Hugo Rodríguez

hugo pic

Superheroes, lucha libre, and growing up

“Why are we messing with what’s established?” is a common complaint we hear that has become the “Avengers, assemble!” cry for writers like myself. It is a passive-aggressive comment that lets us know we have to make ready for battle and become our own superheroes. Not just for ourselves, but for the young Latino and underrepresented children who look to us and look to our creations and our work as inspiration.

I remember 1995 and watching a lot of the X-Men: The Animated Series while I played with my very own Fleer Marvel Metal Trading Cards. I found it interesting how the heroes, antiheroes, and villains just jumped out in glossy finish. They wore masks.

I wore masks, too, because I was obsessed with lucha libre, Mexican professional wrestling. Every Sunday morning I’d love to see the stars of the two main Mexican wrestling promotions duke it out in their signature high-flying attacks and maneuvers. I wanted to be like them, and so my parents bought me a number of masks, because whenever I wore them, I would become that luchador.


Hugo Esteban Rodríguez is a writer, poet, and blogger living and working in Houston, Texas. His work has appeared in 
The AirgonautSpirit's Tincture, HeART Journal, Picaroon Poetry, and the Texas Poetry Calendar. He has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the Best of the Net award and he was formerly an assistant editor for Bartleby Snopes. He is a graduate of the University of Texas at Brownsville and the MFA program at the University of Texas at El Paso. 


I became Octagon and Pierrot and Mascara Sagrada. I remember visiting my uncles and cousins in Monterrey and my black and yellow mask on. They’d address me by my first name first, but then I would correct them. No, I’m not Hugo, I’m Pierrot. I did it to complete strangers, too. I remember boarding a plane once to visit family in Jamaica. The pilot gave me the mini-tour of the cockpit and pinned an American Airlines wings pin on me before he asked for my name. I told him in Spanish that I was “Mascara Sagrada” and confused the hell out of him before my parents ushered me back to my seat.

It’s been two decades and the one time every year or so that I see my extended family, I get to be a child again. They look through the mask I wear as a full grown man, and they see something else: A child in multi-colored masks playing at being an adult.

Some might find it embarrassing or cringe-worthy to be reminded of the funny things they did as children, but I find it heartwarming. There is no malice, only honesty, and a feeling of understanding that I am with family, that I am with people that have known me when I was still in the womb, and that I am a reminder of youth.

Because I was a kid who saw the world in black and white lucha libre mentality. In spite of the rainbow of colors in the masks and attires the wrestlers wore, morality was black and white: Good and evil, face and heel, tecnico y rudo.

The grey didn’t come until later, when I discovered the X-Men and saw that there was actually a lot of color in the grey of the world.

These were people persecuted for who they were, how they looked like. Mutants, hated for something they were born with. Some of them were good, some of them were bad, and a whole lot of them were both. In discovering that greyness of the world as I grew older, I saw the rich tapestry that developed. What was flat became three-dimensional, rich, and complex. I understood that characters needed to have multi-layers to be interesting and in many ways set an important foundation so years and years later, when I began writing seriously, I was ready. 

And it started with comic book superheroes, because superheroes wear masks, too, and so it was a natural transition from one to the other. The difference was that unlike the luchadores I wanted to be like, the X-men were able and allowed to take off their mask. Sometimes they did it to blend into human society.  Cyclops would discard his visor for sunglasses. Wolverine would discard his mask and the blue and yellow spandex for casual winter gear. And I think I began to understand that the covert superhero lifestyle, the masks and battle armor and secret identities would be necessary to be able to fight and to thrive.

I was a very shy kid growing up. I had a tight-knit group of friends that was really mostly my cousins and only one or two friends from school. Outside of that, my friends were books by Tom Clancy, JK Rowling, Richard A. Knaak and Garfield collections by Jim Davis. I did my eyesight and my spine no favors by constantly being hunched over in the car or a desk with my nose buried in a book. Even in middle and high school, with my friend circle slightly expanded, I was still very reserved. I had discovered that I could wear a green mask, because what better way to show my jaded teenage pride than with a mask of jade?

I had also been introduced to online roleplaying games, Fanfiction and Games Workshop’s Black Library. I couldn’t be as social because that would cut into time for all that.

Plus, I was terrible with girls. Imagine every painfully awkward move a teenage boy could make when it came to interactions with the opposite sex. Are you picturing it? Are you cringing yet? When people ask me why I never dated anyone until college, I tell them about my high school experiences. If there’s alcohol involved, I might even ‘fess up to a story involving a long-standing crush on a girl and giving her a shout out on my AOL Instant Messenger profile and feeling elated when she did the same. Or joining a Bible Study group because another crush was there. Or inviting myself to a former crush’s birthday party at the bowling alley and having her parents ask the friend that took me there why he had brought me there when I was clearly not welcome.

My junior prom? I got asked out by a senior girl as kind of a last-resort-all-my-friends-have-dates-so dot dot dot.

I had to wait until late into my senior year to have a positive experience, and that was more as a result of my friend and I making a deal with each other that if we hadn’t found prom dates by the time it rolled around, we’d go with each other.

And I had fun, because I realized that she was one of very few people I didn’t have to put on a mask with. I could be wholly myself: unmasked and free, dancing huapangos off-beat at Fort Brown while 50 Cent and Nelly blared in the background.

I don’t think I could have done that with anybody else because strangers were outside the scope and a combination of fear and ignorance kept me from them. Like when you read comics, your focus is on the characters even though you see the heroes and villains duke it out in crowded venues. The background characters blend in with each other and never feel quite really there.

So let me talk about college, which is where my actual superhero origin story takes place.

We all graduated and went on our own college paths. Most of my friends left, and the closest were six and eight hours away at the University of Houston and Texas A&M University. For mutants like the X-Men and the mutants in that world, their powers manifest during puberty or when something traumatic happens. Mine were triggered by a job at The Collegian, the student newspaper for the University of Texas at Brownsville. Because now, ahora si, I had to learn to interact with strangers. I threw myself straight into a place where not only would I be able to learn about something I was really interested in, but also a place where I would be forced to face my fears and anxieties.

And I changed.

My mask became orange, blue, and grey. Orange and blue as the colors of the college and grey for the look of newsprint. By the time I graduated I would have been unrecognizable by my high school self. Someone who could go up to fellow students and administrators and ask tough questions. Someone who would travel with sports teams and was not afraid of writing effusive praise for and getting under the skin of the athletes and coaches. I had to wear a mask to overcome my anxieties but also because a proper journalist must always have a mask of neutrality when they report. Even when I could get editorialize a bit more when the team would run through Bacone College and the rest of the Red River Athletic Conference like a bad analogy, I still had to have a degree of impartiality. Because I had the ability to change things. I had the ability to tell the stories of others and present them to the world. The power to influence people’s minds. Just like Professor X, Sauron, Jean Grey, and Emma Frost.

When I graduated, I took all I had learned, packed it in a few boxes that could fill the back of a small car, and arrived in Houston for grad school and new misadventures and opportunities.

Enter the new mask, the meat of this story, where the hero begins to understand his powers and his surroundings. A brand new opportunity to be someone else, like I had pretended to be when I was a child. I approached life with a reckless abandon with few, if any, thoughts spared for self-preservation.

So now this alter-ego, wearing a red mask because red is the color of power and I was told one had to wear read to project confidence. Confidence in this superhero adulthood. A persona who approached life with reckless abandon and few if any thoughts of self-preservation. I had a lot of masks, as a poet, as a performer, as a corporate worker drone, as an activist. And my enemies, the beneficiaries of their own character development angle, grew as well.

My social anxiety became a cloaked figure that would lurk in the shadows and whisper threats in my ear when I let my guard down.

My dark thoughts, that had been imprisoned by arbitrary codes, broke out of their cell and grew to humanoid snakes, six-feet-and-change, peering down at me with the face of a devil.

But my strongest one, because every superhero needs a nemesis, became the diagnosis of attention deficit disorder. This mental affliction took the form of a gargantuan bull that I would, and still continue to, face every day in a dance of death.

Sometimes I win.

Sometimes I lose.

And in going from mask to mask to mask to mask, the concept of the unmasked self was becoming vaguer with every passing month. A very average Chicano who was just as happy to stay at home watching reruns of The Fresh Prince or White Collar on the TV while eating Pizza Hut.

Nothing heroic about that. Nothing exciting about that. But that person was just as much me as the alter-ego was and there was no telling where the alter-ego ended and the ‘real and unmasked’ person began. Maybe they were both real, and if so, how do we define that word?

In An Erotic Beyond: Sade, Octavio Paz writes: “Creation, invention: there is nothing more real than this body that I imagine; there is nothing less real than this body I touch that turns into a heap of salt or vanishes into a column of smoke. With that smoke my desire will invent another body.”

The comic book heroes and villains that graced those trading cards two decades ago were figments of the artists’ imaginations but I also have to ask: aren’t they part of those people’s souls? When a different writer, inker, colorist, letterer takes over, do they not impart part of their own soul in the creation? And by extension, aren’t they part of the souls of young children who see these on cards or comic books or the silver screen and then want to be them?

And why should I, as a Latino writer, not want to give a young Latino kid the artistic representation that I didn’t see a lot of growing up? Because here is an undeniable truth: Writing is as close to being a superhero as I can get without millions of dollars to my name. The money would definitely go a long way in helping me create a replica Iron Man suit, sure. I’d be the Iron Chicano! But since I don’t have the cash, I have to bank on my ability to paint pictures and bring out emotions with just words on text. Through my work, I have to provide the representation that I didn’t see in the superhero world growing up, representation that had to come from putting on masks and becoming someone else.

So now I come back to the framework I first set up twenty years ago. A house that I started painting in dazzling and garish colors where the flawed characters I created could coexist with each other before jumping into the pages of my short stories or my poems. It was a house furnished by conflict because as my thesis director would constantly emphasize: conflict drives plot. In my poetry and in prose, conflict was the key element that gave my work life.

And in the lives I’ve chosen to give and to live, I have to wear masks.

©The Acentos Review 2017