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Fray Tormenta — the mask behind the mask of “Nacho Libre”

6 June 2006

Julie Watson, writing for the AP uses the upcoming release of “Nacho Libre” as the hook for a rather elegant and informative little essay on the sport… or art… or evidence of pre-Colombian culture in the Americas… or entertainment… or…??? of Lucha Libre.

Professional wrestling, known as Lucha Libre, was largely the inspiration for the World Wrestling Federation, now known as World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE).

But unlike in other countries, wrestling’s impact reaches far beyond the ring in Mexico, where Lucha Libre is influenced by the country’s mystical Aztec and Mayan roots.

“We are part of the national patrimony,” said Blue Panther, still wearing his turquoise mask as he fastened his seat belt and drove away in his compact Sentra after a fight.

Lucha Libre is not an exclusive, corporate-dominated world of cable-TV celebrities. In Mexico, the gritty arenas appear in working-class neighborhoods across the country. And while there are many superstars, fights often feature entry-level contestants, including middle-aged, overweight men who slip on their own masks and become larger than life.

I disagree with Ms. Watson. There are out-of-shape, over the hill wannabes in any sport. One legitimate criticism of the film is that a big part of Jack Black ‘s comic appeal is his unathletic body. Luchedores may have a higher body mass index than, say, bicycle racers or NCAA wrestlers, but then so do NFL guards and other practicioners of sports requiring bulk. They are big guys, but they’re not a bunch of fatties. And they continue to perform (or compete) well into middle age. The greatest of all Luchadores, El Santo, who was born in 1917, was still working into the early 1980s. The “real” luchador who inspired Black’s character, was already a well-respected professional in another field when he took up his Lucha Libre career — which he continued for another 23 years.

What fascinates people about Lucha Libre is not so much that the great stars go on forever and ever, nor that it’s just a weird pop culture entertainment, but that :

“There are so many ties to mythology, to people in the news, to politicians, to stars, to science-fiction characters,” said Lourdes Grobet, a photographer who has documented lucha libre for 26 years and who advised producers on “Nacho Libre.”

“In Lucha Libre, I found the true Mexico,” she added. “I discovered a marvelous world.”

fray-tormenta

Fray Tormenta,

That “marvelous world” is in no way a simplified world. Luchadores like El Ecologista bring environmentalism to the ring. Two that I’ve previously written about struggle for the human worth of gays and transvestites (with good humor and panache).  Superbario “made his name leading marches demanding better public housing for the poor” (Watson writes).

One Mexican writer, commenting on “Nacho Libre” said “I think its a dumb mockery of a very bizarre sport” and he may be right. I’m not a big Jack Black fan, and the trailers and ads for the film suggest most of the humor is just the usual Mexican and clerical stereotypes you find in comedies (bull gores man in butt, nuns see naked man, etc.). Black’s role is based on the very real, and impressive story of Sergio Gutierrez Benitez, a Teotihuacan priest.

There’s nothing bizarre about a priest/pro-wrestler. Father Gutierrez — “Fray Tormenta” when masked — took up Lucha Libre to raise funds for an orphanage — the kind of story that would have made a good Bing Crosby musical in the 1940s (assuming Bing had the right build to play a Luchadore).

A theological historian once pointed out to me, SOP for the Catholic Church until the late 16th century, was to accept local beliefs and practices as long as they didn’t conflict with offical Catholic ones — or could be used in a Catholic context. The Irish shamrock, the German Christmas tree we accept as just “European” . Why not the Aztec and Mayan mask? In the twenty-first century, we still think of that blend of Germans, Celtic, Slavic, Roman and Jewish traditions as simply “Western” Mexico — with its non-European roots — has customs and traditions that owe nothing to Europe, but are are perfectly good Catholic practice.

The Mexican Church, from the beginning, recognized the power of indigenous art and culture. And, Catholic Europe and Pre-Columbian Mexico both knew of Warrior Priests.

The masked hero — in a symbolic fight against evil — is simply Mexican. What made Fray Tormento unique — and something far deeper than the inspiration for a light-weight comedy is the moral dimension of his art — behind the mask (and the Church has always accepted symbol and ritual as a means of forming religious virtue) the priest was doing what a priest should do — acts of Charity, done anonomously.

Father Gutierrez’ personal story is an amazing one. Born in Tepito (Mexico City’s breeding ground for great wrestlers, boxers and gangsters), he was a teenage drug addict, who in recovery joined an order of teaching priests. He was trained in Rome and, upon return to Mexico, became a professor of Philosophy. Informally helping out homeless kids in Veracruz led to his decision to leave his teaching post (and his order) to become a simple diocesan priest managing a home for abandoned children:

Soon after his last professional appearance in 2005, An article in El Universal (translated here) retold the story of the amazing Fray Tormenta’s unlikely mission:

“Money was always running out. No child was ever turned away, even when I had no idea where the next meal ould come from.””I became a professional wrestler because I had a cause. If it weren’t for my children, there would have been no reason to fight,” he explains.

Like most poor boys who dream of becoming wrestling champions, Father Sergio thought he would earn millions if he became a prizefighter. He endured dislocated arms, a broken nose, three cracked ribs and several mangled fingers, but never made a fortune, in spite of a career that took him to Japan 14 times and to the US 70 times.

It was easy to conceal his true identity. Mexico, he says, is a country of masks. “Whether out of fear or self-protection, we rarely present our true face to the world. Mexicans are secretive by nature. Our formality is a shield against scrutiny. We use masks all the time.”

Even after his accidental “outing” (a fellow Luchador attending a Sunday Mass said by Padre Guiterrez recognized Fray Tormenta, he continued his unusual preaching/charity at Arena Mexico until diabetes forced him to retire in 2005 at the age of 53. At his emotional farewell benefit performance, he said: “Life is but a brief masquerade. It teaches us to laugh with tears in our eyes, and to conceal our sorrow with laughter.”

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