MEXICO CITY – Their images may strike fear but when Crazy Clown, Black Fury and Big Mama step into the ring their cause is just: bringing Mexico's beloved lucha libre wrestling to the capital's poorest neighborhoods, orphanages and prisons.
In front of shacks or jammed onto the staircases of crumbling buildings, men, women and children who don't have the money to buy a 300 pesos ($22) ticket to see a professional wrestling event at one of Mexico City's big arenas can cheer the Caravan Super Tarin traveling wrestling show, which on weekends gives free performances filled with kitschy glitz, masked avengers and snarling "rudos."
The Caravan Super Tarin is one of the larger street wrestling troupes that play Mexico City's working-class neighborhoods and one of the few that give shows free of charge. While the burgeoning street wrestling phenomenon may lack the big name stars of Mexico's television networks, it makes up for it but it bringing lucha libre back to its roots in Mexico's barrios, where people still revere the legendary "El Santo" or "The Saint," and wrestling is the second-most popular sport after soccer.
At these barrio brawls children jump into the ring and women join the fray, smacking wrestlers with brooms. The fighting sometimes spills into gardens and people's houses, and spectators will pass their preferred fighter a chair, a board, a lamp or any other handy object and tell them: "Hit them with this!"
The impact of the lucha libre in Mexico goes beyond that of other countries, incorporating Mayan mythology and becoming a recurring theme in its movies and culture. Wrestlers campaign with politicians and fight for low-incoming housing projects and other social causes. Superbarrio Gomez, donning red tights and a red-and-yellow wrestler's mask, became famous as a social fighter following Mexico City's 1985 earthquake, leading protests and rallies as he set out to fight corruption and injustice.
The Caravan Super Tarin will set up its makeshift wrestling ring on potholed streets, plazas or public markets in hardscrabble neighborhoods across Mexico City and its surrounding areas, wherever they are wanted. They've even wrestled for communities at trash dumps.
The wrestlers get into their costumes in tiny spaces, sitting on packing crates or in the homes of locals. A show can feature 70 wrestlers.
The matches serve a dual purpose: to entertain residents and to provide an opportunity for lesser-known or young wrestlers to catch the eye of a promoter.
"I have dreams of wrestling with the great ones, but I've been at it for three years and haven't received the opportunity," the youngest wrestler, 16-year-old Black Fury said from behind his mask, insisting on keeping his street identity a secret.
At a recent show children laughed and screamed when the snarling and beefy Big Mama — in real life 34-year-old Alejandra Montes, who sells kitchenware in Mexico City's tough La Merced market — charged onto the ring in a red and white skirt with red hearts. They cringed at the powerful Crazy Clown with his horned Harlequin headgear and bright spandex costume.
Street wrestling can also provide a home for lucha libre outsiders, such as the one-armed Leonardo Rocha who has wrestled for most of his life despite a birth defect that left him with a shortened limb. At the caravan, the 47-year-old Rocha puts on his black tights and wrestles as "Desafio," which translates as "Challenge" or "Duel."
"There are times when there is a lot of work, and others times when there is little. Right now the political campaign is under way so there are a lot of opportunities," Rocha said before Mexico's July 1 presidential election.
The leader of the caravan is Rafael Rojas Tarin — or Super Tarin — who heads the street vendors association that sponsors the shows.
For five years, Super Tarin's caravan has traveled Mexico's capital. Rojas Tarin originally was not a wrestler, working instead as an event organizer. But little by little he became more involved in the shows themselves until he found himself inside the ring as Super Tarin.
The caravan provides some economic support to its fighters, but none gets the 500 to 2,000 pesos ($40-$160) fee a local wrestler can command for a paid match. Sometimes fans will bring the wrestlers plates of food as payment.
Rocha said people always assume that rivals in the ring are also rivals in real life, but that's not so.
"To be a good rival you have to be a good friend," Rocha said.