The Man Without a Mask How the drag queen Cassandro became a star of Mexican wrestling. BY WILLIAM FINNEGAN
Saúl Armendáriz grew up in one of the world’s weirder double cities: El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. Born in El Paso, he lived, always, on both sides of the border. “I went to school in El Paso, but on Friday my sisters and I would run over the bridge to Juárez,” he says. The fun and the family were mostly in Juárez. At the top of the fun list, for Saúl, was lucha libre—the flashy, popular Mexican brand of professional wrestling. Every barrio had a small arena where masked heroes (técnicos) and villains (rudos) grappled and whirled and tossed one another around on Sundays. Saúl loved the gaudy costumes. He loved the rowdy, passionate crowds. He idolized the larger-than-life luchadores. He was not a big kid, but he was athletic and quick and in desperate need of an alter ego.
“Being gay is aGIFT from God,” Armendáriz told me recently. That was not his experience as a child. He remembers being brutally punished, at a very young age, for playing patty-cake, a girl’s game, with a like-minded boy at school. His parents, particularly his father, were mortified by his effeminacy. “My dad was a machista,” he said. “He did not want a gay son.” His father, a truck driver, drank; he beat Saúl’s mother. TheyDIVORCED when Saúl was thirteen. Other kids were also rough. “Boys in the neighborhood, including my own relatives, used me as a sex toy,” he told me.
Armendáriz, who is forty-four, stood at a dressing-room mirror in Los Angeles, putting on green-glitter eyeshadow, while recalling these horrors. He did not seem notably detached from, or perturbed by, what he was saying, but somewhere in between. “I am not a victim,” he said firmly. Then he gave a small sigh and started putting on lipstick—fire-engine red. “But I am still so damaged.” He glued on a pair of false eyelashes. He was transforming Saúl into his lucha character, the fabulous world welterweight champion Cassandro.
He quit school at fifteen and apprenticed himself to a lucha trainer in Juárez. He made his professional début, at seventeen, as Mister Romano. That character was dreamed up by a well-known Tijuana luchador, Rey Misterio, with whom Armendáriz had, as a promising student, gone toTRAIN. Mister Romano was a gladiator-themed rudo. He wore a scary black-and-white mask and costume and had a wicked dropkick off the top rope. Working his way up theMATCH cards in arenas along the border, he lasted less than a year.
“It was Baby Sharon who encouraged me toSTEP out of Mister Romano,” Armendáriz said. Baby Sharon was an exótico—a luchador who wrestles in drag. Exóticos have been around since the nineteen-forties. At first, they were dandies, a subset of rudos with capes and valets. They struck glamour-boy poses and threw flowers to the audience. As exóticos got swishier and more flirtatious, and started dressing in drag, the shtick became old-school limp-wristed gay caricature. Crowds loved to hate them, screaming “Maricón!” and “Joto!” (“Faggot!”). The exóticos made a delightful contrast with the super-masculine brutes they met in the ring. Popular exóticos insisted that it was all an act—in real life, they were straight. Baby Sharon was among the first, according to Armendáriz, to publicly say that, no, he was actually gay.
At his début as an exótico, Armendáriz wore no mask. “For my entrance, I wore a butterfly blouse of my mother’s. I wore the tail of my sister’s quinceañera dress. And then, to wrestle, a woman’s bathing suit.” He was billed as Rosa Salvaje, but the match was in Juárez, where everybody knew him. It was a terrifying night. “I thought it was a secret that I was gay, so I thought I was coming out. But everybody already knew. I was the only one who didn’t know.” Still, people yelled, “Kill the fag!”
Rosa Salvaje, like Mister Romano, was quick and tough. No limp wrists or squealing. Maybe a brief bump and grind after hurling an opponent from the ring into the first row of seats. Maybe a shock kiss on the mouth for some stud he had in a submission hold. The crowds adored the act. But some older wrestlers didn’t wantMATCHES with Rosa. They particularly didn’t want to lose to him. It was 1989, the height of H.I.V. and AIDS hysteria. Armendáriz’s mother, Maria, began coming to his matches. (His father has still never seen one, except on TV.) She did not let the drunken calls for homophobic homicide pass. “That’s my son!” she protested. No cry could give more pause to a Mexican heckler.
Rosa Salvaje often fought alongside another talented exótico, Pimpinela Escarlata. They kicked hetero butt up and down the state of Chihuahua. Were these legitimateWINS? In sporting terms, no. There is a reason the Nevada Gaming Control Board would never allow betting on pro wrestling: outcomes are predetermined. But the fix involves a “story line,” in lucha libre just as in U.S. pro wrestling, andWINNERS must be, at the very least, convincing athletes. Rosa and Pimpi fulfilled that requirement.
And the course of a story line isn’t determined only byPROMOTERS. When Armendáriz decided to change his stage name, he took a lucha de apuesta(“bettingMATCH”) against an exótico