After failing to bridge Andrade from NXT to WWE World Champion, with his departure to AEW in the rear-view, it was time to revisit WWE’s track record with luchador talent
Three world champions have represented Mexico in WWE history. Only Rey Mysterio did so without an illegal immigration storyline.
Eddie Guerrero’s lone world championship reign in the early aughts was the first. Guerrero’s heel adversary, John ‘Bradshaw’ Layfield (JBL), on a two-minute Smackdown segment, derailed a “herd” of Mexicans from crossing the American border. Real life migrant people have a needlessly precarious existence, and here WWE’s showrunner Vince McMahon, trauma-mined it for lowest common denominator entertainment.
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Guerrero was the story’s hero, the pitch being dealing with JBL elevated him rather than hindered him. Unfortunately, Guerrero was burning out from the pressure of carrying WWE given such weak material. He lost the championship to JBL. Due to Guerrero’s untimely death shortly after, he never had the time to put proper distance between himself and a storyline referring to Mexicans as tax burdens, lazy, parasitic, invaders attempting to override American culture. Guerrero overcame the stereotypes he’d been and battled against on camera, in part, by being honest and vulnerable about his real addictions, paving the way to being a beloved figure regardless of borders.
Then there was Alberto Del Rio, one of wrestling’s true miscast good guys, ever. Del Rio’s foil, Jack Swagger, was so in-step with the vile things JBL previously said, JBL could have filled in for Swagger’s mouthpiece Zeb Coulter. Coulter debuted, asking, “How do we get rid of them?” Mexicans – xenophobia, again, the basis to sell an ill-conceived, heavy-handed, and off-putting story. Rolling Stone called the 2015 Del Rio-Swagger storyline “wildly unpopular.”
Remember, FOX News criticized Swagger and Coulter’s portrayal, so WWE broke the fourth wall and explained they were not actually endorsing or ridiculing the Tea Party movement mirrored by the characters. (FOX News was certainly charging them with ridicule, even if WWE regularly proves it’s hardly capable of such satire.) Imagine – at any point – WWE breaking the fourth wall to acknowledge to Univision they meant no harm by parroting consequential anti-immigrant sentiment, in either of the two decades in which these separate illegal immigration storylines transpired.
This wasn’t even in the company’s late 1990’s “Attitude” era; this was from the days of their sponsor-friendly, PG romps. WWE paradoxically courted Mexican audiences relying more on reductive and regressive nonsense than not.
The only upside was it’d signal to Latin viewers in this millennium to do something better with their time than watch WWE (a downside if you’re WWE or a Latin WWE fan).
So that leaves Rey Mysterio, who ascended to the WWE’s world championship scene without an overt illegal immigration storyline to be champion.
Rey Mysterio as Blueprint
However, Randy Orton was tasked with telling Mysterio that Mysterio’s real life friend and long-time professional rival – Eddie Guerrero – the performer revered by fans that had recently died – was in hell. It was tasteless. It’s such a craven, bitter moment (even all this time later), an illegal immigration storyline might have been the better option.
Mysterio won the world championship to pay off Randy Orton stating Guerrero was in hell. This was his Wrestlemania moment, but not the main event. Then Mysterio’s success rate tanked. He posted a 0-2-1 record in key bouts, plus was pinned during a tag title match, subverting his position as champion.
Consistent losses despite holding one of two top spots as world champion in WWE has a recent analog: Big E (only the sixth Black world champ in WWE history) lost seven times between becoming the champion this past September and losing his world championship to kick off 2022. Mysterio – later and away from the Guerrero tie-in – had another world championship moment. He won and lost the championship in the same night, rendering it a mirage.
WWE’s Slow Progress
WCW, no stranger to stereotypes, had no Mexican world champions, but somehow in the 1990’s, generally allowed Latin talent to resonate with fans on their own accord (including Guerrero, who eventually, famously shunned WCW for refusing his main event ascent, to start over again in WWE). It was based on what they could do in the ring (establishing Mysterio and Guerrero for American audiences), without such memorably discriminatory angles, much like what AEW has done today with the Lucha Bros. Rey Fenix and Pentagon Jr.
To say WWE hasn’t made progress in thirty years would be disingenuous, but to say the same showrunner, Vince McMahon, wouldn’t do an illegal immigration storyline tomorrow is naïve. That’s the problem that compels this retrospective.
McMahon is so insulated, according to former WWE writer Dan Madigan, he didn’t know what a burrito is, meaning McMahon hardly possesses a Taco Bell-level understanding of American-processed, Mexican standing in pop culture.
There’s an inherit ceiling placed on Mexican talent from this incomprehension that drops them out of the main event scene if they ever get there, or dismisses them completely.
Remember the Mexicools. The stable comprised of Juventud Guerrera, Psicosis, and Super Crazy – three wrestlers who helped revolutionize the kind of wrestling seen on American television today thanks to their lucha libre style in the 1990’s – rode to the WWE ring on lawnmowers in the early aughts. They were all gone from WWE promptly. WWE Hall of Famer, commentator Jim Ross, reflected on the Mexicools on his podcast, calling it “distasteful” and “caustic.”
WWE rebranded Eddie Guerrero’s nephew, Chavo, as Kerwin White at the same time. Chavo Guerrero, in portraying a WASP-like rejection of his Mexican heritage, used the catchphrase, “If it’s not White, it’s not right,” a white power motto. Guerrero told Chris Van Vilet he had no choice in the storyline for fear of being fired. It only ceased when Eddie Guerrero died. Who knows how bad the Kerwin White storyline would have been had it continued.
Bayley, a world champ in WWE’s women’s divisions, is one modern example when they’ve let a Latin talent be themselves without careening into such ugly territory, but it’s via omission – her Mexican heritage isn’t acknowledged in her character.
WWE’s current remaining luchador talents, Angel and Humberto, are removed from their Garza family lucha legacy. McMahon’s need to control everything, own names and likeness, and only prop up his immediate creations is the divide between Mexican wrestlers’ ability to connect with fans and their opportunities to get the camera time to do it. It’s hard to imagine McMahon’s WWE ever allowing Mexican talent to be their full selves through the characters they portray. Hopefully not to Angel and Humberto’s detriment.
The world of lucha libre is, at best, a footnote in WWE. At worst, lucha doesn’t exist, even if the style itself has imprints all over the modern in-ring element of WWE’s entertainment empire. Of course, WWE’s under no obligation to present lucha libre, and lucha libre lives and thrives without it. This isn’t about specifics or nuance in lucha libre; it’s about WWE’s historically damaging stereotyping persisting today. Does Japanese wrestler Akira Tozawa portraying a ninja gang leader seem like appointment television or the fever dream of a mad billionaire?
McMahon’s programming is foreign to stories that may require subtly, subtitles, a translation, or basic cultural competency.
Which brings us to Andrade. Already a world-renowned talent, he seized NXT’s world championship upon arrival. Andrade excelled, even garnering a rare five star match rating from journalist Dave Meltzer. He represented the WWE’s best chance in years to feature a Mexican talent in their world championship scene. After all, the internal logic was NXT world champs then become WWE world champions.
Yet under McMahon’s direction on WWE TV, Andrade’s third-generation lucha legacy was out in the cold. Reports from Fightful’s Sean Ross Sapp touched on McMahon requiring Andrade to have pristine English to be considered a top-tier performer. Andrade himself later refuted it to Superluchas, although while he was still under WWE contract. McMahon never featured him as world champion despite improved English in almost three years on WWE’s main roster; Andrade was granted his WWE release after doing a five-year bid and fled to AEW, becoming one of the most high-profile stars to represent WWE’s poor retention (especially of luchadores).
Andrade, of course, has the potential to hold AEW’s world championship. Andrade can have a world championship tenure outside the lasting concerns addressed above, now that he’s free from McMahon’s out of step showrunner touchstones. It’s not guaranteed. Odds are though, AEW’s millennial showrunner Tony Khan, who’s mission statement included diversity, lives in a reality closer to the audience, than septuagenarian McMahon, who has for decades, overtly, extensively peddled tired and crass tropes.
True to Mexican cultural resilience, many of the aforementioned wrestlers are still respected by others in the industry, considered generational influences, legends, Hall of Famers, getting name dropped in rap songs. Their masks and merch are still spotted in crowds. Juventud Guerrera even recently received an honorary one-off match in AEW.
If McMahon and WWE’s ethos is they’re “making movies” they should take it from Academy Award winning director Bong Joon-ho, who said upon winning three Oscars in 2020: “Once you overcome the one inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”