Letter from Corpus Christi — From the May 2013 issue

Jingo Unchained

Mexican wrestling’s all-American villain

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The spit of land at the mouth of the Nueces River defied five settlement parties before 1839, when a Yankee speculator, Colonel Henry Lawrence Kinney, demonstrated the benefits of illegal trade across the new border separating Texas from Mexico. The colonel, who’d awarded himself that rank for unspecified actions performed in Florida’s Seminole Wars, would go on to pursue a colorful career that included charges of treason and election to the Texas congress before he died in a gunfight in Matamoros. Despite the intercession of a devastating hurricane in 1919, Kinney’s Nueces outpost grew to become present-day Corpus Christi, a city of 307,953 with such tourist attractions as an aquarium, a decommissioned aircraft carrier, and the Mirador de la Flor, a monument to the Tejano pop singer Selena whose inscription reads, in part, her persona enriched the lives of those she touched. There’s also a minor-league ballpark, where one night two summers ago I saw a white man taunt a largely Mexican crowd to the edge of violence.

I arrived at Whataburger Field in the high heat of an early-September afternoon and was met at the gate by a man named Steven Ship. Ship is a ponytailed music-industry veteran turned TV producer turned fight promoter who has spent years trying to bring big-time Mexican wrestling — lucha libre — to the United States. He’d called a few weeks earlier to say that he’d landed a slot on two MTV channels and that there was a new fighter he wanted me to see.

“My name is RJ Brewer, and I’m from the greatest city in the United States: Phoenix, Arizona,” the fighter said in a video that Ship sent me.

I never had to scale a fence to get what I wanted. I cut lawns because I wanted to, not because I had to. See, my mother is a very, very powerful woman, probably the most powerful woman in the United States of America. And she taught me at an early age that if I see something wrong, make it right. That’s exactly what she’s doing in Phoenix, Arizona, and that’s exactly what I’m going to do here.

Ship’s fighter was the make-believe son of Arizona governor Jan Brewer, famous for both her aggressive anti-immigration policies and her finger-wagging confrontation with President Obama beside Air Force One on a Phoenix tarmac. In 2010, Brewer signed into law Arizona Senate Bill 1070, which allows state authorities to direct police to check the immigration status of persons detained in stops. While opponents call it an invitation to racial profiling, the law survived a U.S. Supreme Court challenge with its central provision intact and has inspired similar legislation throughout the country. Attaching his fighter to Brewer and her law was a canny move on Ship’s part, meant to get the maximum possible rise out of his audience, which is at least 80 percent Mexican-American.

Putting over a pro-wrestling persona is not easy. The task requires a thorough mastery of “kayfabe,” a carny-derived term for the extreme strain of method acting peculiar to the sport. American pro wrestlers treat kayfabe with a devotion that requires denying the obvious. It’s a head game. When you know you’re faking and the audience knows you’re faking and you know the audience knows you know you’re faking because the fact that pro wrestling is fake has been documented, verified, and repeated to the point of cliché, and yet you stay in character on the walk from the locker room to your Mazda just in case someone is pointing his phone’s camera at you from a window above the alley — that’s kayfabe.

Luchadores elevate kayfabe to the realm of the soul. They wear artful costumes designed to telegraph their allegiances, though their audiences fully expect those allegiances to shift, prove false, and suffer betrayals for reasons that may never be explained.

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is the author of Saving the School, published last August by the Penguin Press. He lives in Austin, Texas.

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