MAKEUP VS. MASKS: After fighting one Pandemonium Trio opponent from the ring, Diva Salvaje takes hold of his next foe.

Although other wrestlers knew he was gay (one defeated opponent stabbed him with an ice pick in reprisal), Cassandro initially competed with a mask to hide his identity from friends and family. When he decided to shed it—a highly political coming-out statement—and fight as an exótico, everyone in Cassandro's family supported him except for his father. "He had a hard time dealing with it," Cassandro says. "At one point I said, 'I fucking hate you. The only thing I have that reminds me of you is the way I pee.'" (They have since reconciled.)

Cassandro soon became immersed in the hard-living ethos of lucha libre. Touring like rock stars and punishing their bodies, young wrestlers—exóticos and masked luchadores alike—are sucked into a brutal culture of hazing (one ritual involves a line of wrestlers beating new members and then spraying cologne into the fresh cuts), drinking, and hotel sex parties (open to both gays and heteros, so long as you've proved yourself in the ring). "I started doing drugs to be part of the top wrestlers," Cassandro says. "I would never get up in the ring without being stoned."

Nevertheless, Cassandro possessed legitimate skills. Whereas exóticos had previously focused more on preening than on pinning, Cassandro won respect with his technique and strength. In 1991, after just two years in Mexico City, he was invited to wrestle in a televised world welterweight championship against the silver-masked El Hijo del Santo, lucha libre's biggest star. The public and the press had a hard time understanding why an openly gay man was permitted to wrestle a national hero. Some commentators took the matchup as a sign that Mexican morality was going down the toilet. The pressure got to Cassandro, who was ridiculed in the media and threatened by strangers on the street. A few nights before the bout, he attempted suicide by slashing his wrists with a razor. "I'd been sexually, physically, and emotionally abused since I was 6," he says, "and I couldn't handle going from that to being the first exótico to wrestle for a world championship." After finding him unconscious, a fellow exótico took him to the home of a friend, who called a doctor. The next week, Cassandro wrestled with bandaged wounds and lost: Allowing a gay exótico to fight Mexico's golden boy was already a tough sell to the Mexican public; allowing him to win would have been unthinkable. (News flash: Wrestling is scripted.)

But a year later, Cassandro fought again for a world title, against a different opponent, and emerged victorious—the first time a title belt was handed to an openly gay fighter. "That was a breaking point," says Michael Ramos-Araizaga, a Mexico City–based Fulbright scholar whose documentary featuring Cassandro, Los Exóticos, premieres at the Mexico City Gay Film Festival. "When he won, many doors opened for him and the exóticos.

But increased opportunities don't necessarily translate into increased pesos. Cassandro, who owns a three-bedroom house and drives a 2012 Nissan Altima, is one of the few who make a decent living. For a wrestler like Salvaje, the rewards are meager—but he says the opportunity to grow his blond mane after years lost in the anonymity of a nursing career has been worth the hardship. He remembers being inspired as a child after seeing Cassandro on TV. "I would start wrestling in my house and kiss my teddy bear," he says. After quitting medicine, he decided, at 24, to throw himself into wrestling. He quickly realized, after an event in rural Michoacán, that life outside liberal Mexico City could be rough for a man wrestling in drag. "I went to play with the audience," he says, "and one of the fans showed me he had a pistol. I quickly ran back to the ring and didn't leave for the rest of the match."

In Salvaje's simple two-room Mexico City apartment, portraits of Jesus and the Virgin Mary hang alongside a poster of him in the ring. He shares a small bed with his friend Pasion Kristal, 36, a wrestler from rural Tabasco who shed his mask seven years ago to become an exótico, losing his job as a special-ed teacher in the process. "The gay community is very proud of me because I inspire a lot of young people," Kristal says. "We exóticos inspire them to keep going, to pursue being singers or writers or models or whatever profession. It's all about your determination."

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Twenty-four hours after Cassandro's neighborhood throwdown, the sidewalks outside Arena México are buzzing with vendors hawking miniature rubber wrestlers and ticket scalpers stopping traffic. "It's like playing in the Super Bowl," says Araizaga, the documentary filmmaker. One of the arena's biggest stars is Maximo, a 32-year-old third-generation wrestler performing as a straight exótico, toning down the makeup and outfits while comically playing up the limp-wristed effeminacy.