Graduate fellow Caballero tells lucha libre story

By: Michael Chesnick. February 27, 2024.

The first time Andrés Caballero entered Arena México, called the “cathedral of lucha libre” professional wrestling, he was hooked.

“I remember feeling intoxicated by the energy. Everyone was wearing masks, and the crowd was screaming and laughing,” said the Mexico City-area native, a Master of Fine Arts student in Photography, Video and Imaging at the University of Arizona School of Art. “I wanted to know who the people behind the masks were. I wondered about the referee, the people working in the venue, and everyone involved.”

Now Caballero is getting a chance to share that wonder with the public after being named a 2024 Mellon-Fronteridades Graduate Fellow by the university’s Confluencenter for Creative Inquiry.

The award will allow the Fulbright Scholar to finish a project, “Borderlands Masks,” which includes large-scale prints, video and oral history recordings as he explores the fascinating lucha libre wrestling events around the border region in Sonora, Mexico, and Arizona.

School of Art Regents Professor Sama Alshaibi and Assistant Professor Marcos Serafim also were named Mellon-Fronteridades Faculty Fellows. Each year, the program allows graduate students and faculty to carry out interdisciplinary humanities-centered research and creative scholarly activities focused on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Andrés Caballero installs one of his lucha libre photos in a group exhibition at Groundworks Tucson.

Caballero grew up just outside Mexico City and attended Tecnológico de Monterrey High School, hoping to study engineering. But he changed his mind and enrolled in a Communications undergraduate program at Universidad Iberoamericana with a concentration in Cinema. He received his BA and began to concentrate on documentary films and photography.

As his skills improved, Caballero started to study Mexican identity through lucha libre events. He’s been working on the subject for about two years, presenting a photographic exhibition called “Your Insults are Welcome” inside a Mexican wrestling arena. 

“My favorite luchador was El Santo, especially because of all the movies where he was basically a Mexican superhero fighting evil forces,” Caballero said. “Later on, I was very much inspired by stories such as Fray Tormenta — a part-time priest and part-time luchador whose sole purpose was to raise money for an orphanage that he founded.”

For his project, Caballero will use the fellowship funding to travel to Phoenix and Nogales, where he’s meeting with promoters and attendees of lucha libre events.

“I’m interested in how people feel connected to certain traditions which become part of their identity even when they are outside of their home countries,” Caballero said. “This is how people relate to lucha libre, and here they find a community in which they feel identified and welcome.

“With this in mind,” he added, “I wanted to shift the focus of this project to attendees of the events and give them a chance to create their own persona, just as a luchador would. To put on a mask and think of a backstory for their character. I want to tell the story of these collaborators and have people relate to the characters in the photos.”

In late May or early June, he hopes to host exhibitions before Mexican wrestling matches that will show large-scale prints, audio recordings and VR headsets playing 360-degree videos. The exhibition locations are still pending, but “people can arrive early, see the artwork and then enjoy the event,” Caballero said. “I’m trying to expand beyond the usual art spaces to show work — and promote Mexican arenas as cultural spaces.”

“Andres is a gifted young photographer who comes from a photojournalist background,” said Alejandro Macías, an assistant professor at the School of Art who is among Caballero’s project mentors. “I’m interested in his research. … Personally, I’m drawn to the mystique and masked identities of luchadores, their dramatic performances, feuds and acrobatic skills. It’s obviously entertaining but I’m also interested in the duality of their lives and how we, as an audience, have zero to little knowledge of who these masked fighters are outside the ring.” Andrés, through his research, intends to take a deeper look into the lives of these wrestlers, in and outside the ring.”

Caballero, who turns 27 in March, received a Fulbright Scholarship to pursue a graduate degree in the United States. He’s happy he chose the University of Arizona School of Art and its Photography, Video & Imaging program, which is ranked No. 3 among public universities by U.S. News & World Report.

“It is an open space of collaboration, creation and critique,” Caballero said. “Receiving constant feedback from experienced artists is an essential part of developing any artistic project. (Professors) David Taylor and Martina Shenal have been important mentors, but even faculty from other departments such as Alex Macías and (Professor) Ellen McMahon have provided insights into my research. It feels like a very thriving place for any artist to be in.”

Macías, who has exhibited his own lucha libre paintings, is impressed with Caballero’s photography.

“What drew me initially to Andres’ work is how he carefully composes and accentuates particular bright colors among a black and white color palette,” Macías said. “It’s visually appealing but also adds drama to an equally dramatic sport.”

Macias was excited to participate in the exhibition “Lucha Libre: Beyond the Arenas” at the ASU Art Museum in 2022 and was invited to participate by artist and curator Julio Cesar Morales. “Much of my work in general responds to the conflict of my own Mexican-American identity,” said Macías.

Who are Macías’ favorite lucha libre wrestlers? “Rey Mysterio, for his high flying acrobatic moves and L.A. Park for his comedic style and skeleton-type appearance,” Macías said.

“So far what I’ve offered to Andrés are a few ideas on how he can keep pushing his work conceptually in the way he manipulates his figures through photography,” the assistant professor said.

KGUN9-TV interview with Andrés Caballero

Andrés Caballero is an MFA candidate in Photography, Video and Imaging. (Photo by Alexis Hagestad)
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