'Cassandro' honors the gay wrestler who revolutionized lucha libre
Cassandro, the new biopic directed by Oscar winner Roger Ross Williams, stars Gael García Bernal as the eponymous Mexican-American fighter who changed the course of Mexico's beloved lucha libre.
The film is Williams' first narrative scripted project, and builds off his documentary short, "The Man Without A Mask." It paints an intimate portrait of the real-life gay wrestler Saúl Armendáriz, and his fight to create space for unapologetically queer men in a male-dominated sport and society.
Who is he? Known as the Liberace of Lucha Libre, Saúl Armendáriz broke out as a new kind of luchador in the late '80s and '90s.
- Born in El Paso, Texas, Armendáriz grew up between the U.S. Mexico border as an avid fan of lucha libre. In the highly theatrical Mexican sport, there are certain archetypes wrestlers follow. Técnicos are the heroic good guys, while rudos are the bad guys they must defeat.
- Armendáriz began competing in lucha libre in 1987 under the name of Mister Romano, a villainous masked character. In 1988, after much hesitation, he decided to take the leap and become an exótico, a different type of archetype.
- Although exóticos can be traced back to the 1940s, with figures like Gardenia Davis, they were mostly caricatures of gay men; underdogs placed in fights solely for laughs.
- "Exóticos were meant to be humiliated. They were usually played by straight men who are playing cowering, 'weak sissies,' as [Cassandro] says in the movie," explains Roger Ross Williams in an interview with NPR. "And Cassandro is not that at all. He's a powerful guy."
- Instead of trying to hide his sexuality in order to appease the norms of lucha libre, Armendáriz leaned in. He began performing as Cassandro: maskless, wearing makeup and glamorous costumes inspired by figure skaters, and showing off his technical skills and strength.
What's the big deal?
- Lucha libre is a sport rooted in performance of hyper-masculinity, which could often manifest in machismo and homophobia. It also tends to be scripted, and reinforces certain narratives: good prevailing over evil, physical power as a means of measuring manhood. That's why exóticos weren't given opportunities to win – until Cassandro and other gay wrestlers of the era began to show they could both be flamboyant and kick butt.
- A reported podcast by the cultural and investigative units of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) explains that the image of exóticos began changing in the 1980s, as wrestlers like Cassandro became a new beacon of LGBTQ+ representation in and out of the ring.
- "It was hard because the other wrestlers tried to reject me and push me out of the sport," Armendáriz told The Guardian in 2015. "A lot of doors were shut in my face. But when they saw me in the ring, they saw that I was a true wrestler."
- In 1992, Cassandro became the first exótico to win a world title for the UWA World Lightweight Championship.
- In Williams' film, Cassandro is constantly called anti-gay slurs by his peers and public alike. Still, he maintains his dignity and continues to show his truest self.
- "Here is a man who was hiding behind a mask, and he then takes off that mask and he comes out as a feminine, openly gay man. And when the audience starts to call him names and jeer him, he uses that as his power," says Williams. "The more they yell and scream, the more powerful he becomes."
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What are people saying?
- As the subject of numerous documentaries and profiles, Armendáriz has been candid about the radical highs and lows he's experienced throughout his life, from childhood sexual abuse to substance addiction and mental health struggles during the height of his career.
- Although some of the latter is depicted in Williams' film, the director says he wanted to focus on Armendáriz's outsized impact. "There's so many negative stories about the LGBTQ+ community. There's so many coming out stories," he says. "But this is about Cassandro's glory. This is about what he was able to accomplish. In spite of all that, he still became a shining superhero."
- Although both Williams and Bernal have fielded questions about the decision not to cast an LGBTQ actor in the role of Cassandro, Bernal's performance has received high praise – an extension of the way he's tapped into roles that challenge masculinity and heteronormativity throughout his career, from Y Tu Mamá También to Bad Education.
- Switching between English and Spanish on-screen, effortlessly capturing the fluidity of language for people who live on the border, the actor embraces the emotional and physical grace that earned Cassandro a place in the heart of so many lucha libre fans.
- "All of a sudden, it was like there were so many taboos that were broken, and when they were broken, everyone was like, 'Yeah, it wasn't such a big deal," Bernal told GQ earlier this year.
So, what now?
- Despite sustaining countless injuries throughout his decades-long career, Cassandro has wrestled around the world and dedicated time to instructing up-and-coming luchadores.
- Representation continues to evolve in the ring – younger exóticos interviewed in the UNAM podcast, like La Diva Salvaje and Jessy Ventura, say they've been able to gain the respect and admiration of their peers and public, and they're proud to carry the torch of queer athleticism forward. Meanwhile, Mexico City star Miss Gaviota is paving a new path for transgender wrestlers in lucha libre.
- Williams says he hopes the film and Cassandro's story will hold an important message for anyone who watches – and particularly for queer, young people. "Wearing a mask, covering up who you are and not loving who you are is always going to be a problem in anyone's life," he says. "Love who you are, love yourself, and everyone else will love you because you're being yourself."
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