Slam. Bam. Glam. Meet Pro Wrestling's Most Fabulous Fighters

In the beginning, los exóticos were campy, effeminate stereotypes who pranced around Mexican wrestling rings to bait the country's machismo-drenched fans. Then along came out-and-proud Cassandro—a fiesty, flamboyant, pint-size, Texas-born warrior who whupped hetero ass and attitudes on his way to becoming the first openly gay wrestler to win a national title. Now he's intent on leading a new generation of lipstick-wearin', body-slammin', culo-kickin' stars to international spandex glory.

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PIONEER OF QUEER: Cassandro is transforming attitudes about gay wrestlers in Mexico and beyond.

PIONEER OF QUEER: Cassandro is transforming attitudes about gay wrestlers in Mexico and beyond.

Stuffed into a triangular slice of wilted grass between a diesel-belching freeway and a stucco-clad supermarket, a crowd of masked children, grinning parents, and screaming teens packs the platform of a freshly erected wrestling ring in the northern-Mexico City district of Martin Carrera on a hot afternoon just days before Christmas. The ring's wobbly legs rise and fall with the exertions of a trio of wrestlers in blue tights emblazoned with gold dollar signs. They're joined by three more fighters, who strut into the ring to groin-tremblingly loud techno music, flip off the crowd, and fling themselves against their opponents. One of the fatter fighters pins an adversary against a corner post, pulls down the man's spandex tights, and buries his face between sweat-coated ass cheeks, tossing salad to the crowd's delight until the referee breaks it up. A woman carrying an infant squeals with laughter, shouting "¡Chinga tu madre!" ("Fuck your mother!")

Backstage, in a space the size of a one-car garage, another 20 wrestlers on today's bill slather lubricant on their biceps, adjust their mullets, and smoke cigarettes. Amid this Boschian tableau of demon masks and flaming-skull-embossed tights, a 42-year-old, five-foot-four unmasked fighter with wavy blond hair known as Cassandro tucks his junk between his legs, adjusts his pink-sequined leotard, and touches up his makeup. He has black-and-white eyeliner tattooed on his eyelids—a practical time-saver. Although today's contest (a free event to celebrate the opening of a kids' park on the site of a former trash heap) may seem inauspicious, Cassandro is a celebrity in the blue-collar world of lucha libre, as the sport is known in Mexico. As the country's first openly gay wrestler to have won a world title, he has become the lipsticked, mascara'd ambassador of los exóticos—flamboyantly attired, usually gay wrestlers who wear makeup instead of masks while campily confronting macho Latin culture. And he's increasingly finding fans outside Mexico: In the coming months, Cassandro will tour Australia as part of its Big Day Out festival, perform in London, and headline Los Angeles' Lucha VaVOOM club, where Mexican wrestlers and burlesque dancers entertain crowds that have included the likes of David Arquette, Jack Black, and Robin Williams.

And yet this feisty, flamboyant trailblazer has struggled to achieve proper recognition in his adopted home of Mexico City. Born Saul Armendariz in El Paso, Texas, to Mexican parents, he has been wrestling since he was 19, when he moved south of the border to launch his career. Although the exóticos will, for the first time, have a float in Mexico City's gay-pride parade this June, Cassandro and his ilk continue to work in a hardscrabble corner of gay culture. "I don't think that the upper-middle-class gay community pays any attention to the exóticos," says Heather Levi, a Temple University assistant professor and the author of The World of Lucha Libre. "I could easily imagine they would be deemed kind of embarrassing." And Cassandro will likely never achieve his ambition to wrestle in Arena México, a 16,500-seat complex in the neighborhood of Colonia Doctores that is Mexico City's equivalent of Madison Square Garden. Although Mexico City has set a goal to become the gay capital of Latin America (gay marriage was legalized there in 2009, and The Advocate recently named it one of the world's "Top 20 Gay Travel Destinations"), the arena, according to wrestling insiders, maintains an unspoken policy banning openly gay exóticos. "It's the only thing I haven't done that I don't think I'll do before I retire or die," Cassandro says. "They don't look at me as a good wrestler. They only see a homosexual." (Arena spokesperson Sandra Granados states the venue has no policy against openly gay wrestlers.)

Video by Stayton Bonner

Today's event, 30 minutes by car from the glamour of the arena, is Cassandro's first gig after coming off knee surgery that laid him up for eight months. "I never thought I would feel this way at 42," he says. "I feel like I'm 60." His injuries are the by-product of a wrestling style that's as daring as his outfits—Cassandro's stage dives are the stuff of legend in lucha libre. During his hard-partying days, he kept the pain at bay with liquor, weed, cocaine, and heroin. Now sober (he gave up drinking in 2003), he gets by on prescription drugs and gritted teeth.

It's only a few minutes until ring time, and Cassandro and two other exóticos—Diva Salvaje, 35, a hulking blond, and Black Mamba, 29, an effete brunet—curl their eyelashes, apply glitter, and shimmy into panty hose with the precision and speed of a Nascar pit crew. Makeup bags unfurl like safecracker kits. Cassandro covers his tattooed shoulder blades in a red-and-gold floral-patterned cloak with an 18-foot train. Underneath he wears spandex tights, pink kneepads, and white leather boots adorned with rhinestone butterflies. Versace Crystal Noir perfume wafts from his buffed skin, but his eyes are bloodshot, thanks to a Red Bull–fueled all-nighter at Privato, a strip club in the red-light district. ("He's my sugar candy," Cassandro says of a cell-phone snapshot of a stripper in a Santa hat and a Speedo.) "I haven't slept since I arrived in Mexico City," he adds in a valley-girl singsong coarsened by decades of Marlboro Ultra Lights, rubbing osteoarthritis balm on his knees as the announcer calls for the exóticos to make their entrance.

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.

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."

• • •

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.

His pink Mohawk catching the spotlight, Maximo enters the arena with two team members amid a blast of smoke and techno music. In the Corona-logo'd ring, he spins, bounds, and cartwheels his beefy frame, occasionally sashaying, bending a wrist, or sticking out his ass. The audience chants, "¡Beso! ¡Beso!" ("Kiss! Kiss!") as Maximo wags his tongue and repeatedly tries to lock lips with a masked opponent. Finally, with a spectacular flip and a deft dodge, he plants a wet one on a wriggling opponent. The crowd goes wild at this highly choreographed taunting, though at the last moment Maximo and his cohorts wind up losing the match when their opponents underhandedly kick them in the balls, leaving them clutching their groins and writhing theatrically on the mat.

Maximo says his act is an homage to lucha libre's "golden age" of exóticos, when their personas had little to do with their private lives. But a straight father of two playing gay camp to a jeering crowd in 21st-century Mexico City (in a venue that allegedly bans actual gay wrestlers) is a bit like a modern-day vaudeville performer honoring African-American cultural pioneers by donning blackface. It may, however, be a smart career move—whereas most aspiring wrestlers would previously have vied for the small number of spots in the ranks of the luchadores, the growing acceptance of exóticos has opened up opportunities for fighters happy to rev up their flamboyance to gain the crowd's attention and a lucrative contract. And it's clear that straight exóticos will always have certain doors, like those of Arena México, open to them.

Although he considers Maximo a friend, Cassandro believes straight exóticos are the clowns of the circus. "I worked my ass off for 24 years to establish that some of us are real wrestlers, but he makes people laugh," he says. "The audience forgets the match."

"Many young exóticos follow our example, but some of them aren't gay," Kristal says. "They think that being an exótico will bring them fame. They devalue our work." Salvaje believes the newly rising exóticos don't appreciate the hardships he has endured. "Today, all they see is money," he says.

While Maximo is strutting his stuff in the arena, Cassandro is returning to Texas, where he'll cross the border each night for a week of wrestling in Nuevo Laredo. Cassandro still owns a home in El Paso facing the barbed-wire-fenced Rio Grande. "Sometimes I hear people run through my yard from the river," he says. When he's not lacing up his rhinestone boots and fighting for the cause of the exóticos, Cassandro is scrambling outside the ring to facilitate legal immigration by helping 132 Mexican wrestlers obtain visas to work in the States. Arena México may be unwilling to allow Cassandro and his growing band of merry matadors to perform on their home turf, but the rest of the world could be ready for an exótico invasion—and Cassandro is ready to lead. He has taken his tribe a long way since the days when they were forced to use separate dressing rooms, and he remains bullish on their prospects. "There's still machista stuff going around," he says. "You can see all that testosterone coming out. All the guys are pissed, and we walk in with our little mirrors and makeup. They're like, 'Fag.' Then we end up kicking their ass in the ring."

Cassandro lights a cigarette. "I switched it," he says, smirking. "Now they're the bottom and I'm the top."

• • •

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