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Friday, February 25, 2011

From Mysterio to Mistico, WWE Is Very Diverse (But You Already Know That)

As a young WWE fans in the 1980s, there was no shortage of reasons to like Tito Santana. He was young and exciting, tremendously athletic, and an honorable Intercontinental and tag team champion.

But there was another reason many of my friends and I were fans of Tito Santana. He looked and sounded like us.

I was born in the Bronx, the son of immigrants from Nicaragua and Ecuador, and grew up speaking Spanish in my home with my two brothers. Many of my friends had similar experiences as the children of parents who came to New York from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and other Latin American nations.

While we may have shared different geographical origins with each other, and with Tito, many of our customs and experiences were similar, from the food we ate for dinner, to the slang we used, to the modes of discipline we were subjected to by our folks.

And consciously or not, we were drawn to public figures who had similar cultural backgrounds, whether it was Luis & Maria on Sesame Street, Alvaro Espinoza on the New York Yankees, or Lisa Lisa on the radio.

They represented us, and they had made it, just like Tito. And it was important for us, as young Hispanic Americans, to see that.

I bring this up to draw attention to one of the most important and under-reported stories coming out of WWE in recent years—the growing minority representation in the company’s on-air product.

Earlier this week, WWE finalized one of the most important talent acquisitions in years—the signing of Mexican luchador Mistico, whose praises have been sung in the pages of the Pro Wrestling Illustrated family of magazines for many years. What’s more, WWE treated it as one of its most important talent acquisitions in years, with a full court press in Mexico City and here in the United States.

This comes at the same time that Alberto Del Rio prepares to headline WrestleMania just months after debuting in WWE, and after Rey Mysterio stole the show with Edge in the Smackdown Elimination Chamber match this past Sunday.

We wrestling journalist-types often spend a lot of our time and energy focusing on what wrestling companies are doing wrong. So I think it’s very important that WWE gets credit for something it is doing very much right, namely promoting the most ethnically and culturally diverse pro wrestling product in history.

More impressive, WWE has been doing so quietly, and without drawing attention to that fact.

Consider this: More than half of WWE’s on-air talent, including wrestlers, announcers and managers, are non-white. They range from Korean American Gail Kim to African-born Kofi Kingston, to Indian native The Great Kahli to Japanese dynamo Yoshi Tatsu to my fellow Nicaraguan Eve Torres.

As such, WWE’s on-air product features one of the most diverse cast of performers of any show on television.

More importantly, WWE has largely moved away from the days when an ethnic talent’s background was something to exploit or even draw attention to. Far removed from the days when Juventud Guerrera drove into the ring on a lawnmower, Alberto Del Rio has risen to become one of WWE’s top stars not by portraying an ignorant stereotype of Mexican Americans, but rather by playing a rich, elitist jerk—a role usually previously reserved for the likes of Ted DiBiase and John Bradshaw Layfield.

For years now, two-time World champion Rey Mysterio has been featured as one of the most popular acts in all of WWE, not because he’s Mexican, but because he’s damn cool. But whatever the motivation, you can be sure that when Rey inserts a few lines in Spanish in his promos, there are fans out there who appreciate it. I’m one of them.

This is not to say WWE is perfect. With its penchant for lowbrow humor, some racial and cultural stereotypes still make it onto to the on-air product. I can do without Rico Rodriguez singing “La Cucaracha” or Edge needlessly referring to Del Rio as “amigo.” For that matter, I wouldn’t mind if I never heard John Cena make another gay joke or take a jab at Sheamus’ pale complexion. (Can you imagine the backlash if wrestlers were scripted to make fun of how dark R-Truth is?)

But for a long time now, WWE has clearly been moving in the right direction with the right motivation. That is to reach out to fans of all colors and cultures throughout the world and show them talented performers who look like them and sound like them.

By doing so they send a message: One day, you can be them.

Al Castle
PWI Senior Writer


J\/\/ said...

I'm still thinking we'll see a phase-out of Mysterio if Mistico gets anywhere near over...

Wright said...

If you're going to be completely fair about the ethnic diversity of the WWE these days, aside from Rey and Alberto, and possibly Eve, who among that crop that you mentioned has, or seems likely to have a great deal of success now or in the future. R Truth is still a black guy who raps, just like Hernandez in TNA is a Mexican gangbanger. The world of wrestling still has a very racially motivated agenda.

Pro Wrestling Illustrated said...

I think there's a big difference between a wrestling gimmick that's based on race/ethnicity/culture and one that negatively exploits those things. Yes, R-Truth raps when he comes to the ring. But hip hop music is in fact a real part of black culture. That's not necessarily a negative stereotype - especially when R-Truth does, in fact, enjoy rap music. It would be another thing to take a black wrestler from Tennessee who is in to country music and book him as a rapper from Harlem (God knows wrestling bookers have done exactly that many, many times in the past.)
In other words, I think there's a way to make a wrestler's race or ethnicity a central part of his character without exploiting it. Alberto Del Rio has so far been a good example of exactly that.
I also think you're leaving out a lot of minority wrestlers in WWE whose origin is not a big part of their current gimmick: Kofi Kingston,Gail Kim, Melina, David Otunga, Mark Henry, Primo, Chavo Guerrero and Alicia Fox to name just a few.
As for Hernandez in TNA, you'll notice I reserved my praise in the above post only for WWE. There's a reason for that.
-Al Castle

Li.da.R.SiN said...

First, let me clear the air, yes, I am Black.

I remember growing up in the 80s and rooting for EVERY "minority" because Caucasians were obviously shown with all the success. NEVER rooting AGAINST Caucasian ( I was a Hulkamaniac and tried to put Ultimate Warrior and Sting-like washable marker ink on my darker complexion). But I did root for Tito and Harlem Heat, Ricky Steamboat & Snuka. I was also raised to RESPECT all cultures and love my pride as well as thy neighbor.

I remember the Iron Sheik and Nikolai Volkoff. And not so long ago the dumb idea of having Muhammad Hassan make a bomb threat. Just the same, art imitates life. Most Texas wrestlers have worn cowboy boots. Most California wrestlers have great physiques and chiseled facial features.

Recently, I had a lot of associates who didn't like Cryme Tyme's gimmick. Two Black guys as thugs. Here-we-go-again. I didn't see it as that. Growing up in this country as a "minority" you realize, the cards your dealt. Sometime you have to get-along to GET ALONG. Sometimes you have to bite the bullet to achieve in the "white man's world". It's unlikely, especially because of his age, that R-Truth, won't get the Triple H/John Cena (speaking of rappers...Caucasian kids keep the rap industry alive) top-tier treatment. But how many Caucasian wrestlers don't get it either???

You know who my favorite wrestlers all-time are? 4. The Rock 3. Sting 2. Undertaker 1. REY MYSTERIO

I'm MORE proud of Rey and his accomplishments. As a Mexican he never had to play the MexiCool role. He didn't have to do the Eddie-Chavo Lie, Cheat, Steal gimmick. He made it. Despite size and culture, HE MADE IT!

I'm just happy not to see Virgil-like Black characters anymore and see more of ALL ethnicities joined together to ENTERTAIN us.

I think Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would be proud too see a rapping R-Truth, comical thugs Cryme Tyme, obnoxious and wealthy Alberto Del Rio, non-Playboy (yet) Eve, Bella Twins, Alicia Fox and Layla, a lovable giant in Khali and so-on.

Anonymous said...

You lost a ton of street cred by calling the song "El Cucaracha," bro. It's "La Cucaracha," because "Cucaracha" is a feminine noun, and therefore gets "La." Besides that, it's still the name of the song.

Anonymous said...

Ha I finally found one person who is wondering the same thing I have all this time. Cena's remarks always go under the rug, especially with Sheamus and the color of his skin. I always asked my self too, what if he made fun of R-Truth or Kingston, I don't think fans will find it as funny, even though it shouldn't be a problem anyway if he did. However, fans are in the same boat. I read comments where they automatically have Sin Cara (Mistico) feuding with Mysterio. Why? because they are both hispanic? Obviously this isn't the only reason, but a major one with out a doubt.