Unpublished Peruvian Writers In Mexican Wrestling Masks Are Saving Literature For The Rest Of Us
I. THE RING
Wrestling is not a sport, it is a spectacle, and it is no more ignoble to attend a wrestled performance of Suffering than a performance of the sorrows of Arnolphe or Andromaque.
—Roland Barthes, “The World of Wrestling”
Every few years, a New York literary critic remembers how a member of that tribe, Philip Rahv, once sorted American writers into two warring camps: palefaces and redskins. To the paleface camp, Rahv sent Melville, James, Dickinson, and Hawthorne to tend the patrician flames of refinement and ambiguity, and ponder religion and allegory. From the redskin camp, Twain, Whitman, Faulkner, and Hemingway fired more plebian arrows, chewed the fat, and cataloged (or invented) “real” American experience. Rahv feared that the redskins’ twentieth-century dominance impoverished American letters.
Racist, colonialist, and perhaps sexist, Rahv’s theory feels as ill-advised now as it likely did to many in 1939, when he trucked it out. The long list of twentieth-century masterpieces that aren’t composed by white men, not to mention the centuries of music and oral storytelling that Rahv would not have accepted as literature, surely kicks the legs out from under his tired dichotomy.
As a generalization about one over-discussed sector of one country’s field of letters, though, Rahv’s theory is at least diverting, and sometimes insightful. (Henry James and Walt Whitman did indeed annoy the hell out of each other, at least initially.) It’s a cheap, if limited, parlor game—the sort you can self-consciously adapt to other countries’ literary traditions.
The history of letters in Peru, for example, might be playfully understood with a similarly crude dichotomy adopted from Latin American popular culture. Not conquistadors and Incas, the colonial dichotomy Rahv might have reached for, but técnicos and rudos—the battling antagonists of Lucha Libre, the masked free-wrestling phenomenon established in Mexico that has swept the hemisphere.
Mexico’s Lucha Libre yanked out its European roots and became a cultural phenomenon after 1942, when a silver-masked wrestler climbed into the ring for a battle royal. His name was Rodolfo Guzmán Huerta, and he went by “El Santo” (5' 8"; 215 pounds; born 1917 in Tulancingo, Hidalgo). He dominated until the end, and though he lost the final bout to Ciclón Veloz he impressed the audience with brash and brutal force. Thus began his career as a rudo—what American pro-wrestling calls a heel, or a wrestling villain—but he soon became a good guy—a técnico—and a folk icon. In the 1950s, he starred in his own comic book, and began appearing in movies. With fellow luchadores, El Santo wrestled crime rings, aliens, and pre-Columbian mummies from Mexico City to San Francisco.
As El Santo traveled, so did Lucha Libre, adapting itself to local cultures. On the outskirts of La Paz, Lucha Libre went guerilla: twelve thousand feet above sea level, Bolivian luchadores and cholitas luchadoras—Aymara-speaking women in traditional skirts—launched themselves from the top ropes at wrestlers dressed in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle costumes. If Mexico gilded European wrestling with baroque, colorful masks and angelic aerial maneuvers, Bolivia delivered a version so anti-imperial that it caught the attention of the New York Times and National Geographic magazine: indigenous women driving their high-altitude knees into the solar plexus of Batman, America’s heavyweight corporate fantasy of revenge and surveillance.
Peru’s version of masked wrestling, however, has remained on the cultural outskirts, even as it inhabits halls near downtown Lima, the country’s capital. Less stylized and more popular with working-class audiences, Peruvian wrestling is known as cachascán, derived from the wrestlers of nineteenth-century England whose only rule—“Catch a hold wherever you can”—spoke to disadvantaged grapplers fighting elites the world over. In Peru, those divisions have been far harder to surmount than in Mexico. Whereas the Mexican Revolution led to an earnest attempt to fuse popular and indigenous folk art with the national culture, Peru’s twentieth-century urban elite fled Lima’s center and its swelling working class to retrench with cultural ventures that often took cues from abroad.
Nowhere does that division feel clearer than in Peru’s literary culture. Peru and Mexico vie for having the longest continuous literary tradition in the hemisphere, but, to borrow from Lucha Libre, Peru’s literary tradition is more starkly divided between its técnicos—middle-class or elite golden-glove stylists, often of European descent, writing from inside Lima, punching out arch, clever, clean prose that appeals across borders—and its rudos, the disadvantaged, the urban poor and rural non-elite, trading in oral literature, untranslatable vernacular jokes, and politics without irony. Like El Santo, a rudo writer can become a técnico, but few deign to go the other way.
Yet that division is breaking down. In 2011, a pair of writerly Peruvian grapplers had an idea: what if they could dramatize that struggle between the literary field’s técnicos and its rudos? What if they could give Lucha Libre its most inspired turn yet, and use it to give rudo writers a chance? They dropped an e, added an o, and turned it into Lucha Libro: the Battle of the Books.
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