How Lucha Libre Told the Story of a Community

Photo by Tar Macias/Hola Iowa

By Chuy Renteria, Hola Iowa

Artist/photographer/professional multi-hyphenate, Miriam Alarcón Avila has a long and storied list of projects to her name, from creating multi-media works to carving extravagant pumpkins for Halloween. In talking of the inspiration guiding her Luchadores: Immigrants in Iowa project, there is a grounding to her identity. Alarcón Avila uses her art to explore that identity and document the story of immigrants in Iowa. 

Luchadores is a photo documentary project where Alarcón Avila interviewed Latino immigrants in Iowa. The interview process involved one-on-one questions, a photo shoot, and a written component. They are all presented as Luchadores, a creative and distinct way of protecting their identity while presenting them as recognizable heroes. “I was driving home one day, and I was thinking of my super hero when I was a child: Santo, el Enmascarado de Plata. He’s a Lucha Libre wrestler in Mexican Lucha Libre…and I was thinking about the double meaning of the word lucha, which means the name of the match…and is the struggle and overcoming of a challenge by a person,” says Alarcón Avila. 


The problem was this: asking her interview subjects to sit down and be photographed and documented involved the possible danger of putting her subjects–some of which were undocumented–in harm’s way. “When I got the camera in front of them, they told me, ‘The people are going to see, people are going to recognize me. I don’t want that.’”

She tried a myriad of ways to capture the experiences of her subjects while protecting their anonymity, like only photographing their hands to attempting to document them in silhouette. “I did not want to darken their faces or hide them like the media usually does. A lot of people are used to seeing that. And I did not want to do that because many of their stories are underground already. They are undercover. I did not want them to feel that this was going to be another (similar) thing.”

This recollection sparks a reaction in me. As a Mexican American in Iowa, I am well aware of this phenomenon. When the nightly news masks a person’s face and modulates their voice, there’s something unsettling about it; an othering. The fact that this is the same process used to obscure criminals on the lam is significant. 


The solution was lucha libre masks, those colorful handmade garments already steeped in Mexican culture. The bombastic Lucha Libre wrestlers like Santo el Enmascarado de Plata had already figured out a way to protect their identities while projecting their spirit. “It also gave me the ability to transform them into local superheroes. Instead of hiding their faces, I’m putting light and color on their faces. Each luchador created a persona that allowed them to feel comfortable to share, and also protected them.”

It is important to stress the lengths Alarcón Avila went to protect those involved in the project. With each Luchador persona came a name and visual motif. Much care went into keeping the birth name of a participant on separate channels from the Lucha name. From email chains to text threads, Alarcón Avila worked meticulously to prevent any possible tracing. If you think her concern was unfounded, remember that incendiary ICE raids were happening across Iowa and the governor signed into law a Sanctuary City ban that targeted cities like Iowa City. There was a real tangible risk. “It was a lot of stress for me to guarantee their safety but also guarantee my own safety. Everyone involved in the project had the maturity and the understanding of the size of the project and the consequences that can generate,” says Alarcón Avila. 


It’s not just about protecting identity; it’s also acknowledging and giving a platform to someone’s humanity. “It is really powerful to see the empowerment of the person wearing the mask, they really have the power, the authority to feel free to share anything they want. Some of them, they really got into the character of the persona they were creating.”

Alarcón Avila created each Luchador’s mask herself based on the interview and persona the subject wanted to portray. Each mask is unique and perfectly fitted, both literally and figuratively, to the wearer. The masks are only one example of the care and expertise that permeated throughout this project. She was committed to helping them amplify their stories. Masks enabled and emboldened them with the strength to tell their story despite the treacherous anti-immigrant landscape. 


“The story was about them. I am the artist because, yes, I came up with the idea. I’m the one getting the entire work together, but it’s a work between myself, my camera, and the luchadores. The luchadores are as important as me. That is one of the reasons every single time, when someone invites me to do a presentation, I always want to bring the luchadores with me because the stories that we’re sharing are theirs, and for me, it’s important they feel they are part of this.”

JEFAS Magazine is a collaboration of writers, photographers, social media managers, editors, translators, and designers from across Illinois, Iowa and the Midwest – all of whom are Latinx. It is the first magazine created by the Latinx community, for the Latinx community that focuses on how they are boosting the economy, giving back, and filling the gap between what is needed and what is available in the state. 

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