When Jorge Vega first started his Latin metal band, Savage Machiine (aka Maquina Salvaje) in 2004, he found it was a hard sell. People didn't understand the brand identity. They couldn't see anything specifically "Mexican" in Vega's rumbly guitar riffs, Steve Lynch's teeth-chattering basslines, or Tony Garcia's ever-accelerating drumbeats. They didn't understand the superfluous "I" in "Machiine" — which, Vega said, places emphasis on the "machismo" aspect of "machine," and also looks more like the average Spanish speaker's pronunciation of the English word ("mah-cheeene," he said). Even Vega's close friends dissed the band's culture-affirming politics, arguing that if Vega wanted his band to be Mexican, perhaps he should just call it — in the words of one detractor — "Metal Maracas."
Then Vega got his first luchador mask. Suddenly, the whole thing made sense.
Vega's first mask was actually a replica of the one worn by Mexican wrestler Mil Mascaras, one of three luchadores who Vega worshipped with an almost religious fervor (El Santo and Blue Demon were the other two). He started wearing it to shows, and it gave him the same aura of mystery that surrounds any high-profile luchador or superhero. "It's like Batman, where you don't really know who's behind the mask," said wrestling promoter Jesus Cruz, who runs a Bay Area-based Mexican wrestling league called Promo Califa, and cross-promotes with Savage Machiine. "It draws more attention. When you see a guy in a mask, you wonder who he is and why he's wearing a mask."
Vega went through several replica masks before his mother finally sewed him an original, which he later swapped for the snazzy "S&M" mask he currently wears. Custom-made in Mexico, it has a Cubist "MS" above the left eye (for "Maquina Salvaje") and "SM" above the right eye (for "Savage Machiine)," which are supposed to be mirror images of each other (showing that there are, indeed, instances in which Spanish and English appear symmetrical). The letters taper off in a jagged zig-zag that cuts down Vega's cheeks.
Not surprisingly, the mask conferred on Vega a kind of superhero status. Vega exacerbated it by rechristening himself "the Legend," a name derived from an incident at one of Savage Machiine's gigs in Brentwood. A stranger came up to Vega after the show, pointed at the singer and announced, "I know that guy. He's a legend. Nobody messes with him." It turned out the stranger had actually gone to high school with Vega, and remembered a gladiatorial wrestling match in which Vega triumphed, but dislocated an elbow. Much to everyone's amusement, the name stuck. Pretty soon people began to expect a certain amount of pageantry to go along with the Legend moniker. If Vega didn't come onstage wearing a mask, they'd get pissed.
It's no surprise that the members of Savage Machiine instantly hit it off with wrestling promoter Cruz after meeting him last year at a show in San Francisco. Cruz is a 27-year-old Chicano metal head who grew up in Mexico and the South Bay. He enjoys aggressive forms of music (which, in his book, means a little bit of everything "except country and jazz"), wears commando boots, and can deliver a good marketing pitch in both English and Spanish. Cruz laughs that the English translation of his name is "Jesus Christ," since he's "far from being religious." He launched his wrestling league in 2003 by putting an ad for wrestlers in the San Jose Spanish-language newspaper Galardon Musical. Cruz left his phone number under the name "Promociones Califas," which he'd coined on the spot. The following week he got no less than twenty calls.
Since then, Cruz has put on wrestling matches throughout California. His fifteen-man team includes Roquero del Diablo ("Devil Rocker"), Chupacabras, (a character spawned from a mythical beast that sucks the blood of goats), Shogun (whose dragon uniform and ying-yang signs are supposed to resemble a Japanese warrior), and, most recently, Supercapirucho, who wears a clown suit. The wrestlers practice Friday nights and Sunday afternoons at a warehouse in Fremont that's decorated with wrestling marquees and reeks of cologne. In the center lies a large boxing ring that rattles when the players flip from the ropes and crash-land, usually on their backs, and usually with such a powerful thud that you can almost hear the splintering of vertebrae.
Cruz's latest brainchild is a combination metal show and Mexican wrestling match, starring Savage Machiine and 22 luchadores. He'll have the band play for ten-minute snatches between rounds to pump up the crowd, and perform their song "Roquero" to mark the entrance of Roquero del Diablo ("Roquero" wasn't intended as a wrestling theme song, but when Cruz first heard it, he wanted to co-opt it immediately). He thinks it will be a winning combination, partly because the wrestlers and the band share a fan base, and partly because metal and wrestling have the same witches' coven mentality — the luchadores' wives have to stand outside during practices, because apparently, what they do is top secret. But mostly because a band that's built around Lucha Libre iconography really lends itself to, well, the wrestling circuit.
Cruz invited Savage Machiine to a recent Sunday practice and three band members arrived just as Shogun was hurling himself across the ring. Vega, who did a little collegiate wrestling before devoting himself wholeheartedly to his power trio, put his mask on and did a couple summersaults. Cruz explained the fine points of the game: that it's set up as a bout between a good guy (técnico, so-called because he's better at high-flying stunts), and a bad guy (rudo, so-called because he'll try to pull your mask off or kick you in the nuts); that the audience has to approve of such designations ("If he's a good guy and everybody's booing him, he has no choice but to turn on the B-Boy and be a bad guy"); that yes, when you fall on this padded-plywood ring, the shit hella hurts.
Shogun concurred. After about half an hour of self-flagellation he removed his mask, revealing the thick mass of scar tissue cross-hatched on his forehead. He said that during a recent bout an opponent flung a chair at him, and it split his flesh on impact.
Well? Is it painful? Sí, he says. Doloroso. Okay, por que lo haces, then? Shogun smiles. He's wrestled for fifteen years, gotten scraped up and battered, even broken a collar bone. His reason for soldiering on would make very little sense to the average person. To a Lucha Libre fan, or any metal singer who would give his band an extra "I" for "machismo," it's blatantly obvious: Adrenalina!