My phone chimes with a text message. “Do you want to see me with or without the mask?” the man asks.
I’m not sure how to answer. “Depends whether I’m talking to Aski or you,” I say.
“You’ll speak to both,” he says, and gives me directions to his Medical District apartment.
When I arrive, his face is bare, except for a shadow of a beard. He’s 32 and has lived a double life since childhood—first by circumstance, later by choice. The switch happens every time he pulls on or peels off his wrestling mask. The mask protects the identity of the man with the square job and twin daughters, the regular guy with whom the wrestler shares a body. Since the 1930s, the mask has been the defining symbol of lucha libre, a high-flying, fast-moving wrestling style popular in Mexico. Since 2003, it has been the defining symbol of Aski.
We sit in his living room, where a few figurines of professional wrestler Rey Mysterio sit in unopened boxes on the shelves. Later he shows me what transforms him into Aski: in his closet, on a shelf to the left, four foam mannequin heads wear shiny, embellished lucha libre masks. Beneath them, 11 plastic hangers form a neat row. A pair of wrestling pants hangs on each, most with a matching mask—blue and yellow, black and red, orange and silver, camouflage and gold.
“I don’t see Aski as just a mask and a pair of pants,” he says. “I see it as a person.” He identifies the character as a friend of the crowd, especially children and anyone who needs help. He’ll wear his mask to visit a sick child at the hospital or make an appearance at a birthday party of a fan. He says the name Aski has Mayan origins and means “friend.”
He reveals his wrestling persona to close friends and colleagues but asks that they keep it quiet. If he becomes famous, he says, he can still grocery shop and dine out in anonymity. The mask is an escape hatch from one life to the other. When he approaches a venue, he pulls it on while driving his black Chevy Camaro. The wrestlers Aski watched on television as a boy abided by the same traditions. To let someone see his face would be a disgrace, like spitting in the faces of wrestling legends.
During an early conversation with Aski, I ask if I can print his actual name in this story. “No,” he says. “That’s the whole part of me having a masked identity.” He laughs at me for asking such a silly question.
Then again, if you know Aski, it’s not very hard to crack the secret. His Facebook profile lists two places of employment—his corporate day job and CEO of Aski Entertainment. If someone calls for a booking, he’ll speak under his birth name. “I run Aski Entertainment,” he’ll explain. “I’m here to talk to you about Aski.” Sometimes, people figure out they are actually speaking to Aski.
Monday through Friday during business hours, however, Aski wears slacks from the opposite side of his closet. He sits behind a tidy desk. He’s a senior administrative assistant at a medical research laboratory where no one calls him Aski. The job, with reasonable hours and full benefits, is a safety net. He works with two women who treat him like a son. One hung a photocopy of Forrest Gump on his bulletin board and wrote, “Run, Forrest, Run,” in Spanish.
On weekends, he does exactly that. He runs far, far away from the responsibilities and worries of daily life. Some people watch television. Others knock back a few beers. Aski wrestles. The only difference is that his escape is also his career. He imagines a future in a ring, not behind a desk.
Gaston Bazaar in East Dallas feels like it has been airlifted from a far-flung corner of Mexico and plunked on Buckner Boulevard. English is hardly spoken. Parakeets, tacos, and flouncy dresses are sold in different kiosks. And there is a wrestling ring built atop mismatched linoleum and patched together with duct tape. On this Sunday, about 70 seats around the ring are filled, with another 50 people standing.
Aski’s enemy enters the ring first, strutting past the crowd and flexing his biceps to haunting music. Cazador de Demonios, a rudo (bad guy), wears a black singlet that clings to lumpy muscles and a mask with a wide zipper where lips should be. He is the reigning masked wrestling champion at this local promotion. He shows off a huge belt with gold adornments.
Aski wants it. He has held two championship belts from other venues, but not from his hometown ring, where he feels a tinge of entitlement. But Aski, a husky and energetic crowd favorite, lacks his normal spark today. After hitting him with a tire, Cazador yanks Aski to the ground, leans against his torso, and wins the first of three rounds.
Next, Cazador steals two chairs from underneath screaming fans. He places them in the ring with a board across them, a set piece for torture. Aski comes alive. As the audience chants his name, he slams Cazador’s head into the chair-and-board contraption, and then flips him onto it. He heaves Cazador’s much bigger body over his shoulder and slams him to the ground. He grabs the ropes and stomps his feet. The crowd goes wild. The match speeds up as they ping-pong across the ring and, finally, Aski pins him.
In the last round, Aski spins in a circle, kicking his leg above his opponent’s head and yanking off his mask in the same motion. He flips over him, grabs hold of his leg, and pins him for another three count. The bell rings, and Aski holds up his arms in victory as Cazador is belly-down on the ground, pulling his mask over his face. Aski takes the microphone from the announcer—his former father-in-law—and challenges Cazador to a title bout.
Here, Aski’s everyday identity is irrelevant. He is simply a técnico (good guy) luchador, trying to make a name and a living. His pay depends on the size of the crowd—at the bazaar, they give donations. On an average day, he’ll get $25; on a good day, he’ll get $40. When he travels for matches, he makes between $100 and $500. Aski wants a national stage, like that of Rey Mysterio (the masked wrestler with World Wrestling Entertainment whose likeness graces Aski’s shelves). For now, he has the bazaar and its shabby ring. It may not look like much, but it’s where his mask overtook all other plans.
When I first call Aski’s younger sister, Cristina, we chat for a few minutes about when and where we could meet. Somehow, she didn’t hear me say that this is a story about Aski. When I mention something about wrestling, it dawns on her. She laughs at her error: she assumed I was calling about her other brother, a graphic designer. Theirs isn’t a family of wrestling fans. None of Aski’s siblings love the sport like he does.
Weeks later, I meet Cristina at Lucky’s Cafe on Oak Lawn Avenue. She’s a no-nonsense, immediately likable woman who is running errands all day for her job as a legal assistant. She has five children, with a sixth coming any day. As soon as she sits down, she passes along a message from her mother: wrestling prevents Aski from visiting his family nearly enough. Her tone is half-joking.
“My parents were never okay with it,” she says. “They just felt like it was an unnecessary risk.”
As a child in Leon, Guanajuato, Mexico, Aski played with wrestling figurines and a wooden ring. Luchadores were his heroes, but it never occurred to him to become one.
His father worked as an elementary school teacher, and his mother managed a shoe store in Guadalajara, two and a half hours away. They weren’t rich, but they weren’t needy. It came as a surprise to Aski when his parents planned a move to the United States.
When he was 8 years old, he boarded a bus with his mother and uncle and rode to somewhere near Laredo. The next morning, at the banks of the Rio Grande, Aski and his mother sat on a plywood-covered tire while a man on the opposite side pulled them across with a long rope. The river felt huge. Once they made it to the other side, other people led them to an airport. They caught a flight to Dallas and reunited with Aski’s younger siblings, Ernesto and Cristina, who had crossed on a previous trip.
“People would call it a traumatic experience, but to me, it was just an experience that you never forget,” Aski says. He has a habit of ending stories with a sugarcoated analysis. He doesn’t allow himself to acknowledge negativity. He has created a sort of dreamworld for himself that goes beyond the Aski character.
He likes to be liked, Cristina says. She and her brothers never understood it. They were never like that. Twice, Aski casually mentions to me how this story might read: “He is a professional wrestler, and at the end of the day, he is a regular guy that has a profession working for a hospital. He’s a spiritual guy, where he attends Fellowship Church. He does community work as well.” It’s the truth, but scrubbed clean.
After he moved to Dallas, his mother worked as a presser at a dry cleaner and did alterations at home. His father stayed in Mexico to continue teaching and providing. He called on Sundays and visited on holidays. Aski watched wrestling every Saturday. It was an escape, like cartoons. On Sundays, the family would go to Catholic mass at Our Lady of Guadalupe, and then go shopping.
Back then, their East Dallas neighborhood was rough. Their mother insisted that they come home from school immediately, so she wouldn’t worry about gangs or immigration officials bothering them. Unfazed, Aski would stop at the store to play video games. She was furious.
“People were afraid,” Aski says. One day, the family had to stay indoors at his aunt’s house because officials were cracking down.
The trick was to stay out of real trouble and to know your place as an outsider while blending in. It was like living a double life. But blending in became more difficult as Aski and his siblings grew up and started working. At 13, he convinced a video store owner to let him work for free rentals. After that, he got a busboy job at a restaurant, and then worked at a health club. He always found a way to make the most of every opportunity.
After graduating from North Dallas High School in 1998, his options were limited. Without a Social Security number, he couldn’t pursue a traditional career.
“I was still out in limbo,” he says. A year later, he went to community college and continued working.
In 2000, a friend recommended a wrestling workshop in Arlington. Aski was one of a few selected by the instructor for free classes for a year. He found his niche. Then, he spent a year at a training program in Atlanta and visited home enough that he didn’t have to tell his parents he was wrestling full-time.
When he came back to Dallas, the dream of professional wrestling eclipsed other plans. He had jobs, but only so he could wrestle. He put off school, pushed his family aside, sacrificed years of his life, and cast aside other career plans. Wrestling has been the longest-lasting constant in his life.
In 2004, he married a woman he’d met at community college. By then, he was working as a legal assistant to a criminal defense attorney, a job he held for most of the past decade. Aski’s wife was a U.S. citizen, so he became a permanent resident. He trained in a ring that his father-in-law had built in his Oak Cliff backyard. That’s who introduced him to Sergio Reyes, the promoter at Gaston Bazaar and a former wrestler. They trained together and became friends. Aski, the persona, was born in 2004. He and his wife divorced several years later, and he only became more committed to wrestling.
A year ago, the first serious girlfriend Aski had since his divorce gave birth to twin girls; the couple had long been broken up by then. Photos of the girls are on Aski’s living room shelf, next to his figurines. He calls himself a “family man,” though, at this point, it’s a future plan. The twins’ mother takes care of them full-time. Within the year, he plans to move out of the Medical District apartment he shares with a roommate and look for a home suitable for a family.
“I just care about establishing my relationship with my daughters,” he says. He’s bracing himself, financially and emotionally, for a process that could involve lawyers and any number of challenges. “Those are my girls,” he says. “They’re my responsibility, too.”
When Aski discusses his company, Aski Entertainment, he loftily mentions a comic book division, a public-relations liaison, and plans of launching a nonprofit to expand his community work. Talking to Aski, I often have to backtrack to clarify exaggerations. Aski Entertainment is an unincorporated company with a single employee (Aski), a decent website, supportive friends, and many dreams for the future. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. His embellishments tend to overstate, and therefore underplay, his hard work and good intentions. It’s an unfortunate effect.
As a child, Aski had to seize every opportunity and make the most of it, and he hasn’t been able to turn that off. “I still feel like he is floating everywhere,” Cristina says. She sees his wrestling career as “a kid’s dream.” But if it makes him happy and he can eventually make a living this way, she says, who is she to judge? And she is proud of him, but says, “at the same time, I’m like, ‘Ugh, just don’t get hurt.’ ” A 2006 injury forced him to take a year off. His family wished he wouldn’t go back.
But he did, so for now the routine continues to be Insanity workout videos after work, in-ring practice on Fridays, and fighting on weekends. He’ll drive to San Antonio for matches at River City Wrestling, a respected regional promotion, or to random rural outposts. Then, on most Sundays, he’ll pick up a match at Gaston Bazaar.
Slowly, the plan seems to be working. He’s making connections, wrestling in bigger and better promotions, and gaining recognition. Still, a stable career remains a long shot.
After a match at the bazaar, Siniestro, a wrestler who wears a mask with a toothy scowl and a full head of troll-like hair, says he counts Aski among the up-and-comers who truly respect the sport. Siniestro has been in the business for 34 years and used to wrestle some of the best fighters in Mexico.
Reyes, the promoter, translates for Siniestro because he doesn’t speak much English. They laugh that Aski turned off a lot of the wrestlers years ago when he would brag incessantly on Facebook. Asked what he thinks of that, Siniestro just grins, then admits that he hit Aski a little harder when he thought he needed to learn a lesson.
That’s the thing about lucha libre. Though it is obvious at times that opponents aren’t pummeling each other with full strength, the outcome of the match is not always predetermined. There are rounds when one of the combatants genuinely cannot lift his body off the ground. Aski, on at least three occasions, insists that his title match at Gaston Bazaar would be a match where the best man wins. Many wrestlers will claim that this is always the case, but they’re just keeping face.
In bazaars around the country and in a few larger promotions, lucha libre is growing. Lucha libre translates to “free fighting” and is faster-moving than American-style wrestling. Rapid sequences and high-flying moves give an advantage to shorter, stronger wrestlers over American behemoths. One of the biggest U.S. promotions focused primarily on this style, Lucha Libre USA, was created three years ago. It has expanded to markets nationwide. For two seasons they had a show on MTV2 called Lucha Libre USA: Masked Warriors. Alex Abrahantes, the company’s vice president, says they’re still filming and negotiating with other networks.
The most infamous Lucha Libra USA wrestler, RJ Brewer, is the fictional son of Arizona governor Jan Brewer. He taunts Mexicans in the ring. An issue that’s sensitive for most of the audience becomes a comedic drama. “Part of why it resonates so much with the Hispanics is it’s very much like the telenovelas on TV,” Abrahantes says. The story and the drama are what make people stand at the bazaar for hours.
The way to rise through the ranks is through promotions like Lucha Libre USA, which can boost someone to the largest promotions, like WWE. Luchadores who want to advance in their careers also wrestle in American matches. Aski does this often. He’s constantly compared to Rey Mysterio. The two look strikingly similar, both short and brawny, with youthful faces peeking from their masks.
Abrahantes has several regional promoters, like Brandon Oliver at River City Wrestling in San Antonio, to whom he looks for upcoming talent. In the past year, Oliver started hiring Aski regularly.
“He fits in perfectly,” Oliver says. “He’s humble, respectful. He’s one of the boys.”
Oliver points to Aski’s indefinable spark, that God particle of personality that’s either there or isn’t. It’s like charisma, but charisma conjures images of presidents and CEOs. This is different. It has more heart.
“Aski’s got potential,” Oliver says. Even in San Antonio, where Oliver knows the fans to be brutally honest, Aski is welcomed.
Before the title match at Gaston Bazaar begins, Aski paces back and forth alongside the ring, as the announcer croons, “Cazadooorrrr de Demonioooo!” His enemy stands on the ropes, arms outstretched, holding the gold belt to a mix of boos and cheers.
Next, Aski enters to chants echoing from every corner: “Aski! Aski!” Everything else exits his mind. As he is momentarily liberated, so is the crowd. Whatever difficulties they’re facing, they can yell and scream and release it all. It’s a letting go that elevates this entertainment to something more primal.
Their arms link, and the dance gains speed. Aski rolls Cazador onto his back, twists his legs into a knot around his own right leg, grabs Cazador’s right arm, and tilts him onto his left side, legs still twisted uncomfortably. Aski holds tight, as his body writhes to subdue the giant beneath him. Finally, the bell rings, and Aski wins round one.
In the next round, Cazador flips Aski onto his stomach, then twists his ankle, gripping and twisting further with the might of his barrel-shaped arms. Aski screams and pounds the ground in misery.
Cazador falls onto his back, the descent stretching Aski’s ankle almost to its snapping point. The bell rings for a Cazador victory, but he keeps twisting and shaking the ankle. The referee gives a three-count, and he finally relents. It seems the ref wasn’t paying attention until Aski’s joint nearly popped.
Aski rocks on his back in pain. Cazador kicks him and throws him out of the ring. Aski gets in the ref’s face.
“Ref, do your job!” he screams in Spanish.
“I did do my job!” the ref yells back.
“What job? He almost broke my ankle!” Aski says, throwing up his hands.
In the last round, as Cazador leans on the ropes to stand up, Aski runs from across the ring, grabs the bottom rope with his left hand and the top with his right, and swings horizontally between them, kicking Cazador in the face. It’s the move he busts out when he needs something to put him over the edge and excite the crowd.
As Aski bounces back into the ring, Cazador grabs him from behind, swings his own arm like a bowler, then rams his forearm between Aski’s legs, a cheap move that’s grounds for disqualification in other venues. It’s theater, but the punches do hurt. Immediately, Aski falls to his back, grabbing himself and kicking like a baby.
Cazador leans on his torso and holds him there, feet still kicking wildly. The ref slams the ground three times, and the bell rings. Aski rolls on the ground, defeated and in pain.
In this moment, it’s impossible to tell whether he’s an entertainer exaggerating his misery, or a man who could very well be crying under his mask. Aski takes the microphone, and in direct, furious Spanish, he challenges Cazador to a rematch. He says he will never come back to Gaston Bazaar, unless it’s for the title.
Afterward, Aski doesn’t even untape his wrists before he storms out to the parking lot. He passes a little boy and gives him a limp high-five.
“I’m so pissed right now. I’m not coming back. There is no need for me to be here. I don’t need to wrestle these other guys. I’ve already beaten them,” he says. “To me, this is not the end of anything.”
Fair or not, it’s a blow to lose a title match in the place where he considers himself the best. Aski’s frustration doesn’t turn off when he walks outside. The persona lingers, a trap as much as an escape. Aski hops into his Camaro, mask still on, and drives home to his apartment. The next morning, he’ll wake up early for work.