Comic-Con was in full swing at the San Diego convention center, but for real-life immersion in a graphic-novel-style comic adventure, seeing the Saturday night lucha libre match in Tijuana was at least as satisfying.
The sport and the subculture surrounding it have been around for more than 50 years, and I’d heard how outrageous it could be. But I’d never been to a match. What made me think of going Saturday was that Derrik Chinn was leading one of his Turista Libre excursions there. I’d learned about Derrik only recently, to my chagrin. An Ohio native, he worked for the Union-Tribune for a couple of years, then was let go during one of the mass terminations at the paper in 2010. But he’d moved to TJ in 2007, and in 2009 started doing offbeat tours that are now a major source of his income. His website describes his mission as being to introduce foreigners “to the highlights locals know and love…. No narco warfare. No strolls down hooker row.” No bull fights or donkey shows.
The Lucha Libre expedition was a tad pricy ($35/person) but less daunting than trying to figure out the ticket buying and transport on my own. Seventeen people had signed up, and Derrik waited for us all in front of the UETA duty-free shop just north of the turnstyle leading into Mexico. Most of the group looked to be under 35 (Derrik’s 31), except for Steve and me and a 50-ish South African expat and former actress turned novelist. Derrik led us across the border and to a liquor store (where some folks stocked up for the evening). Then we piled onto a battered bus owned by a husband and wife team, Benjamin and Pilar.
Derrik’s not one to overburden his guests with touristic factoids. Instead he passed out jello shots that he’d made from Kool-aid and (I assume) vodka, and I have to say they were greeted much more warmly than any travelogue would have been. When we arrived at the municipal auditorium (on Boulevard Aguacalientes) about 20 minutes later, the group was in high spirits.
Inside we studied the tantalizing array of masks for sale. (My flashy red choice was only $5.) Though the theoretical start time was 8:30, when we took our seats high above the ring (general-admission ones for 100 pesos, or around $8, included in Derrik’s price) around 8:45, the first match was just getting under way. For a while, the profusion of exotic snack items distracted me: roasted corn, both on the cob and shaved off it, served in big cups; steamed tacos; gigantic chicharrones; tostilocos (which Derrik describes as “the city’s very own fruit-nut-nacho-lard salad”); and much, much more.
But the “wrestling” action was even more compelling than the crowd and comestibles. The lucha action bears almost no resemblance to the La Jolla High School wrestling team’s prim maneuvers (my only previous exposure to the sport). I’d expected it to look fake but found that was only half correct. If the outcomes are pre-determined, and parts of the matches are choreographed, the wacky violence has unexpected dimensions. It’s cartoonish: bodies slam into the drum-like ring floor with thunderous booms; the wrestlers hurl each other out of the ring to smash into the floor below; they stomp on each other; fake slaps and punches and agonized reactions to being kicked in the balls. But as the evening wore on, I found myself gaping at the astounding athleticism of this mayhem – fighters caroming off the ropes to launch themselves in aerial ambushes, fighters leaping off the corner posts onto their opponents’ heads – and holding my breath. Surely small miscalculations must sometimes be fatal.
I would have liked to learn more about the fighters’ personas and rivalries, the unfolding plots and sub-plots. (“It’s basically a soap opera for men,” was Derrik’s pithy summary.) The costumes intrigued me too — Power Rangers, Kabuki, Halloween night at the disco – those and more seemed comprehensible to the fans (if not to me.) All I really got was the most basic structure of the melodrama: four matches escalating into greater and greater chaos. Two fighters in the first match. Four (on two teams) in the second. Six in the third – by which point they were grabbing folding chairs from the audience and smashing each other over the heads with them. They were hauling out huge plywood boards and building structures on which to pulverize their opponents. By the end, when headliners “Dr. Wagner” and “Silver King” faced off against “L.A. Park” and “Super Parker,” it seemed the evening had devolved into anarchy, with fighters savaging the referee and chasing each other through the auditorium, the hooting, cheering spectators scattering at their approach.
The party for Derrik’s tour goers didn’t end when we spilled out onto the boulevard. Benjamin cranked up his bus’s sound system, and there was dancing in the aisles as we jounced through the city’s dimly illuminated streets. At a red light, Benjamin himself engaged the brake, grabbed Pilar, and salsaed until someone pointed out that the light was green again. He dropped off some of us near the border crossing, before ferrying others to the centro for more carousing.
Earlier in the evening, Derrik told me that the luchas take place most often during the summer months. He’s a fan and wants to schedule outings to them regularly. But they’re hardly the only trick up his sleeve. His website documents dozens of activities that he has organized; the creative variety fills me with admiration. He’s taken gringos to the Tijuana wax museum. To the city’s longest-running swap meet. To sample Mexican microbrews and street food. To experience art and circuses and soccer.
This coming Saturday he’s hosting a day-long seafood sampling orgy. A week later, his destination will be El Vergel, which he bills as Baja’s largest waterpark. (“Big-ass beers rimmed with chile and chamoy. Tambora bands, corn on the cob on the grill, Tecate eagle fake tattoos, a Tarzan rope.”) Popotla beach is on his calendar for August 11, and then two weeks later an outing to the Tijuana Fair.
Two weeks ago, I vowed to get down to Tijuana again, sooner rather than later. With a resource like Turista Libre, that suddenly seems easy.