I was born on a Wednesday, in middle of a chapuzón.
The sudden squall of sky water bears little resemblance to a thunderstorm – it’s more like a vertical flood, though very brief.
I considered Chapuzón for my luchador name – I had poured out of my mother with the same fulminating relentlessness and washed her into the hereafter – but fate took a hand, and the name is still available to anyone who wants to design its mask and come up with some signature moves.
Fate always takes a hand and leads us where she will. Fate is not funny, although she thinks she is as she laughs at us. When I meet her face-to-face I intend to talk to her about it. Maybe I’ll body slam her while I’m at it.
But until then I’m stuck with the name she set out for me when I packed on weight on my way to adolescence: La Gorda. The Fat One.
It’s okay. I am fat, though not compared to the luchadores in my father’s company. But they’re men and are allowed to be corpulent. They’re also allowed to be luchadores in the ring and on the screen and in the cantina – where they swallow their tequilazos through the mouth holes of their masks because otherwise no one would recognize them and they’d have to pay.
There is no ring for me, and no movies, because women are not luchadores. That’s what El Patojo and El Súper Fly and El Diablo Colorado tell me when they come to my father’s house for the Sunday tamalada. I make the tamales, of course, and after they’ve eaten their fill my father gets out his camera and films another one of their episodic adventures right in our backyard.
A week later, I see them up on screen, in the packed Zone 7 movie palace some five blocks from our house. El Diablo Colorado is the villain, of course, since his name has the word devil in it. And his mask is red with flames, with a puckered hornlet near each temple. He’s the only luchador with a three-dimensional component to his mask and he’s very proud of this innovation. People hate him and love him at the same time, and when he’s wrestling in the ring they throw things at him: bags of mango slices coated with flaked chile, packs of Payaso cigarettes (reputedly made from the tobacco scavenged from discarded butts collected off the streets) and week-old lottery tickets with sad, unwinning numbers.
When the night is over I help clean up. We toss everything but the mango slices. We aren’t rich and the mangoes are good eating. Sometimes, if we’re particularly tapped out, El Súper Fly keeps the Payasos, too.
El Súper Fly is the hero of my father’s movies and lucha libre events, and El Patojo is his young sidekick. Nobody throws anything at them, though I think this will change now that El Patojo has turned from gangly to cut and the girls have started squealing when he gets tagged in. I think someday there’ll be underwear in the ring for me to clear away.
They are all my godfathers, this company of good and evil, and I love them even without their masks. But they are not smart, and they don’t know the first thing about women. The more they tell me no, the more I think yes, and one of these days La Gorda will show up in the ring and blow them all away.
I already made her mask.
Maybe when the builders named Ciudad de Plata they intended the rich would be fooled and move into the neighborhood. Fate again, laughing. City of Silver, the neighborhood in Zone 7 where the Guatemalan luchador movies get made, is more or less lower middle class and mostly a decent place to grow up. The houses have a patch of yard in front and back, and a concrete patio in between, with a rough lava rock pila where we scrub our clothes and hang them to dry.
If you’re up to your elbows in suds and look up from the pila across your patio, you’ll see your neighbor’s pila, and the pila in the lot beyond that, and so forth until the block comes to an end.
This is where La Gorda first tags in.
I’m wringing out sheets when I hear Elena crying. She is six and as skinny as I am fat. We’ve stopped playing together now that I’m fifteen, but that doesn’t mean anything. I’m still her friend and I know the sobs aren’t frivolous. She didn’t cry when her mother died of cancer two years ago. In fact, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen tears glaze her dark eyes.
I shake the soapy water off my arms and walk to the chicken-wire fence that separates our houses. “What happened?” I ask when I finally sight her up in the first big branches of a tree we call eucalipto but may or may not bear any resemblance to a real eucalyptus tree. It’s like that here – we take the proper Spanish name for something and give it to something else altogether and so we have melocotones which aren’t peaches as they are elsewhere in the Spanish-speaking world but a type of squash.
Elena shakes her head at me, doesn’t answer, keeps sobbing.
I stick my feet into the holes of the chicken wire and climb over. I’m so heavy I bend the fence. So much the better – less height to deal with. I go to stand under the tree where my friend is roosting. If I could haul myself up to her I would, but all my strength resides in my legs and midsection; my arms would better fit a skinny girl.
“Come down,” I call up.
“Why’re you crying?”
She shakes her head again, but I don’t go away.
“A bad man,” she says finally.
“Did someone hurt you?”
“What did he do to you?”
I expect a slap, a knocking down, a vicious arm pull – for these are the ways adults get angry and careless with children. What I get is an earful of six-year-old words that, when properly strung together, amount to something much, much worse.
“Who?” I ask. “Describe him to me.” And if the demand comes out sounding harsh it is because I know this is not the ring where the villains are in truth nice guys who sell pork cutlets when their masks are off. No, like those words that are the same but really name vastly different objects, villains outside the ring are evil, masked in ordinary, and the damage they do is often permanent.
When she tells me, I convince her to climb over the chicken wire fence with me. Then I carefully bend the fencing back so it looks as it did before it bore my weight. I take her to my room and teach her how to set the lock. Then I take off my apron and go find my father and godfathers.
They will do nothing – because he is Elena’s sole guardian. In their eyes, it is worse to leave a child alone in the world than to leave her in bad company.
Perhaps there is some right in their thinking. Perhaps there is even heroism in the pact they make to distract the stepfather with nights out at the cantina and free tickets to the lucha events – after all, not a one of them has a quinto to spare and it represents a commitment to monetary loss as well as time spent in the company of a man they can now do nothing but abhor.
Perhaps there is even a bit of creativity in their thinking. They discuss tailoring one of their movies to shame the man into desisting his predation – though El Diablo Colorado refuses to even pretend to be that kind of villain.
Perhaps. But to me their plans sound exactly like their nos to women luchadoras – senseless.
So I go back and write a note for Elena’s stepfather, telling him she’ll be staying with us the next couple of nights to help me with a project. Then I go home and wait for night to fall.
The mask is tight to my face, as all luchador masks are, and yellow like butter. There are chocolate-colored spirals on each cheek, and on the back, where my tucked-in hair lumps at just the right spot, is an image of the pot-bellied gorda – a Pre-Colombian find from an underground site that sits right on the edge of City of Silver.
Since only the huge belly survives, there is a lot of argument about whether the stone idol was supposed to represent a fat man or a pregnant woman, but I know it is neither. There’s a reason for the stylized ears of corn that fill the belly, and for the knotted strings that are carved where the belly button should be. I tie my apron in exactly the same configuration, and so does every woman and girl in City of Silver. We learned it from our mothers at the same time we learned to grill ears of corn in their husk and then turn them into the chuchitos and paches that so often fill our bellies.
There is one thing all City of Silver residents agree on: the fat and ancient stone person found on our border is one of us.
After I’ve gotten the mask just right, I bind my breasts with the Ace bandages my father keeps around for when my godfathers hurt themselves during filming. Then I pull on the shiny, stretchy brown catsuit and super-high-top yellow sneakers that complete La Gorda’s outfit. I’ve been hiding the outfit since I made it, at the bottom of a chest full of women’s things where my father will never think to go. At the last minute I add a tablecloth – it has a cheery papaya popsicle print – as a cape and secure it with one of those hair elastics that has decorative plastic balls strung through it.
When I look at myself in the full-length mirror I see a luchador. A hero.
There is a moment when I wish I could unbind and show what I really am – a luchadora, a heroine with a name handed down by fate and moves learned at my father’s knee – but then I realize it doesn’t matter. I’m behind the mask anyway.
I climb over the chicken wire fence and employ El Diablo Colorado’s skulking walk to carry me to the back door. It’s locked, but I know where there’s a spare key Elena uses to let herself in when she gets back from school. I open the door quietly, and although there is no light on, I find my way through the house without bumping into anything. All of the houses on the block are identical. I stand a few moments at the threshold of the biggest bedroom.
Elena’s stepfather is sprawled on his back on the bed, snoring softly with his mouth open. The moonlight travels weakly through the sheer curtains and pools around his body. He’s dressed still, though the waistband of his pants are undone and his zipper’s down. I consider returning to the kitchen and finding a knife to slice off what is behind the dingy white briefs that peek out, but that’s not a move worthy of a luchador. So I calculate, as I’ve watched El Súper Fly calculate so many times in the ring.
I land solidly on his chest, and to say I drive the air from his lungs is to understate. I think I hear a rib crack under my massive knees. He tries to cough. Then he tries to speak, but I tear my cape off and ball it into his mouth. He struggles to breathe.
I borrow El Patojo’s gravelly growl to issue my threat. After Elena’s stepfather nods his agreement, I knock him into tomorrow with an illegal blow my father made me learn so I’d always recognize it. He won’t let his luchadores get near any wrestlers who attempt to bring it into the ring, and I’ve had to flag him once or twice so he knows a particularly unscrupulous one has tried to slip it by our notice during a match.
But this is no show ring, and there’s no one around to ban La Gorda for nastiness, so I don’t regret using it.
Sometimes you just have to fight dirty.
Legends have a date of birth.
The legend of El Panzón is born the year Elena’s stepfather goes on a bender he never comes back from, and El Diablo Colorado and his wife adopt the girl.
Everyone gets the gender and the name of the new hero wrong, but no matter. As a luchador he does one thing and one thing only – he makes City of Silver safe for women and girls.
He’s never been seen in the ring, or up on screen, but he has a local following anyway. The itinerant street vendors sell ingenious mini masks to slip over a thumb for thumb-wrestling – and El Panzón’s replica is every bit as popular as El Súper Fly’s or El Diablo Colorado’s. Only El Patojo’s sells more.
I buy a set of each for Elena and me, and when we play our thumb lucha libre, my godfathers gather around to cheer us, and themselves, on. I make sure La Gorda always wins.
In my twenty-first year I discover that the age difference between El Patojo and me has miraculously become insignificant and, after the first time he kisses me, I no longer think of him as my godfather.
Women still throw their panties at him because he has, as I always hear them declare during the ring matches, “a body by God.” But under his mask, El Patojo’s face is goofy and shy, and I couldn’t love it any better.
We marry, and although he won’t wear his wedding ring at the same time as he wears his mask – it would hurt the box office – he comes home every night and revels in my generous body.
Los Enanitos, our tag team of boys, are born; and then La Princesa. We teach them all the best wrestling moves, and when a girl finally has a role in one of my father’s lucha libre movies, it is my five-year-old Princesa.
There is only sporadic need for La Gorda, and I successfully hide my identity from my husband. To him I am just a woman in love with him, in love with food, in love with lucha. If he ever rolls over in bed, opens his eyes, and finds an empty space beside him he is confident it’ll only be a moment until the bed shifts under my weight again.
These are the good years.
Outside of City of Silver, Guatemalan women and girls die in droves. They suffer gruesome deaths – the bodies, when they appear, are mutilated and disfigured.
Just as El Panzón is known to safeguard his neighborhood’s women and girls, the new darkness that’s taken over the rest of the city has only feminine targets.
The people name him Cabrakán – after the monstrous Pre-Colombian deity responsible for earthquakes – and the mask they say is his has death written in every seam.
Like El Panzón, Cabrakán never enters the ring, but popular imagination pits them against each other, and wagers are made.
I am at peak weight and in the prime of my life.
I know Cabrakán will not set foot in City of Silver – it is a sign of respect for a worthy opponent. My world is secure, but at its borders, the dark.
I’ve watched the girls of City of Silver grow up and move to other neighborhoods in the city – places where I can’t hear the scuttlebutt in order to come to their rescue. I’ve watched them leave, and walk straight into Cabrakán territory, and still I bide.
Then it is our Elena who packs her suitcases and heads for an apartment in Zone 1. Her huge eyes land on mine moments before she boards the bus. “Take care of yourself, mi gordita,” she says. It is just a term of affection in her mouth, something you might call an overweight sister or cousin, but it sends me to my father’s house to stare across the fence at the eucalyptus tree where it all started.
I’m there a long time before I feel a hand on my arm.
“Don’t do it, Gorda,” El Patojo says.
I turn to look into my husband’s lumpy, beloved face.
“I have to,” I say after a moment. “I can’t stand the thought that someday it could be her broken under Cabrakán’s heel.”
“One neighborhood is enough responsibility for a luchador,” he says.
There is a long silence between us.
“How long have you known?” I ask finally.
“Always,” he says. “From the first.”
In middle of the night, I leave our bed to put on my mask and outfit. I don’t know if my husband is awake or not, and I don’t say any special goodbye. No luchador ever does. It’s seven blocks from my front door to the edge of City of Silver, and after that, it’s up to fate.
The sky tears.
Water falls in sheets that blind and pummel.
The earth bucks.
Bolts strobe, and turn the scenes unfolding beneath them into a movie.
They say it is this way when the ancient powers walk the same streets. They say it is like this when El Panzón and Cabrakán come face to face.
They say there is no inch of Guatemala City that doesn’t run with corn and rubble turned liquid, like blood, on this night.
For a while we are evenly matched – he has his moves, I have mine.
We are of a height, and of a weight – if it weren’t for the masks and the colors of our outfits you might not be able to tell one from the other.
He jumps off parapets as if they were the ropes, I dodge and somersault. He propels himself vertical and aims his feet at my chest, I feint away and fall onto him when he’s still prone. His elbow to my solar plexus. My knees to his chest.
He draws up and away when one of his strikes loosens the binding on my breasts.
“You are not El Panzón,” he says.
“There is no Panzón, just me. La Gorda,” I answer.
He spits – not at me but about me.
“Better,” he says. “I’ll break you exactly as I’d break any other woman.”
His attacks turn frenzied then, and after a volley that leaves me with ringing ears and limp arms, I turn myself toward City of Silver and run.
I hear him laugh with delight as he gives chase.
I know there is no safety left in my neighborhood – the respect that stayed Cabrakan’s hand at its borders is gone – and still, it is where I head.
I stumble and fall exactly where the stone idol of la gorda was unearthed.
He comes to stand over me, and in that moment looking up at him I notice that the seams of his mask form the outline of a skull.
I hear a low growl as something flings itself at Cabrakán’s head. It is El Patojo, in full luchador regalia, and his foot connects with the skull’s jaw. Then he’s gone and I hear the distinctive slap of a tag.
I struggle to my feet as El Súper Fly sails at Cabrakán.
They tag in and out as if this were a movie that had been choreographed by a master. El Diablo Colorado, La Princesa, Los Enanitos. El Patojo again.
He tags me.
And then I’m in the ring with them – the team of my dreams, and of my heart.
The people of City of Silver have always had their heroes and their villains in the ring, but they know when the lucha turns real. They come to stand behind us and around us and with us. I hear their roar and feel the trajectory of the clots of clay with which they pelt Cabrakan.
We rout the killer of women. My father gets it on film.
And as the spectators make their way back to their homes, we luchadores and luchadoras limp around giving each other high fives. Then we put our arms around one another and make our way back to my father’s house for a tequila and whatever food I can pull together on such short notice.
There is never an end to evil, so we may have to fight again tomorrow, or the day after.
But that’s okay – we’re behind the masks anyway.
Originally published in the anthology Fat Girl in a Strange Land (Crossed Genres Publications, 2011).