos also embody a resilience that seems to resonate with the working poor who come to see them. "People shout antigay slurs, but it's a mixed message," Levi says. "Exóticos represent some things that are retrograde, but they also represent this way of being that challenges ideas of sexuality and gender. They've done a good job of putting these contradictions on the table, of being people who are defined by their inability to fight, yet still fight."

Backstage, Cassandro nurses his knee while Salvaje and Black Mamba gingerly unzip their outfits. They change into gray sweat suits and leave the park as an "extreme match"—featuring weapons like barbed wire—gets under way. As he tows his snakeskin wheelie bag to the car, a borrowed brown Chrysler minivan with a glittery Virgin Mary window sticker, Cassandro lights a cigarette. "I didn't get hurt, which was my main concern," he says. "They're trying to hurt me, because they want to say, 'I beat Cassandro.' I'm sweet, short, and spicy. Uh-uh. I don't let people do that."

• • •

The exóticos first climbed into Mexican wrestling rings in the 1940s as rarefied dandies, wearing fezzes and cloaks, escorted by white-shirted valets spraying perfume from atomizers. Although they fulfilled gay stereotypes in the ring, they claimed to be straight in real life, growing in popularity as a comical counterpoint to the masked wrestlers' masculinity. The role remained largely unchanged until Cassandro's generation began wrestling in the late 1980s.