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Lucha Libre

San Antonio Express-News

Captivated by lucha libre icons

Growing up in Rio Grande City, with Mexico literally "just a stone's throw away," a young Xavier Garza was mesmerized by the masked marauders of lucha libre.

"I was totally fascinated by it," says the local artist and writer whose new book from El Paso's Cinco Puntos Press, "Lucha Libre: The Man in the Silver Mask, a Bilingual Cuento", explores the explosive phenomenon of professional Mexican wrestling from a young boy's perspective.

"We'd go across the river to see lucha libre, and when we visited my uncles in Monterrey, we'd go there, too. It was the costumes mostly. It was like theater with fighting, but what I really liked were the costumes. To me, those guys were like superheroes and supervillains from the comics come to life."

In the book, young Carlitos gets his first taste of the outrageous sport of lucha libre when his Papá Lupe takes him to a match in Mexico City. He's immediately inspired by the spectacle and pageantry of los rudos (the villains), such as El Cucúy, who wears a green monster mask with "fanged white teeth like a great white shark," and los técnicos (the good guys). "A true técnico will never cheat to win any of his matches," Papá Lupe tells Carlitos.

Carlitos' Tío Vicente is supposed to meet them at the match, but never shows up. Then, the star of the show, the greatest luchador of them all, El Santo, the Man in the Silver Mask, makes his entrance. There's something familiar about the eyes peering out from his mask — straight at Carlitos! El Santo, the greatest of the good-guy wrestlers, defender of the faith from the forces of evil, even smiles at him! Needless to say, Carlitos is instantly a lifelong fan.

When Tío Vicente shows up after the match, Carlitos raves about El Santo, describing each moment — each hold, each dive from the turnbuckle, the unmasking of El Vampiro — that his uncle missed. Tío Vicente and Papá Lupe simply exchange a sly smile.

"I like to think of lucha libre as poor man's theater," says Garza, who also illustrated the book, working out of his studio at Gallista Gallery on South Flores. Last year, he exhibited a series of portraits of his childhood TV idols at the Institute of Texan Cultures. He's also exhibited his art and told his stories at venues in Arizona and Washington.

"It's got all these theatrical elements: antagonists and protagonists, wrestlers in supporting roles, a script, costumes and well-drawn characters. Then, after the show, wrestlers go backstage and take off the masks. You might see someone with the same build, but without the mask, you wonder, 'Is it really him?' There's this whole air of mystery."

"We loved 'Lucha Libre' from the minute we saw it," says Lee Byrd of Cinco Puntos Press. "We thought the story was really cool, but the illustrations with their bright, strong colors were just so full of energy that we couldn't resist, especially the illustrations of the luchadores in their masks and capes. Whenever we told any guy about this book, even guys who were maybe a little older than 10 or 20 or 30, he'd say, 'Oh yeah, I'd like to see that.' So we knew we had a book that boys of all ages would find hard to resist." Garza, who's 36, gushes when he tells the story of getting to meet one of the most famous lucha libre stars, Mil Mascaras, a few years ago.

"He was wearing his dinner mask, sort of like a Batman mask, with the bottom cut out, so he wouldn't get food all over," Garza says.

Garza's first book, "Creepy Creatures and Other Cucúys," was published last year by Arte Publico Press in Houston. He is currently working on a book of lucha libre stories for young adults, "Adventures in Mexican Wrestling," and has two more children's picture books on the press: "Juan and the Chupacabra" (Cinco Puntos), and "Charro Claus" (Arte Publico), about a Southwestern Santa who wears a mariachi suit instead of the traditional red coat. Garza both wrote and illustrated the books, which is rare in an industry that usually pairs a writer with an illustrator he or she may not even know.

"I'm very lucky because it's not the norm," he says of writing and illustrating. "Both publishers have been great to work with and have been very receptive to my ideas and pictures."

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