Lucha libre, meaning “free fighting”, is a form of wrestling that is a staple feature of Mexican history and culture. It is easily distinguishable from other forms of wrestling by the use of colorful masks and high-flying maneuvers, which provide audiences with mysterious characters and exciting performances. Writer and illustrator, Xavier Garza, wonderfully brings the mystery and excitement of the physical display onto the pages of his latest bilingual children’s book, Maximilian & The Mystery of the Guardian Angel: A Bilingual Lucha Libre Thriller.
As a receipt recipient of the 2012 Pura Belpré Author Award, Garza honors this facet of Mexican tradition through the story of Maximilian, or “Max”, an 11-year-old boy from San Antonio who is fresh off his completion of the fifth grade and eager to go on a trip down to Mexico. As a reward for his straight A’s, Max’s father has promised to take Max to witness his favorite Mexican wrestler of all-time, the Guardian Angel – or “El Angel de la Guardia,” in action. Max details his love for lucha libre and admiration of the Guardian Angel, stopping at nothing for an opportunity to meet his one true hero. However, Max’s goal is set back after engaging in a conflict with young female fan after trying to trade masks with her.
After his previous opportunity slipped under him, Max has a stroke of luck as he learns the Guardian Angel is set perform along with other wrestlers in his own hometown. In a desperate attempt to reach his hero, Max tumbles over the railing as the Guardian Angel walks down the runways towards the ring. After the Guardian Angel helps Max to his feet and returns him to his family, Max learns his connection to the masked wrestler is much deeper than he once believed.
As a writer, Garza depicts moments of every match with exceptional clarity. Readers should have little trouble getting lost in the action as Garza effortlessly captures every attack and reaction:
“As she bounces off the ropes, the Aztec Princess leaps into the air and delivers a dropkick at la Dama Enmascarada’s face! The impact sends her flying through the ring ropes. La Dama Enmascarada is furious and slaps the side of the ring apron with her hands. She argues with the ring official, claiming the Aztec Princess pulled her hair. This is an accusation that wins her lots of boo’s. La Dama Enmascarada climbs back on the ring apron and tags in Vampire Velaszquez so she can catch her breath.”
Of the characters embedded within the text of the novel, there are plenty which showcase the variety of personalities the luchadors (Mexican wrestler) often strive to portray. While several wrestlers may seem larger-than-life or silly, Garza makes a point to speak upon the hard work and sacrifices made from many of the men and women who are involved in the performance of the sport. As the Guardian Angel recalls an instance when he once made a critique in the early stage of his career about the authenticity of the sport and the wrestlers , his coach replies, “They’ve all sacrificed for [their] dream. For you to belittle their efforts by making a mockery of what they do in the ring is an insult to them…What matters is that you bring the crowd to its feet, that you make them chant your name.” Max provides insight on many of the wrestler’s backgrounds, such as the Mayan Prince, stating, “The [Mayan] Prince’s face is concealed by an emerald mask adorned with the image of a winged serpent in flight. He proclaims himself to be the living embodiment of Quetzalcoatl, the greatest of all the Mayan gods.” Max defines aspects of the lucha libre world as well, explaining the differences between rudos, the bad guys who ‘never follow the rules’, and tecnicos, the good guys who ‘always follow the rules.’ Garza is able to effectively convey the nuances of the sport while showcasing how honoring one’s history in unique ways is an important aspect of Mexican culture.
An essential feature of Maximilian is that the text is split in two, with the left page written in English and the right in Spanish. Garza’s novel enthusiastically introduces young readers to the world of lucha libre with fast-paced action, humorous moments, charming characters and plenty of surprises that will have readers immersed until the very end.