Masked, hulking luchadores play an essential role in Mexican pop culture. Icon wrestling legends “El Santo” and “Blue Demon” vaulted to real-life superhero status, immortalized in comic books and celebrated in death as quasi-saints.
But there’s there’s another, lesser-celebrated Mexican wrestling figure that is far more colorful and indisputably more complex: “El Exotico.”
Sometimes described erroneously as drag queens, wrestlers who assume the character known for his “exotic” ways occupy a different kind of gendered space. Think burly, athletic men who kick ass in shiny bathing suits, heavy-handed makeup, and stockings. It’s glamour-meets-smackdown.
At 44, “Cassandro,” born Saul Armendariz, is the leader of the pack. Each of his victories during 26 years of pinning men to the canvas has been hard-fought in a macho culture, inside and outside the ring.
“They were like, ‘Kill the f***ot! Ese es puto!” he says, trying to smile through the painful memory of his first audiences.
Cassandro’s life mission is to break down barriers, as a star of lucha libre but also as a role model for the character of exotico.
“I am going to dignify the name of the exoticos,” he says.
But first, let’s back up 18 years or so to before Cassandro’s pro debut as an exotico. It’s important to make a distinction between Mexican-style wrestling and American-style pro wrestling. Rarely in Mexico’s lucha libre do you see the over-produced, smoke-and-pyrotechnic, screaming promos that are characteristic of the WWE.
Instead, Mexican wrestling matches are rarely fully choreographed or scripted (though, hey, sometimes they are fixed). The moves are high-flying, mixing acrobatic tumbles with old-school Greco-Roman moves. And then there’s the mixed cast of characters.
“It’s a big diversity,” Cassandro says, perched on a rococo, floral-print couch in his home in El Paso, Texas. “You have the men, the women, the exoticos, the enanos….” The latter are the ever-popular dwarf wrestlers, naturally.
That cast of characters, along with the masked good-guy technicos and bad-guy rudos, wrestle together and against one another, in ever-varying combinations.
“You get to beat up a girl and beat up a midget, and get beat up by a girl and a midget. And it’s fun,” Cassandro says. “It’s like, pain don’t discriminate.”
Exoticos have been figures in lucha libre matches for decades. In their earliest incarnation, they were something like dandies. Then they grew progressively more flamboyant, sometimes into the realm of mocking homosexuals with a caricature of a gay man. At most, they’ve always remained something like a sideshow act.
“People, fans, promoters and luchadores, they saw the exoticos like the lower-level. Like we didn’t mean nothing,” Cassandro said. “We were just there for people to make fun of.”
By the 1970s and 1980s, a new crop of exoticos—Baby Sharon, Rudy Reyna, and My Flowers, among others —started to redefine the character.
“I knew that they were really gay,” Cassandro says. “It was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I guess I could be like them—the hope that it was okay to be gay and a luchador.”
Still, back then it seemed impossible to come out as a young gay man in the machista cultures of his dual hometowns, El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Cassandro was bullied and tormented, even by figures of authority.
“I got beat up by the principal at seven years old, when they used to paddle us—me and another guy,” he recalls. “We got called to the principal’s office. And we knew we were both gay. Because we used to play patty-cake, patty-cake in our lunchtime.”
His own father, also suspecting he was gay, rejected him. “He never dealt with me, talked to me, hugged me, loved me,” Cassandro says. “He didn’t know how.”
On the Mexican side of the border, the larger-than-life lucha libre matches provided an escape. Wrestling seemed like an out, despite its hyper-machismo. He decided to try his luck in the ring.
“When I started training, it gave me a new concept of life,” he says. “Like, ‘I could do this. I can live a different life. I don’t have to be suppressed and depressed and thinking that I don’t fit in this world.’”
Even so, when he made his initial pro lucha libre debut, he did so as a generic character, a masked good-guy known as “Mr. Romano.” Playing the straight man didn’t fool the crowds. It was time to trade the mask for makeup.
A few months later, Cassandro, a newly minted exotico, emerged from his glittery cocoon. His wrestling mentor, the iconic Rey Mysterio, helped him pick the name Cassandro, a tribute to a famously benevolent Tijuana prostitute.
Cassandro added his own touch to the exotico wardrobe, choosing Swarovski-studded bathing suits instead of the leotards worn by Rudy Reyna and Baby Sharon. Also, go-go boots and a custom-designed sequin cape. Occasional, Cassandro would enter the ring wearing a Las Vegas showgirl-style headpiece.
“I’m called the Liberace of Lucha Libre,” he says.
Cassandro dressed to impress, but he backed it up with old-school training. Over the first decade and a half of his career, he scored multiple championships, squaring off in the ring against legit mega-champions of the Mexican wrestling world, including El Hijo del Santo.
At the peak of his stardom, Cassandro bounced off the ropes in the wrong direction, and went down the path of drug and alcohol addiction.
“You don’t know what a wrestler goes through. For me, I was in an arena with 10,000 people, but where I ended up that night was in a hotel room or in a bedroom surrounded by four walls by myself,” he says. “I didn’t give a damn if I would go up in the ring and wrestle all drunk. People knew that Cassandro was a good wrestler, and then Cassandro was the worst.”
Even his buddies from the ring dumped him. “I ended up from having a three story house, having a chauffeur, having a lady that would cook for us, clean for us, and do anything we needed, [to sleeping] on the floor or sharing a little bed with somebody, and eating almost no food.”
In 2003 Cassandro got wasted for the last time. He went to Narcotics Anonymous. But sobriety hurt in a different way. He lost the numbing fog that dulled the pain from decades of physical abuse in the ring. His hands shook, his fingertips went numb, and his joints screamed for pins and plates.
But Cassandro couldn’t give up the ring just yet. The other exoticos still needed him to represent the clan. And as a newly cleaned up exotico, Cassandro could still put the straight guys to the mat. In the last three years alone, he’s scooped up two world championships.
“I’ve been a world champion three times; I’ve wrestled big names. I’ve wrestled at the museum of the Louvre for two days!” Cassandro says. “It still amazes me how from being Cassandro, the gay exotico guy, to being now like a pioneer of lucha libre in the world.”
Now Cassandro is a mentor, trainer and coach.
He’s working to prepare the next crop of luchadores by training them in his old-school methods. And, curiously enough, most of his protégé are burly straight dudes, including his number-one student, “Magno.”
Cassandro gives regular classes in the art of lucha libre in Magno’s mom’s backyard in El Paso. And he does it for free, for the love of sport.
“I’ve learned that everything you do, you’ve gotta do professionally,” says Magno, who’s done some crossover into American wrestling and traveled worldwide with Cassandro.
After all the spins, leg drops, and acrobatic wizardry, one thing remains clear: Cassandro’s hard-won message of self-love has transcended sexuality, gender norms, and culture.
“I’m pretty sure that if I wouldn’t have been a wrestler I’d already be dead or in prison. I was bullied so much that there were many times I wanted to kill myself,” he admits.
Now, he says he feels “blessed” to be able to help and encourage others, including those who call him to say, “I came out because of you.”
After decades of estrangement, Cassandro even managed to reconcile with his father, who reappeared when the wrestler faced a potentially career-ending knee surgery.
“He had so much shame and guilt over the way he treated me, and he finally got it,” Cassandro says. “I went to the O.R. six weeks ago to get the plate with the pins out. It was the first time that I can remember that my dad bent over the bed and kissed me on the cheek.”
Cassandro has taken his lumps, but despite the bruises he’s feeling a lot better about himself these days.
“I just love myself—my hair, everything—I love myself. I have to,” he says. “All I know is that I’m just a beautiful human being, and being gay is a gift from god to me.”
Video shot by Hector Batista
Edited by Jesse Swinger