Cassandro Is a Must-Watch Homage to the First Openly Gay Exótico in Lucha Libre

Latines love entertainment. For years, we have been the top moviegoers — even though the films we watch rarely reflect our communities. While we represent 19% of the U.S. population, we make up only 4.6% of movie roles and 5.3% of TV roles. When we do see ourselves on the big or small screen, we are often playing one-dimensional characters or are cast in films riddled with stereotypes, tropes, and stories that fail to represent the totality of who we are. So we decided to hold Hollywood accountable. Welcome to La Nota, a column where we measure the (mis)representation of Latines in film and TV and grade projects against a Somos test that looks at gender, race, language, and more. This month, we’re grading the Amazon Prime movie Cassandro.
In lucha libre, exóticos — luchadores who fight in drag and portray gay caricatures in the sport — were not supposed to win. Embodying feminine performance as their characters, exóticos began as a homophobic stereotype, mostly played by straight luchadores to make the audience laugh at their flamboyant style of fighting. 
However, in recent years, many gay luchadores have made history by reclaiming the archetype on their own terms, transforming exóticos into improbable champions and lucha libre into an unlikely niche for Mexico’s LGBTQ+ community. Saúl Armendáriz, whose stage name is Cassandro, is one of these iconic exóticos who revolutionized the sport, and his story is at the center of the new Amazon Prime movie Cassandro, starring Gael García Bernal as the titular character.
In a breathtaking performance, García Bernal is almost unrecognizable in the role of the openly gay luchador who rose to fame in the early 1990s in El Paso, Texas. As Armendáriz, García Bernal gives an electric and passionate performance, honoring the sport and artform that is the Mexican lucha libre scene, as well as the entertainers who shaped the industry. Though outsiders might see lucha libre as violent, the film demonstrates how much of the sport is performance and entertainment, something the Mexican public is and should be proud of. 

"Gay luchadores have made history by reclaiming the archetype on their own terms, transforming exóticos into improbable champions and lucha libre into an unlikely niche for Mexico’s LGBTQ+ community."

Importantly, the film doesn’t shy away from showing the homophobia the wrestler endured. Armendáriz struggles to create a persona for his luchador career because of his sexuality. Despite the advice to create an exótico character and settle for being cast as the runt who loses, he first refuses to do so because he doesn’t want the stigma that comes with the effeminate character. As an openly gay man, to submit to this kind of typecasting brings up feelings of self-hatred and internalized homophobia, and Armendáriz doesn’t want his wrestling persona to have ties to society’s negative views on his sexuality. 
After Armendáriz meets trainer and luchadora Sabrina (Roberta Colindrez from A League of their Own), he starts conceptualizing a different kind of exótico — an exótico who, contrary to everyone’s expectations that he be feminine and weak, actually wins fights. As a queer woman, I love Colindrez’s constant casting as the butch Latina in myriad projects. I feel very represented by her queer masculinity. Unfortunately, in this project, her character was not entirely developed and essentially only existed to push Cassandro’s narrative forward. Sabrina’s lack of storyline came across as a missed opportunity to explore the intersection of queerphobia and misogyny in lucha libre and in Mexico.
Despite being a household sport in Mexico, lucha libre was and continues to be extremely sexist, standing for machismo and toxic masculinity. The exótico is in a unique position to challenge the toxic masculinity embedded in the competitions, particularly if the exótico performer is gay himself. Performers like Cassandro opened doors for other queer and women luchadores to join the sport, but Armendáriz battles homophobia on multiple fronts throughout the movie. The struggle to stay afloat has evidently not been easy, which is when Sabrina helps Armendáriz come up with a radical subversion of lucha libre's stereotypical role: His character’s name is the masculine version of Cassandra, a brothel manager who Armendáriz admired. 
But being known as a feminine, gay man causes problems in Armendáriz’s personal life. Though Cassandro enchants Mexican wrestling audiences with his over-the-top performances and eventual wins, his femininity and queerness drive a wedge between Armendáriz and his mother, and further distances him from his estranged father. And often, Cassandro hears slurs when he enters the stage, an experience that looks scary and overwhelming. 
In this sense, the film quite accurately portrays the otherness of being an exótico, but I did wonder why the movie skipped over Armendáriz’s well-known suicide attempt in 1991 before his historical match against Hijo Del Santo. This match essentially put Cassandro on the map, solidifying him as an exceptional and essential luchador in the lucha libre culture, but Armendáriz received negative attention before he went head-to-head with one of the most iconic figures of Mexican wrestling. As a result of the criticism and his own substance abuse, Armendáriz attempted suicide; another wrestler rushed him to the hospital and saved his life. Armendáriz went on to solidify his legacy when wrestling Hijo Del Santo, but the film provides a strangely sanitized version of these events, even glossing over his substance abuse issues. 
My biggest complaint about Cassandro is that it should have been a longer movie. While it was wonderful to plunge into the world of lucha libre as an outsider, the film ends much too soon after the viewer learns enough about this niche in Mexican culture. As soon as I understood the world Cassandro was surviving and negotiating within — and the stigmas embedded in the lucha libre community — the movie was over. Given the film’s running time, the pacing of the second act was off and somewhat rushed. The movie should have given us more information about Armendáriz’s life that would have made his story more complex. Similarly, it felt like García Bernal’s performance was cut short and that he had so much more to give. 

"Though the film missed some opportunities to dig deeper into the history of homophobia, misogyny, and lucha libre, García Bernal’s performance is, as always, unmissable."

Additionally, I don’t think director Roger Ross Williams (The Apollo, Life, Animated) gave that much space to the flamboyance that defined Cassandro. The cinematography seemed too dark for a film that aims to showcase the camp performance of an unsung LGBTQ icon. 
The lack of complexity in Cassandro’s story made me question how you make a biopic about a living person. Armendáriz served as a consultant for the film, so I wonder how much the screenwriters decided to keep out of the film’s narrative because of his involvement in the project. Though it is undeniable that Armendáriz changed the lucha libre scene by reclaiming the figure of the exótico and being openly queer, the film unfortunately doesn’t dwell on what the cost of being a queer pioneer can be. Being the first in any field of work can be overwhelming and distressing, and while we do see glimpses of that reality, it feels superficial. I wanted to know more about Armendáriz’s interiority, but no luck. 
Regardless, Cassandro is a necessary film to set the record straight about who changed the image of the exótico. Though the film missed some opportunities to dig deeper into the history of homophobia, misogyny, and lucha libre, García Bernal’s performance is, as always, unmissable. I just wish there was more of it. 

Gender & Sexuality: B 

The main character is a queer man in an environment that traditionally glorifies toxic masculinity and violence, which sets forth an interesting and extremely necessary story about a fighter trying to show off the strength of flamboyance and performance. As much as the film highlighted Cassandro’s sexuality and the discrimination that he faced, it failed to give the women — Cassandro’s mom and Sabrina — proper storylines. They pretty much exist in the film to further the main character’s narrative. The film could have made better use of the talented Colindrez. 

Regional Diversity: D 

Most of the characters are Mexican, Mexican American, or just white American, so there isn’t much regional diversity.

Language: A 

Transitions from Spanish to English felt realistic, particularly because of the main character’s constant migration between El Paso and Ciudad de Juárez. 

Race: D 

There isn't much racial diversity in this film. There’s a diversity of skin shades, but the film revolves around García Bernal’s character, who is a white Latino. 

Stereotypes & Tropes: B

While the film is about a queer person who changed everything in his field of work by reclaiming his femininity, I feel like most women characters were simply supporting roles for García Bernal. 

Was it Actually Good? B

I enjoyed the movie but some parts felt a little sanitized. Nonetheless, I think this was a good effort in portraying Armendáriz’s legacy, so I would definitely recommend you watch it.

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