“Lucha libre” may seem familiar to Americans who have seen professional wrestling. Lucha libre and American pro wrestling are centered around choreographed shows of athleticism and extravagant theatre. Both evolved from the same origins – Greco-Roman wrestling brought to North America by European settlers and harken back to each culture’s histories of storytelling.

Luchadore Mistico poses in the ring. Photo from Sam Winslow.

Lucha libre dates back to 1863 and became a nationwide Mexican passion in 1933, aided by the invention of television. The “luchadores” – the competitors – perform acrobatics and aerial maneuvers, which are the marked difference from American professional wrestling. Masked luchadores create characters that become heroes or villains with story lines that can span decades. The matches are based on the time-honored tradition of good versus evil. Lucha libre has been described as “an athletic soap opera.” Lucha libre creates well-known luchadores with popularity that continues year after year, and some find success in the American wrestling market.

Masks also distinguish the lucha libre from America’s pro wrestling. The “máscaras” are a nod to masks used in the Aztec culture and became the most recognizable symbol of the sport and a lure for many audience members. The masks are not only helpful in showing who the luchador is as a character, but which side they fight on. Some competitors refuse to take their mask off in public and may be buried in them. Demasking, as the officers saw at the match they attended, becomes an event in a luchador’s character’s life.

Learn more about lucha libre’s history and its cultural influences in this episode of the podcast Stuff You Should Know by clicking here or clicking the play button on the audio player below.