A vision in rhinestones and nylon tights, Cassandro the Exotico – a celebrated Mexican wrestler who happens to also be gay as hell – is finally getting the biopic he deserves. Troy Michael Bordun talked to Cassandro about homophobia, masculinity, and the glitz and glamor of wrestling.
Professional wrestling is undeniably hypermasculine and homoerotic (there’s no shortage of gay porn with wrestling themes, from beefcake to Pornhub). Lucha libre (Mexican pro wrestling) solved the machismo/homoeroticism conundrum by creating a homosexual “other” to counterbalance all that male-on-male touching. Exóticos appeared on the Mexican scene in the 1940s (often portrayed by straight men) as a kind of clown to make people laugh. Dressed in drag, they performed their flamboyance for the crowd, and didn’t necessarily enter into any serious feats of strength with the macho masked luchadores (wrestlers). By the late 1980s, however, many gay men were performing as exóticos and they began seriously competing with the masked luchadores in regular matches, sometimes even for championship belts. These exóticos demonstrated the full range of their athletic abilities and, slowly, gay men were treated as equals in the ring (outside the ring is a different story). In more contemporary times, many exóticos blur gender identity and sexual orientation altogether.
On October 15, 1988, Saúl Armendáriz, a.k.a. Cassandro, made his debut as an exótico. Cassandro is one of the most successful performers on the Mexican wrestling circuit and has unflinchingly devoted himself to the theatrical sport. “I love my job, because I’m a badass,” he says in a new film by Marie Loisier, Cassandro the Exotico! (2018). He also doesn’t deny that he really “loved the men.”
Shot over a three year period, Cassandro the Exotico! follows the athlete as he launches himself into the ring, teaches aspiring luchadores, tours Europe, and engages in day-to-day life. Cassandro and Loisier develop a wonderful onscreen friendship, and this friendship helps Cassandro open up about the sport, injuries and surgeries, homosexuality, gender, his love of fashion, Indian mysticism, and childhood abuse. Loisier’s interest here is not traditional biography; rather, she wants us to know what it feels like to be Cassandro.
In October, Cassandro the Exotico! had its Canadian Premiere at Montreal’s Festival du Nouveau Cinéma. Cassandro attended the festival and I spoke with him about his career, machismo, homophobia, and inclusion in lucha libre.
Troy: Did Marie Loisier approach you to make a film or was a film about your career something you pursued?
Cassandro: She was looking to do another documentary. After she interviewed me, she said, “Your life is very interesting, we should do something about it.” And I said, “You’re right, we should do something.” So it was a mutual thing and look how amazing it turned out!
Absolutely. Tell me a bit about performing as an exótico. I read that you started as a masked luchador then moved to exótico. Why did you make that change?
I started as a macho with the mask, but I knew that wasn’t me. I was fresh [on the wrestling scene] when an opportunity to be an exótico came up in 1988. At this time I was very limited: I couldn’t do makeup, I couldn’t use the rhinestones and all this stuff. But I knew it was a step towards what I am today. Today I’m one of the best exóticos there is – performing helps me develop a better relationship with myself and with lucha libre.
I do see lots of different types of machos [in lucha libre] – it’s a macho world. The ones that are the cutest don’t use the masks. I thought that I just wanted to be myself, so my mask will be my makeup and my hair.
What was the audience response when you first came out as an exótico? I read that exótico usually meant you were a bad guy (rudo). Did you end up being a good guy (téchnico)? You won a championship title soon after you became Cassandro.
Being an exótico was an ordeal. Normally the exóticos are the clowns of the circus. They were the ones that were there to make people laugh, to make vulgar scenes – grabbing their opponent’s crotch, that kind of stuff. So I said I’m not going to be rudo, although I was a rudo for many years. It helped me develop as a luchador. But I wanted to be different, so I became a téchnico because I have acrobatic skills. I just loved being a téchnico wrestler. We still have exóticos that are straight but now there are also wrestlers who are gay, bisexual, and transgender.
In American and Canadian wrestling, the sport is sometimes perceived as misogynistic, homophobic, obviously very hypermasculine. But today there seems to be an effort at inclusion in Mexican wrestling, as you say.
Yes, we’ve come a long way. Now we wear the makeup, which we weren’t allowed to do before, and we have transgender wrestling. There’s a big LGBT community in wrestling. And not everyone is exótico. You should know that there are gay people wrestling as straight men; they don’t want to come out and they don’t have to come out. Right now there’s great diversity in lucha libre.
Did you ever see and deal with misogyny and homophobia?
Yes, there’s a lot of homophobia in lucha libre, especially from the so-called “men.” But what I’ve learned is that [the men] wanted something that I had or just wanted to be like me.
One of the hardest things I found out was that you can be both homosexual and homophobic, and I saw this with my own gender, and my own community. I was never in the closet – I was always out, always me. When I started there was a little homophobia, but I can tell you that’s changed today. The company, the fans, the coworkers… we’re not seen as sex objects anymore. My first ten years [as an exotico], I was seen as a sex object, and I was asked to do “special favors.” But I think I’ve changed the perspective of many people.
What mark do you hope to leave on lucha libre? Or what do you want your legacy to be?
I will continue to break barriers, break walls. I was the first to be a world champion, I’ve wrestled at the Louvre… My legacy… people look up to me, people want to be Cassandro and that’s a good feeling. They think, “I want to dress like him, I want to wrestle like him,” and I say to them, “Do it, just fucking do it!” because you need to be the best that you can. And that’s all I’m trying to do, be the best that I can.
That’s fantastic advice! The film ends after your leg surgery. What has happened since then?
I’ve had six surgeries, three in each leg. In the left leg I have eight pins, in the right leg I have four pins. I’ve bumped my teeth four times. I’ve had surgeries on my hands. These are the consequences of many years working, all the physical and emotional damage that I’ve been through. But this isn’t going to stop me.
Are you still wrestling?
I just wrestled last week at the Toulouse Festival. Now I want to do more things backstage. I want to help prepare fresh blood. That’s what I do in Mexico, the US, and Europe. I don’t only train exóticos, but all genders. I’ll continue to do more films and there’s a book coming out. Cassandro’s not done yet, that’s all I know.
Troy Michael Bordun is a contract instructor in Communication Studies and Sociology at Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec, and Sociology at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario.