The “Cassandro” Biopic Celebrates Queer Liberation in Lucha Libre Culture
Watch out! This post contains spoilers.
Lucha culture may seem like an unlikely path for queer liberation, but that’s only if you don’t know the real-life story of Saúl Armendáriz, the “exótico” who turned wrestling in Mexico and north of the border upside down. He’s the subject of the new Amazon film “Cassandro,” played by Gael García Bernal; the movie also features Bad Bunny and Roberta Colindrez. It follows Armendáriz as he finds self-acceptance and uses his example to nudge Mexico into becoming more accepting.
The film’s star power echoes its subject, showing how celebrities can normalize LGBTQ+ identities in the ring and out. Bad Bunny is perhaps the most influential Latino of his generation. García Bernal has been making waves as a well-respected actor for decades. And Colindrez, from “Vida” and “A League of Her Own,” while lesser known, is beloved in the queer community. Not only does the film feature an impressive cast, but it also signals how LGBTQ+ stories have become mainstream, representing an important thread in the fabric of Latinidad.
Of course, it’s not easy to get there. While the film celebrates Armendáriz’s story as a queer Mexican American man and an exótico wrestler, it also depicts the discrimination he experienced before he was finally embraced by his community.
The story begins with Armendáriz living a somewhat lonely life with his mom, working at a diner, and occasionally doing matches as a not particularly successful luchador. He also has no relationship with his father, a married man who already had a family when he started having an affair with Armendáriz’s mother. In the film, we learn that his father walked out of his life after Armendáriz came out as gay during his teen years. Similar to his mother before him, Armendáriz is also in a romantic relationship with a married man named Gerardo (played by Raúl Castillo). Gerardo also has a family, outside of his relationship with Armendáriz, and he is adamant they do not learn of his gay affair. Armendáriz’s only real friend is his mother, Yocasta, played by Perla De La Rosa.
But things start looking up for Armendáriz as he begins to transform himself into the “Liberace of Lucha Libre,” as he came to be known. Armendáriz’s first step is creating his Cassandro character. For those not familiar with lucha conventions, the film explains how wrestling featured “exóticos” – meaning femme or gay-presenting wrestlers. The long-held tradition was that while exóticos could fight, they couldn’t win. The intention was that femme men had to cave to the more masculine ones. Interestingly enough, many of the exótico wrestlers were straight men, performing stereotypes and mocking flamboyant gay men. They wanted to lose, and that’s what the crowds wanted, too. Wrestling was supposed to reward traditional (if not toxic) ideas around masculinity.
But Armendáriz as Cassandro is able to break out of all that. Part of it is due to the sheer magnetism of his performance. As he goes from feeling rejected for his sexuality to owning it, his self-acceptance radiates outward. His self-love gives the audience permission to root for him, too. The film also touches on how the norms in this culture began to evolve. In the late ’80s and early ’90s in Mexico and the US, society was starting to open up and slowly become more accepting of members of the LGBTQ+ community. Armendáriz is able to tap into that and push it forward into the masculine space of lucha. Once he starts winning in the ring, his life takes off, but the obstacles don’t suddenly go away. Armendáriz’s mother passes, and he gets into drugs and has a hard time finding love and companionship. But he also triumphs, winning at bigger venues, meeting his heroes, and transforming the sport as he goes.
Does the larger culture come with him? At least in part, it does. Mexico may have the second highest rates of LGBTQ+ hate crimes in Latin America, but it’s also seeing a wave of legislative changes, from legalizing and normalizing same-sex marriage to helping trans people change their birth certificates to reflect their true identities.
“Cassandro” isn’t a sad gay story of hate crimes and despair. It’s not even a coming-of-age story of young gay men figuring out who they are. Armendáriz is a grown and unapologetic gay man from the beginning. He’s never unclear about who he is. He is just waiting for the world to catch up and accept him. Thankfully, it does.
It’s not often we get to see gay Latines triumph – and it’s important we see more stories that celebrate and normalize that. Winning at lucha libre is significant. It may not be a true sport like football or baseball, but it shares many of its tenets – athleticism, winners and losers, and the traditional underdog/frontrunner narratives.
It has also become a token of Latinidad. Like the quinceñera before it, lucha libre has become a means to signal Latine cultural context in a way that’s approachable for all. And it’s showing up all over the place, from Disney’s “Ultra Violet & Black Scorpion” to Netflix’s “Chupa” and “Against the Ropes.” And those modern examples, including “Cassandro,” differ from the predecessors like Jack Black‘s “Nacho Libre” by being firmly rooted in the Latine experience.
Now, there are problems with cultural shorthand. It can be reductive or even stereotypical. It can turn our beautiful, complex culture into a gimmick to sell stuff. Just think about Frida Kahlo’s legacy. Latinidad shouldn’t be something we purchase or a set of tropes we see repeated to ourselves in the few Latine stories that get green-lit. But if lucha is going to get the Hollywood treatment – and that’s already underway – then shouldn’t it represent all of our stories, including stories surrounding the queer Latine experience? I think so.
“Cassandro” delivers a different version of the typical Latine narrative. It’s a spandex-clad, body-slamming path to queer libration, and it’s a hell of a ride to watch.
“Cassandro” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and opened in select theaters on Friday, Sept. 15. It will be available on Prime Video on Sept. 22.