There’s an incredible profile of famed luchador Saúl “Cassandro” Armendáriz in the September New Yorker by William Finnegan, with photographs by Katie Orlinsky. The forty-four year old exótico wrestles in drag, a tradition hails back to the ’40s.
“It was Baby Sharon who encouraged me to step out of Mister Romano,” Armendáriz said. Baby Sharon was an exótico—a luchador who wrestles in drag. Exóticos have been around since the nineteen-forties. At first, they were dandies, a subset of rudos with capes and valets. They struck glamour-boy poses and threw flowers to the audience. As exóticos got swishier and more flirtatious, and started dressing in drag, the shtick became old-school limp-wristed gay caricature. Crowds loved to hate them, screaming “Maricón!” and “Joto!” (“Faggot!”). The exóticos made a delightful contrast with the super-masculine brutes they met in the ring. Popular exóticos insisted that it was all an act—in real life, they were straight. Baby Sharon was among the first, according to Armendáriz, to publicly say that, no, he was actually gay.
Armendáriz’s personal wrestling style has no swish, just a flourish here and then. He is unflinching and painfully frank when he speaks about his life (“Being gay is a gift from God”), a childhood of violence and assault, his history of addiction and suicide attempts, his training and triumphs, the abuse he bravely endured (an old woman from the audience had stabbed him, another threw chillies on his back), the real blood and broken bones earned in matches, and his faith — Mayan and Native American spiritual practice mixed with Catholic mysticism.
“They say religion is for those who are afraid to go to Hell,” Armendáriz told me. “But spirituality is for those who have already been to Hell. That’s me.” He signed with a new promotion, and wrestled with a new attitude. “You know who I fight in the ring? Cassandro. The guy who needs to be famous. Your ego is not your amigo. It’s Saúl against Cassandro up there. I had to become humble.”
The author seems to note a certain kind of unpleasurable but proud masochism permeating the wrestler’s life.
There are many kinds of pain—aesthetic, emotional, moral, physical. Cassandro, like wrestlers generally, suffers for a living, publicly, physically. People pay to watch it—to see what he and others can inflict and endure. He seems to cry after every match—not for him the superhero mask of invincibility or, these days, the comforts of intoxication. He feels his feelings, both good and very, very bad. He seems intensely attracted to physical pain. In July, he takes part in a Lakota Sioux-style Sun Dance. “We go four days without food and water,” he told me. “Dancing in the sun with Lakota priests. Sweat lodges. We put four hundred and four prayers into the Tree of Life, and then we chop it down by hand. It’s super-intense, especially the no water. It’s like a funeral for a parent. Father Sun.” Armendáriz was preparing—meeting every week with his danza group, readying his prayers—for the Sun Dance, and claimed to be looking forward to it.
Armendáriz is from Juárez, Mexico, one of the world’s most dangerous cities, torn by gang warfare. He lives in El Paso, Texas. He has helped more than a hundred fellow luchadores to apply for US visas.
(Photo: Katie Orlinsky for the New Yorker)