Mexican-Style Wrestling Lights Up the NJ Italian-American Meeting Hall

CLIFTON, NJ — Mexican-style wrestling and two of its most famous masked “luchadores,” or wrestlers, debuted in New Jersey at an unlikely venue Saturday night: The Italian-American Family Association.

Call it “Ay, oh,” meets “Dale! Duro!” (“Give it to him,” “Hard!”)

About 150 adults and children showed up to see 60-something “lucha libre” legends Mil Mascaras (1,000 Masks) – Mexico’s Hulk Hogan, according to some — and Dos Caras (Two Faces) battle it out in the association’s assembly hall, decorated with the coat of arms of Italian states.

The event, organized by the National Wrestling Alliance and featuring 32 wrestlers and 12 matches, will be televised on the Dish Network next month, said Rick Otazu, of the alliance.

Because of dwindling membership, the local Italian-American association, founded in 1909, has had to lease the hall for outside events.

“As time changed and enrollment dropped, we had to keep things afloat,” said the association’s hall rentals manager, Bryan LoRe, who confessed he knows zilch about “lucha libre.”

The all-male association today has 150 members, down from 300 in the 1930s through the ’60s, he said.

LoRe had rented the 250-person capacity hall to an American-style wrestling match event before, and MTV filmed a video there once.

But Saturday night’s event was the oddest the association has hosted, he said.

Audience members included Mexicans living in Clifton and Passaic, and non-Mexicans such as Jeff Paitchell, 24, who said he and his buddy spotted a poster advertising “The Legends of Lucha” at a video game store earlier in the day.

“Me and my friend Sean had nothing better to do,” said Paitchell, wearing a Steely Dan T-shirt.

Others came from as far as Virginia to see “Mil” in the flesh, er, black-and-iridescent mask and platinum calf-high boots.

Tom Alvarez, 34, from Trenton, was the only lucky wrestler in the event scheduled to battle the two Mexican legends.

“It’s like being an actor and in Hollywood, just starting, and getting to act with Robert DeNiro or Jack Nicholson,” said Alvarez, aka “Dirty Don Montoya” who said he works by day as a secretary at the Trenton Psychiatric Hospital and spends his vacation and sick days wrestling.

The Mexican-born population of North Jersey is growing, and that’s creating a market for “lucha libre,” or Mexican-style professional wrestling, characterized by more acrobatic moves than U.S. professional wrestling, said Otazu.

In 2000 — the most recent year the U.S. Census has this specific data — there were 15,187 Mexicans living in Passaic County. The data doesn’t include undocumented residents.

Otazu said the Saturday night match was the second time in history “lucha libre” came to New Jersey.

The association has held “lucha libre” matches in the southwestern states, which typically draw audiences of 3,000 to 10,000 people, he said.

Of the venue, Otazu said he didn’t think much of the culture clash.

“It’s just a venue that holds right amount of people and has a high enough ceiling,” he said.

For Bruno Fontani, 84, it all made perfect sense. He manned the snack booth, which sold hot dogs for $1 or for $1.50 “with kraut or onions.”

“It’s beautiful,” said Fontani, who said he was a wrestler for the French Foreign Legion in Algeria back when he was 21.

Source: KAREN KELLER/HERALD NEWS

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