Lucha Libre is not just a sport. It’s also theatre. And it’s a kind of ritual violence, acting for its audience like a communal catharsis. Wrestling characters destroy each other in the name of good and evil, often echoing issues of politics or identity in the Mexican psyche. Exóticos (queer, cross-dressing wrestlers) had traditionally played the role of the bad guy (known as a rudo) since they first emerged in the 1940s as an effeminate ‘threat’ to the macho order of Lucha Libre. For 40 years, exóticos were figures of shame, openly abused by the audience, and their homosexuality was always presumed to be an act.
Enter Saul Armendáriz as Cassandro in the late 80s. An openly gay wrestler, he turned this narrative around by becoming the first exótico to win a world title in 1992. Today, Cassandro plays the role of a good guy (known as a técnico), adored for his fighting prowess and lavishly kitsch costumes. He walks into the arena cloaked in glittering gowns of taffeta ruffles and diaphanous trains that billow behind him as he runs into the ring, before he rips them off to reveal the rock-like body of a fighter, sheathed in lycra.
Having escaped an abusive childhood in Ciudad Juárez, the then-murder capital of the world, Armendáriz has battled through drug addictions that left him homeless, and survived a suicide attempt. Named after a Tijuana prostitute who gave her earnings to the poor, today Cassandro is out the other side, sober, and an activist for diversity.
Ahead of his tour to London and Manchester, we talked about wrestling as shouting therapy for the masses, his personal brand of religion (Catholic mysticism mixed with Native American spirituality), and what it was like to have his hair publicly shaved (a traditional humiliation for non-masked luchadores like him).
Where do you live?
Saul Armendáriz: I have a little house, my castle, in El Paso, Texas. Only God and I live there. I’m surrounded by my family. We’re six brothers, three girls and three boys. Or you can also say three gays and three straights because I have two sisters that are lesbian. This is home for me. This is where the magic started.
How many costumes do you have?
Saul Armendáriz: Over 300 costumes and like 35 or 40 gowns, and then I have my hairpieces, my feathers, and 15 pairs of wrestling boots.
Where do you take visual inspiration from?
Saul Armendáriz: Lady Diana, Mother Teresa, Oprah Winfrey: the women in my life that have really helped me heal a lot. Now I’m called the Liberace of Lucha Libre because I love the bling bling and the glamour.
How has wrestling healed you?
Saul Armendáriz: It was my medicine because it helped me to discover who I really am. I’d been abused as a kid since the age of six. I’d been molested, beat up on and abandoned by my father. Through Lucha Libre I found courage and I could heal a lot of the stuff that I was carrying around.
“I’d been abused as a kid since the age of six. I’d been molested, beat up on and abandoned by my father. Through Lucha Libre I found courage and I could heal a lot of the stuff that I was carrying around” – Saul Armendáriz
You’ve had your hair publicly shaved three times in your 30-year career. What did that feel like?
Saul Armendáriz: Oh my God. It’s the worst feeling ever. Hair gives me my character. It’s very humiliating, but it also teaches me that I’m just human, that I need to work more on myself. People who are not my amigo tell me I look horrible, but my hair will always grow back and then I can have a new hairstyle.
What do you think about when you walk out into the crowd at a wrestling match?
Saul Armendáriz: My number one priority is to make people happy. Just to make them scream their lungs out and let go of everything that’s happened during the week. Especially now, in these troubled times that Europe is facing in Manchester and London. I’ve lived in the most dangerous city in the whole world, Ciudad Juárez, just across the water from El Paso. So when I see this news I’m like “What is going on? We gotta take some mariachi, some tequila, and have a big party.”
What’s your favourite country to wrestle in?
Saul Armendáriz: The UK of course! In Mexico it’s very liberating, and it’s very nasty. People just throw things. In the UK, people are very respectful: If they love what you do, they’ll celebrate it, or if they don’t, they’ll boo. I love going to Soho and I love the churches. I have to do a lot of praying.
“I had to really show people not to label us as just gays, but to respect us, to look at why we’re in the ring: because we are talented” — Saul Armendáriz
Can you explain your personal brand of religion?
Saul Armendáriz: I have always been Catholic, but when I was a kid everybody told me I couldn’t be gay or I couldn’t dress like that because I would burn in hell. But I knew that I was a precious child of God and that being gay was a gift from God to me. I turned to spirituality with my indigenous community, and we do a lot of ceremonies and dances.
How long did it take for the audience’s attitudes towards you as a gay wrestler to change?
Saul Armendáriz: Mexican wrestling is very diverse. We have women, midgets, exóticos. It used to be that exóticos were the clowns of the circus. I had to really show people not to label us as just gays, but to respect us, to look at why we’re in the ring: because we are talented.
What is the hardest thing about your work?
Saul Armendáriz: It’s a lot of discipline, respect, commitment and sacrifice. I sacrificed family and weddings. I have had eight surgeries: four in the left knee, two in the right and one on each hand. I don’t want to wrestle for more than another year. This past year I’ve been home after my last two surgeries. I’m already a grand uncle, so I’m loving life right now with all my little babies around me.
Cassandro will be competing in The Greatest Spectacle of Lucha Libre in Manchester on the 22nd June and London on the 23rd and 24th.
Follow Helena Blackstone on Twitter here @heli_blackstone