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An Interview with Cassandro, One of Wrestling’s Undersung Trailblazers

The wrestling legend shares his thoughts about wrestling's evolution and indie scene

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Courtesy of Cassandro

Perhaps no wrestler’s entrance music is more appropriate than that of Cassandro, who struts to the ring to the sound of “I Will Survive.” More than just a gay bar anthem that has provided comfort and strength to scores of queer people, the song is a testament to enduring resilience in the face of adversity. Cassandro, perhaps history’s most famous and beloved exótico, now provides a new generation of queers with the same solace, wisdom and power as Gloria Gaynor’s disco ballad once did.

 

Cassandro began his career in wrestling at the age of 14 and has since been beatified—through suffering, gracand sacrifice—as a sort of living pro-wrestling saint. While queer people have been portrayed as deserving of denigration throughout the history of pro wrestling, Cassandro rose to unheard-of heights in Mexico as perhaps the first openly gay wrestler to be widely viewed as a hero—all while spangled in seven feet of sequins.

 

“I am not a victim anymore,” explains Cassandro in French director Marie Losier’s 2018 film, Cassandra, the Exotico! “I love my job because I’m a badass. There’s been exóticos or gay people since the 1940s in wrestling, but they were like the clowns of the circus. They were there to make people laugh. And what I’ve done in over 26 years is dignify us … We, sexually diverse people, can really kick some ass.”

 

Cassandro, the Exotico! is as much a love poem to the glamorous 49-year-old brawler as it is a documentary. In the movie, which debuted in select theaters on July 19, the life of the legendary fighter is explored with incredible sensitivity and empathy. Perhaps one of the most intimate portraits to exist in the long history of pro wrestling, Losier’s film features scenes of Cassandro discussing childhood trauma and addiction cut in with fragments of his bombastic in-ring career, performing feats of immense strength and acrobatic skill. The juxtaposition of ferocity and vulnerability is a perfect reflection of Cassandro’s life, which is filled with as much tenderness as it is violence. We see Cassandro covered in blood, but moments later his luchador disciples playfully pounce on him in a hotel room or nap in a pile on the canvas after a show. Right after a discussion of the violence he faced for being openly gay, we see him cleaning his mother’s tombstone. 

 

Losier’s film occasionally veers into the magically real; some of the most poignant sequences have no dialogue at all. There’s Cassandro lying in a bed of flowers, surrounded by candles and muscly masked Adonises. There’s Cassandro beaming with pride as fireworks flare in the foreground. Rather than providing a timeline of Cassandro’s inimitable career, Losier escalates Cassandro’s legacy to appropriately mythic proportions. It would be impossible for her to summarize his endless accomplishments anyway.

 

“I am a warrior and I always will be,” whispers Cassandro to himself during a moment of prayer, encapsulating his own spirit better than anyone else ever could.

 

Cassandro, who recently made a rare U.S. appearance at indie federation Rise’s LGBTQ showcase, may or may not be reaching the end of his run as a pro wrestler. But his dream is now being fully realized as openly queer athletes of all kinds are storming the pro-wrestling world—all the while being unapologetically themselves, just as Cassandro would want.

 

ONE37pm recently spoke with Cassandro about his career, his philosophy and the bright future of pro wrestling. 

ONE37pm: Can you explain what the label of exótico means to you?

 

Cassandro: An exótico is just a flamboyant wrestler. Nowadays the exóticos are gay or are part of the LGBTQ community. We have trans wrestlers now! It’s just being yourself and being flamboyant. That’s how I got the name “The Liberace of Lucha Libre.”

 

ONE37pm: In private, some openly gay pro wrestlers have told me that they reject the exótico label. Do you think the term is still culturally relevant?

 

Cassandro: Yes, because in Mexico there’s a lot of diversity. We have the men, we have the midgets, we have the women and we have the exóticos. So there are categories. We don’t exactly go by gender, we go by those names. 

 

ONE37pm: You recently appeared at Rise alongside a handful of up-and-coming LGBTQ stars. How are you feeling seeing this new talent?

 

Cassandro: I feel great that there’s a lot of people coming out! When I started back in 1987, I couldn’t be myself. But 30 years later, I’m so blessed that I was able to open the doors for a new generation. It’s been a road full of sacrifices. But look at what we’ve accomplished! We can just be ourselves—but not only be ourselves. We can show our talent inside the ring.

 

That’s what I always say: Don’t judge me because I’m gay or because I’m this flamboyant wrestler. Judge me when you see my work inside the ring. So it’s like a big cherry on top of the cake now that we have all this talent.

 

ONE37pm: In the film, you talk briefly about the discrimination and violence you faced when you were coming up. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

 

When I started training I realized that because I was gay I was going to have to work twice or three times as hard as any other person at that school. I knew back then and I know now that it was because of my sexual preference—I had to work really hard to prove myself to them and to the teacher and to the whole Mexican sport of lucha libre, which has a whole lot of machismo in it. I showed them that I could also be a good wrestler, as long as they showed me how to be one in the same way they showed all the other guys. 

 

I can tell you it was very hard. I was stabbed by wrestlers. I was beat up by wrestlers. I was pushed around by wrestlers. I got spit on my face by wrestlers. I got beat up pretty bad. That was just part of my process. I would defend myself, but when two or three get together against you—that’s hard enough.

 

I went through all that stuff until I started changing Mexican culture. I changed it on January 28th of 1991, when I got the opportunity to wrestle for the world title against El Hijo del Santo. That was my biggest moment. It was very hard for me to take that match. I had everybody against me. But once I finished that match, I knew I had changed the culture and how everyone thought about the exóticos.

 

ONE37pm: Since you’ve been embraced by Mexico, I wonder if you believe that the reputation Mexico has as being homophobic is a stereotype—or is there some truth to it?

 

Cassandro: I think it’s so unfair. I have traveled the world for over 30 years and I have seen the same thing in Mexico as I’ve seen in every other country. In the airports, the government, all these people who don’t know how to handle us because they weren’t shown how to treat us—just like any other human being.

 

In Mexico we were taking a big risk, wearing pantyhose, makeup and bathing suits. The fans were loving it. Yeah, there were two or three homophobes. But you know what, a lot of the times they just don’t know.

 

My job as a son right now is to educate my dad about how he should treat me. Even in lucha libre, I show people how to treat us: with love and respect. And that’s a recent thing I’ve discovered. It comes to me—I have to teach my family how to love. And it’s the same in lucha libre. 

 

I remember back then when all the old-timers used to be around the dressing rooms. All these big stars. And they would just look at us. They just didn’t know how to deal with us. Some were friendly. And I’ve learned along the way that a lot of them want to be just like us, but they didn’t have the courage to come out. Or they weren’t even willing to go through the process and begin to come out. You would be surprised how many gay wrestlers will wrestle as straight wrestlers.

 

ONE37pm: Now that there are gay wrestlers being open about their sexuality and getting booked as faces, how do you feel about gay wrestlers who are to this day written as heels, considering the history of gay people being written as villains? What do you see as a potential future for a lot of these younger gay wrestlers?

 

Cassandro: It has to be up to them, to each individual. It depends on their discipline and what level of respect they have.

 

A lot of [the younger gay wrestlers] are on the defensive. And I’m like, don’t do it! Just show it in the ring! That’s where you show you are a true wrestler. 

 

I’ve seen a lot of exóticos that are just out there to show ass—or something. Their intention and purpose is not a strength for me. One of my jobs is to tell them that they need to respect themselves. I tell them that they have to say hello to everyone in the dressing room, whether you like them or not—and when you leave you say goodbye. The new generation doesn’t know how to do that. They’re too defensive. And it’s like, we don’t have to fight anymore. We have joined the fight! Now we have to show them how to love, even though it’s much easier to hate. 

 

That’s what I showed the new talent at Rise. That was such a huge step in my career because I don’t normally wrestle in the United States, after being discriminated against for so many years. I said I would never go to a big company in the United States. I’d rather go to Europe or Mexico or Asia. But everywhere I go nowadays there’s always somebody that comes up to me and says, “Thank you for opening the way for me. I’m a wrestler because of you. You gave me hope.” And that’s very pretty and very nice, but now you have to show them that you can step it up. 

 

ONE37pm: I’ve noticed that a lot of outlets identify you as a drag queen, but I wonder if that’s what you consider yourself?

 

Cassandro: One of the changes that I made [to the culture of wrestling] was my clothes. I started investing in my gear, having the most beautiful colors that I can wear and always changing. People don’t know what I’m going to wear. And when they hear “I Will Survive,” they gasp! It’s a mesmerizing moment. They just take it in. And that’s just a blessing in itself.  

 

But oh my God, I hate when they call me a drag queen. I’m not a drag queen. I’m not a transvestite. I’m not even really doing drag. I’m just doing myself! I like to do makeup! I don’t like it, but I guess I just got used to it. I try and correct them—I dress up for my work. Maybe I do have a bit of the drag world in me, but I’m just called an exótico. That’s all I want to be called. I can tell you that in Mexico City, I’m the one exótico that people respect. They know my journey. I knew back in the ’90s that I had found my platform, that I had found my voice.

 

ONE37pm: What advice do you have for the next generation of LGBTQ talent?

 

Cassandro: What I’m most concerned about for this new generation is that they need to respect themselves so that they can respect others. And then others can respect them.

 

In Rise, it was so beautiful. I had never met Mercedes Martinez, and I can tell you right now that I’m still beating myself up about that match. I wish I could have done more. But I did enough. In Mexican lucha libre we just go out there and we do a whole long match—there’s not a story line like in the United States. I was not raised like that! But Mercedes was just my angel. She’s such a professional. I have so much respect for her. She helped me see the change these days in the United States. And I was so happy when I met some of the people who came from as far as New Zealand.

 

Don’t let nobody define you. You have to be really prepared. Instead of using your mouth, use your skills. Show people why you’re in the ring. A lot of people use their mouth as a weapon because the mouth is very powerful. Sometimes we hurt a lot of people with our mouths.

 

What I’m trying to say is, let people talk! But prove them wrong when you get up in that ring.

 

Related: The EVOLVE vs. Fight for the Fallen Controversy, Explained

Related: How Mike Quackenbush Built CHIKARA, an Indie Wrestling Empire

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