In San Francisco 1997, a Latina indie rocker from Texas and a hippie-born cherub woman from Marin became my housemates and best friends. They’d roomed together at Santa Cruz before this and spoke Spanglish in the house. They were more confident, more worldly, and ate much better than I. Our flat’s rent was too low to mention.
One of my first nights out with my new housemates took us to the always exciting corner of 24th and Mission Streets. The Balazo / Mission Badlands Gallery had curated an art show dedicated to the luchadores of Lucha Libre, or Mexican wrestling. Twenty years later, I still recall this event as cinematically cool enough to make me question my own coolness and feel like a huge dork just for being there.
No more drudgery for me in tiny-indie-hamlet Chapel Hill, NC pretending not to see people, or small-town talkin’ to each other in service to the hunt for a mate and/or artistic beauty. Chapel Hill had limits. In a city as big and as weird as San Francisco, you could avoid old lovers almost entirely, and seek duende unmolested.
There were no limits. Somewhere was always open in San Francisco. Somebody was always up and out and doing something interesting.
These girls I lived with liked to search for spectacle too. We went about the underground together, and in those days, the night was always ripe.
The Mission was a real neighborhood, or rather, three neighborhoods atop itself chronologically: Irish fishing families to Latinx working families to mostly-white young freaks. The latest phase had come in the ’80s with the Deaf Club and The Farm and Survival Research Labs and other unafraid punk rockers and industrialists who needed open spaces and/or cop-free environments in order to be very loud.
The relative lawlessness of Mission nights taught us to be quiet, afraid, respectful, or aloof at the right times (hopefully). There, you learned how to be streetwise, and to crush your own sense of entitlement. Don’t be brittle, but don’t be dangerously polite either.
We could all hear the storm coming: Gentrification. To be a vanguard of this generation meant harboring a certain nagging guilt for the rest of one’s life that you were in the crowd that crushed a thing you love. We all watched capitalists come in after us and power-wash the Mission and pave it over with boutiques.
We wondered even then, a lot, if we would smother the neighborhood we adored in the process of seeking out and uplifting other cultures. The main, unspoken reason for gentrification, though, is this: Generation X would rather die than live in suburbia.
But on the good foot, before developers exploited a building-code loophole for artists and created the “live-work loft” yuppie-kennel craze, there were nights like Arte Libre 3 at the Badlands.
These Latinx punk rockers hosting the show had grown up in the Mission and we were their guests, almost like observers to a sacred experience. (Of the artistic canonization of Mexican wrestling.) The Deaf Club might’ve closed down in the 80s, but punk music, weed, and beer still constituted the Mission’s subcultural framework.
Caped Curator: Arte Libre 3 – An evening of Artwork Inspired by Lucha Libre (Mexican wrestling)
by Summer Burkes, 8.20.1997
THE MISSION Badlands Gallery, I assume, is so named for good reason. Located above the less-than-savory 24th Street BART station, next to the most un-artistic monstrosity America ever created (McDonald’s), and surrounded by semi-dilapidated mom-and-pop shops and yammering drunks, the Gallery provides the perfect medium for tonight’s subject: Lucha libre, or Mexican wrestling.
Luchadores, the masked demigods of Mexican street culture, would be perfectly at home here, telling their fashion-plate girlfriends under a flickering streetlight to ‘go wait in the hotel’ while they searched for some crime to fight.
A semi-crudely painted (but beautiful nonetheless) plate glass window on Mission Street above Frida’s Pizza, reminiscent of the “Sale!” window displays of retail stores in the barrio, beckons art- and lucha-lovers inside with a gigantic wrestler’s mask.
Upstairs, in the foyer, young hepcats, art critics, and Latino families mill around as the Ramones blast from the stereo. It’s a hip event, no doubt, but the presence of neighborhood families, people who grew up with Lucha libre, is comforting. They remind us that Mexican wrestling isn’t a kitschy phenomenon recently co-opted by the American rockabilly scene; it’s a part of daily life for many Latinos, an ancient ‘trickster’ tradition deeply rooted in their culture.
Wrestling masks, screenprints, stenciled fabrics, and lucha posters beckon the consumer with affordable tokens of the evening, but the real prizes are inside. Pieces by 10 to 15 artists, mostly Latino/a, grace the walls of five rooms, and from almost every piece looms the ominous mask of a luchador.
Artist Lawrence “El” Colacion keeps it simple with clean-lined portraits of famous wrestlers like El Santo and the Blue Demon, painted on galvanized steel and framed in crude wood. Victor Gastelum stays true to the pre-fab, squeaky-clean and shiny aesthetic of Mexican lowrider culture with holographic paper backgrounds and Ultraman-like portraits. Jesus Angel Perez shows considerable artistic versatility with oil paintings on wood and tin, and linocuts on paper.
Many artists take recycling to the hilt by painting on found objects like sheets, hubcaps, and old pieces of wood. And Harry Ortiz Liflan, a trickster himself, spoofs the subculture with self-explanatory titles like “El Santito Duerma” (a baby wrestler sleeping on a cloud), “The Wrestler Wedding” (bride, groom, and priest all masked), and “Wrestler Purgatory” (the famous Catholic icon of a woman in shackles an flames… masked).
The back room, serving pizza and beer, is a forum for Latino, but not lucha libre related, art. Latino pop-culture mainstays as diverse as Cesar Chavez, the Day of the Dead, the movie Zoot Suit, Chicano street gangs, Frida Kahlo, and the Virgin of Guadalupe are artistically rendered in equally diverse mediums.
The romanticism, ardent passion, tradition, and strength that characterizes Mexican culture is beautifully represented in this room. But the hodgepodge of images, combined with the claustrophobic style in which the pieces were hung, causes sensory-overload for me and my best friend. We retreat outside to the roof to have a beer, chat about the art, and wait for the rock en espanol band Orixa to play. We wait. And wait.
We go look at the art again to make sure there aren’t any pieces that haven’t been sold that we can still afford. There aren’t. We go back on the roof. Orixa still hasn’t played. We discover that a good way to make people think you’re crazy is to look at them while they’re talking to you and try to bite the inside of your cheeks with your mouth open. (It works!)
That’s when we decide to leave–we’ll see Orixa tomorrow night at Incredibly Strange Wrestling. I take one more look at Lawrence “El” Colacion’s “The Sleeping Giant”, mourn that I can’t afford it, and we go. On the way home, we see a hubcap in the road and pick it up. Then we stop at a corner store. We buy tortillas and paint.
This is the second entry in my “twenty years ago this week” project from when I was a nightlife columnist at the Bay Guardian, once the country’s largest family-owned weekly newspaper. These “Dilettante” clips, compiled on my portfolio page, create a serial portrait of San Francisco culture at the turn of the century (1997-2001).
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