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.
PWI Senior Writer