Who is Hiding Behind the Lucha Libre Mask?

Set in Juárez, “Perpetual West” by Mesha Maren follows an American couple, both concealing their secret, most authentic selves

Photo by Girl with red hat on Unsplash

The novel Perpetual West explores how hiding our secret, most authentic selves from those we love can plunge us into a world of loneliness and precariousness. A young married couple, Alex and Elana, move to El Paso from West Virginia, neither of them quite knowing what selves they carry within. Alex, adopted from Mexico by Christian missionaries, crosses the border into Juárez, the city of his birth, to “be etched into a more precise version of himself,” and where he ultimately meets lucha libre wrestler Mateo. It may not be love, but the heat between the two men is undeniable, and the lifeblood of the novel. It is also the source of its danger, as Mateo is targeted by Neto, the nephew of the Juárez cartel who, at any cost, intends to conscript Mateo for his roster. After Alex disappears, Elana, awake to the human tendency to hold on too tightly or too loosely, comes home to find the bed as she left it, pajamas strewn. It’s obvious her husband hasn’t slept home one night since she left. Maren’s carefully placed artifacts—pajamas, a knife, an untouched hamburger—suggest not only that we hide in plain sight, but that on a long enough timeline, that sequestered self will emerge.

Lucha, like marriage, is both real and fake, entertainment and political theater. Lucha declares that “Every type of manhood is a stunt,” and watching Mateo fall in love with the sport in Juárez, despite the growing threats he faces, is one of the novel’s most vivid strains. While lucha is informed by American wrestling, it maintains distinct regional traditions; exoticos, for instance, engage in genre bending, and the rural north is desperate for a hero. The novel, in its exploration of the sub-culture, is critical of consumerist culture even as it acknowledges disparities in wealth that extend beyond the U.S. border and the ensuing human impulse for possessions, luxury, comfort (“I eat at McDonalds,” Mateo tells us, “I’m friends with cops”). 

Deeply erotic, necessarily violent at times, constantly grappling with the political and moral stakes of the U.S.-Mexico border, Perpetual West argues indifference might be a kind of cruelty, but love is willful recognition.  

Annie Liontas: I’m always curious about how secrets operate in a marriage or union, and I think you are, too. In Perpetual West, we see both Alex and Elana suffering, but separately and in isolation. Of course, the novel is interrogating how they withhold core pieces of themselves. But they’re even dishonest about small stuff—for instance, they both smoke, but each keeps that fact from the other.  How do the little omissions create the life lie?

Mesha Maren: That was specifically one of the things that realized: I was the in-between, I knew what they were both doing. They were both telling me that they were smoking but not telling the other. That’s not even something you really need to hide! 

What I became really interested in is the dishonesty between these characters. I was thinking a lot about when young people enter into a very intense relationship and don’t actually have a full sense of who they are yet—the kinds of pressures they put on themselves. It can be true of us at any stage in our life, but I think particularly when we’re in our early 20s, it’s worse. I was so hard on myself back then. I didn’t really know myself that well, but I thought I should. I would construct all kinds of artificial rules, and then break them and then have conversations with myself about it. Elana and Alex put more pressure on themselves than they do on each other, but they think the other is doing it. Elana thinks that Alex would be upset if she decided she’s not going to focus on school because in her mind that’s been the glue for their relationship. And, likewise, it wouldn’t be an easy conversation, but I think Alex could have a conversation about his sexuality with Elana, but he’s harder on himself than she probably would ever be.

AL: So what mask does Alex wear? 

MM: When we meet him, he says—somewhat to himself, but definitely to everyone around him—that he has shed his upbringing more than he actually has. He acts as if he’s moved past his very religious upbringing and has this new identity that he found in college, but I think he hasn’t actually done the work to know himself quite as well as he pretends. He wears a mask of someone who’s got it together. He excels in school and he doesn’t want to engage with the fact that he was quite damaged by certain aspects of his upbringing. He wears a mask of being in a good place.  

AL: Tell us about lucha libre. How is lucha a national conversation about power and corruption even as it is a form of sport and entertainment for the culture?  

MM: I’ve always been interested in professional wrestling. I went to a couple of really small professional wrestling events in my hometown in West Virginia when I was growing up and then didn’t engage with it a whole lot until I turned 21 and moved to the border. I had moved there to be near a woman who I was falling in love with. She ended up leaving me for a professional wrestler.  

On a surface level there’s similarities between small-time U.S. professional wrestling and lucha libre. But I think the difference is the way that the culture embraces it. What I saw in Juárez and later when I was doing research in Mexico City was that it can be so many different things for different people. It’s a national sport, but it is also theatrical. You’ll go to a small event and there will be women in their eighties, babies, people from every background there. It really is this cathartic space for people: they can shout at the bad guys, they can cheer the good guys. They can let their voices and bodies be big and loud in a way that might not be allowed for in other spaces. And the referee plays this weird role, always on the side of the bad guy but pretending he’s not.

I started to see all these parallels to political movements in Mexico and also in the U.S. Here was a way for people to engage with corruption and the faces that politicians put forward. That might be hard to do when you were literally talking about politics, but when you talked about it in terms of lucha libre, the conversations could be had. I would argue there’s a certain amount of theatrical queerness to it, too. There are the exoticos, who openly embrace that aspect more than other wrestlers. There was a period of time, probably in, the ’50s and ’60s, and maybe early ’70s, where the exoticos were more of a homophobic joke, where the audience was kind of laughing at the idea of feminine men. But I think that’s shifting. There are a lot more exoticos who are out in their day-to-day life, and who are using it as a tool to celebrate.

AL: Both Alex and Mateo feel connected to Juárez.  Mateo explains that you’re either born into it, or you’re chosen by it.  What do you think it is about Juárez that calls to them?  Do you have such ties to a place?

MM: Part of what draws people to the city has to do with it being a border space, a liminal space. It’s a space of possibility, but it’s also a space people are often told that they shouldn’t love, that it’s just a space to take things away from. After NAFTA in 1994, multinational corporations came in and said, oh this is a great space to build factories and find cheap labor but it’s not a space for the people who owned those companies to spend time. It’s not thought of as a space of culture. And so people who do grow up in Juárez, or who adopt the city or are adopted by the city and spend time in it, always come up against this question of, why do you love it? Being forced to grapple with that makes people love it more.

If I’m going to engage with a culture that I did not grow up in… then I have to be aware and very active in my empathy.

When I moved down there, I was living mostly on the El Paso side but spending a lot of time in Juárez.  I expected it to feel totally foreign to me, and it did in certain ways. I mean the landscape was very, very different from Appalachia. And I was still learning Spanish. There were these surface-level differences, but pretty quickly I saw something at the core of this place. The best answer that I’ve come up with is that it’s hard to love, but there is something very unique about it. That feels like West Virginia to me, too—a place where a lot has been extracted, a place you’re supposed to exit from. 

AL: You describe the US-Mexico border as a “moral stopping point.” What are the inherent complications of writing about Mexico as a United States citizen? What did writing this book allow you to confront in American culture and how we perceive that kind of liminal space?

MM: Even now I have a lot of questions about whether or not it was something I should even do, and how to go about writing about Mexico and Mexican characters in a way that feels right. At first, I was just going to write it from Elana’s point of view because I felt like I had more authority to write from her perspective, but her story wasn’t the only story that I wanted to tell. I kept coming back to the time that I spent in Mexico, how I was the age that Alex and Elana roughly are. Being there really opened up for me the terrible ways in which the U.S. treats Mexico and treats immigrants. But also there was something more complicated than that. There’s this way in which the communities on both side of the border are knitted together that I wasn’t aware of. I wanted to figure out how to write into that space of new awareness that opened up in me.

I read “Back to Empathy,” an essay by Kwame Dawes where he talks about empathy and imagination. And I started to think about empathy as a muscle. Like, all right, if I’m going to engage with a culture that I did not grow up in and in an area where that I came to and spent some time in but that I do not claim, then I have to be aware and very active in my empathy. And when I decided to write it from three different characters’ points-of-view, some things started to open up in my mind. 

AL: We see Elana similarly concerned with bodies. She consumes books and denies herself food. She hides her anorexia, just as Alex hides his queerness. Throughout the novel, Elana grapples with a lineage of women who are at times seen to be weak in their acts of denial and self-sacrifice, while at other times their declarations are viewed as acts of radical protest. In this framework, how can we understand Elana’s relationship to her body? 

[The lucha libre show] is this cathartic space for people: they can shout at the bad guys, they can cheer the good guys. 

MM: At a certain point, earlier in the process, my editor was really craving more of an arc where Elana would be cured or an ending where she was no longer struggling with anorexia. I didn’t feel like that would be true for her. Her relationship to her body has to do with who is close to her and who is not—her father and Alex, but also, her mother who is not there. She’s never really allowed herself to work through her emotions with her mother, and she has some anger towards her. Looking at women’s extreme relationships to their bodies as being radical is a way of beginning to engage with the questions around her mother’s own choices with her body. She can’t, at the point when we’re spending time with her in the novel, come at that head on. She struggles to think directly about her own body, but she likes to look at other historical figures or writers or artists and their relationships to their bodies, and I think that really probably is part of her healing. 

AL: Do you have a favorite lucha libre wrestler?

MM: I actually reconnected with the wrestler who stole my girlfriend all those years ago. His name is Pagano, the Pagan. He’s an incredible wrestler and he’s also just a really wonderful human being and was very generous in allowing me to interview him and spend time with him as I was working on this book. So in a personal way, but also a sportsman kind of way, he’s really fun to watch.

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