This is the latest installment of El Mirador, an ongoing series curated by Francisco Cantú. Spanish for “the lookout point,” El Mirador collects original nonfiction, translation, and visual art on the American West, the US/Mexico borderlands, and Indian Country.
Wrestling is based on iconography, on signatures. Wrestlers work in signature moves, in signature styles, in catchphrases and slogans and logos. They play with or against their own images, their own reputations. Branding is paramount. Perhaps even more so for the masked wrestler, whose identity is tied entirely into an icon. Wrestlers so often become human symbols. Moving, living signifiers of larger cultural concepts. Of good and evil or history or representation. And so, to find these little moments of humanity, of frailty, within the world of brands and symbols, can be exhilarating and memorable in a way that transcends the images the wrestler promotes.
The search for frailty, for humanity, for complications, leads to La Parka. La Parka’s great contradiction is his mask. With its detailed, black and white skull design, its hood, its deep black sockets, the La Parka that is presented is something out of a horror film, a Misfits album cover. He exudes menace for approximately a second. Then he shifts his iconography. He shifts his meaning. La Parka’s mask promises things La Parka will not deliver. And, because of that complication, that frustration, that confusion, La Parka is different. And fascinating. And in WCW, La Parka became one of the most bizarrely complex wrestlers on the roster. Because, in a world where people understand themselves, understand their images, La Parka rejected an image that he himself chose. And it all goes back to the mask. That black and white hooded skull. And it all goes back to what that mask represents and what all masks represent. And in the middle is La Parka.
The masks lent the wrestlers a mystique, but it also lent them a sort of uncanny quality. These wrestlers were more than themselves, more than human.
Masks work differently in Mexico than they do in America. In America, masks are typically a means of escape or trickery. During the territorial era, when wrestling was split into a number of promotions across the country, wrestlers would compete in “Loser Leaves Town” matches. A villain, called a heel, would wrestle a hero, or face, and the loser would be forced to leave the territory. Often, this was followed by a suspiciously familiar mysterious masked wrestler appearing. Dusty Rhodes would become the Midnight Rider. Junkyard Dog would become Stagger Lee. Andre the Giant would become Giant Machine. They’d wrestle in masks, much to the frustration of the typically villainous winner, until their statute of limitations were up. Then, miraculously, Stagger Lee would disappear and the Junkyard Dog would be back in town.
In other circumstances, a promotion would throw masks on a couple wrestlers to pad out their roster. A tag team like the Powers of Pain, Barbarian and Warlord, could throw on a couple masks and also portray the mysterious Super Assassins. Orient Express member Pat Tanaka could put on a mask and be El Gato. These weren’t storylines, they were simply a utilitarian means to an end. WCW needs someone to lose but they would rather not throw out a wrestler who they might want to use later. So why not invent a character?
In lucha libre, however, which took the concept of the masked wrestler and ran with it, the masks represented two things. Within the fiction of the lucha universe, the mask is a sacred object, a representation of faith or ideals. Wrestlers like Santo and Blue Demon and Mil Mascaras would go their entire careers without revealing their face. The masks lent the wrestlers a mystique, but it also lent them a sort of uncanny quality. These wrestlers were more than themselves, more than human. They were fetish idols and comic book panels and science fiction heroes and villains.
Of course, the other benefit of the match was its unparalleled potential for branding. Psicosis was always a great lucha libre wrestler, but his mask, a sort of horned tribal number, looked amazing. It was sellable. It was a market. When Rey Mysterio was working in the WWE in the 2000s, he was typically the second biggest merchandise seller, behind American wrestler and face of the company John Cena, in large part because he was so toyetic. He had accessories and costume changes. Replicas of his masks sold like gangbusters, to the extent that when lucha libre superstar Mystico was brought into the company as Sin Cara, his mask took priority. After firing Mystico, the Sin Cara gimmick was given to Hunico, a maskless wrestler, who wrestles under the name to this day. The Sin Cara mask is noticeably awkward, the eyeholes covered in a black mesh, and both Sin Caras have been plagued by in ring errors, or botches, and injuries probably due in large part to the unwieldiness of the mask. But the mask takes precedent. Because the mask makes money. And it was probably the masks just as much as the athleticism that brought lucha libre to the WCW and to mainstream American audiences in the mid-90s.
The move was an attempt to revitalize what was, until that point, seen as a very Southern wrestling promotion, as well as capitalize on a growing audience of first or second generation Mexican fans who either followed lucha religiously and would hopefully follow it to WCW, or who had only heard about it from parents and wanted a chance to see it for themselves. And so, typically in the first hour, WCW would present these showcases for lucha libre. Wrestlers like Rey Mysterio Jr. and Psicosis (who had wrestled an incredible series of matches in the Philadelphia based promotion Extreme Championship Wrestling or ECW in 95 and early 96), Juventud Guerrera and Eddie Guerrero were brought in as a fresh stable of young exciting talent. They were tasked with, essentially, introducing an American audience to a lucha libre style that even diehard fans may have only heard of and never seen. And in the middle was La Parka.
La Parka was a sort of camp character. He dressed like a skeleton, carried a steel chair that he played like a guitar, and served as a sort of counterpoint to wrestlers like Juventud Guerrera, Eddie Guerrero, or Rey Mysterio Jr., all of whom were doing their part to revitalize the WCW’s Cruiserweight Division with grand displays of aerial athleticism and technical aptitude.
La Parka was different. He was sort of terrible. He was dumpy and often awkward and athletically unimpressive. He would leap off the turnbuckles into what are called “Flying Nothings,” moves that aren’t really moves. A sort of full bodied dive where arms and legs went everywhere, where there seemed to be almost no planning at all. He was daring, but his daringness never really amounted to anything particularly impressive. And because of this, I thought he was the greatest.
La Parka had played a rudo, a villain, in AAA, Mexico’s biggest lucha libre promotion and, while Cruiserweights in WCW, especially masked ones, were given very little input and vague roles, La Parka had continued to wrestle in the rudo style. Whether or not he was a villain was almost irrelevant. While there was the occasional notable exception (Rey Mysterio Jr. feuding with a heel Dean Malenko over his mask, for example), most luchadores didn’t really have stories. And so, left adrift in WCW, moving from match to match aimlessly, La Parka invented his own rules. As a rudo, his job was to pace the match, to slow down high flyers like Lizmark or Psicosis, to ground the action. Typically, heels accomplish this with either technical skill, a la Malenko, or with power or size, like Vader. La Parka used his sheer awkwardness. He botched moves. He got winded. He did this signature dance, a borderline psychotic mix of the robot and the Charleston.
What made La Parka memorable, what made him special, was that he had charisma. While other wrestlers hit complicated hurricanranas, while Rey Mysterio hurled himself at men twice his size, while Eddie Guerrero gradually became one of the best wrestlers of, perhaps, all time, La Parka danced. La Parka danced like a madman. He danced in the ring. He danced coming to the ring. He caught his opponent in midair and danced with them. He opened his trademark folding chair and he danced on top of it. He either didn’t understand the point of wrestling at all, or he understood it in a complicated, absolute sort of way.
Lucha libre is built on an almost supernatural level of conflict. Luchadores sell less; that is, they feign injury less frequently than other wrestlers. It’s not unusual for a Luchador to do a complicated flip moments after his opponent almost breaks his leg. The rules operate differently. Just as we don’t expect Superman to be slowed down by an injured rib during a fight with Brainiac, we don’t expect Fenix to stop flipping around because he supposedly hurt his arm. It’s a different story being told. There’s an invincibility there. An otherworldliness. It’s part of the appeal.
In a time where wrestlers buried people alive, set them on fire, slept with their wives and cost them their jobs, La Parka’s heel moves were small potatoes.
Characters can be likeable or interesting or fun, but real, honest, relatable everymen are rare. A masked lucha libre Dusty Rhodes, a wrestler bound by his human relatability, by his fragility, is rare, in large part because a masked wrestler pulls from the mask and what it represents. They can introduce elements of themselves, they can talk about their history as wrestlers, but at the end of the day, they facilitate the mask and the mask facilitates them. Which is the other reason why La Parka was so bizarre. His mask was amazing and yet it served as a counterpoint to his in ring antics. A detailed hooded skeleton mask, it is foreboding. It is dangerous. It looks evil. La Parka, on the other hand, was not. During his time at WCW, his most evil trait was, basically, being kind of an impertinent dick. He would hit you with a chair. He would dance mockingly at you. Sometimes he’d slap you in the face and then do a little dance. He’d powerbomb you and then laugh about it. In a time where wrestlers buried people alive, set them on fire, slept with their wives and cost them their jobs, La Parka’s heel moves were small potatoes.
One of the most famous, if not the most famous, moments of La Parka’s WCW run happened on June 1st, 1998. La Parka was set to face Goldberg, a giant ex-football player who had been murdering midcard wrestlers since September of ’97 and was showing no sign of ending his winning streak. Here’s a breakdown of the entire match. La Parka comes out to his guitar rock theme song, playing his chair. Then Goldberg comes out. Goldberg’s entrance is about two minutes of the five minute run time of the match. He emerges from the back in a shower of sparks. They’re in the ring. La Parka’s still holding his chair. The bell rings. The referee tries to tell La Parka to put the chair down. Instead, La Parka looks at the referee, looks at the hulking, undefeated Goldberg, and immediately smashes the steel folding chair over Goldberg’s head. The referee calls for the bell and Goldberg wins by disqualification. Goldberg, unfazed, stands there with the remnants of a steel chair hanging around his neck like a harness. La Parka sees this and, in a moment of sheer, believable, human panic, starts dancing. He does his strut. He begins to hop in a circle on one leg. Goldberg explodes from the corner and steamrolls him with a spear, a sort of leaping tackle, one of his signature moves. La Parka looks like he may be dead.
That is the key to La Parka’s appeal. He stood apart from other luchadores, from other wrestlers, because he was so honestly and distinctly frail. For all of his antics, at the end of the day, he was just this guy, dressed as a skeleton, trapped in a world filled with invincible men. And so he did what anyone would do. He hit them with chairs. And he danced like a maniac. He was the closest thing that this bumper crop of WCW luchadores had to a common man. To a Dusty Rhodes. This is perhaps why he remains so memorable. Why American wrestling fans who, perhaps, never watched a lucha match between the end of WCW and the beginning of El Rey’s Lucha Underground, continue to share gifs and memes and buy his masks.
In 1999, WCW hired successful WWE head writer Vince Russo to revitalize their brand. The main event scene had taken some hits and WCW had started to trail behind the WWE in the ratings. One of Russo’s major moves was an attempt to reshape the Cruiserweight division by removing their masks. Wrestlers like Psicosis and Rey Mysterio Jr. were scripted to lose Luchas de Apuestas, or matches with wagers, and lost access to their brand. Their identity. Russo believed that masked wrestlers were not relatable to fans. That we needed to see their faces. This, in spite of the decades long histories of companies like AAA and CMLL who succeeded, in large part, because masked luchadores are so easy to like and connect to. Perhaps not in the same way that we may connect to Stone Cold Steve Austin, but in the same way that we connect to Batman. We root for them. We want them to succeed.
Masks served as shields. They allowed wrestlers to be themselves. Or at least, they allowed wrestlers to be wrestlers.
To make matters worse, he started booking luchadores in “Pinata on a Pole” matches. Booking Juventud Guerrera as a Mexican parody of the Rock. Putting Konnan and Rey Mysterio Jr. in a South Central themed heel stable called the Filthy Animals. In an attempt to be edgy, to push the envelope, Russo dehumanized his Mexican wrestlers far more than if they’d been allowed to keep their masks. And because of this obvious racism and stereotyping, one of the realizations wrestling fans had was that the masks served a third function. A function that, perhaps, the wrestlers themselves hadn’t thought about until they came to WCW. Masks served as shields. They allowed wrestlers to be themselves. Or at least, they allowed wrestlers to be wrestlers. In the eyes of WCW, without their masks, the typical writer or booker saw “Mexican” as the luchadores identifying trait, and “Mexican” became the joke. This continued well into the next decade. WWE took a newly unmasked Super Crazy, Psicosis, and, very briefly, Juventud Guerrera and placed them in a tag team called the Mexicools who rode to the ring on a riding lawnmower. Eddie Guerrero, who only wore a mask briefly in Japan, and his nephew Chavo Guerrero Jr. were put in a tag team where their entire gimmick was that they lied and cheated and stole to win matches.
La Parka never lost his mask (although he lost his identity for a period, becoming L.A. Park due to a series of complicated copyright issues with AAA that played out in matches between two versions of the character), but he was tasked with cutting promos in his native language that were then dubbed over into English. The storyline was that La Parka would come out to ring, prepared to cut a promo in Spanish, usually against a legitimate tough guy like Meng or Finlay. Then, as he spoke, another voice would come over the loudspeaker, mistranslating his words, speaking in exaggerated ebonics, making racist comments, calling big haired Tongan wrestler Meng “Jungle Jim” and commenting on his “Angela Davis natural.” Then, La Parka, apologetic, kicking the microphone away from him, would take a beating. Usually, an angle like this ends with the villain, the person, in this case, willfully trying to get La Parka beaten up, being revealed. He gets comeuppance. La Parka gets his revenge. That never happened, and La Parka left the company soon afterwards.
Even this, being misrepresented, being treated, not as a comedic wrestler but as a joke, never getting to face down the person who misrepresented him, who manipulated him, marks La Parka as relatable. As an oddity in the world of masked luchadores. As an exception to the rule. To fight vainly, to throw oneself, arms akimbo, at something so large, is relatable. To see something big and violent and deeply institutional, to attack it, to allow oneself to be the outlier, to allow oneself to contradict and confuse and complicate. And to lose, sometimes, but to lose gloriously, a chair dangling from your opponent’s neck, is human.