In a sleeveless University of Arizona T-shirt, RJ Brewer walks along a chain link fence in a non-descript desert.
“It is my job as an American citizen to protect my country against enemies both foreign and domestic,” Brewer says in the video posted to YouTube. “But as a professional wrestler it is even more important to protect my country from these illegal immigrants who are about to hop over this fence and try to take the jobs away from the real American professional wrestlers.”
It’s a typical diatribe for Brewer, the supposed “son” of Arizona Governor Jan Brewer who wrestles for the ind ie promotion, Lucha Libre USA (www.luchalibreusa.com). He often points to his “mother” as the most powerful woman in America, and someone who’s standing up for what’s right. And what’s right in this case is securing the border and kicking out undocumented immigrants —whether that’s in this country or in the ring.
“I enjoy [the storyline] a lot,” Brewer says on the phone while at an airport the day after performing a show in his “hometown” of Phoenix, Ariz. “For me it’s not so much storyline. What I say is what I mean. Obviously, it’s pro wrestling, it’s theater, so everything you do is going to be magnified by a thousand … but everything I say I mean. I obviously turn it up for the cameras, so I’m not playing anything. Obviously it’s theater, but I’m passionate about politics, passionate about wrestling and I finally have an opportunity where I can talk about both so it’s pretty cool.”
With an audience that’s overwhelmingly Latino at Lucha Libre USA matches, Brewer plays the bad guy (or “heel” in wrestling vernacular) and he’s arguably one of the best in the business today. Boos, insults — in both English and Spanish — and sometimes even food or drinks rain down on Brewer as he enters the ring. For a guy who’s paid to be hated, he’s certainly good at his job.
Wrestling’s History of Race-Based Storylines
While a character like Brewer has current relevance thanks to the political and legal wrangling surrounding immigration today, storylines dealing with race and political issues can be found throughout the long history of pro wrestling.
“What [Lucha Libre USA] is doing isn’t anything new,” says “New York Times” best-selling author Keith Elliott Greenberg, who has written books about legends Superstar Billy Graham, Ric Flair and Freddie Blassie. “That was always a common theme with Latinos, where there would always be a character who played the role of a redneck who would deliberately say things to inflame the crowd … In fact, that was done as recently as when Eddie Guerrero was alive and in the WWE. JBL shot an angle where he was throwing immigrants back across the border.”
The WWE has never been afraid to play up stereotypes, particularly related to Latinos. For example, there was a tag team called the “Mexicools,” comprised of two known Lucha Libre wrestlers who rode to the ring on lawnmowers. Go back even further to the regional days of wrestling and similar storylines appear.
“In the Los Angeles promotion [in the 1970s] it was Black Gordman and The Great Goliath. They would antagonize the Latino audience by insisting the ring announcer proclaim they were from New Mexico but not Mexico,” Greenberg says. “When Pedro Morales was the champion in the early 1970s in the [World Wide Wrestling Federation], even though he was Puerto Rican, I remember Black Jack Mulligan’s manager, The Grand Wizard, calling him a wetback.”
According to Greenberg, Latinos aren’t the only group to have stereotypes exploited for cheers or boos. “When Bruno Sammartino was the champion in the old World Wide Wrestling Federation in the 1960s, early 1970s, Sammartino was considered the working class immigrant champion,” Greenberg says. “At the time, Italians had not reached the mainstream status they enjoy now, and it was very common for his opponents to berate Sammartino with slurs like ‘spaghetti vendor’ and ‘greaseball.’”
Another notable example also comes from the WWE, where, in 2004, the character Muhammad Hassan was introduced. Supposedly sick of the anti-Arab prejudice created by the 9/11 attacks, Hassan played the heel role and at one time was one of the most despised villains in the promotion. The character’s storyline, however, created a large controversy during an episode that aired the night of the London terrorist bombings in 2005. Hassan had “hired” several masked men to beat and choke The Undertaker with piano wire and clubs, thus tying the character’s proclaimed Islamist faith with terrorism.
Beyond those examples, there are countless other storylines both in the WWE and throughout other wrestling organizations that magnified stereotypes for laughs, cheers and boos.
“Many people believe in some ways that professional wrestling reflects the conflicts in society in obviously a more exaggerated way,” says Greenberg. “Immigration, obviously, is a hot-button issue and with an election looming that the emotions are even more raw. “
Brewer Generates Big Publicity
While the storyline may not be new, the character of RJ Brewer has certainly garnered attention like few wrestlers before him. “I was on the cover of the ‘LA Times’ a few weeks ago,” Brewer says. “We had a piece on CNN the other day and I appeared on ‘Wake Up America’ on Univision and tons of magazines and radio. It’s cool, the tour is doing well and we’re drawing some pretty big numbers.”
That kind of press (including this article, ahem), attendance and reactions certainly keeps Lucha Libre USA happy. Established only two years ago, the organization currently does not have a TV contract though they did appear for two seasons on MTV2. Generating this kind of buzz from a storyline, however, can go a long way in getting the attention of a new network.
And for Brewer’s part, he relishes the reactions he’s generating both in and out of the ring. “You can read the comments online after an article goes up and oftentimes people are like, ‘Oh, this guy is stupid, he shouldn’t be saying this stuff.’ And then you have the pro anti-immigration people saying, ‘He’s right, you should have an ID to live here and if you don’t you should leave.’ Then you have people down the middle saying it’s wrestling, it’s theater, don’t get so serious about it,” Brewer says. “So there’s such a wide mix of reactions to this character that it’s hard to gauge an overall feeling. But at the live shows, I’ll tell you, people are always booing me, throwing things at me. They never try to take it to another level where people try attacking me, but they’re obviously in the corner of the guy I’m wrestling and they let me know it.”
As the pro wrestling historian Greenberg said, this “sport” is often a reflection of the battles in society. Now Brewer’s character may be a funhouse mirror reflection, but his rhetoric and the reactions to it can often a hit a little too close to home. The real question perhaps, is not whether this storyline somehow elevates or adds to the conversation about immigration in this country. Instead, what does it say about the current state of affairs when professional wrestling can so accurately skewer it?
D.B. Mitchell is a freelance writer who covers sports, politics and pop culture. You can follow him at http://www.twitter.com/@DB_Mitchell