Luchadors: The Astonishing Gladiators of El Salvador
Lucha Libre Brings El Salvador Together
Attempting to encapsulate El Salvador as a country and culture is an exercise in semantic vanity; in a land where inauthenticity does not go unpunished, El Salvador personifies the very essence of “keeping it real”.
Lucha Libre–the theatrical wrestling showcase which takes place every Sunday evening in San Salvador– illuminates the unflinching veracity of Salvadoran culture, while challenging the very definition of “real”.
For travelers with a penchant for the unadulterated local side of life, a front-row ticket to Lucha Libre is as real as it gets.
Curiously absent from mainstream travel guidebooks, Lucha Libre remains as elusive as it is mythical.
In the depths of downtown San Salvador exists an underground arena where the city’s bravest citizens transform into their free-fighting, mask-donning, super-hero alter egos on their quest to fight the battles of good and evil.
The action-packed jamboree is as good-natured as it is entertaining, featuring a collection of wrestling matches that include nearly a dozen different luchadores (fighters/gladiators). Relatively unknown outside of the local neighborhoods of San Salvador, Lucha Libre remains perpetually enigmatic to both distant residents and travelers throughout the country.
Luchadores and school busses
It’s the type of tale that meanders amongst the gossip of thrill-seeking travelers, growing with panache each time it is retold; a blithesome concoction of pop-culture cinema classic Fight Club, Bloodsport, and Nacho Libre project images of a wildly enjoyable rendezvous of local theater.
Despite its zesty intrigue, few have heard of it, less have witnessed it, and finding a firsthand account of the Lucha Libre experience from a fellow traveler proved to be impossible. As such, it became my Salvadoran Holy Grail, the proverbial “X” on my El Salvador travel treasure map.
San Salvador is a busy, bustling city teeming with captivatingly artistic “chicken busses”- vintage yellow school busses passed down from America to El Salvador and colorfully redecorated to their fit drivers’ taste in self-expression.
Most travelers pass through the city on their way to the surfing beaches surrounding La Libertad, a buzzing beach town located less than an hour away. Those that make an effort to connect with the rhythms of the city, however, are rewarded handsomely.
While the Salvadoran travel infrastructure may be small in scale, its network is tightly knit.
I was introduced to a man named Armando, an English-speaking native of San Salvador who parlayed his local connections and language skills into a side job as an unofficial tour guide through the barrios of San Salvador.
Armando waxed poetically about Lucha Libre while we navigated the chaotic maze of El Centro’s traffic, recalling nostalgic memories of his childhood past while elucidating the myths and realities of Lucha Libre.
I came to understand that a Lucha Libre wrestling match is an exhibition of character-themed luchadores engaging in faux-combat amidst the context of a playful, ongoing narrative; it’s thematically similar to professional wrestling in the United States on a mom & pop-shop scale.
The luchadores, sporting comic-book-style masks and costumes, clash in the arena while charming the crowd in a gladiator-inspired aura of showmanship. The fights are choreographed and the outcomes are staged, but not without spontaneous injections of melodrama to enhance the performance. Entertainment value- not victory- was the main objective.
Is it Fake?
When I mentioned that Lucha Libre sounded like it was fake, I was met with Armando’s intense glare of disapproval… “Fake”, as I quickly learned, can be a rather offensive four-letter word in El Salvador.
Armando reiterated that Lucha Libre is a dangerous, full-contact sport with a myriad of unintentional injuries; there is nothing fake about being body-slammed face-first into the ground while being hammered over the back with a folding metal chair.
Armando’s disdain, ignited by my perception of what is and isn’t real, underscored the intrinsic social values concealed within the mystique of Lucha Libre.
The luchadores were not media celebrities with commercial endorsements nor public prestige; these were working-class people- fulltime cab drivers, cooks, cleaners, etc.- working a second job to earn an extra buck.
In a country lacking in opportunities for social mobility, enduring the physical punishment of a Lucha Libre match was a rare chance to improve their quality of life by the smallest of degrees.
More so, at its very core, Lucha Libre is about community togetherness and family entertainment. At just $2 a ticket, it’s an opportunity for Salvadoran families to spend a night on the town together, amusing both children and adults alike. A ticket to Lucha Libre is more than a spectacle of quasi-competitive theater; it is admission to experience a moment as a true Salvadoran.
The arena was located in the burrows of a nondescript parking garage near the San Jose Plaza in the city’s El Centro neighborhood. Above the entrance hung a red banner with a digitized, graffiti-style image of the Roman Colosseum, a gladiator’s mask, and the word “Gladiadores” plastered across the front.
Spectators hummed about the dank and shadowy garage, clutching bags of popcorn and bottles of beer. Excited children ran amok, buzzing from the sugary torrent of caffeinated soda and fruit candies sold from a tailgating cooler near the entrance. Beneath a series of dusty, flickering industrial lights lay a weathered boxing ring flanked by rows of well-worn patio furniture and metal folding chairs. A battered old van rested behind the ring, further enhancing the raw, visceral effect.
I grabbed a front-row seat and enjoyed my brief moment of celebrity due to the attention directed towards me as the rare foreigner in the arena. Once the show began, however, all eyes were on the ring.
Emerging to Ovations
. One by one, the luchadores emerged to an ovation from the crowd, each character inspiring a polarizing frenzy of cheers and jeers. A jovial sense of hysteria permeated the crowd; bodies were slammed; chairs were tossed; bells were rung. The gladiators- both men and women alike- poured their souls into their character’s identity, embracing their roles as villain’s and hero’s with aplomb.
The excitement of the arena muted an ominous sense of peril; while the choreography required a considerable level of skill to execute, there was a clear sense of amateur vulnerability.
Occasionally the combat extended beyond the ring into the stands, as spectators would offer the luchadores their chairs to use as weapons in exchange for extra action and hopes of victory. Flurries of punches, flips, and dropkicks negated any sense of false bravado.
A chair was tossed from the ring in my direction, smashing a bottle of beer a few feet away with the startling magnitude of the sound of shattering glass. Nary an eyebrow was raised nor a worry expressed; the spectator’s enthusiasm magnified with the luchadores roar. As the beer and broken glass trickled in my direction, it became overwhelmingly evident that there was nothing inauthentic about Lucha Libre.
I clutched my drink as I raised both arms in the air, cheering for the luchadores, and gave a nod of appreciation to the joyful onlookers in the crowd.
This was, undeniably, the real El Salvador.
The culmination of the Lucha Libre match was a resounding success, and a few of the luchadores introduced themselves after the show. I was struck by their humility and gratitude; these vigorous souls were as thankful for the opportunity to perform as I was to cheer them on as a freshly minted fan. As Armando put it, these were “real people doing real life things. This is us, this is El Salvador.”
Beyond the Limelight
Beyond the limelight of the arena, Lucha Libre provides a glimpse into the indefatigable spirit of the Salvadoran people in its purest form.
The distinct sense of cultural realism revealed in the dubiously decorated parking garage is perhaps its most endearing quality; while tourists are welcomed (and encouraged) to attend, there is nothing touristy about Lucha Libre.
Such is travel in El Salvador, a land defined by the unyielding authenticity of its people and personified by the spirit and showmanship of its luchadores.
For those seeking entertainment, the cheap tickets and cheaper drinks make Lucha Libre worth the trip. But for travelers rousing with wanderlust in search of something genuine, El Salvador- and the Lucha Libre experience-remain incomparably “real”.
An east-coast native having lived in cities from Boston to Miami, Kevin Dimetres currently resides in the Washington, D.C. area, working with at-risk students as an educator by day and bartender by night, saving all of his side money in an old fashioned glass jar until embarking on his next global adventure, spending it all while living it up.