SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Lucha libre, or pro wrestling, is a big deal in Mexico. Brawny fighters in shiny spandex outfits and colorful masks execute high-flying attacks in a rope-bound ring. Sounds a lot like our editorial meetings here. It's a sport that's often associated with machismo. But NPR's Jasmine Garsd reports, it's also garnered a devoted following among Mexico's gay community.
(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE CHEERING)
JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: That's the sound of someone getting a smackdown. I'm in Magdalena Culhuacan, in the outskirts of Mexico City. In the town's center on a narrow street, a lucha libre company has set up a ring. The townspeople crowd around excited.
(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE CHEERING AND CHANTING)
GARSD: With excess male bravado tucked into skintight pants, fighters like Nemesis and Aguila Imperial, or Imperial Eagle, take the ring. The flips, dips and body twists are mesmerizing, and then a flash of glitter. It's a duo in drag sporting blond locks. Their names are Pasion Kristal and Diva Salvaje, Crystal Passion and Savage Diva.
DIVA SALVAJE: (Spanish spoken)
GARSD: Now we're going to fight man to man, threatens Diva Salvaje. They are heroes. They proceed to deliver swift justice in shiny pantyhose. The rowdy audience demands a beso - kiss. Diva Salvaje corners a luchador called Metalion and plants one on his mouth. The crowd goes wild. These are Exoticos, gay male luchadores. Filmmaker Michael Ramos recently made a documentary about them called "Los Exoticos."
He says they have a huge gay and straight fan base.
MICHAEL RAMOS: The character of an Exotico started in the '40s. They were glamorous but they didn't use makeup.
GARSD: Back on the ring, Metalion, who just got kissed, has revived. He snatches the mike from the announcer.
(SOUNDBITE OF WRESTLER SPEAKING A FOREIGN LANGUAGE)
GARSD: I knew Cuiluacan had drugs and alcohol, he barks. And now on top of all that you have gays, he says, in mock horror. The crowd boos him. Exoticos fight in the same style as other luchadores, sometimes even rowdier. But their flamboyant sexuality often serves as comic relief.
PASION KRISTAL: (Spanish spoken)
GARSD: That's Pasion Kristal, born Gabriel Centella Damian. Offstage, he tells me as a young man in the city of Villahermosa Tabasco, he felt very attracted to the fighters he'd see in the ring.
KRISTAL: (Spanish spoken)
SIMON: He went to the gym to ask to train with the luchadores and got something else, a beating. But I'm terca, stubborn, he says. He came back the next day bruised and bloodied to learn.
GARSD: This time, they let him stay. In the beginning, he says he was embarrassed to be an Exotico, so for 12 years he fought as Nemesis 2000, a straight masked fighter. And then one day he was asked to sub in for Pimpinela, a legendary Exotico who couldn't make the fight. He says nowadays he's proud of being an openly gay luchadore.
KRISTAL: (Spanish spoken)
GARSD: He says being a gay man who stands out and gets respect is very hard to achieve, and I made it.
FRANCISCO ZARATE: (Spanish spoken)
GARSD: Francisco Zarate is a gay rights activist in Mexico. He says traditionally Mexican media have featured straight male comedians playing the part of the bombastic gay guy on camera for laughs. Fighters like Pasion Kristal, on the other hand, are the real deal.
ZARATE: (Spanish spoken)
GARSD: Zarate says Exoticos are genuine on and off the ring. And that's why they are beloved in the gay community. Pasion Kristal says there's always an idiot in the crowd who yells mean things, and it doesn't feel good. But it's the minority. And, he adds, at the end of the day, in lucha libre, if the crowd isn't yelling at you, you're doing something wrong.
(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHANTING)
GARSD: Jasmine Garsd, NPR News, Mexico City.