Luchadores, those over-the-top Mexican wrestlers, have more than just the obvious similarities with superheroes.
They both wear noble capes, masks sacred to their identities and colorful outfits made of Spandex. Lucha libre, a type of freestyle wrestling filled with high-flying moves that originated in Mexico, with its own theatrical storylines of heroes and villains, was taking hold stateside even before the pandemic.
“It’s close to what a superhero does,” said Gabriel Ramirez, owner of Pro Wrestling Revolution in San Jose. “[Luchadores] have masks and capes—these incredible masks that have a history behind them. People who have hopes and dreams and get caught in the world of Marvel or DC want to be part of that superhero life.”
The torrent of Marvel and DC superhero movies and TV shows has activated an entirely new generation of wrestling fans, Ramirez observed. His training gym in San Jose has seen competitors who started as young as 15, with wrestlers coming to train from anywhere from San Francisco to Pleasanton.
Long before superhero movies attracted this new fan base, John O’Connell Technical High School in San Francisco’s Mission District has had a special relationship with lucha libre and its hyper-macho masks. It’s been home to a neighborhood celebration that doubles as a fundraiser, ensuring that students get quintessential high school experiences like prom and senior trips—things that make wonderful memories, but which not every student’s family can afford.
This Saturday, Pro Wrestling Revolution will once again host an evening of high-octane competition, with proceeds going to the school.
One of John O’Connell’s biggest fundraisers, it sustains activities at the underfunded school with a majority low-income student body, said social science teacher and co-organizer Samantha Aguirre. Selling holiday candy and food brings in just a couple hundred dollars, while the lucha libre fundraiser can rake in upward of $5,000, depending on attendance and—maybe—how audacious the tag teams are.
Despite the increasing costs for permits to rent a school out as a venue in the face of budget cuts, Aguirre said Ramirez remains dedicated. Funds go toward student scholarships for prom, which can cost hundreds of dollars with clothes and transportation.
“It’s hard for schools to fundraise,” Aguirre said. “We don’t have the kind of family base that’s able to dedicate money. When we think about schools—high school, especially—we think about these quintessential high school experiences. It’s just kind of a given.”
Students go all-in to plan the event, running concessions and parking and selling tickets.
“It really is everything to this school,” said Santino Gigliotti, who graduated from O’Connell last year and helped organize the event. “John O’Connell is a small high school, and we don’t have many resources. It’s much more than a school event—it’s an important event for the Mission itself.”
With many students and Mission residents alike being Latino, Aguirre said it becomes an intergenerational cultural event with others in the neighborhood coming out to help the school. Dads will come with their friends and tell them the smaller kids about luchadores they watched growing up. Plus, in wrestling, family members will follow in their parents’ footsteps.
“You’re bringing a little bit of home to them,” Ramirez said. “A lot of the time, I’ve had fans coming up to me. It's always been a parent bringing a young kid saying, 'I used to watch this as a kid.’ It does come full circle.”
Ramirez brings a mix to the wrestling shows he puts on, combining American wrestlers and luchadores, each with their own style.
At a raucous assembly performance by the San Jose-trained wrestlers earlier this month, luchador El Cucuy—who will appear in the ring on Saturday—said having the mask on turns off any nerves. Having struggled with parental support when deciding to become a wrestler in high school, he encouraged the teens to push past such barriers.
“That shouldn’t let that stop them,” said El Cucuy, whose name comes from a mythological Mexican creature who may steal or devour children. “The things I told them are things I wish I would’ve gotten to hear when I was at that point in my life. It would have helped me to come out of my shell earlier. I hope that’s what they took away.”
🗓️ Saturday, April 29 | 7 p.m.
📍 John O’Connell High School, 2355 Folsom St., SF
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