Seeing as National Hispanic Heritage Month officially started on September 15th, I thought this would be a good enough reason to look at The Overly Latino Wrestler, from the Mexican luchadores to the Puerto Rican grapplers. Whether they are salsa-dancing, fiery Lotharios or low-rider driving gang-bangers (and not in the PornHub way), the Latino wrestler has been a long-time fixture in the American professional wrestling scene. You might have noticed him. He’s the one who always cuts a promo in Spanish after having already said it in English because how else are we supposed to know he’s Latino?
I can only assume as a Hispanic person myself, that speaking in familiar foreign language sound bites is the best bet when trying to placate xenophobic tension. At least within the world of professional wrestling. Although almost as much to its credit as it is to its dismay, professional wrestling as a TV show usually tries to employ a more diverse cast than your average show on TV. Then again, if sitcoms and dramas ran for three hours, they’d probably have more room to hire more minorities. I would hope so. Point is, anyone who watches wrestling knows that it exists as this weird bubble that’s doing its best attempt to mimic society. Through the eyes of an old white man. And that goes for every old school territory, not just the WWE. In wrestling’s attempt to attract varying viewers from all different kinds of cultural makeups we are going to get an ethnic representation at its lowest common denominator, whether we like it or not.
Brown & Proud
Back in the day, Hispanic wrestlers didn’t need to wear a sombrero or drive around in lawnmowers to get across just how ethnic they were; usually their name was a perfectly sufficient indicator. For example, Pedro Morales was not so much a Puerto Rican wrestler as he was a wrestler who just happened to be Puerto Rican. I wasn’t alive when Morales was in his prime, but judging from this interview found on YouTube where the only Latino descriptor in place is a thick accent and his Spanish translation, there isn’t a whole lot there stereotypically speaking. But it’s in that loose Spanish translation that we learn just how proud Morales is to be a Boricua.
Hispanic wrestlers take pride in their cultural heritage. It’s also very much encouraged in pro wrestling. Especially in the melting pot that was WWE in the 80’s. Tito Santana was the proud Mexican-flag waving rep for all Hispanics. Regardless of whether or not they were Mexican. He spoke Spanish, dammit! That’s all that mattered. Picking up where Morales had left off, Tito continued the tradition of the friendly Latino and he couldn’t have picked a better time. Not only did he have action figures made of him, but his likeness was also on a Saturday morning cartoon. He wasn’t a threat to the U.S. economy, just a hardworking Mexican fellow who occasionally spouted his one-word catchphrase “Arriba!” And delivered a flying forearm smash that was consistently called “The Flying Burrito” or “Flying Jalapeño” depending on if you were listening to Jesse Ventura or Bobby Heenan.
Now ask me whether or not as a young Mexican kid growing up on a healthy diet of WWE if Tito Santana was my favorite wrestler growing up. You’ll get a resounding “Hell no!” I was a little Hulkamaniac. That’s not to discredit Tito’s accomplishments, but by 1989 Tito Santana was basically an ethnic Zack Ryder. He was putting over guys like The Barbarian and The Warlord. Guys who never won matches unless they were on Saturday morning against jobbers. Or on pay-per-views against Tito Santana. The WWE did repackage him as El Matador, a gimmick/job that, although quite popular in Mexico, is a much, much bigger deal in Spain. When people travel to Madrid they make it a point to watch a bull fight there, when people go to Tijuana they’re most likely going to hear about a donkey show. Just sayin’. Little Mexican James Martinez could now relate even less to Tito. It also didn’t help that my exposure to bullfighting at that point had only been through Bugs Bunny cartoons.
El Gigante was WCW’s lame attempt at having their own Tito Santana/Andre the Giant hybrid. Considering WCW was a southern wrestling company I’m not too surprised they weren’t really trying to hire or push any Latino wrestlers. I’m guessing pushing El Gigante made sense at the time. Not because it was the 90’s and it was time to diversify the roster, but because he was taller than Andre the Giant and freak show attractions will always be in season when it comes to pro wrestling. Unfortunately, El Gigante looked like he was 200 pounds lighter than Andre The Giant. As a former Argentinean basketball player, his legs were probably the size of Barry Windham’s arms. He wasn’t super skinny, he just lacked muscle definition and his height only accentuated how lanky he looked. Why else would WWE put him in a bodysuit with muscles airbrushed on it? But if his gargantuan size and futuristic attire made you second guess just how Latino he was, he made sure you would know it by pleading to the Hispanic population in Spanish to support him in his matches. Probably because most American fans had given up on him on account of how horrible he was in the ring.
It didn’t take too long for another Hispanic wrestler to surface in the WWE. And no, I’m not talking about Razor Ramon. I’m talking about his Caribbean buddy, Savio Vega. Full disclosure: I liked Savio Vega. I liked Savio Vega more than I did Tito Santana. And I barely even knew what a Puerto Rican was at the time aside from the fact that they also spoke Spanish. While never ascending to such heights as Tito Santana did, including being sorely overlooked in Jakks Pacific’s line of Classic Superstars action figures, Savio was a steady mid-card hand. He had me believing that he could beat Goldust on that one episode of Raw for the intercontinental title. And I enjoyed his Caribbean Strap Matches/feud with Stone Cold Steve Austin. Savio was as unremarkable as a wrestler as he was at changing the landscape for Latino wrestlers. He simply maintained the status quo of loosely translating his promos into Spanish. He didn’t even have a Spanish catchphrase.
Carlito Caribbean Cool was a watered-down version of Razor Ramon, but at least he was actually Latino. He didn’t rely on the famed Colon family heritage as much, nor did he on speaking Spanish to connect with Latino audiences. Sure he would spit out a few words in rapid fire succession, but it was mostly to insult others. And in Pro Wrestling 101, insulting English-speaking Americans in your own foreign language is bound to generate instant heat. However, Carlito didn’t rely on it as a crutch, he was just a cool guy who thought he was better than you. Even when he turned face he didn’t play up the nationalistic pride by plastering his tights with the Puero Rican flag. Yeah, he’d still say a few Spanish words here and there but he wasn’t asking all of Puerto Rico to rally behind him in his matches against Shelton Benjamin or John Morrison. He was too cool to beg.
Alberto Del Rio had a bit more pride than Carlito in being Latino, but he also wasn’t trying to directly connect with the Hispanic audience. He was a Mexican aristocrat. A Hispanic Million Dollar Man. And he played the part way better than Ted DiBiase Jr. ever did or could have hoped to. He even had his own personal Virgil in Ricardo Rodriguez. Del Rio was a bad ass in the ring and became both World and WWE Champion. He wasn’t confined to the usual stereotypes most Mexican/Hispanic wrestlers are often tied down by. Was he still using Spanish words when cutting promos? Of course. He is a Mexican from Mexico after all. It’s his first language. But he was using it to degrade his opponents, calling them “perros” and such. Then there was that bump on the road known as his babyface run, which was horrible because no kayfabe rich wrestler should ever be a good guy. But his Mexican pride was still intact. Only now he was born in Mexico, but made in America. Get it? He wasn’t hip enough to connect with the crowd like Rey or Eddie did, so they pigeonholed him in the Tito Santana/Pedro Morales “man of the people” humble immigrant role. Despite being a Mexican aristocrat.
In 1996 there were a lot of luchadores who gained entry into the United States to display their flashy aerial moves which complemented their just as flashy masks and attires. Much like the United States/Mexico Bracero Program of 1942, the Crucero (cruiserweight) Program of 1996 brought about many Mexicans to perform some much needed labor. Only this time that labor was utilized in the WCW undercard instead of in agriculture.
If WCW’s cruiserweight division taught us anything, it was that luchadores were disposable and easily replaced because being a luachdor was a gimmick in itself. It was like having multiple Sin Caras instead of only two. Hell, had it not been for the WWE Network I would’ve completely forgotten that Lizmark Jr. was even in WCW. Only a few luchadores actually received storylines to further their characters and that was before they started losing their masks left and right. Luckily, in the undercard the luchadores were able to exist in WCW exactly how they portrayed themselves in Mexico. The only thing overtly Mexican about them, aside from their nationality, was their inability to speak English and their entrance themes. Of course, that all changed with the Latino World Order. At least WCW “tried” to make stars out of more than one luchador. WWE decided to do away with their own Super Astros show and cast of luchador talent and put all their eggs in the Essa Rios basket. Which only paid off because it gave us Lita.
Rey Mysterio is really the only masked luchador to exceed expectations and become a major American wrestling star. Granted, he developed a more hip-hop persona and incorporated not only the nationalistic pride of being Mexican, but also the pride of being Mexican-American (619 is not an area code in Michoacan after all). He was no longer just a Mexican guy in a mask, he was now overtly Latino. Although Bookaya isn’t English or Spanish, Rey was able to speak English and translate his promos into Spanish. The mark of any truly successful Latino wrestler. Apart from Eddie, Rey is unquestionably the most popular Latino wrestler to have wrestled in the United States and a lot of it had to do with him shedding the simplistic luchador gimmick. It’s not enough that they can get by on the gimmick of their masks and moves. Luchadores have to reinforce their cultural heritage. As cool sounding as Lucha Dragons is for a tag team name, don’t expect Kalisto and Sin Cara to start incorporating some Game of Thrones or other sword and sorcery elements into their characters. Just more vaguely Spanish words.
Before I go on to explain why Eddie Guerrero gets his own section, I will mention that there’s a whole subgroup of overt Latinos that consist of Konnan and the like who act like thugs, or cholos, that I will save for a later Art of Gimmickry post seeing as it’s become its own thing. Hell, there’s a California indy wrestler who goes by the name of Lil Cholo. It is necessary to mention however, how the cholo gimmick ties into Eddie Guerrero, and how it helped him break out of the humble brown and proud Mexican role. Before becoming Latino Heat, and lying, and cheating, and stealing, Eddie Guerrero, in all his Mexican mullet glory, became the leader of the Latino World Order. And for all intents and purposes it was basically a gang. Granted, at the time, Eddie resembled a day laborer who was looking for work by the Home Depot. If you ever peeked inside a Lowrider magazine, and on the rare occasion where there would be a photo of a burly local car club rep instead of a scantily clad Latina, you would see that the rep looked more like Konnan than 1998 Eddie Guerrero.
While the LWO did produce some funny skits, it went nowhere quick and faded away before it could split into two separate warring factions. Eddie then jumped to the WWE and, after breaking apart from The Radicalz, developed his Latino Heat persona. On the surface, it wasn’t much different from LWO Eddie because he was using the same cholo-type slang, but he was now a smooth operator wooing the mamacitas. Well, ‘smooth operator’ is a relative term when the mamacita in question was Chyna.
Eddie was unmistakably, undeniably Latino. And just when you thought he couldn’t get any more “Mexican,” the lying, cheating, and stealing Eddie Guerrero became a thing. And he brought along his nephew Chavo, quite possibly the blandest Mexican wrestler ever, along for the ride. Seriously, there’s a reason why Chavo was handpicked to be Kerwin White. Without Eddie at his side it was damn near impossible for Chavo to convincingly connect with Latino audiences. Which, if you’ve been paying attention, is messed up when you consider that he could’ve been the first Latino wrestler to not heavily rely on being Latino as the basis of his character. Actual progression. But Chavo sucked. And this is wrestling, where 90% of your gimmick is based on stereotypes associated with your ethnicity if you happen to be non-white.
The cool thing about Eddie was that he took every damn stereotype associated with being Latino/Mexican and spoofed it, turned it on its head, and rolled it into one overly Latino amalgamation. Where other lesser performers might’ve found themselves pigeonholed as comic relief, Eddie’s natural charisma and inherent wrestling ability helped him transcend the stereotype and make it his own. It was so goddamn overly Latino it bled into other Latino (Chavo & Rey) wrestlers’ personalities. It was never offensive because it was this organic creation based on Eddie’s own life experiences. He had us laughing along with him, not at him. Unlike Cryme Tyme, the black tag team who, like Eddie, also stole and portrayed cultural stereotypes (“urban” black men), but were so contrived WWE had to advise its audience that it was a parody. Eddie Guerrero embodied the overly Latino character with so much self-awareness it bordered on cartoonish levels of absurdity that you couldn’t help but enjoy it and find him endearing.
It’s safe to assume that Eddie knew that his options were limited in terms of gimmicks offered to Latinos. In the real world, the question of cultural identity is as complex as they come, but in the world of professional wrestling where the lowest common denominator holds sway, it’s a lot easier to present ethnic groups in easy to understand cliches. It’s why wrestling is able to easily escape critical scrutiny even within mass media studies. It’s not supposed to be taken at face value. The whole damn thing is a work. But if that was really the case, why do minority wrestlers have to portray characters that usually hit a little closer to home?
With Alberto Del Rio gone under questionable circumstances, the WWE is left with the Lucha Dragons, who are no doubt awesome but will never progress from being more than the overly Latino luchador gimmick. They went from one guy speaking English and the other Spanish (which was kind of refreshing), to now both of them being equally bilingual. But at least it’s more than they’ve ever done with Hunico, who was originally stuck with the dreaded cholo gimmick. And is still more than what they’ve done for the Lucha Dragons’ tag team counterparts, Los Matadores. They don’t even get to cut bilingual promos. From what I can recall, the most they’ve ever said is “Ole!” And that usually comes from their theme song.
At least they have that one important Spanish sound bite going for them.