Mexican Lucha Libre is an art steeped in tradition.
Chief among those traditions is luchadore's mask. A luchadore's mask is his most prized possession, even more valuable than championship belts.
The lowest point of a luchadore's career by far is when he is forced to unmask. It is as if he's peeling off his life when he finally reveals his face to the masses.
There's another tradition in Mexican Lucha Libre that has nothing to do with masks. This sect of luchadores doesn't shield themselves from anything.
They are, more or less, an open book for the entire world to read. They are the exoticos.
In a sport where machismo is the norm, exoticos turned down the machismo and turn up the glamour and flamboyance. The effeminate characters have been a part of the Mexican Lucha Libre lore since the 1930s.
On Sunday, April 27, Philadelphians will get to see one of the most successful exoticos ever: Cassandro. He will don his best makeup, wear his best robe and saunter into the ring during Masked Mania at the 2300 Arena, where he will face Matt Cross.
As most would expect, Cassandro makes quite an entrance. He dances to the rhythm of his entrance music with a smile on his face brighter than the gold title belt around his waist.
But once the bell rings, Cassandro becomes a wrestler. Not an exotico, not an effeminate character, but tried and true wrestler of more than 20 years. It's almost a jarring change.
"At first, people will be shocked," Cassandro said during an interview with Philly.com. "When they see me walking into the ring they'll be like, 'Oh, wow. What is this?' I'm so flamboyant and I'm so glamorous, that's why they call me the Liberace of Lucha Libre. But once I get in the ring and they start seeing why I'm in the ring, they forget that I'm an exotico because I'm a true wrestler and I'm very talented and I'm very skilled. When they see that, the people focus more on that than the exotico."
As much as Cassandro is real inside of the ring, he's just as authentic outside of it. He's not merely playing a flamboyant character. That's who he really is. Cassandro is openly gay.
While some exoticos have wives, children and are playing the role of an exotico, Cassandro is merely being, well, Cassandro.
"For me, I was one of the ones that came out as truly being gay," Cassandro said. "I decided to become an exotico because that's who I am and that worked for me."
Cassandro realized he was gay as a child growing up in El Paso, Texas where he was born Saul Armendariz. As he described it, when all the kids played the mommy and daddy game, he would always play the mommy.
Although he lived with that fact for many years, he never truly became comfortable with other people knowing until after he was in the wrestling business.
When Cassandro began his career, he wore a mask and wrestled under the name Mr. Romano. Cassandro eventually shedded the mask along with his fear of being openly gay and became the character he is today.
"I never had a closet," Cassandro said. "I was never in the closet. I was always me, but I guess people noticed it when I was wrestling more because it was more obvious. I thought nobody knew, but everybody knew."
"It's a lot of freedom," Cassandro said about coming out. "That was the most gratitude I got. It was the freedom to be whoever I truly am. I have a purpose in life and that's to be me. Not having social acceptability was very different and very hard, but once you are out it's an amazing experience just to feel the freedom of being yourself and who you are."
However, Cassandro's newfound freedom came with a price, and that was the ire of his colleagues in the wrestling business, especially in Mexico. Discrimination against his sexuality combined with professional jealousies made for a lot of harrowing episodes for Cassandro, including being beat up on multiple occasions and even stabbed.
"This is my 26th year in wrestling, so you could imagine I've been through hell and back in Lucha Libre, especially coming from such a machismo sport and dealing with a lot of discrimination and dejection, but everything has paid off," Cassandro said.
Despite every reason in the world to leave the wrestling and find a new passion in life, Cassandro kept coming back. Not only did he keep coming back, but he also got better. Not only did he get better, but he also became one of the biggest names in Mexican Lucha Libre and surpassed some of the men that brought him constant grief behind the scenes.
"A lot of the time I did stuff out of resentment because I was going to prove them wrong," Cassandro said. "I was going to prove to them that if I was there it was because I was really talented, not because I was gay. And that I didn't want nothing from them except to show my talent."
Not even five years into his career, Cassandro earned the chance to face El Hijo del Santo, the son of Mexico's most famous wrestler El Santo, for the UWA World Welterweight Championship.
Although he was unsuccessful, having the match itself was high honor for an exotico. Cassandro then made history by becoming the first exotico to win a UWA title when he defeated Lasser for the UWA World Lightweight Championship in October of 1992.
Even today, Cassandro holds the NWA Mexico World Welterweight Championship and has done so since June of 2011. His title reign is merely days from being the fourth-longest in the title's history, which dates back to 1946. None other than El Santo first held the title.
"I just proved to a lot of people that never believed in me and that have doubted me that when you do the work, things will pay off," Cassandro said. "Every sacrifice has a benefit and after all of the sacrifices that I did I guess it has truly has paid off for me."
"All of that trouble that I went through … I'm just blessed that I'm still alive and doing what I love. I'm just going to go and show my work," he added.
Things are much different today for Cassandro than they were two decades ago. Instead of being looked down upon by his peers, Cassandro said that he has earned their respect. The source of the respect is the courage he showed in making his way through the business, but it's also from his work in the ring.
"It's a different vibe and I get a lot of respect from the guys," Cassandro said. "Normally, I get greeted by handshake or a kiss on the cheek or a hug and people just have a lot of respect for me."
An example of this respect was when Cassandro was backstage at a WWE show in Los Angeles recently, and said that he was even surprised by the amount of respect he garnered by members of the roster.
"I never imagined all of the guys that came up and talked to me and hugged me told me how proud they were of me and stuff like that," he said. "That just shows that your work speaks for itself."
Things have improved for Cassandro, but they aren't necessarily perfect. Although he is received by his peers with open arms, the exotico hasn't made a lot of headway in the major promotions in the United States, at least not to the level it has in Mexico.
"They try to be open-minded about it, but companies still don't agree on that character," Cassandro said. "TNA, Ring of Honor, WWE and other big companies, they've tried characters like that, but they won't support them. Not as much as Mexico. In Mexico, we have the freedom. In Mexico, exoticos are big. That just tells you how much support we have here in the United States and it's sad that the biggest companies won't admit disif they have an exotico, it's not truly a gay person. It's somebody playing a gimmick."
Another imperfection is that discrimination of all kinds still exists, and Cassandro is still victim to some of it. But like he did in the beginning of his career, he keeps his head up, puts a smile on his face and entertains the masses with his talent.
"I still go through a lot of discrimination and all of these homophobic remarks that sometimes people just say, but I know who I am and I don't give them the power," Cassandro said. "I'm just a beautiful human being that has a different sexual identity and that's who I am."