All photos and videos coutesy Marta Franco
At this point lucha libre, Mexico’s version of professional wrestling, is famous the world over—the superheroesque masks, the muscled men preening and acting out storylines in the ring, the acrobatic aerial maneuvers. But what’s not as well-known is that the sport isn’t exclusive to dudes. Luchadoras, masked female competitors, are becoming more and more prominent in Mexico, and not just as sexy sideshows. Journalist Marta Franco followed a handful of these women through Mexico City's pro wrestling scene and used the material she gathered to create her graduate-school thesis, "Las Luchadoras," a series of videos that documents and celebrates these women’s role in lucha libre as well as their difficulties acheiving the same recognition as men.
Mexican women have been invovled in pro wrestling since the 1940s, but they were barred from competing in the county's capital until 1986. At first, many entered the ring as eye candy (they were there to "blow kisses and show off" to the crowd, one luchadora told Marta) rather than actual competitors. It's only recently that the sport has allowed women to fight men. Yet there’s still widespread discrimination despite the efforts of luchadoras and their fans. I recently sat down with Marta in San Francisco to talk about her project and what place women occupy in lucha libre.
VICE: Where did you get the idea to do this story?
Marta Franco: I'm from Spain, and we don't have lucha libre or anything like that. Everybody knows the aesthetics—the masks—but it's not something I'd seen until I moved to San Francisco, to the Mission District, two years ago. A Mexican friend of mine told me there was a lucha libre show in the neighborhood, we went, and I loved it. At another wrestling event, I heard a woman in line telling some people about her friend, who was a wrestler and a woman. That's where I started thinking, A woman? Who are these women? Where are they? How do they fit in something that, at first sight, looks like such a macho world?'
Is it tough for women to get into lucha libre?
Women have been wrestling since the beginning of the 20th century, but female wrestling was forbidden in the capital city—it was considered immoral. So women had to tour around the country to wrestle. Then, from the 90s to the 2000s, it became more popular with women and [now] there are more girls trying to make a career in the ring. But they have to accept that no matter how hard they try, they're rarely going to be the headliner at the show. They're mostly on the independent circuit because it's hard to join the bigger companies in Mexico. There's only one all-female company and it's in Monterrey.
An academic I talked to, Alejandro Torres, says that Mexican wrestling culture is connected to the larger Mexican culture—that what you see outside of the ring influences what you see inside the ring. Women have been fighting for more rights, for a place in society, and that has happened both in Mexican society and inside the ring. Many of [the luchadoras] train with men and there are women who fight men. Some fight exoticos—wrestlers who have a gay theme.
You find people who think women shouldn't wrestle or see them not as real wrestlers but as performers who are just there to look sexy. But at the same time you'll meet people who are totally supportive and believe they should have a bigger space in wrestling. Dark Angel is one interesting example. She's a Canadian woman who moved to Mexico to make a career in wrestling. She's a very good wrestler but she also takes good care of her image as a sexy wrestler. So that made it more attractive to girls. Women being sexy in the ring is controversial because people say they aren't real wrestlers. But there's another side to that—Dark Angel said she thinks she has more advantages than disadvantages because there are so few women. They have to compete less to find a space, so it's easier to get attention from coaches and promoters.
You chose to focus on three luchadoras in particular: Lola Gonzalez, Black Fury, and Big Mama. Why did you single them out?
I thought the stories of these three women were interesting for very different reasons. Lola Gonzalez is a superstar. She's been wrestling for decades, she's been all over the world, she's got thousands of fans, and she's a very humble person. She holds men on her shoulders and does these acrobatic jumps. And she was very sexy. She started when she was 14 and after decades she's still there. That in itself is crazy.
Black Fury is not even 18 years old, and she's already been wrestling for four years. She's a very normal girl. Her dad takes her to school and goes with her to practice and makes sure that nothing bad happens to her. He's very protective of her. But at the same time she does this super intense training and goes in the ring.
Then there’s Big Mama. She is way more overweight than any woman you'd [normally] see in a ring. You’d think she can't wrestle, that she doesn't have the body for it, but instead she's becoming famous—in part, thanks to that image.
Looking back, how has your perception of luche libre and luchadoras changed during the course of this project?
I started seeing it as a sport. People will say it's staged, everything is prepared and preplanned, but the way they perform is very physical. I mean, isn't gymnastics a sport? They hit each other really hard, they train really hard, and they suffer a lot. I didn't really appreciate that until I started this project.
People may not be aware that they are there, but female Mexican wrestlers exist, have existed for many years, and are working very hard to see their work get taken seriously and get the same recognition men get. Women arrive at an arena with their sons and then put on their outfits and go to work. They come out of the ring sore and with bruises and then travel a couple hours back home. They do it because they love it.
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