There are several statues, monuments and informal crosses thoughout Prague that commemorate the death of 21-year-old Jan Palach and 19-year-old Jan Zajíc. The two students set themselves on fire in 1969 to protest the end of the Prague Spring, brought on by the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Soviet-led armies.
MEXICO CITY — Huge lamps swing from the ceiling on the sixth floor of a building in downtown Mexico City, illuminating the wrestling ring below. The crowd holds its collective breath as a woman emerges from the shadows. Her bright blue hair whirls behind her sparkling makeup as she kicks out her knee-high black boots. A deep voice booms over the loudspeaker:
“From the Mexican jungle comes Ladyyy Amazonaaa!”
Responding to the cheers and shouts, she takes her time posing in each of the ring’s four corners at the Furia de Titanes women’s championship.
“I have wrestling in my blood,” says Lady Amazona, 29, who grew up watching her father compete in lucha libre, Mexican wrestling, before following in his footsteps 10 years ago. (In keeping with nearly a century of tradition, she and other fighters requested to be identified only by their stage names.)
With its roots in 19th century carnival performances, the part-sport, part-spectacle of lucha libre, declared an “Intangible Cultural Heritage” by Mexico City’s government, held its first professional fight in 1933 and now attracts audiences as far away as Tokyo. Women competed during its early years, then were banned in the 1950s.
Reinstated in the late 1980s by the Professional Boxing and Wrestling Commission of Mexico City, it has taken a generation for “luchadoras,” women wrestlers, to attain national success — and thanks to the pandemic, to seize new opportunities.
they are just as good as men
Coronavirus closures of arenas and gyms between March 2020 and May 2021 forced lucha libre federations and promoters to try more innovative approaches, says Olivia Domínguez Prieto, coordinator of the Seminar of Anthropology of Sports and Games at the National School of Anthropology and History. They staged fights without live audiences, selling broadcasts over the internet to audiences in search of entertainment to break the lockdown’s monotony. Women were among the new attractions.
“We managed to see a significant change,” Domínguez says. “Being able to show that they are part of the same sport, on par with men, that they are just as good as men, the fact that the audience has begun to respond to them and they find it attractive to see women wrestling. … That has been opening spaces.”
Persisting gender discrimination
In September 2021, for the first time, a women’s match headlined the anniversary event for the Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre (World Wrestling Council), Mexico’s oldest wrestling organization. A month later, the council created the first international “Grand Prix” event for luchadoras, which had only existed for men since 1994.
The novelty of women’s wrestling has begun to wear off, yet gender discrimination persists. At women’s lucha libre events, it’s still common to hear taunts like “that’s why they’re single” and “go back to the kitchen.”
Behind their makeup and masks, the luchadoras say these jeers only motivate them to fight harder. “A local wrestler from Puebla told me that I was no good for this sport, that I should retire and better go wash dishes or take care of my husband because women are only good for that,” says Lady Amazona. “Instead of discouraging me, on the contrary, it gave me reasons to force myself to do what I like the most — which is wrestling.”
As arenas and gyms have reopened, interest in luchadoras has grown — which encourages more women to enter the sport. Óscar Madrigal, a women’s wrestling promoter, says his roster has grown from 35 in March 2020 to 63 in November 2021.
Both of Mexico’s major lucha libre federations, the wrestling council (which does not permit bloodshed or the use of objects) and AAA Worldwide (which allows both), have begun featuring more luchadoras, too.
Only five women to start
Lucha libre has its risks — several men have died during matches or from related injuries in the past decade — but no luchadoras have been seriously hurt.
Amapola, a luchadora for more than 16 years, hasn’t let a recent neck injury slow down her ongoing campaign to recruit the next generation from around the country, through gyms and the family and friends of male wrestlers.
A lifelong lucha libre fan who grew up in Mexico City, she says she had resolved to prove herself in the ring after attending her first women’s match in 1993.
“At that time, the condition my parents laid down was that if I wanted to break into the wrestling world, I had to graduate from college,” she says.
New generations are coming
She obediently earned her bachelor’s degree in business administration, handed her diploma to her parents — then headed straight for the bright lights of the ring.
When Sagittarius, 19, began her lucha libre career three years ago, there were only five women fighting in her home state of Veracruz, in eastern Mexico. Today, she says, the number is closer to 40.
“It’s because nowadays there are very good pioneer luchadoras,” she says. “New generations are coming.”
A shifting culture
The culture shift is clear to Concepción Ramírez, 74, who has sold lucha libre merchandise outside of Arena México, a professional wrestling venue in Mexico City, for the past 54 years. “Now is the time when they are giving them the place they deserve,” she says, referring to the luchadoras.
In the past 18 months, she has gotten more requests — from both genders — for masks, capes, mugs, cloth dolls, photos and posters featuring luchadoras. Children ask for luchadora action figures, she says, but no one has made any yet.
Before their shows, most luchadoras sell their own merchandise to help build their brands and fund their training. This supplements the income they earn from fighting and any support they get from their families.
Financial success would be nice, many say, but it’s rarely their primary goal. They yearn to prove themselves — and ensure women are welcomed in the ring.
“It has cost us a lot to get to where we are, to build up female lucha libre,” Amapola says. “And it’s important to know that each one of the female wrestlers who has participated in Mexican lucha libre has left her seed, her triumphs and her failures, and has marked the history of female wrestling along the entire path that we have forged.”
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