Little people in the 'lucha libre' are the main event

Lucha libre referee Atomo grabs Microman, left, and Gallito, turning the tag-team match around in favor of El Perico Zacarias, bottom right, and Mije. Jonathan Levinson for ESPN

Read the Spanish-language version of this story here.

MEXICO CITY -- The man in a red mask with a silver M on the side of his head claimed he's the smallest lucha libre wrestler in Mexico. The 19-year-old measures in at one meter (a little over 3 feet) and he chose a name to honor his size: Microman.

Microman grew up in the lucha libre, Mexico's colorful brand of professional wrestling. His father, KeMonito, is one of the sport's biggest stars, although he isn't considered a wrestler. KeMonito dons a blue, full-body monkey suit reminiscent of an Ewok and has worked since the 1980s as a sidekick, known as a mascota, which translates to English as both mascot and pet.

Microman is following in his father's footsteps, sort of.

He is one of eight microestrellas, or microstars, taking part in a new program in Mexico's most prominent wrestling federation, the Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre (CMLL). Under the microestrellas program, founded by a popular lucha libre star, the wrestlers train to compete at the highest level, deploying turnbuckle maneuvers and aerial techniques; this is characteristic of larger-sized wrestlers rather than mascotas, who are often tossed around in the ring.

"There's people that support us, there's people that like our matches," Microman said as he prepared for that night's 3-on-3 tag-team battle in one of the featured lucha libre cards. "There's people that don't like it, people who simply insult us, that don't like this concept. They say that we shouldn't be here."

Microman said he was proud to be one of the first to bring the practice of microwrestling back to the lucha libre organization.

"I think the importance [of the program] is mostly because this concept was lost many years ago," Microman said. "We're going to keep working hard so that this concept of microestrellas gains more relevancy and support."

Hours later, the crowd roared its approval in Mexico City's cavernous Arena Coliseo, a short walk from the rough Tepito neighborhood where Microman grew up. Microman bounced El Perico Zacarias' body into a handstand on the second turnbuckle and as he was suspended in the air the crowd chanted, "Microman! Microman!" Suddenly, he dropped into a powering butt stomp on the parrot-masked rival, rendering him motionless.

Microman strutted across the ring and swung his hand in a circle, meaning he'd do it again.

Moving to the opposite side, he squared up and ran toward his stunned opponent. Suddenly, the mohawk-sporting referee Atomo turned bad and grabbed Microman by the head, spun him around and launched him like a shot-putter.

The double-crossing ref helped El Perico Zacarias and his team not only win the 3-on-3 match that night but also added insult to injury. The man with the plastic beak on his forehead ripped off the mask of Microman, who quickly wrapped his head in a white cloth to cover his face. Even in defeat, the crowd continued to chant, "Microman!"

In lucha libre, the mask is a staple, and having yours torn off is the ultimate disrespect. If your face is seen, you're never allowed to wear your mask again. Luckily for Microman, he escaped the ring that night with his secret identity still intact. He'd wear his red mask with a silver M again.

'Make them headliners'

Among little people, wrestling is a controversial issue in both the terminology and the role the microestrellas play in the ring. It has been referred to as "midget" wrestling, which is widely considered offensive. The Little People of America website explains that "midget" has "fallen into disfavor and is considered offensive by most people of short stature. The term dates back to 1865, the height of the 'freak show' era, and was generally applied only to short-statured persons who were displayed for public amusement, which is why it is considered so unacceptable today."

In Mexico, one Spanish word is equally offensive in the community.

"Enano," Chamuel said, when asked which word offended him. "That's the only one."

Chamuel, disguised by a semi-evil clown mask, was covered in sweat after winning the match where he partnered with El Perico Zacarias. He'd spent the past 20 minutes trading blows and performing complex acrobatic stunts with other members of the microestrellas program.

Catalina Gaspar, the president of Fundación Gran Gente Pequeña de Mexico, A.C., (Great Little Persons Foundation of Mexico), a nongovernmental agency that works for the rights of people of short stature, explained that the word described people who "were mentally slow in the Middle Ages. They were not little people. They were standard-sized people, but mentally slow."

However, the term became used to refer to people with dwarfism. Complicating the matter is that the scientifically accepted word for dwarfism in Spanish is "enanismo."

"The younger generations already all say pequeños, right? But it's difficult to change a stereotype that during more than two centuries was given to persons of short stature," Gaspar said.

Gaspar's organization is one of 32 in Mexico trying to change the stigma about little people and provide more opportunities for success -- specifically, reforming the law that constitutes people with disabilities to include those of short stature so they can receive the same benefits and support. In the United States, this reform has already been changed into law.

"There's a lot of prejudice. There's a prejudice since the day you're born, you have to struggle against half the world," Gaspar said. "To be accepted by your own parents sometimes, to be accepted by your family, to go out in the streets, to find a job."

She explained that finding employment has always been difficult for people of short stature, and among the few places available to work were the numerous lucha libre leagues around the country. The CMLL's microestrellas program provides an example of the progression of understanding and acceptance in Mexico. As many little people face discrimination in jobs around the country, the program aims to have the wrestlers headline matches, just as their taller peers.

The first bouts involving little people in Mexico date to around 1950, but longtime CMLL commentator Julio Cesar Rivera said there were "very few matches, a sideshow." He acknowledged that the lucha libre had a historic connection to the use of an offensive label because for several decades little person wrestlers were referred to as enanitos until "society's ideology changed."

The popularity of little person wrestling soared in the 1970s, when many little people headlined matches around the country, but by the '80s, their status as fan favorites waned, and the lucha libre organization chose to no longer include them on their wrestling cards. A new practice was implemented in the CMLL in 1988, when a standard-sized wrestler named Tinieblas debuted the first mascota, a sidekick known as Alushe, who later would change his name to KeMonito.

In the early '90s, the CMLL began the miniestrellas division of wrestlers, who were meant to be under 5 feet. However, by the 2000s, the height restriction wasn't enforced; a recent champion of the division was 5-foot-6¾. Those with more severe forms of dwarfism and other conditions couldn't keep up with the speed of the division and worked primarily as mascotas, unable to compete in their own matches. While some less-prominent leagues continued to stage matches between "micros," at the country's highest level they were relegated to sidekicks.

Gaspar lamented what she saw historically as subpar treatment of little person wrestlers, claiming many had been injured over the years while working as mascotas and receiving blows from standard-sized wrestlers, when a typical day's work included withstanding anything from leg drops and piledrivers to being hurled from the top turnbuckle at an opponent.

She wondered aloud, "Why always make them mascotas in Mexico? Why? Why not make them headliners?"

'I get a lot of adrenaline'

Chamuel, the man wearing the semi-evil clown mask, chose to name his wrestling character after a biblical archangel. Chamuel said he always wanted to be a wrestler. He began wrestling at 13, and now, more than a decade later, he has accomplished his goal: "to transmit happiness to the fans" from the ring on the country's biggest stage.

Chamuel trains nearly every day of the week; he's cut, fittingly, like an archangel statue. Still, he recognized a prejudice existed against little people in Mexico, especially an assumption that he has a lower intelligence because of his stature due to the historic significance of the offensive term enano.

But Chamuel said it "depends" on the person and suggested "there's times that they're not educated."

Gallito, or the Little Rooster, said he also has felt discrimination in Mexico. He recalled many times when people have pointed and used the label that offends him, but he doesn't let that hold him back. When asked about being in the ring, the man behind the rooster mask let out a gleeful sigh.

"Uyy, the truth is I get a lot of adrenaline," Gallito said as he prepared for the 3-on-3 match. "I feel really excited to be up there in the ring. I enjoy my work, truthfully. I really enjoy it."

The father of two carries that confidence into his daily life.

"For me, there's no problem whatsoever; everything's normal. I live and work just like people who are taller," he said. "And to me, the entire world is normal. In other words, there is no difference to me."

Gallito got his name because he started his career accompanying the wrestler called Gallo as his mascota. Gallito, 26, wasn't yet alive the last time mascota culture was absent in the CMLL. He grew up in a world where, when he watched lucha libre on TV, he saw little people constantly drop-kicked or thrown around the ring as weapons.

Although obviously rehearsed and planned, the stunts would still be painful. Now with the microestrellas program, he no longer bears the brunt of blows from larger wrestlers and instead focuses on performing acrobatic maneuvers that are difficult for people of all sizes.

'Mexican culture is the lucha libre'

Mascota culture still exists in the CMLL and other wrestling organizations. Probably the most well-known and emblematic mascota in the CMLL is KeMonito, Microman's father. KeMonito claimed he was the first mascota in the CMLL after a period where there were no little people in the lucha libre organization in any capacity. While some lower-level wrestling federations continued with the micro matches, under worse conditions and for lower pay, the CMLL began the miniestrella division.

Since then, he has served as the mascota to some of the most popular wrestlers over the past 38 years and continues to accompany the biggest stars like Místico and El Valiente -- still often being tossed around and struck during the competition.

"That's why I've said for a long time that a mascota is pretty much the same as a wrestler, because he has to endure the same as normal wrestlers," KeMonito said. "And the micros, well they are all about the same size. It's quite different than with the big guys."

KeMonito portrayed an unflinching demeanor and minimized the pain he'd experienced in the ring. The only part of his body visible underneath the furry suit were his eyes; they were surrounded by crow's feet and gave away the years he'd spent behind the mask.

"Well, throughout time, there have been a lot of heavy blows, but nothing that we could say is too serious. Although, yes, there are injuries and all that, but not that serious," he said.

Many of the heaviest blows KeMonito sustained came from the founder and trainer of the microestrellas program. A long-running storyline existed for years where KeMonito battled with the wrestling stable Los Guerreros del Infierno, or the Warriors from Hell, and especially their leader, Ultimo Guerrero -- the Ultimate Warrior. An infamous GIF of Ultimo Guerrero slide-booting KeMonito out of the ring is widely used in Mexican text messages and social media. Outside of the ring, though, KeMonito and Ultimo Guerrero were good friends.

Ultimo Guerrero explained that he founded this program because his old buddy KeMonito approached him with a question about his son.

"[KeMonito] told me that [his son] liked wrestling and [asked] if I could help to train him, so I said, 'Well, yeah, send him to me,'" Ultimo Guerrero said at an afternoon training session he was leading with several microestrellas. "And I started to see that he had a lot of ability, that he really liked to wrestle, but he didn't want to be a mascota, he wanted to be a wrestler. So I said, 'It's just a little difficult for me because it's only you.'"

KeMonito's son began to train with Ultimo Guerrero, and it turned out many other young mascotas such as Gallito and Chamuel had similar dreams. Ultimo Guerrero said he felt very satisfied watching the fans shout the names of the microestrellas and cheer during the matches, especially when they cheered the name of KeMonito's son, "Microman, Microman, Microman."

"They can be idols, they can be stars in the lucha libre and they can become part of Mexican culture, because Mexican culture is the lucha libre," Ultimo Guerrero said.

On April 30, the night after his mask was unceremoniously torn off, Microman went to Arena Mexico, lucha libre's main venue, ready for revenge. He competed in a Torneo Cibernético, a complex eight-person, elimination-style, tag-team match against the other microestrellas.

It was the one-year anniversary of the microestrellas program, and at the end of the match, only one man was left standing -- Microman -- and the crowd chanted his name.

Microman explained that his father didn't mind that his luchador idol was La Mascarita Sagrada, the most popular miniestrella of the '90s and 2000s, who wrestled not just in the CMLL, but also in the United States for the WWE.

"I also admire my father for enduring so many years, for receiving blows from normal-sized wrestlers. That's a thing that we don't have to deal with, because everything is with wrestlers of our size," Microman said. "He supports me, he gives me tips and I take those into account very much, and I thank him for that."

Microman paused while considering if there was a word that offended him.

"Mmmm, well I don't think so. I think since I was a kid my dad helped me a lot to not pay attention [to] what people could say to us, not to take it to heart. At the end of the day, nobody is going to make everybody happy," he said.

Microman is finally able to wrestle in the same league in which he watched his father on television. He doesn't care if people judge him or his work. He's living his dream.

"And that is to be respected because there are always going to be people who don't like our work, and perfect, no problem."