Text JF. Pierets Photos Lourdes Grobet
For thirty years photographer Lourdes Grobet has penetrated the world of one of the most popular sports and deep-seated traditions in Mexico: Lucha Libre-wrestling. She documented the lives of the fighters inside and outside of the ring.
Lucha Libre (Spanish: Free wrestling, lit. “free fight”) is a term used in Mexico for a form of professional wrestling. Being mostly a regional phenomenon in the early 1900’s, professional wrestling remained in Mexico until Salvador Lutteroth founded the Empresa Mexicana de Lucha Libre (Mexican Wrestling Enterprise) in 1933, giving the sport a national foothold for the first time. Grobets childhood was very different from what it is today. She was a rich girl from Lomas de Chapultepec, one of the oldest and most exclusive residential areas of Mexico City. Her classes were taught by nuns and, wearing a uniform, she rode to school in a black Cadillac. She was an athletic girl and her father, a professional cyclist, obligated her to exercise before going to school. This was a routine that allowed Grobet to lead a life without physical setbacks.
As a young woman she was determined to get away from the upper class lifestyle she was used to. “I was always rebellious and that saved me from being stuck as a good girl for the rest of my life”, she recalls. “I never wasted time trying to make money, or getting my own Cadillac.The times I watched fights on television were moments of splendor and leaps of joy but, because I was only a child, my parents never wanted to take me to the arenas to see the action for real. It was quite a mystery to me how my father, being such a lover of sport, would not take me there. It’s ironic that years later I have devoted so much into documenting this spectacle.”
In 1942, Lucha Libre would change forever when a silver-masked wrestler, simply known as El Santo (The Saint), first stepped into the ring. He made his debut in Mexico City by winning a battle royal for eight men. The public became enamored by the mystique and secrecy of Santo’s personality, and he quickly became the most popular luchador in Mexico. His wrestling career spanned nearly five decades, during which he became a folk hero and a symbol of justice for the common man through his appearances in comic books and movies, while the sport received an unparalleled degree of mainstream attention. “I had promised myself not to take pictures of any folkloric bias, but in doing portraits of fighters I found something so deeply Mexican that I was very intrigued. Meeting the fighters gave me another perspective and the one who struck me the most was El Santo. His generosity in dealing with people filled me with joy.
I couldn’t believe that the most famous man in Mexico could be so humble. I hate power, fame, and money because they corrupt people. El Santo broke the hold of fame and never had to be the center of attention, he just didn’t give a damn.” Grobet took the still photographs for one of El Santo’s films and confirmed that he wasn’t using tricks. “He didn’t use a double or strike star poses. When he finished filming there were endless lines of people waiting for an autograph. El Santo stood there and patiently signed his name up to the last person. He gave me a great deal of lessons in generosity.“
‘Grobet is the only woman whose lens has captured the magic of this exciting sport that is much talked about but known very little of.’
Staying anonymous by wearing a mask is a very important part of the Lucha Libre. These warriors need their disguise, because appearance is not only a fine adornment characteristic in the world of wrestling but also a weapon with which to disconcert, astonish, and frighten their opponent. Warriors are transformed by the sublime pleasure of becoming stoically anonymous. Their audience knows they may be well-known legends, but their private lives must remain a secret, for their epic fantasy plays out confrontation between normal, everyday environmental design and their particular mystery. The visual appeal – especially when set in scenarios outside the ring – was quickly apparent to Grobet. In Lucha Libre: The Family Portraits, Grobet shows the wrestlers with their mothers, wives and girlfriends, sitting for what would almost be a generic family portrait, but for the fantastic costumes of the luchadores themselves. By this simple gesture we are brought to the threshold of their identities – and held there. The ungainly, monstrous and splendidly defiant stance they convey with this final preservation of anonymity is of course what gives Grobet’s pictures their edge.
Despite all these great stories you have to keep in mind that Grobet is the only woman whose lens has captured the magic of this exciting sport that is much talked about but known very little of. The only woman who worked in the arena for thirty years. She evolved from taking pictures during fights into a frequent visitor to the private homes where the wrestlers meet, celebrate their victories and live their everyday lives. “The fighters are generous and respectful people. When I started I was young and pretty. Nobody ever failed me in that regard. We began to build relationships; we got to know one another. It didn’t take much to get into dressing rooms even though the majority of the wrestlers are men. I was spending time in gyms and eventually it was just another part of the job, like documenting an office in another profession. Instead of positioning myself as a woman, I was always more interested in myself as an independent human being who doesn’t bow down to anyone. I’ve never been much of a flag-waver and my attitude has been rather unorthodox, but I have fought for women’s rights and equality. What I’ve always rejected is the kind of imported, middle-class feminism that doesn’t correspond to the reality of Mexican women.”
Grobets passion for this sporting ritual has led her to gather not only thousands of photographs, but a vast collection of wrestling posters and programs, newspaper clippings, postcards, flyers, magazine covers, movie posters, stickers, and diverse objects that form part of wrestling paraphernalia. Still, Grobet says she is a “bad portraitist” because she shows people as they are and sometimes people want to be different, better. “I don’t put anyone in a pose. I was invited to their homes, I arrived, sometimes we ate – in fact the mother of Los Brazos was a great cook – and with that feeling of closeness I went to work. Their homes were wonderful. Sometimes people think that I composed the pictures but I never did. You simply enter the house and you don’t know where to look first. Everything is interesting, it’s a marvel of icons and objects.”
Grobet promised her fighters that she would make a book, and she delivered. In 2005 she published Espectacular de Lucha Libre, an effort that brought together a vast collection of images. Grobet has done more than twenty solo shows and, with her transparent and yet kaleidoscopic reflection of an eclectic, suggestive outlook on life, she became one of Mexico’s leading contemporary photographers.
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