Among American sports imported to Mexico, wrestling is the one with the largest audience. Actually lucha libre—that’s its Mexican name—has some technical and sociological features that distinct it from its Yankee version. The luchadores are quite proud of their diversity.

A famous wrestler of the 90’s, named Mascara Sagrada, recently admitted to consider as a shame the fact that, mostly due to television demands, the discipline is increasingly resembling North American wrestling. It is a matter of identity.

Mascara Sagrada, like almost all Mexican wrestlers, fights wearing a mask or, better, with the whole head firmly enclosed in a mask—losing the mask during a fight would seriously damage the image of the luchador.

Wrestling masks inscribe themselves directly into the ancient Mexican holy mask tradition. From Aztec culture to the sacred rites of Meso-American Catholicism, the Mexican mask seamlessly transfers itself to the Society of Spectacle’s profane rites. Also in North American and Japanese wrestling we find examples of masked fighters, but the source of inspiration, here, is to be found in the superheroes of comics—see the popularity of Tiger-Mask in Japan. In Mexico the mask has a much deeper function. It is not intended to hide one’s own identity behind a fictitious one, rather to try to obtain the magical powers of the mask, as in the ancient tradition the luchadores believe to express.

In his volume Sulla maschera (Il Mulino, 2008), sociologist Alessandro Pizzorno affirms: “The mask is what appears to others; behind it, hidden and protected, the true self remains conscious of its own diversity. Masks are worn in order to appear different from what one really is. The mask is appearance; the face, felt from the inside, is truth.”

That, at least, is what happens in western culture, starting from the Commedia dell’Arte up to modern technological masks. The Mexican masks seem to possess, even today, the magical power to provide who wears them with an ulterior identity, more ancient and powerful than the real one. That is what Mexican wrestlers believe in too.

P.S.: It is curious that Mascara Sagrada, because of a legal controversy concerning copyright, couldn’t use his own name for some years. Only in 2004, after winning the trial, he was allowed to fight with his “true” identity—but it was already too late, and a fracture stopped him permanently.