Becoming ‘La Chiquilla de Tijuana’ and ‘Staging Contradiction’ – Ruby Gardenia’s Lucha Libre Exótica in a Mexican Border City

Tabea Huth,

Freie Universität Berlin

Abstract [1]

This paper focuses on Tijuana-based wrestler Ruby Gardenia, a luchador exótico who wrestles under the surname of “La Chiquilla de Tijuana” and not only takes part in the national as well as international representation of lucha libre tijuanense, but also in the representation of the very border city of Tijuana. Beginning with an introduction and theoretical framing of Gardenia’s work as an exotic wrestler, this paper retraces the transformation of Fernando Covarrubias, a gay immigrant from the southern Mexican state of Nayarit, into Tijuana’s most famous luchador exótico by paying special attention to dynamics of gender and sexuality in the context of migration and immigrant life in the border city. Inspired by Homi K. Bhabha’s concept of ‘third space’, Gloria Anzaldúa’s ‘new mestiza consciousness’, and Heather Levi’s concept of lucha libre as a practice of ‘staging contradiction’ I finally discuss Ruby Gardenia’s agency being a luchador exótico in a multifaceted interstice.

¡Damas y Caballeros! ¡Se Presenta a ‘La Chiquilla de Tijuana’: Ruby Gardenia!

“¡Beso! ¡Beso! ¡Beso!”
(Audience at the Auditorio Municipal de Tijuana 2011)

The Auditorio Municipal de Tijuana is packed. [2] The lucha libre ring in the center of the hall has just been cleared and there is still sweat glittering on the surface of the gleaming yellow ground. Two out of five fights are already over and the atmosphere has become tense. Today’s lucha libre event features many famous luchadores from Tijuana, several regions of Mexico – and even the USA. Every single loan chair on the ringside is occupied by fans of all ages and genders; most of them are people living in Tijuana, occasionally joined by gente del otro lado. While the more expensive ringside seats are taken primarily by people belonging to the clase media tijuanense mostly, the majority of the audience fills the significantly cheaper plastic rows farther from the ring. Many of the aficionado/-as [3] are wearing shirts featuring their favorite luchadores, others put on colorful masks, and some of them even have brought self-painted banners supporting their favorite wrestlers. Many of them are wildly making use of pipes, rattles, and horns, others are consuming beer, tortas, and nachos sold by vendors constantly announcing their goods.

Suddenly, a wild light show starts – coming along with ear-piercing, slightly aggressive techno beats and the arrival of an elderly, elegantly dressed master of ceremonies. His deep voice, even drowning out the deafening sound of the music, announces the third match of the night: a fight relevo australiano, a dos que trés caídas sin límite de tiempo [4] The techno beats grow even louder, and luchador Zarco jumps into the ring, followed by his fellow tag partners, Cínico and Viento. The partially masked team of Tijuana-based rudos [5], dressed in matching black and leopard-patterned fighting gear, is complete. While being searched for weapons by two réferis clad in black and white uniforms, they wait impatiently for their opponents. The rows of battered plastic seats framing the hall bend and shiver under the weight of thousands of people – people that are laughing, jumping, and shouting insults towards the ring as well as toward those in support of the opposite camp. Not only the luchadores, but most of their fans as well can be divided into rudos and técnicos easily. And both sides – seated all mixed up with one another – seem to be equally passionate about their cause.

Then, there is a change in music. Confusion shapes many faces in the crowd, when the first rhythms of the famous Pink Panther title song start filling the hall – a melody not immediately associated to any luchador forming part of today’s event.[6] Abruptly, the melody is cut off. And carried by gut wrenching basses Daniel Santos’ voice announces: “Dos gardenias para tí, con ellas quiero decir. Te quiero, te adoro, mi vida.” Drowning the wild techno beats with his powerful voice, the host exclaims, “¡Damas y caballeros! ¡Se presenta a la Chiquilla de Tijuana [7]: Ruuuby Gaaardenia!” The audience seated in the first rows immediately jumps to their feet, bursting into applause, and many voices are exclaiming just as one “¡Besos! ¡Besos!” as the first luchador técnico enters the arena. Ruby Gardenia, Tijuana’s most famous luchador exótico[8], joins the crowd dancing and twirling around the ring whilst shaking hands and occasionally padding the heads of children, dedicating all hir [9] attention to the audience. Simultaneously to the cheers expressed by the aficionados/-as técnicos/-as, some of the aficionados/-as rudos/-as burst into insults, shouting “¡Pinche puto!” at the flamboyant exótico; yet Ruby takes hir time, twirling flirtatiously in front of hir critics ironically blowing them kisses. All of hir elegant moves are being pronounced by hir shiny silver cape and the even shinier silver helmet adorned with black feathers – drawing every bit of attention in the arena to the rather tiny wrestler. After having danced all around it, the luchador elegantly enters the ring, still twirling and ignoring the critical eyes of the main referee as well as the contempt openly expressed by the rudos awaiting their opponent in the ring. Successively, the party in the ring is being joined by Ruby’s fellow técnicos: the lean and long-haired Venum Black who sports a bright red goatee and a tightly fitting green jumpsuit side by side with the golden masked Camaleón de Oro dressed in shiny pink and golden lycra pants. Together, they enter the arena accompanied by an edecan [10] that is wearing high heels and a miniskirt. Just when Camaleón takes off his golden cape, team rudo attacks and the fighting begins.

The first round is opened with a series of direct kicks against Venum Black, delivered by all the rudos simultaneously right under the nose of a clearly biased réferi – an attack, that only comes to an end when Camaleón de Oro and Ruby Gardenia join the party by throwing themselves with all their forces against the opponents. Team técnico soon dominates the ring, delivering elaborated kicks and punches while being cheered and insulted by a passionate audience. Just when Ruby Gardenia grabs Viento from behind, the audience bursts into roar exclaiming “¡Beso! ¡Beso! ¡Beso!” instead of the much more common “¡Mátalo! ¡Rómpele su pinche madre!” Consequently, Viento’s whole body numbs in shock, but the luchador exótico is not yet ready to give what the audience asks for – instead of kissing hir opponent, Ruby Gardenia slaps his behind, makes him stumble and elegantly spins around to encounter Zarco, who was just sneaking up on hir. Quickly ze grabs the wrestler’s face with both hands in order to peck him right on the mouth. Zarco freezes in shock and hides his face in shame; meanwhile, the técnicos among the audience burst into cheer, providing Ruby with an excellent opportunity to reward the attention with a couple of flirtatious dance moves. Zarco, clearly seeking revenge for his imposed public humiliation, recovers in the meantime and starts kicking Ruby from behind – backed up by his fellow rudos. In the following, the enthusiastic audience comes to witness three exciting rounds filled with punches, kicks and kisses, which for Ruby Gardenia results in several bruised ribs. During the second round, Viento jumps with full force on his opponent, while Ruby Gardenia relaxes outside the ring, still recovering from an earlier high flight. After getting up again, the rudo bursts into a set of fast hits and kicks – stopping only when the exótico lies on the floor, shouting in pain and temporarily unable to get up again. The audience is shocked, and most of the spectators burst into insults against the unfair behavior presented by the rudo as well as the partiality of the réferi, while a couple of aficionad@s rudo@s cheer their hero and shout insults towards Ruby, “¡Pinche joto! Viento, ¡rómpele la madre!” But luckily for the exótico, Viento is already trapped in the ring, fighting off Camaleón de Oro. Although being seriously hurt by hir opponent, Ruby Gardenia slowly gets back up into the ring. As it appears, ze continues the fight clearly weaker than ze had started it. Consequently, the second round is won by team rudo and as usual, a scantly clad number girl in high heels announces the third round. As Ruby Gardenia recovers bit by bit, the third and last round gets more and more dynamic and in the end, the fight is won by team técnico. Ignoring hir sore ribs, ‘La Chiquilla de Tijuana’ presents a spectacular high flight leading to final victory. While team rudo gnarls and mumbles disappointedly, the majority of the audience bursts into cheer, “¡Arriba la chiquilla! ¡Arriba el maricón!” When the match is over, the audience in the first rows moves closer and closer to the ring, eagerly seeking physical contact to their heroes. Triumphantly as well as patiently, the luchadores give autographs, shake hands, hug children held out to them, and smile into the many cameras focused on their faces. Due to hir spectacular high flight, ‘La Chiquilla de Tijuana’ is the star of team técnico, giving as many autographs as anyone else.

Impressions of the lucha libre event at Auditorio Municipal de Tijuana, 2011
Impressions of the lucha libre event at Auditorio Municipal de Tijuana, 2011
Impressions of the lucha libre event at Auditorio Municipal de Tijuana, 2011
Impressions of the lucha libre event at Auditorio Municipal de Tijuana, 2011
Impressions of the lucha libre event at Auditorio Municipal de Tijuana, 2011
Impressions of the lucha libre event at Auditorio Municipal de Tijuana, 2011
Impressions of the lucha libre event at Auditorio Municipal de Tijuana, 2011
Impressions of the lucha libre event at Auditorio Municipal de Tijuana, 2011

As should have become evident in the previous description, lucha libre – a.k.a. Mexican wrestling – can be considered a cultural practice that is situated in the very limits between sports, performance art, and ritual. As suggested by the anthropologists Heather Levi and Janina Möbius in their ground-breaking researches on Mexican wrestling, lucha libre events transform the arenas into open spaces enabling a free expression of contradictory emotions and convictions while allowing for a certain flexibility in the individual positions (Möbius 2004, Levi 2008). Consequently, lucha libre can be understood as a cultural practice that provides the audience as well as the protagonists with an opportunity to playfully experiment diverse positions and socio-cultural dynamics (Möbius 2004). As becomes evident in the multiple interactions taking place inside the ring and the entire arena, lucha libre furthermore can be considered to be opening up a rather safe space to playfully experience multiple transgressions, thus inviting people to constantly push spatial, personal, as well as social limits and, by doing so, to continuously re-imagine themselves.

Drawing strong connections to discourse on Mexican national identity, artists and scholars alike have increasingly discussed the topic of lucha libre during the last decades (Colorado Nates and Zamorano Rojas 2010, Grobet 2005, Levi 2005, Möbius 2004, Monsivais 1995). Very much like US-American anthropologist Heather Levi suggests in “The World of Lucha Libre: Secrets, Revelations, and Mexican National Identity” (2008), lucha libre up to a certain degree can be conceived as a mirror of Mexican society – or at least of parts of it: “To ask what kinds of characters circulate in lucha libre is to ask what kind of social actors are thought possible, who can have agency in the Mexican context (50).” Within this frame of reference, Mexican wrestling is frequently conceived as a “ritual drama, in which good and evil (or at least bad) struggle for domination – a conflict between moral actors” (50) that functions in a rather ambiguous way, often enough allowing for antithetic readings and which therefore can be understood as a way of ‘staging contradiction’ (Levi 2008).

While lucha libre itself – and especially, the lucha libre mask – is often referred to as a metonym for Mexican popular culture in general [11], it becomes evident in the existence of luchadores such as El Rayo de Jalisco (hinting to regional affiliations), Superbarrio (hinting to social struggles)[12], or Fray Tormenta (hinting to catholicism), that lucha libre can furthermore be conceived as a playful struggle for representation, which is situated in the very limits between reality and imagination. With characters such as Superbarrio, Blue Demon Sr., and El Santo Sr.[13], lucha libre provides its participants with superheroes that – particularly in times of instability – can serve as powerful role models to identify with (Levi 2005, Möbius 2004, Monsivais “The Hour of the Mask”, Barthes 2005). Among those: Ruby Gardenia, ‘La Chiquilla de Tijuana’.

Heather Levi’s understanding of lucha libre as a practice of ‘staging contradiction’ proves especially convincing looking at the complex representation of gender and sexuality within lucha libre. Due to the rarity and lower hierarchical standing of female wrestlers and luchadores exóticos as well as the ever-present display of excessive masculinity and chauvinistic gestures within the discipline, representations of gender and sexuality in lucha libre are a highly discussed topic (cf. Möbius 2004, Levi 1998, 2008). Within some debates, lucha libre is perceived as a chauvinistic practice that exclusively reproduces traditional concepts of gender and sexuality. Undoubtedly in favor of this perspective are the facts, that female wrestlers throughout the history of lucha libre have been excluded at length, that the vast majority of luchadores are biological men performing a gender expression considered to be excessively masculine, and that the arena is a place where sexist and homophobic statements form an integral part of the show. Furthermore, it is supported by the aspect that male wrestlers have a considerably better hierarchical standing within lucha libre and that the dramaturgy, gestures, and mimics central to the discipline evolve around masculinity and domination. In its most conventional version and theorization, it consequently makes sense to understand lucha libre as “a contest, in which one man (or one team of men) struggles to un-man another” (Levi 1998, 278). But considering the rather diverse representations of femininity and masculinity in lucha libre, it seems unlikely that gender and sexuality within lucha libre are (re-)presented and (re-)produced in such a simple way. And indeed, as becomes evident in profounder studies on Mexican wrestling (Möbius 2004, Levi 2008), the expression of gender and sexuality within lucha libre is a lot more complex than it appears at first sight. As a matter of fact, Heather Levi’s interpretation proves very convincing when she conceives Mexican wrestling as “a privileged space of gender experimentation where counterhegemonic constructions of masculinity and femininity can be performed in a public forum” (2008,170). She points out: “In its most conventional version, lucha libre is a struggle for physical and psychological domination between two machos. But lucha libre performance also functions as a laboratory of gender experimentation that, even in its most conventional version, parodies and problematizes the standard description of machismo as hegemonic masculinity” (176). Among other aspects, this can be seen in the successful participation of luchadores exóticos and in the surprisingly diverse kinds of femininity and masculinity presented during wrestling matches. Understanding lucha libre as an ever-changing social practice rather than a monolithic entity I would therefore argue, that lucha libre takes part not only in the re-affirmation of traditional concepts of gender and sexuality, but also in the subversion and re-imagination of those. This not only shows in the ever-changing in- and exclusion of female wrestlers in Mexico, but also in the role of luchadores exóticos, which has changed significantly over the years. Despite of the lower hierarchical standing of luchadoras femeninas and luchadores exóticos, I would therefore argue, that both nevertheless take part in the struggle for representation exhibited in lucha libre, not least by presenting a diverse set of role models and positive identifiers to the audience. This is illustrated quite clearly by the case of Ruby Gardenia.

Trained by Tijuana-based lucha libre legend Rey Misterio Sr. for many years and – alongside luchadores such as Rey Misterio Jr., Damián 666, Halloween, Konnan, Psicosis, Venum Black, and Extreme Tiger – therefore belonging to one of the most famous lucha libre stables in Mexico, Ruby Gardenia has quickly turned into the most popular luchador exótico tijuanense. Wrestling under the surname of ‘La Chiquilla de Tijuana’ since 2001, ze represents the border city – and to a certain degree, lucha libre as an expression for Mexican popular culture – within wrestling events on both sides of the border (cf. Carone 2011, Limón 2011). During hir performances mostly pairing up with the técnicos, ze not only stands in for the ‘good’ as opposed to the ‘bad’ guys, but also transforms into a role model for aficionad@s of all genders while challenging dominant concepts of gender and sexuality by performing as an exótico (see also Huth 2012).

Within this paper, I will be tracing Fernando Covarrubias’ transformation into luchador exótico Ruby Gardenia, ‘La Chiquilla de Tijuana’, paying special attention to dynamics of gender, sexuality, and class in the context of migration and immigrant life in the border city of Tijuana. As I will argue later on, similar (though not identical) to the cultural practice of lucha libre and the development of lucha libre characters, migration provides individuals with new opportunities to re-imagine themselves on a broader scale. This also applies to Fernando Covarrubias, who since his[14] migration highly oscillates between being the pharmacist Fernando, the transvestite (and, later on, transgendered woman) Jenny-Fer and the exotic wrestler Ruby Gardenia, representing the (in)famous and often contradictory border city of Tijuana during lucha libre events throughout Mexico and the USA. Inspired by Homi K. Bhabha’s concept of ‘third’ space, Gloria Anzaldúa’s ‘new mestiza consciousness’, and Heather Levi’s concept of lucha libre as a practice of ‘staging contradictions’ I finally discuss Ruby Gardenia’s agency being a luchador exótico in a multifaceted interstice.[15]

Welcome to Tijuana! ¡Bienvenidos al trampolín!

“!Tijuana se convierte en un trampolín para cada uno. Te conlleva a diferentes formas. […] Tijuana y las ciudades fronterizas se convierten en unos trampolines para los proyectos de vida que tiene cada persona.”

(Fernando Covarrubias / Ruby Gardenia 2007)


Despite of the fact that lucha libre can easily be considered a significant expression of Mexican national culture, its comparatively young history is heavily impacted by international exchange and transnational dynamics. In fact, Mexico’s first wrestling events were mostly performed by US-American wrestlers that were brought to Mexico by entrepreneur Salvador Lutteroth in 1933. Only during subsequent years masking became an integral part of the events and Mexican wrestlers became involved, contributing bit by bit to the development of lucha libre as a Mexican version of professional wrestling. Lutteroth, who had experienced his first wrestling match in the border city of Ciudad Juárez in 1929, founded Mexico’s first wrestling promotion ‘Empresa Mexicana de la Lucha Libre’ (EMLL) in 1933 and built Mexico’s first professional wrestling arena in Mexico City during the 1940s. As a matter of fact, Mexico City still constitutes the undisputed center of lucha libre and till this day not only remains seat of the ‘Consejo Mundial de la Lucha Libre’ (CMLL) but also of the equally important wrestling promotion ‘Asistencia Asesoría Administración’ (AAA).

Although CMLL frequently stages funciones in the cities of Guadalajara and Puebla, most events outside of Mexico City are held by AAA and considerably smaller promotions as well as by independent promoters. This is also the case in Tijuana, which nevertheless can be considered a rather important site of lucha libre that is highly impacted by its location in the borderlands of Mexico and the USA. This especially shows in the example of Rey Misterio Jr., who was born in San Diego, received his wrestling training in Tijuana and is currently the most famous active luchador mexicano in the US, constituting a powerful role model for both Mexicans and Mexican Americans. On the other hand, Tijuana added several luchadores estelares to the ranks of CMLL and AAA, e.g., Damián 666, Halloween, Negro Casas, Konnan, and Psicosis.[16] While signing to the bigger lucha libre promotions in Mexico City for Mexican wrestlers often implies greater national fame and more constant employment, staying based in Tijuana due to better payment and more frequent hirings for events taking place in the USA proves advantageous, too. In contrast to luchadores based in Mexico City, however, independent Tijuana-based wrestlers seldom gain attention in national mass media such as lucha libre magazines or TV shows, because those usually are partial to AAA and CMLL. Tijuana-based lucha libre, on the other hand, seems to promote a broader exchange with US-wrestling. This implies also, that Tijuana-based wrestlers such as Rey Misterio Jr., Konnan, and even Ruby Gardenia are more likely to represent Mexican wrestling during events in the USA. In a sense, Tijuana therefore could be considered a bridge between Mexican and US-American wrestling, at least as far as live events are concerned.

When Fernando Covarrubias – in the world of lucha libre known today as Ruby Gardenia – arrived first in the Mexican border city of Tijuana in 1991, nobody expected him to turn into one of the most famous luchadores in Northern Mexico. In fact, he had been forced to leave his small hometown in the state of Nayarit after his family had discovered that 16-year-old Fernando had participated in a local travesti [17] beauty pageant. Fernando’s involuntary migration to Tijuana consequently served two purposes: For one reason, it was inspired by his mother’s hope for the child’s ‘coming to senses’ under the control of his elder brothers. And for the other, Fernando was supposed to contribute to his family’s financial outcome by working in a pharmacy, taking advantage of the comparatively high wages paid in the border city of Tijuana (Fernando Covarrubias / Ruby Gardenia 2007, 2010, Feb 2011, Mar 2011).

As Fernando highlights during several talks and interviews, his transformation into luchador exótico Ruby Gardenia would have never been possible without migrating to Tijuana. For one, this rather realistic perception has to do with the fact that in San Juan Ixcuintla there was no appropriate infrastructure to train lucha libre on a professional scale at the time. For the other, the little acceptance of sexual and gender diversity as well as the lack of anonymity in his hometown combined with his own homophobic familiar background had constituted a major problem concerning the public expression of his sexual and gender identity. Keeping in mind his personal development as a gay adolescent and young adult in Tijuana, Fernando therefore traces his transformation into Ruby Gardenia back to his stage activities presenting shows de travesti in Tijuana’s famous gay bars (ibid.). Next I will sketch out Fernando Covarrubias’ transformation into luchador exótico Ruby Gardenia while providing some more extensive insights into dynamics of gender, sexuality, and class in the context of migration and immigrant life in the border city of Tijuana.

Being a rather young city founded shortly after the Mexican-US-American War in 1889, ever-changing Tijuana is highly shaped by its location right at the Mexico-US-border. This possibly shows most impressively in its demographic development itself, which mostly results from work migration within Mexico as well as between Mexico and the USA. Starting out as a village of about 200 residents and currently counting about 1,56 Million inhabitants, Tijuana belongs to the fastest growing cities in Mexico and constitutes the third biggest municipality of the Mexican Republic (INEGI 2010). Among the residents of the city included in the census of 2010, only 47,6% were actually born there (INEGI 2010). In comparison to most other cities in Mexico, due to its strategically advantageous position in the borderlands between Mexico and the USA, the highly industrialized city provides its inhabitants not only with considerably higher wages, but also with several opportunities to work in nearby US-American cities such as San Diego and Los Angeles. Different to the (often illegal) immigration into the United States, staying in Tijuana offers several advantages to immigrants holding a Mexican citizenship: it provides not only a legalized status, but also an opportunity to stick to the Spanish language, have educational degrees earned in Mexico officially acknowledged and not being discriminated against due to a Mexican nationality. Being the third largest city in Mexico, Tijuana furthermore offers a comparatively extensive educational infrastructure providing inhabitants – and especially immigrants like Fernando Covarrubias and his family – with multiple opportunities para salir adelante.[18] At the same time, Tijuana stands out due to its high level of poverty, its badly developed urban infrastructure and a tremendous level of violence shaping everyday life in the border city (cf. Montezemolo 2006, Diaz 2011).

Having experienced its first period of rapid growth during the 1920s and 1930s as a result of the Volstead Act in the USA, the city has always been known for its extensive nightlife and vast sex industry directed to clients from both sides of the border. As a result, Tijuana is frequently characterized as ciudad del vicio (Berumen 2001, Yépez 2005, Monsivais 2005, Montezemolo et. al. 2006). Of course, this is reinforced by the ever-present violence in the city. In particular, the brutalities connected to the drug conflict shaking Mexico in present times have had a considerable impact on Tijuana, peaking in the years of 2008 and 2009. During that time, the city’s population suffered from an excessive risk of shootings, executions, and kidnappings that temporarily brought the city’s everyday social life to a halt (Diaz 2011). Also, it put a temporary deadlock on Tijuana’s entertainment structure and tourism, still intensifying the city’s current economic crisis. But despite of this dire situation, Tijuana has remained a popular immigrant destination ever since the 1920s.

The demographic structure of Tijuana comes along with an encounter of diverse origins, cultures, and concepts of life that strongly inscribes into the city. It is therefore not surprising, that life in the border city provides people with new opportunities to constantly re-imagine themselves and thus, Mexico, in general. In Tijuana, Mexico/‘Mexican’ meets the USA/‘US-American’, oaxaqueñ@s encounter sonorenses, and campesin@s become urbanites (Lucero 2003). Among others, it is for this reason, that cultural theorists such as Homi K. Bhabha or Néstor García Canclini conceptualized the borderlands between Mexico and the US as a culturally hybrid space, where differences are negotiated and new identities/ speakers’ positions emerge (cf. Bhabha 2000, García Canclini 1990 and 2003, Rutherford and Bhabha 1990). But this process of hybridization is not a peaceful one: It does not necessarily erase differences nor create equality. Though often providing upwards mobility, the decision of migrating to the borderlands similar to the decision of immigrating into the United States, does not happen independently from social inequalities nor does it free anyone entirely from hir earlier position in life. It rather opens up new opportunities at a different point in time and space. Making a life in the border city therefore implies a continuous process of self-positioning, self-questioning, and reconsidering. It comes along with a constant struggle for identity and with the consciousness of living in a comparatively violent city holding a horrible reputation on both sides of the border: “Tijuana es una frontera con un fuerte sentido de su propia identidad. Aunque muchos dentro y fuera son de la irónica opinión de que Tijuana no tiene identidad alguna” (Yépez 2005:40). Very much like suggested by Humberto Félix Berumen in “Lenguajes emergentes. Diccionario de tijuanismos” (2010), being tijuanense is consequently not a matter of blood nor of birth, but a matter of becoming. Hence, living in Tijuana in many senses means making a home on the edge: On the edge between Mexico and the USA, between migratory past and migratory future, between reality and imagination. Originating from its contradictory image and ever-changing structure, Tijuana offers opportunities to identify by an ‘as well as’ rather than an ‘either…or’: The border city provides its inhabitants with the possibility to feel tijuanense without completely giving up on their identidades jarochas, tapatías, or chiapanecas. One does not have to cross the international boundary in order to make a home in the borderlands – most tijuanenses already have crossed diverse regional, social, and cultural borders and keep doing so for a lifetime. Thus, living in Tijuana for many people means leading a ‘transborder life’, no matter if they actually have the privilege to legally cross the Mexico-USA border, or not (cf. Stephen 2007).

Very much like its inhabitants themselves, the city of Tijuana continually re-defines itself, thus depending not only highly on US-Mexico border politics, but also on the diverse and often contradictory ways in which it is represented and re-imagined on a national as well as on an international scale. Being characterized as “happiest place on earth” by Krusty the Clown (qtd. in Montezemolo et. al. 126), as “not Mexico” by Raymond Chandler (qtd. in Montezemolo  56), as “a new culture mecca” by Adam Piore in US-magazine Newsweek (2002), and as “ […] tierra prometida de migrantes, nacionales y extranjeros, donde vale mucho la vida y la muerte es un negocio […]” by local poet Roberto Castillo (2002), Tijuana draws its contradictory image from a multitude of representations and reputations:

“Tijuana, in the twentieth century, mutated numerous times from a city of recreation, sex, and alcohol, to a city of migration, drug trafficking, and globalization. If there is something that defines Tijuana, it is a process of indefatigable semantic restructuring. Within and out of the city, Tijuana is signified as hybrid, illegal, happy, Americanized, postmodern, pure myth, new cultural Mecca – and all of this is simultaneously real and imaginary. In its sequence of radical alterations and its diasporic ingredients, Tijuana could be precisely categorized as this: rapidly de-codifying itself.” (4)

Interestingly, Montezemolo et. al.’s characterization of Tijuana seems to reflect very much Gloria Anzaldúa’s famous characterization of the borderlands between Mexico and the USA:

“[…] The US/Mexican Border es una herida abierta where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds. And before a scab forms it hemorrhages again, the lifeblood of two worlds merging to form a third country – a border culture. […] Borders are set up to define the places that are safe and unsafe, to distinguish us from them. A border is a dividing line, a narrow strip along a steep edge. A borderland is a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary. It is in a constant state of transition.” (Anzaldúa 126)

However, the infamous border city, which due to its strong migrational flows is often described as ciudad del paso, is also an attractive destination for gay immigrants from all over Mexico. It provides gay inhabitants not only with a high degree of anonymity differing from smaller hometowns like Fernando’s San Juan Ixquintla, but also with a rather large Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transexual-Transgendered-Transvestite-Intersexual (LGBTTTI) infrastructure.[19] Besides organizations such as the Comisión Cultural de Tijuana, the Fondo de Asistencia para el VIH/Sida, or the LGBTTTI-radio station Radio Arcoiris, in Tijuana’s Zona Centro there are plenty of gay locations including an LGBTTTI-café, a rainbow store, an LGBTTTI-travel agency and a huge amount of gay bars that blend in nicely with the city’s general entertainment structure.  Nevertheless, there are plenty of reports on homo- and transphobic violence in the city (Clark 2011, Martínez 2012, Castillo 2006, Katsulis 2008). As Debra Castillo and Yasmina Katsulis point out in their studies on transgendered sex workers in Tijuana, differences in gender, class, race, and age have a strong impact on the vulnerability of LGBTTTI-people, leaving working class vestidas and transexuals especially at risk. This also becomes evident in a human rights report on homo- and transphobic violence in Tijuana published by the Centro Binacional de Derechos Humanos in 2011. Among the twenty-nine documented cases of police abuses against transgendered people in 2010, most aggrieved persons were sex workers active in Tijuana’s red light district. All of them were arrested -and in many cases beaten up – “por estar vestidas de mujer”, “por caminar fuera de la zona de tolerancia”, “por usurpación de funciones” and “por ser gay” (Clark Alfaro). In consequence, Tijuana’s streets and those supposed to promote security on them tend to be dangerous to LGBTTTI-people not only because of the general violence expressed in the city on an everyday basis, but also explicitly for their non-heteronormative gender expressions and sexual practices. But while several of my interview partners have experienced similar abuses, they state clearly, that in recent years violence against LGBTTTI-people in Tijuana has decreased considerably (Covarrubias 2010, Angelina 2007, Selina 2011, CoCuT 2011, Sergio 2011). And as a matter of fact, all of them agree in generally perceiving Tijuana as a rather LGBTTTI-friendly environment compared to most other cities in Mexico. Indeed, this perception is supported by the high visibility of LGBTTTI-people in Tijuana’s Zona Centro (CoCuT 2011, Covarrubias 2010, Jaime 2011, Sergio 2011, Samira 2006, Angelina 2011, Selina 2011). Part of this visibility, however, is produced by the multiple gay bars scattered all over Tijuana’s Zona Centro, very much shaping the city’s nightlife and staging shows de travesti on multiple scales. In the case of Fernando, especially those venues proved crucial for his further development in the border city.

Gay bars at Plaza Santa Cecilia in Tijuana’s city centre, 2010

As one of the main qualities of Tijuana, however, Fernando names its transcultural and transnational setting, which allows for a broader exchange and – consequently – for a broader range of opportunities for its inhabitants: “Hay gente que llega del sur y Tijuana se convierte en una ciudad en donde los 80% de la gente es de otros estados y el 20% son puros Tijuanenses, gente que ha nacido aquí. […] Yo creo que el factor más importante es que es una ciudad muy grande y que tenemos una cultura de otro país, de los EE.UU., tan cerca” (2007). While the transnational and transcultural condition impacts on several areas of social and political life, it also considerably shapes the reality of Tijuana’s LGBTTTI-people. In fact, at least the central part of Tijuana – which is located right behind the border-fence – offers a wide range of activities for people from both Tijuana and San Diego, and parts of the local LGBTTTI-community have become quite visible over the years:

“Los travestis, by the way, son uno de los rasgos de la vida nocturna de Tijuana. En la avenida Revolución – sí, la Revolución mexicana terminó hecha una pintoresca avenida para turistas – algunos antros tienen que colocar anuncios que dicen “Real Women Here”, y los laboratorios del centro colocan en sus cristales el letrero “Papanicolau SÓLO para mujeres”. En Tijuana parece que nadie quiere ser quién es. En la frontera de Estados Unidos con México todos quieren ser otros. Los norteamericanos quieren tener su fin de semana de transformación mexicana, los inmigrantes, su conversión a la American Way of Life o, por lo menos, al chicanismo. Y si alguien tiene accento chilango o sureño, no se va a acabar la “carrilla”, la destrucción del otro a través del sarcasmo contra su lenguaje y contra su identidad, la autodestrucción nuestra en los mismos vocablos. Aqui no se sabe quién es quién” (Yépez 2005: 39).


As stated by Stuart Hall, Gloria Anzaldúa and Homi K. Bhabha in their influential works dealing with the conceptualization of identities in diverse contexts, identities should never be conceived as fixed entities, but rather as flexible and shifting processes of identification (Anzaldúa 1987; Hall 1996; Rutherford & Bhabha 1990). This is also confirmed by the ground-breaking works on gay identities contributed by Lionel Cantú, Joseph Carrier, and Annick Prieur, who impressively analyze the way in which dynamics of race, class, gender, age and sexuality shape the process of identification experienced by gay individuals in diverse Mexican contexts. As stated by Joseph Carrier and Lionel Cantú, the process of migration furthermore not only heavily impacts on the processes of identification experienced by gay immigrants, but is also itself often related to the individuals’ gender identities and sexual orientations. As Fernando’s example confirms quite clearly, the public expression of gender identity and sexual orientation is therefore highly dependent on each individual’s social context. This not only includes acceptance among family and friends, educational degree or cultural background, but also the economic situation each person faces as an individual.

The fluid character of gender identities and expressions as well as its intersections with other categories of difference shows quite clearly in the case of Fernando Covarrubias, whose gender identity does not exactly fit into normative dichotomous concepts of gender as he keeps oscillating between identifying as a transgendered woman and a rather effeminate gay man (Covarrubias 2007, 2010, Feb 2011, Mar 2011). As Fernando Covarrubias’ biography confirms quite clearly, the open expression of queer gender identities and non-heteronormative sexual orientation is directly related to rejection, social discrimination, and homophobic violence quite often (see also: Cantú 2007, Carrier 1995, Castillo 2006, Clark 2011, Katsulis 2008, Prieur 1998). Within this very case, this becomes evident most drastically in Fernando’s forced migration to Tijuana as well as in his suffering beatings by his own mother and brothers as reactions to the public expression of a gender identity in the limits of what is considered ‘man’ and ‘woman’ (Covarrubias 2007, 2010, Feb 2011, Mar 2011, Pataky 2006). Hence, moving to a city like Tijuana at least partially implied finding a place of sanctuary for Fernando Covarrubias, providing him with new opportunities to re-imagine himself. This not only results from Tijuana’s broad LGBTTTI-infrastructure and its rather LGBTTTI-friendly environment, but also from the relative anonymity the city provides in comparison to Fernando’s hometown of San Juan Ixcuintla:

“Conocí a amigos, me invitaron a salir y conocí a lugares, bares de mucha diversidad. Me contaron cosas que nunca había visto allá [referring to San Juan Ixcuintla]. Porque la gente allá es muy recatada, es más tranquila, que no les gusta mucho ver esas personas. […] En Tijuana, hay mucha diversidad, en Tijuana es común verte! Pero en donde yo nací, no! […] Si tu llevas una cierta conducta de vida y llegas a un lugar con mucha diversidad cultural encuentras el camino a lo que tu quieres ser como persona.” (Covarrubias 2007)

Tijuana’s nightlife and the comparative anonymity in the city, consequently provided Fernando with relatively sheltered sites of gender and sexual experimentation away from the homophobic and transphobic violence experienced through his family. He therefore not only refers to his professional development but also to issues of gender and sexuality by stating: “Tijuana es la ciudad de oportunidades para todo, para que te desarrolles como persona, seas lo que seas” (2010). Very different to the expectations of Fernando Covarrubias’ rather conservative family, he soon discovered Tijuana’s vivid LGBTTTI nightlife and even started injecting hormones, changing his life entirely:

“Viniendo aquí, conociendo aquí, me dí cuenta de que aquí en Tijuana había mucha diversidad. Sabes, para mí se abrieron muchas nuevas cosas. Si vienes de allí de un pueblo, de un lugar muy chiquito, y ves un lugar tan grande… Empiezas a ver muchas cosas, a ganar dinero, a aprender mucho. Y yo me dije, voy a trabajar de travesti, voy a hacer performance. Entonces tenía que estudiar a las artistas, estudiar como son, como hablan, como son sus movimientos. Tenía que aprender a ganarme el dinero. Pero más que nada era por un gusto que yo tenía. Era para mí como un refugio.” (2007)

In consequence, Fernando’s decision to work as a travesti was based on several reasons: For once, it provided him with an opportunity to express his gender identity and sexual orientation openly in a rather safe space while additionally enjoying the comparatively high social status travestis working on stage often gain within the local (and sometimes even national) LGBTTTI-community. Also, it implied the frequent illusion of transforming oneself momentarily into famed female Mexican artists such as Ana Gabriel, Selena, or Mónica Naranjo, enjoying the applause and recognition of the audience. But these and other advantages also had considerable social costs: Due to a profound lack of acceptance of his sexual orientation and gender identity as far as his family was concerned, Fernando started leading a double life in order to avoid physical and psychological violence by his mother and elder brothers. While continuing being the pharmacist Fernando Covarrubias during day-time, he transformed into the travesti Jenny-Fer at night, impersonating female singers on a nightly basis. Nevertheless, the transformation into Jenny-Fer came along with even more contradictions to face in everyday life. Very much like other travestis, Fernando at the time highly oscillated between recognition and envy within the LGBTTTI-community on the one hand and social stigmatization and the already mentioned necessity of leading a double life in order to evade the stigmata related to the profession within his own family and mainstream society on the other hand. Integrating a travesti’s schedule into the life of a pharmacist consequently turned out to be quite exhausting. Partly this was a result of the rather marginal work conditions Fernando faced while presenting shows de travesti at Tijuana’s gay bars. Furthermore, Fernando’s growing exhaustion can be considered a somewhat logical consequence of leading a double-life in order to put up with his family’s expectations and his profession of a pharmacist: “Es una época muy complicada de mí vida, es muy difícil. A veces tenía que vivir como 3 personas diferentes. Porque en el día era farmacéutico, conocía a muchos doctores, iba al banco, tenía una imagen, una reputación. Y después en la noche me convertía en Jenny, conocía a pura gente loca, puro vicio. Eran dos mundos. Y luego era mi familia (ibid.).” In effect, the growing physical as well as psychological pressure of belonging to three worlds at once resulted to be hard to endure:

“Fernando se divertió de travesti, pero el travesti ya estaba cansado. Yo me transformaba en Jenny. Eramos dos diferentes personas. Fer, que nunca llevaba maquillaje, era diferente a Jenny. Jenny en la noche, Fer en el día. Fer tenía que trabajar en la farmacia y Jenny en la noche. Y Jenny era feliz, porque conocía a novios, la invitaban a salir. Y Fer igual, porque eran lo mismo, casí. Pero nos cansamos. Jenny tenía mucho más amigos que Fer. Fer no tenía nada más que los de la farmacia. Y Fer se cansó. Todo el mundo conocía a Jenny pero nadie conocía a Fer. Mis amigos de la noche no conocían a Fer de día. […] Ellos dormían mientras yo estaba trabajando. Yo llegaba cansadísimo poniéndome maquillaje, salía y la gente me revivía, porque es una magia también. Pero cuando Jenny había terminado con Selena yo me puse a dormir, descansando dos horas hasta que me tocó de nuevo.” (ibid.)

During the years, Fernando started consuming drugs not only in order to endure the rough schedule that came along with his lifestyle, but also to put up with the constant physical and psychological stress it implied. When falling in love and getting gradually absorbed by the everyday life he lead as a travesti, Fernando started to retreat bit by bit from his rather exhausting schedule, leaving his pharmaceutic work behind. During that time, Fernando – who by then had also gotten involved with occasional sex work – increasingly retreated from his further social context while focusing exclusively on the life he lead being the travesti Jenny-Fer (ibid.). As a consequence, sticking to this comparatively stressful life was not an option either. Despite of enjoying to be part of Tijuana’s LGBTTTI-nightlife and although glorying in the attention connected to his stage acts, after four years Fernando therefore finally decided that change was urgently needed: “Me cansé de mi vida y quería hacer deporte. […] Y decidí alejarme de esa vida, me alejé de Mike’s y nació Ruby Gardenia” (ibid.).

Like many of his fellow luchadores, Fernando describes his transformation into his alter-ego luchístico as a story of redemption, thus providing him with the strength to give up on drugs and at least partially allowing him to assume a different role in life (Covarrubias 2010, Limón 2011). It is therefore not surprising, that Fernando, wanting to go back into sports again, decided to start lucha libre training – last but not least, because it is usually very accessible to people with a weak financial and social background and often implies a certain social standing (Covarrubias 2007, Feb 2011, Möbius 2004, Levi 2008). His decision seems even less astonishing, considering that – very much like most other wrestlers – he had been an aficionado since childhood (Feb 2011). Attracted not only by the chance to leave drugs and sex work behind while getting into sports, but also by the opportunity to transform his alter-ego Jenny-Fer into someone better accepted socially, Fernando finally decided to turn into a luchador profesional:

“Me encanta todo lo que tiene que ver con deporte! Es cuando nació Ruby Gardenia. Me fascina el show, me fascina el maquillaje, me fascina… Yo quería ser artista! Cuando yo hice deporte me pregunté “Que voy a hacer?” Pero […] en la lucha libre había la línea de los exóticos. Yo tenía que encontrar un deporte donde yo podía ser “la otra persona”, me explico? En la lucha libre hay de todo! Hay plumas, hay… Me quito todo y soy el luchador pero me pongo maquillaje, bailo, beso a los muchachos… Llevé la vida de noche a la vida del día, a la vida de un deportista. Y, gracias a dios, soy un deportista! Hay mucha diferencia entre ser un travesti e ser un deportista. Y pues, si yo te digo que soy un travesti me vas a visualizar que vivo de noche, que tomo, que mi vida es medio de parranda. Era mí refugio. Pero yo siempre quería ser la imagen que todo el mundo me reconociera. Que viera mí trabajo y “wow! Génial!”  (2007)

In consequence, lucha libre provided Fernando with a chance to turn himself into a professional wrestler and to transform his alter-ego Jenny-Fer into luchador exótico Ruby Gardenia. Bit by bit this transformation also affected Fernando’s whole body. Excessive training re-shaped his frame and his movements continually, while he had to give up on his hormonal therapy involuntarily.[20] Having started his lucha libre training still having a very feminine appearance, during the first years he suffered discrimination by his fellow trainees on a daily basis, being forced to proof not only his disposition to endure tough training sessions and bone fractures, but also to speak up to his often homophobic fellow wrestlers (Covarrubias 2007, 2010, Mar 2011). Fortunately, this changed alongside Ruby Gardenia’s growing success as a professional wrestler and with the gradual rise in acceptance of luchadores exóticos:

“Anteriormente, la gente nos criticaba mucho […]. Bueno, eso es cuestión de la misma evolución de las personas ya no como luchador, porque nosotros siempre hemos sabido que somos luchadores al cien por ciento. Y el que seamos exóticos, pues es simplemente una variante, o sea, no estás viendo a un travesti de un bar subiéndose a un ring. Estás viendo a un deportista que se preparó durante su año y medio, dos años, que se preparó para ser luchador que decide ser un exótico. O sea, no somos gente improvisada, somos gente que tenemos la experiencia de una escuela de lucha libre, entonces, por ende, ya nos guardan un poquito más de respeto, porque antes creían que era un ‘maricón’ que se subía a hacer ‘joterías’ y ahora dicen: ‘no, ay güey!’, o sea, es un luchador realmente, o sea, cuando te etiquetan ya como luchador, entonces creemos que ya la gente ya cambió.” (2010)

Indeed, the role of luchadores exóticos has changed significantly over the years. For one, this is apparent in the form of the luchadores themselves, considering that the first generation of exóticos such as El Bello Greco or Gardenia Davis appeared during the 1960s and represented rather flamboyant dandies than drag queens. While mostly re-affirming classical gay stereotypes and exclusively performing the rudo role in the ring, early exotic wrestlers were not gay at all in their personal lives. Just during the 1980s and 1990s the style was changed considerably by openly gay-identified exóticos such as Rudy Reyna and his trainees Pimpinela Escarlata and May Flowers. While still performing exclusively the rudo role and although still being excluded from most luchas estelares [21], second generation exóticos started to celebrate lucha libre as “a means of upward mobility for themselves specifically as homosexuals” (Levi 2008, 155). Nevertheless, only during recent years the exóticos seem to finally gain recognition comparable to what many of their fellow (supposedly heterosexual) wrestlers experience. Thus, luchadores such as Ruby Gardenia recently started performing as técnicos representing ‘the good guys’ as opposed to the ‘bad guys’ and by now are frequently included in luchas estelares:

“La gente está fascinada por los exóticos. A mí siempre se refieren con el femenino. Y me gusta, es una magia, porque a mí se me acercan niñas y dicen ‘Hola Ruby, ¿cómo estás?’ Y yo les doy autógrafos y besos y todo y luego se acercan niños y dicen ‘¡Hola Ruby, qué pedo!’ Y yo digo ‘Hola güey, ¿qué onda?’ No sabe si yo soy gay realmente. Para ellos yo soy un luchador y así les hablo. Vivo frente a ellos la parte femenina y la parte masculina. Así tengo que estar con los fans. A veces hay unos que llegan y me preguntan ‘Ruby, eres niña, ¿verdad?’ Y yo les digo ‘Sí, es verdad, yo soy niña.’ Y luego llegan los niños y dicen ‘¡Es hombre, güey, es hombre!’ Yo les hablo de la forma de que ellos lo quieran. Para que ellos no se bloqueen.” (Covarrubias 2007)

Due to hir status as luchador profesional as much as resulting from hir ambiguous gender expression, Ruby Gardenia consequently turned into a powerful role model for people of all genders while experiencing respect and appreciation not despite of being gay but because of it:

“Yo quería ser deportista y me pregunté ‘Qué hago para que Jenny no se acabe?’ Porque Jenny era yo realmente. Fer era la imagen para la gente, pero dentro de mí existía Jenny. Aprendí transformar a Jenny y Jenny se transformó en Ruby. Y ahora la gente está impresionada porque sé maquillarme, porque en el día me conoce como Fernando. A veces traigo el cabello corto y a día soy como cualquiera persona y a noche – wow! Y de pronto me ven dando golpes y saltando las cuerdas y haciendo mil cosas. Eso es muy emocionante.” (Covarrubias 2007)

For Fernando’s personal life, however, transforming into Ruby Gardenia had further consequences: As Ruby has been wrestling without a mask since 2002, people usually recognize Fernando in the street as Ruby Gardenia, often greeting him as “chiquilla”, asking for autographs, and commenting on previous matches. As a matter of fact, he not only has transformed bit by bit into a celebrity within the local LGBTTTI-community, but also on a broader social scale. Quite different to the cases of most luchadores enmascarados, converting into Ruby Gardenia for Fernando therefore did not mean having to establish a double-life, but rather leaving his dual life behind while outing himself as gay far beyond the local LGBTTTI-community. Though sometimes feeling ‘reduced’ to his alter-ego luchístico and despite of the fact that his family mostly keeps up its contempt towards Fernando’s gayness, Fernando very much enjoys the attention and respect he experiences being one of the most famous wrestlers in Tijuana. Fernando’s transformation into luchador exótico Ruby Gardenia consequently can be considered a strategy to abandon his double-life as Jenny-Fer without simultaneously giving up on the transvestism and stage acts that had grown so important to him (2007, 2010, Feb 2011, Mar 2011).

In this sense, Fernando’s metaphor of Tijuana as a trampoline “que te conlleva a diferentes formas” (2007) can be considered quite appropriate: Tijuana provided Fernando with the necessary infrastructure for his diverse personal and professional projects while allowing for a comparatively wide range of options and alternatives. On the other hand, life in Tijuana inspired him to change his body shape dramatically and in this sense even literally brought him to different forms – not only due to the hormonal treatment he underwent in order to gain a more feminine body, but also during his transformation into a professional wrestler. In consequence, not only his migration to Tijuana, but also the diverse socio-cultural contexts Fernando entered throughout his life in the border city provided him with a considerable range of sometimes even contradictory ways to re-imagine himself. Among those, the transformation into luchador exótico Ruby Gardenia opened up the opportunity to express his gender identity in public space while acquiring recognition and appreciation not even despite of hir gender expression but rather because of it.

“This is Tijuana – This is Lucha – And This is Ruby Gardenia!” [22]

“Lo que a mí me llenaba era Jenny-Fer, pero por la marginación, tanto social, como familiar, te obliga de pronto, por decirlo así, como a matar a Jenny-Fer, entonces tiene que hacer algo que para la gente sea bien aceptable, que la gente le guste, por ejemplo, Jenny-Fer, si va a una reunión dicen: ‘oye, es un hombre vestido de mujer y está agarrado de la mano de ese muchacho’, entonces la gente en México, pues te critica, y te obliga, ahora, si yo voy con mi pareja como Ruby Gardenia, toda la gente dice: ‘ah mira, te presento a Ruby Gardenia y aquí está su novio’ o sea, te ven de diferente manera, entonces, de alguna manera, también yo quería eso, decir, bueno, entonces, voy a agarrar, voy a ser algo, que sea Jenny-Fer, transformado […], o sea, ya no era Jenny-Fer la luchadora, era Ruby Gardenia. Entonces como Ruby Gardenia podría ser Jenny-Fer, sí, bien aceptado, o aceptada realmente. ¿Por qué? Porque estoy dentro de un deporte que me da un respeto, y al mismo tiempo, una imagen íntegra.”

(Covarrubias 2010)

At this point it seems appropriate to get back to the multiple and often contradictory characteristics and representations authors such as Roberto Castillo (2002), Fiamma Montezemolo ( 2006), Carlos Monsivais (2005), and Heriberto Yépez (2005) claim to be essentials of the border city, considering that “la contradicción construyó a Tijuana” (Yépez 45). As Heriberto Yépez points out during his essay “Tijuana. Procesos de una ciudad de ciencia ficción sin future”, among the many possible representations of Tijuana, there is also the ever-present queer one:

“Tijuana es desigual a Tijuana. Tijuana es una lesbiana con cinto piteado, grandes botas, sombrerote y tequila en la mano mientras con la otra abraza a un transexual vestido de Paulina Rubio, mezclada con Mónica Naranjo y Madonna. Pero Tijuana también es ese transexual cuando trabaja en la oficina de correos disfrazado de burócrata normal. Tijuana juega a la baraja de esterotipos. La mascota de Tijuana es un burro pintado con rayas negras y blancas. Una cebra simulada. Su nombre es “Zonkey”. Tijuana reinventó a México y reinventa, asimismo, a Estados Unidos.” (41)

It is therefore not a coincidence that Ruby Gardenia alongside luchadores such as Rey Misterio Jr., Halloween, and Damián 666 participates in the representation of Tijuana within lucha libre on both sides of the border. Representation is a collective process. And this also applies for lucha libre, a highly nationalized cultural practice of ‘staging contradictions’. While hyper masculine Rey Misterio Jr. due to his outstanding wrestling career and his flamboyant mask performs most visibly as a successful and non-assimilated Mexican immigrant in the US, luchadores such as Halloween and Damián 666 very much reflect the gang-characters and excessive violence Tijuana is so (in)famous for. Although Ruby Gardenia is certainly not the only luchador exótico in Mexico, ‘La Chiquilla de Tijuana’ is the only one that explicitly claims to represent a specific city or region. And this is not surprising at all: Ruby Gardenia in all hir gaudiness and gender ambiguity amazingly corresponds to Tijuana’s reputation to be an ever-changing mecca of recreational tourism, an extravagant city of entertainment and kitsch, where queerness and fake are equally part of everyday life as border crossings, gang life, and tacos de camarón.

One of Tijuana’s famous zonkeys in front of the gay bar ‘Mike’s Disco’, 2010
Seller of lucha libre masks at the very border between Tijuana and San Diego, 2010

Within his influential essay collection The Location of Culture (2000) postcolonial theorist Homi K. Bhabha suggests that cultural hybridity opens up spaces of enunciation that provide subaltern subjects with cultural agency. As argued by Bhabha, the borderlands between Mexico and the USA could be considered such “a third space”, allowing for the emergence of diverse and contradictory voices with the ability to inscribe themselves into dominant discourse and the capacity to transform it by doing so (Bhabha 2000, Rutherford and Bhabha 1990). At this point it might be useful to get back to chicana writer Gloria Anzaldúa, who in her influential work Borderlands/ La Frontera: The New Mestiza Consciousness develops her concept of the new mestiza: a queer border subject belonging to different cultures at once that “copes by developing a tolerance for contradictions, a tolerance for ambiguity” (101) and that turns the incorporated transgression of borders into an elemental strategy of survival: “To survive the borderlands you must live sin fronteras, be a crossroads” (216). Within this concept, the queer subject is supposed to be a mediator between different cultures: “our role is to link people with each other – the Blacks with the Jews with the Indians with whites with extraterrestrials. It is to transfer ideas and information from one culture to another” (106).

Within lucha libre, this seems to correspond very much to the role of luchador exótico Ruby Gardenia. Being one of the first éxoticos teaming up with técnicos in order to represent the ‘good guys’ as opposed to the ‘bad guys’ ze transforms into a powerful role model, that due to hir ambiguous gender expression is available to people of all genders. Traveling and performing all over Mexico, as well as in the USA and occasionally working as a lucha libre trainer hirself, ze happens to take part in the representation and re-imagination not only of Tijuana, but also of lucha libre as a significant element of Mexican popular culture. Having transformed into a superhero situated as much in the limits between reality and imagination as lucha libre and the border city of Tijuana itself, ze finally gains the respect and recognition Fernando Covarrubias had always hoped for: “Yo quería reconocimiento pleno. Que la gente diga “Eres lo que eres pero eres un deportista!” Y la gente me tiene en respecto muy alto en el nombre de Tijuana. Así me imaginaba y así nació Ruby Gardenia.”

Ruby Gardenia at the Auditorio Municipal de Tijuana, 2007


I hereby would like to thank Fernando Covarrubias for his openness, confidence, generosity, and – more than anything – for his friendship.


[1] This paper is based on research done during the course of my current PHD-project in cultural anthropology, which is focused on the topic of gay performance art in the Mexican border city of Tijuana. The main research interest of this thesis can be subsumed by the following questions: How does gender in the border city of Tijuana intersect with other categories of difference? And how, in turn, does this affect the city’s gay performance artists and their performances? What kind of impact do gay performances have on the space and society they are presented in? And how do the performances affect the performers themselves? The project focuses on three case studies dealing with travesti beauty pageants, shows de travesti at a gay sex club and lucha libre exótica as performed by Ruby Gardenia. It is scheduled to be finished by the end of the year 2012.back to text

[2] The following description refers to the third match of a lucha libre event at the Auditorio Municipal de Tijuana on April 15th, 2011.back to text

[3] The term aficionado/a is frequently used to refer to lucha libre fans.back to text

[4] The term relevo australiano refers to a fight between two tag teams consisting of three wrestlers each. Both teams are led by a captain and in order to win a round either two opponent fighters or their captain have to be pinned down. The expression a dos que trés caídas refers to a match consisting of two to three rounds. In order to win the whole fight one team has to finish two rounds successfully.back to text

[5] Similar to US-wrestling, lucha libre features two main categories mirrored in the wrestlers’ names, physical appearances, and fighting styles: While the rudos/heels usually feature a somewhat unfair and bold style and therefore represent what is considered to be evil, the técnicos/faces sport a style that is supposed to be fair and acrobatically impressive.back to text

[6] Luchadores usually select a song that is supposed to highlight their character and to be played whenever entering an arena in order to appear in a fight. Ruby Gardenia’s usual theme song is a Latin Lovers-remake of “Dos Gardenias (para ti)” originally written by Isolina Carrillo and performed by Daniel Santos.back to text

[7] The term chiquilla is a diminutive of the Spanish word chica (small, small one). In Mexico, it is widely used when affectionally referring to little girls, attractive women, and female (or, at least, feminine) lovers.back to text

[8] The term luchador exótico refers to biologically male wrestling characters that sport a style considered to be effeminate and/or gay. Wrestling as dedicated as their fellow luchadores, los exóticos often include gaudy dresses considered to be effeminate and gestures regarded to be gay in their performances. One of the key signatures of the exotic wrestling style is the kiss, which in the dramaturgy of lucha libre highly oscillates between being a gesture of humiliation and appreciation.back to text

[9] In order to visibilize Ruby Gardenia’s gender expression and lucha libre role in the limits of what is considered ‘man’ and ‘woman’ I hereby use the pronouns ‘ze’ instead of ‘he’ or ‘she’ and ‘hir’ instead of ‘his’ or ‘her’ (cf. Bornstein 1995).back to text

[10] Within lucha libre, the term edecan refers to the number girls that also accompany some of the wrestlers into the arena.back to text

[11] Since its initial decade in the 1930s lucha libre as a cultural practice has not only turned into a significant element of Mexican popular culture, but has also transformed into a wide-spread and even internationally employed topic for movies, comic books, toys, cartoons, magazines, video games, and fashion while still forming a symbol for Mexican popular culture. Among others, this shows in the Australian/US-American cartoon series ‘Mucha Lucha’ (Mort and Chin 2002-2005) and in the French/US-American comic book series ‘Lucha Libre’ (Frissen 2008).back to text

[12] The phenomenon of social wrestlers in Mexico has been analyzed more thoroughly by Heather Levi (2005, 2008), Mauricio-José Schwarz (1994) and Janina Möbius (2004).back to text

[13] El Santo Sr. (debut in 1934 or 1935) and Blue Demon Sr. (debut in 1948) can easily be considered the most famous wrestlers in Mexican history. Both have not only performed in wrestling matches over several decades, but have also starred in a considerable amount of comics and now legendary Mexican B-movies, successfully fighting vampire women as well as werewolves, witches, zombies, mad professors and other evils. Superbarrio, on the other hand, was a social wrestler standing in for gente de barrio in Mexico City during the 1980s and 1990s. All three of them have been discussed more thoroughly by Carlos Monsivais (2005), Lourdes Grobet (2005), Janina Möbius (2004), Heather Levi (2008), Mauricio-José Schwarz (1994, sole focus on Superbarrios), as well as by Oscar Colorado Nates and Alma Zamorano Rojas (2010, sole focus on El Santo).back to text

[14] Although it would be more accurate to refer to Fernando Covarrubias by using the pronouns ‘ze’ and ‘hir’ in order to pay tribute to his rather ambiguous gender identity, within this paper I will stick to masculine pronouns when not referring to his alter-ego luchístico. Despite of the fact that some people refer to him by using female pronouns, during the 5 years of our acquaintance Fernando and me have always stuck to masculine pronouns in our every-day interactions.back to text

[15] The material for this case study has been collected during my field work in Tijuana, which has been carried out between the years of 2007 and 2011. While especially drawing from semi-structured personal interviews with Ruby Gardenia as well as from field observations, I also include additional sources such as newspaper/magazine-articles on Ruby Gardenia as well as a short documentary on the luchador exótico presented by Tijuana-based film maker Carla Pataky in 2006.back to text

[16] Especially ‘Los Perros del Mal’, a rudo wrestling stable formed by El Hijo del Perro Aguayo, Mr Águlia, Damián 666, and Halloween, among others, features several wrestlers from Tijuana and has strong support among aficionad@s in Mexico City as well as in other parts of the country. Interestingly, most principal members of ‘Los Perros del Mal’ were formerly known as ‘La Furia del Norte’.back to text

[17] The term travesti in Tijuana usually refers to biologically male people dressing on stage in what is considered to be women’s clothing, often in order to impersonate female singers like Thalia or Paquita la del Barrio.  The term vestidas, on the other hand, mostly refers to biologically male people that put on women’s clothing in every-day life without necessarily identifying as transexual. Although sexual orientation as well as gender identities among travestis and vestidas are very diverse, it can be said that most of them identify as gay in a broader sense (Covarrubias 2007, 2010, Feb 2011, Mar 2011,; cf.: Ishalaa Ishalata 2011; Roboam Gonzalez 2011; Emilio 2011, Fidel Santiesteban 2011).back to text

[18] Nevertheless, despite of offering an impressive LGBTTTI-infrastructure for Mexican standards, Tijuana can hardly compete with Guadalajara or with Mexico City, which due to Mexico’s general centralism also features the broadest LGBTTTI-community in the country. Also, for all I use the abbreviation LGBTTTI-in order to include as many gender expressions and sexual orientations as possible, it is important to be aware of the fact, that travestis, transgéneros, transexuales, and gays vestidos de hombrecitos born biologically male are by far more visible in the city than lesbianas, openly bisexual people, or intersexuals.back to text

[19] As a matter of fact, when still living in San Juan Ixcuintla Fernando had to leave school after finishing secundaria in order to contribute to his family’s financial resources and therefore had no opportunity to achieve his high school degree in time. In 2011, Fernando finally obtained his high school degree via second chance education – a system, that is quite new in Mexico and that is still a long way from being provided in Fernando’s hometown. If everything goes well, during the next years Fernando will study at the ‘Universidad Autónoma de Baja California’ in order to become a teacher.back to text

[20] The decision to give up on hormones was based on health issues in the context of lucha libre training.back to text

[21] Every lucha libre event consists of four to five matches, starting witch luchadores who are just beginning their careers and ending with the most famous ones. The term lucha estelar usually refers to the last one or two matches of an event. Until recent years, luchadores exóticos were rarely included in luchas estelares and consequently had a lower hierarchical standing than their fellow wrestlers. Interestingly enough, this is still the case when it comes to female wrestlers.back to text

[22] Taken from the initial sequence of Carla Pataky’s short documentary TJ Bodyslam (2006).back to text

[23] All photos presented in this paper were taken by Tabea Huth during field work in Tijuana (2007-2011).back to text

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