What happened to freestyle? Two kings of the genre still going strong

TKA performing at the soldout New Jersey Performing Arts Center on November 23, 2013. (Courtesy Kay Seven TKA Facebook)

TKA performing at the soldout New Jersey Performing Arts Center on November 23, 2013. (Courtesy Kay Seven TKA Facebook)

Freestyle – the dance-pop electronic genre with an added heap of emotion and romance, was at the height of its popularity in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. The genre, created by Latinos in New York City, continues to be followed by loyal fans today as they flocked to freestyle concerts across the U.S. this year.

After performing in New York City’s Radio City Music Hall last winter, as well as a summer tour on the West Coast last Saturday, more than 10 freestyle performers, including including Cynthia, Johnny O., and Stevie B, sang to a packed house in New Jersey’s Performing Arts Center. Louis “Kayel” Sharpe Figueroa, the lead singer of TKA, as well as George Lamond were also there, and NBC Latino got to catch up with these two kings of freestyle to find out a little about the beginning of the genre, as well as what they’re up to now.

“Kayel,” also known as “K7,” was born in Ponce, Puerto Rico and moved to Spanish Harlem in New York City when he was four. He is the writer and lead singer of the popular freestyle trio, TKA.

NBC Latino: What are you up to currently?

Kayel: Today I have studio time. I write songs and produce tracks that I submit for different artists.  I got into this business to be a musician, so I still crave it and have the hunger for it as when I first got into it. I’m still searching for that next hit, and I’m still in that search, and I haven’t given up on it yet.

We [TKA] perform weekly. The resurgence and popularity of freestyle music has resurfaced. It is feel-good music, and it has some angst. It’s inspiring a new generation to find themselves in music. Today’s music is good, but it’s more macho bravado. TKA, and freestyle music as a whole, still has that bravado, but it is still able to relate to feelings and truth across the board.

I also perform as a solo artist. K7 is more hip-hop based; the energy of both combined together feels very modern.  I have new songs coming out with TKA – still freestyle, but I’m the creature of the times, so when I go in to record new music, I’m not there to record what I’ve already done – I’m looking upwards and forwards. Fans like to come to the freestyle shows, but I’ve noticed that in our community when a new artist comes out in freestyle – there’s not many people that rush to buy it, because radio doesn’t rush to play it anymore. Freestyle went the way of jazz. It’s very rare that you hear Miles Davis on the radio. It’s not as prominent as it was in the late 80’s and late 90’s.

NBC Latino: What makes freestyle so special in your eyes?

Kayel: Latinos didn’t have a voice in hip-hop early on. We were part of founding it. There were Latin groups like Rock Steady – a group of break dancers – but the mainstream wasn’t about to accept us in the market yet. We had to find a way in which we could find our niche in this music…We were dancing to the hip-hop and club music, and we found ourselves starting to write these love songs – then we started to rap over the intro, and sing melodies over it after we sped the record up…Our own community started liking it. They could find their pain in urban living and in falling in love. That’s how it grew. Originally freestyle wasn’t called “freestyle,” the real term for this music was called, “Latin hip-hop,” then it was called “heartthrob,” but it wasn’t name that was cool enough. So when people danced to it, they would say “I’m gonna freestyle.” If I could be frank, we embrace it, but we always wished another name would resurface, because it limits us to a box.

NBC Latino: What’s you favorite TKA song?

Kayel: “Tears May Fall” changed the direction of where our music was at the time, and I also wrote “Maria” and “Louder Than Love.” “Maria” was a combination of two girlfriends I had. They both had similar looks…I was describing one that stayed in my head and haunted my mind. When I sing about the projects, it was about another one…In the song, I had to have a villain, so I chose a drug dealer. When I originally wrote the song, I was arguing and asking, “Why are you dating the bad side of me?” I made myself the drug dealer mentally. One guy who didn’t care and did all this wrong to her. The nice side of me was against the bad side of me. The same thing with “Louder Than Love” – it’s based on a relationship between two of my female friends. They really loved each other but couldn’t be in the same room. One of them is Elizabeth Rodriguez – she’s on Broadway now and “Orange is the New Black” – she was the basis of it.

NBC Latino: What’s one thing people who know you, don’t know about you?

Kayel: I’m the biggest nerd. I’m kind of proud of that. I’m a big TV buff, and a movie guy. I can tell you what’s going to be cancelled before they cancel it. I’m a human Neilsen box.

George Lamond, now 46, started singing when he was 9, growing up in the Bronx, NY.

NBC Latino: What is your favorite freestyle moment?

George: There was a lot of them, but I guess my favorite one is performing in front of 10,000 in Madison Square Garden. There is nothing like performing in your hometown.

George Lamond in 1992. (Courtesy George Lamond)

George Lamond in 1992. (Courtesy George Lamond)

NBC Latino: Why do you think freestyle was a genre so dominated by Latinos?

George: Because it came from the Bronx where the majority of Puerto Ricans lived. Our parents landed in the Bronx for better jobs. Freestyle, for me, is the sister of disco. That’s the best way to put it. I was a huge disco fan when I was young, and a lot of the songs were played at clubs. I saw TKA perform, and that’s how I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to do music at a young age – when I went to see Menudo in Radio City Music Hall, and they started singing in Spanish and English.

NBC Latino: What do you think happened to the genre?

George: It ended because the majority of the performers didn’t graduate to bigger and better things…It just got monotonous and died out like everything else, but freestyle is still living as well, because it’s a part of our culture and lifestyle…We have hip-hop, freestyle, and salsa.

I see a resurgence in salsa now  – a new singer, David Kada, has new record that is doing very, very well. Record producer Sergio George, has a lot of new kids. When it comes to salsa, it’s not going to go anywhere.

NBC Latino: What do you think made your salsa version of Juan Gabriel’s “Que Te Vas” such a chart-breaking hit in the 90’s?

George: I felt a connection to it, because at the time I was going through a really bad relationship with my ex-wife and that song was helping me out. It was a therapeutic moment. I didn’t know the effect I was having on the audience, but they still tell me.

NBC Latino: What are you up to currently?

George: I’m constantly recording and touring a lot. I’m also a dad to a 17, 14, and 7- year-old. I never remarried again. Maybe somebody will want to deal with me one day (says laughing), but I’m looking to put a salsa single together. I’m also releasing a new single called “Brining My Love Down” on Thanksgiving day – this song is another sound of George Lamond – R and B that I’ve been dying to do for my crowd – the people that used to listen to me and now have kids and families – I want to slow it down a little bit. I’ve been doing music for 25 years – it’s my full-time job.

NBC Latino: What is your favorite song to sing?

George: “Without You” – you can hear a pin drop when I sing that song. The title speaks for itself. Have you ever loved someone so passionately and intimately you never want to lose that moment? How do you live without them?

NBC Latino: What’s one thing people who know you, don’t know about you?

George: I’m a great cook. I can make a really good lasagna, and a really good shrimp bisque. I invested in a restaurant once, but I thought it would keep me away from my kids. I grew up without a father so I promised I would never leave my kids alone.

Originally published on NBCLatino.com.

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Latina Leaders: Former intelligence officer in the Air Force pays it forward

Sandra Tibbs (Photo/Kelsey Borlan Lee)

Sandra Tibbs (Photo/Kelsey Borlan Lee)

At 34, Sandra Tibbs already served in the U.S. Air Force for 10 years, and now she is using her experience leading a crew of 1,200 as an officer in military intelligence to empower others.

Three years ago, Tibbs founded Neverest Solutions, a consultancy firm that trains corporate, government, and small business executives to be better leaders. Based in San Antonio, Tibbs travels the country giving workshops and leadership development training sessions which teach conflict resolution, strategic thinking, male-female dynamics, and how women can become influential leaders.

Where are you from originally?
I’m originally from Peru. I was born in Lima. I came to the states when I was 17 to live the American Dream. My dream was to join the U.S Air Force, because the opportunities in Peru in the military aren’t the same as here. I just had a little money my mom gave me, and I stayed with one of my mom’s friends for six months in Austin until I found my own place. My first job was Taco Bell. I worked there while I studied English in order to take the test to enter the Air Force. I joined the Air Force when I was 18.

What was your best experience being in the military?
I didn’t really believe in myself or my capabilities. For me, the Air Force was such a blessing, because it helped me find what I was capable of and people that believed in me. When I was enlisted, I was approached by one of my supervisors, and they thought I should apply for ROTC and become an officer. The military does a great job in investing in the development of their leaders in every level. I was taken out of my comfort zone. I was always afraid of speaking in front of people because of my accent, but part of my job as an officer was to speak a lot to other leaders. It pushed me so I could achieve and grow and have an impact. I realized leaders are not born, they’re made. And I began to think, “How can I help others?”

What were the skills you learned that helped you in your business today?
I was in charge of collecting important information needed for decision makers to make the right decision. You have to think a lot at the strategic level. A lot of pieces come into play to give the right recommendations. We never have all the facts so we have to gather what we have and make an objective, informed decision.

What did you study?
When I was in the Air Force for about a year, I started going to college. I got a bachelor’s in biology, because I was thinking I was going to be a doctor, but intelligence sounded like a lot of fun, so I followed that and got a master’s in organizational leadership. Now., I’m in my third year of PhD studies in organizational leadership.

What is the most important piece of advice you give to your clients?
One of the biggest things is we have to be aware of who we are and what we stand for, what our values are, and what we want for ourselves. Be aware of what we are willing to compromise and what we are not. As we move up in an organization, we’re going to have to make decisions that are difficult. Everyone should have an idea of their ideal leader. When you have that idea of who your ideal leader is, you have to ask yourself what would my ideal leader do in a difficult situation?

What is the most important piece of advice ever given to you?
We are the only ones who can limit ourselves. It doesn’t matter what others say. People are going to doubt you, because they don’t know what you are capable of, but you have to believe in yourself and your purpose. You are going to attract the things that go with you. When you try to be something for everyone and please everyone, you are going to be attracting people that will not be of service to you. If everybody likes you, you’re doing something wrong.

What’s your favorite part of your job?
Seeing people grow as leaders and have them have a positive impact on their organization. I just finished a group training program, and it was priceless to see how engaged those people were. For me to see that, and how they’re implementing the tools they learned, that’s amazing. The things you see in successful leader – they are always learning and growing. They are always thinking, “What can I do to be a more effective leader?”

Thoughts this Veteran’s Day?
I was blessed with the people I got to work with. I learned so much from the airmen, senior officers, everybody I became in contact with in my Air Force career. That is the reason I’m the leader I am today. I admire the people that are still serving. They are the heroes. They make so many sacrifices for us. I just want to honor them – those there right now and those that will come after us. Without them, we wouldn’t have the freedom to pursue our dreams and live the lives we life.

Originally published on NBCLatino.com

Latina Leaders: U.S. Army Colonel’s mission is to help others succeed

Colonel Irene Zoppi (Courtesy U.S. Army)

Colonel Irene Zoppi (Courtesy U.S. Army)

Many of us have high ambitions, but very few aspire to be a U.S. Army general.

That is a goal Colonel Irene Zoppi is striving for next. Currently, she’s one of only 15 Latinas in the U.S. Army Reserve who holds the rank of colonel. She also happens to be a full-time professor at Strayer University in Maryland, a wife and mother of three, and a Gulf War veteran who holds a doctorate in education policy, planning and administration and a masters in business.

“I think that I’ve taken every opportunity given to me,” says the 47-year-old who moved to the U.S. mainland from Canóvanas, Puerto Rico 26 years ago, barely speaking any English. “Often, as immigrants, we don’t get every opportunity so we start looking for them. Once we find them, we continue working at them so we can get ahead.”

As a girl in Puerto Rico, she says she used to wander around the naval station where both of her parents were stationed, admiring the uniforms and the discipline around her. She ended up joining the Army at 19, while continuing her studies at the University of Puerto Rico, because it “had more opportunities for women” than the Navy.

By 21, she got commissioned as an officer and had a bachelors degree in foreign languages – which she calls her gift. She eventually learned five languages and earned the nickname, “the Visa card,” among her fellow servicemen, because she often served as the translator for them.

Zoppi says moving up the military ladder and learning to acculturate to American culture — especially as a Latina — was not easy.

“A lot of time I was put down,” says the tough but light-spirited coronel who admits to having had trouble deciphering English for a long time when it was spoken too fast. That, however, was the impetus for her to work harder.

“The diversity wasn’t there at that time — so it was difficult and a lot of work. I was battling everybody — I didn’t go partying like everybody else so I could do better.”

Zoppi has seen her share of tough situations as she has advanced in the Army, but she clearly believes in her mission.

 ”One of the most impacting moments in my life was being in combat,” says Zoppi who has earned countless metals for her service, including the Bronze Star. “Although I believe in peace and diplomacy, sometimes the ultimate price we pay for democracy and freedom and national defense is war.”

The military first began accepting women into its ranks in the early 20th century. Yet according to the U.S. Department of Defense, as of 2011, approximately 13 percent of active duty military are women.

Today, as a professor and colonel, Zoppi is very motherly and even hugs her soldiers. She says she really cares for them and often gives them advice.

“In order to become successful, you have to know yourself by going to school, taking advantage of career centers, taking personality tests, and then develop a plan — long term and short term,” she advises. Zoppi already planned her life to age 100. “I have created a map of things I want to do, but also remember to be flexible and adaptable and don’t forget to be spiritual and give back.”

The Puerto Rican colonel advises to continue seeking opportunities throughout one’s life.

“Don‘t just do what feels good, but contribute to the good of our Earth,” says Zoppi. “We have to consider each other.”

In order to do her part in giving back, Zoppi often offers her time as a keynote speaker, motivating women around the world. She says she enjoys helping other women, especially Latinas, to get ahead.

“I want to help other women see they can do it.”

Dr. Irene Zoppi being promoted to 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S. Army in 1987. (Courtesy Irene Zoppi)

Dr. Irene Zoppi being promoted to 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S. Army in 1987. (Courtesy Irene Zoppi)

Originally published on NBCLatino.com.

Latina Leaders: From undocumented MIT student to satellite engineer

Diana V. Albarrán Chicas (Photo/Susie Condon)

Diana V. Albarrán Chicas (Photo/Susie Condon)

Diana Albarrán Chicas still remembers waking up at four in the morning to accompany her parents to their job picking strawberries in the fields. It wasn’t easy, she says, growing up undocumented throughout her school career. But she eventually made it to the prestigiousMassachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) — a school she never heard of before her school counselor urged her to apply.

At 31, Albarrán Chicas is the first Latina, and only the second woman, to be a test section manager at the 50-year-old company, Space Systems/Loral (SSL) in Palo Alto, Calif. She oversees a team of 10 who design and build satellites and space systems for a wide variety of government and commercial customers, including DirectTV and DishNetwork.

“During one of the summer programs I attended as a Junior in high school, I learned about engineering and what engineers did,” says Albarrán Chicas, who originally dreamed of being an architect so she could build her own house when she immigrated with her parents from Mexicoat age 5. “I started to learn more and realized what I really wanted to do was engineering.”

If it wasn’t for that summer program, she says she wouldn’t have known careers in engineering existed.

“My parents only finished third grade in Mexico,” says Albarrán Chicas, who was the first in her family to graduate from high school, let alone make it to college. “I didn’t know about MIT until two weeks before the deadline to apply.”

At age 17, she packed up her bags and moved from Riverside, California to Cambridge, Massachusetts to take college courses in electrical engineering and electromagnetic wave theory.

“What I do now is work at the antennae department,” says Albarrán Chicas. “Through the antennae we are able to design how the satellites are going to define coverage on earth.”

She explains that satellites are launched into space and travel with the earth, linked with ground stations on the earth.

“That’s how the satellite communicates back and forth,” says Albarrán Chicas, explaining the full cost to test and launch a satellite is $500 million. “Once we launch our satellites into space, we can’t really fix them. We have to make sure they are designed properly and tested adequately.”

What she says she really enjoys about her job is the ability to be a problem solver. She says she is still is in awe that she is able to work with such a talented team and do such important work.

“It feels great to be able to come in and break some of the stereotypes that Latinas are not good in math and science,” says Albarrán Chicas.  Together with her husband (they met while students at MIT) they saw the need to introduce more young people to science, technology, engineering, math and science (STEM).   The couple created Empower Educational Services last year. “We’re trying to pay it forward in terms of everything we’ve learned — especially in under-served communities.”

She also works with Latinas in STEM, created by a group of MIT alumnae.

“The main purpose is to help empower Latinas to pursue STEM fields and thrive,” she says.  There’s a big push in improving the numbers, but there’s also a big trend in Latinas leaving STEM. We want to address why they leave – and raise awareness of Latinos who are doing well.”

Personally, she thinks immigration reform is definitely needed because there are too many talented undocumented youth in this country with so much to offer.

“It’s such a sensitive topic, because it could have as easily been me not being a citizen, and I can’t imagine not doing what I’m doing because of not having legal status,” says Albarrán Chicas who became a citizen at 21, when her parents were able to get their residency card and petition for her. “Ten years ago, there weren’t any scholarships for people who were undocumented. It was something that you didn’t talk about.”

She says sometimes remembering that time is still so difficult.

“There were some very dark moments — living in hiding for a long time, not saying anything to anybody,” she says. “My parents have been my source of inspiration — everything they sacrificed for my brother and I, I don’t think I can ever repay that back.”

Originally published on NBCLatino.com

Who is the artist behind Mexican skeletons and “La Catrina”?

José Guadalupe Posada’s “La Catrina.” (Courtesy New World Prints Collection)

José Guadalupe Posada’s “La Catrina.” (Courtesy New World Prints Collection)

Ever wonder who was responsible for “La Catrina” and the skeleton figures which are a part of traditional Mexican culture, and are growing more popular worldwide?

The man behind the famous bony cadavers and skulls is Mexican illustrator José Guadalupe Posada.

As part of the 22nd Annual San José Mexican Heritage and Mariachi Festival, San José’s Mexican Consulate is celebrating Posada’s legacy with “El Centenario Posada 2013.”  The free exhibition, which also features the work of artists from the U.S. and Mexico who have been influenced by Posada’s work, opens September 13 and will last through December 30.  More importantly, it marks the 100-year anniversary of his death.

José Guadalupe Posada (right) with his son (left). (Courtesy New World Prints Collection)

José Guadalupe Posada (right) with his son (left). (Courtesy New World Prints Collection)

Known as the “printmaker to the Mexican people,” Posada’s thousands of illustrations ranged from political cartoons to religious art that captured the time in which he lived. Posada’s influence can now be seen internationally, especially in the Day of the Dead imagery he popularized after his death, as well as in illustrations for liberation during World War II, Lucha Libre, and the Grateful Dead.

Sadly, Posada died without an awareness of the influence he would have in the modern art world. He died in obscurity and in poverty and left no descendants.

“‘La Catrina’ we think was created in 1912 — the year before he died,” says curator Jim Nikas, who 70 selected works of 2,300 from the New World Prints Collection for the exhibition. “He would be a graphic artist today — somebody available for hire — that’s what he was in those days.”

Nikas explains that most of Posada’s illustrations were published by the Mexico City press of Antonio Vanegas Arroyo. As a lithographer, Posada made stone and lead engravings which he sketched first.  He then used a chemical process for his final touch.

“Arroyo could use the printing blocks over and over for different stories that he wanted to write or poems of people they knew who had died,” says Nikas.

Nikas likens Posada to icons like Elvis Presley and Janis Joplin.

“The more we look at the work of Posada, we feel the energy of his genius and the collective total of his work gets magnified over time,” he says. “He used the power of the image to change public opinion and to be used in social movements, be it for human rights, or to expose corruption…That’s something that Posada has given to us.”

Nikas and his wife, Maryanne Brady, are also working on a documentary about the artist which is expected to be completed in time for Day of the Dead.

“Skeletons soften the pain of death — people get used to the idea we’re all going into a whole pile of bones and maybe it’s not so terrible after a while,” says Nikas about how he got interested in researching the Mexican artist. “It’s crept into the culture of the U.S. and in Europe.”

Originally published on NBCLatino.com.

Arizona’s newly appointed first poet laureate talks life on the border

Alberto Rios, Arizona’s newly appointed first poet laureate. (Photo/Tom Story/Arizona State University)

Alberto Rios, Arizona’s newly appointed first poet laureate. (Photo/Tom Story/Arizona State University)

Renowned poet and professor Alberto Rios has recently been selected by Governor Jan Brewer and Arizona’s Commission on the Arts as the state’s first poet laureate.

“It’s been a wild ride so far,” says Rios about his life, ever since he got a call from the Governor’s office last week informing him of his new appointment. “It was a special feeling…I grew up in Arizona — on the border — so to be a kid from Nogales, in a state that has so many issues regarding language, and so many things — it’s a pretty good story.”

Rios, has published a total of 10 poetry books, three story books and a memoir called “Capirotada.” His memoir about his youth along the Mexico-Arizona border won the Latino Literacy Hall of Fame Award, and he has also received many other recognitions for his work, including the Walt Whitman Award in Poetry. As English professor at his alma mater, Arizona State University, he reached the highest faculty rank when he was named Regent in 1989, and his work is often taught in college curricula.

“Being a professor, I have a lot to say about who we are, and why are we here,” says Rios, 61. “If it’s so bad, why don’t we all leave, but there’s lots of reasons why we don’t.”

Arizona became the 43rd state to establish a poet laureate, last year, in honor of its centennial year of statehood. The purpose of this position, according to Governor Brewer, is to “commemorate Arizona literary artists whose work and service best represent Arizona’s values, independence and unique Western history and culture.”

Probably few know Arizona’s history and culture better than bicultural Rios – son of a Mexican father and an English mother. Recounting his parents’ love story, he says his father ran away from his home in Chiapas, at age 14 to join the U.S. Army. Eventually, he got a GED and became a staff sergeant and ended up in England, during World War II, where he met his future bride. When he got discharged, he was given no choice but to return to the U.S., and Rios’ mom followed him. They ended up in Nogales.

“Growing up, I had cultures in my house that I wouldn’t trade for anything,” says Rios explaining how they gave him two ways of looking at things and helped him become a writer. “I grew up with an open border.”

And speaking about the “real” border, he remembers the Arizona-Mexico border being more of an imaginary line than it is today.

“You didn’t need papers — the guards were reading newspapers — it wasn’t a big deal to cross the border,” says Rios, also explaining that he had kids in his class who paid tuition and crossed the border every day to go to school in the U.S. “Every holiday, whether Mexican or American, there was a parade.”

Rios says he also remembers, as if it were yesterday, when everything changed.

“It was November 22, 1963 — when President John F. Kennedy was shot,” says Rios, who was in the 5th grade. “One of the first things the country did was close the borders.”

He says phone calls started coming in from parents in Mexico saying they couldn’t pick up their kids.

“I’ll never forget this,” says Rios. “One of the kids who got a phone call started to cry. Then other kids started crying…They had kids on one side of the border and parents on the other side of the border crying. It wasn’t until 4 or 5 in the morning they let the kids go through…For me, I think that’s when the border became something else.”

He says slowly the idyllic, bicultural world he knew became something else. The drug trade started, and people could no longer travel back and forth as easily.

“The border is an uneasy place — it’s more tense, it’s more mean,” says Rios, whose wife is a retired librarian and whose son is an immigration rights attorney.

As poet laureate, he wants to do his part to bring beauty back to the border.

“I absolutely want to talk about these issues – work I’ve been doing my entire life. I’ve always traveled all over the state visiting schools and libraries telling the stories of people’s lives and what this all means,” says Rios. “I try to bring the human side to it all.”

Arizona’s new poet laureate is also working on a public art project and is in the midst of publishing a new poetry book.

“It’s about the southwest,” says Rios. “You have to start somewhere.”

Originally published on NBCLatino.com.

Lucha Libre celebrates its 80th anniversary taking a bite of the Big Apple

Luchadores in New York City on August 21, 2013. Pequeño Pierroth (left), Caveman (center) and Mascara Celestial (right). (Photo/Kristina Puga)

Luchadores in New York City on August 21, 2013. Pequeño Pierroth (left), Caveman (center) and Mascara Celestial (right). (Photo/Kristina Puga)

You may or may not know that the traditional masked Mexican wrestling sport, Lucha Libre, has had a long-time presence in the U.S. in its nearly 80-year existence. It became more mainstream in the U.S. after the 2006 comedy “Nacho Libre,” starring Jack Black, and its presence is only growing. This year, a partnership was announced that will promote Lucha Libre AAA – Mexico‘s largest wrestling league – to the U.S. audience and possibly get a spot on El Rey, a new English-language Latino channel set to launch in January 2014.

This Saturday and Sunday, Javier Clorio, a Mexican-American communications professional originally from California, says he is excited to bring Lucha Libre to New York City in honor of the sport’s 80th anniversary. He raised $5,000 to bring 26 wrestlers from the U.S. and abroad – with secret identities behind their masks – to battle each other (“technicos”/good guys vs. “rudos”/bad guys) to become the star luchador of the Big Apple.

“People around the world recognize Lucha Libre — they go to stadiums, concerts and other events wearing Lucha Libre masks,” says Clorio. “I am also excited, because this event will benefit the East Harlem Business Capital Corporation — they help people accomplish their dream of having their own business by helping them with their business plan…I know currentHispanic business owners who have capitalized from the EHBCC, and I am glad that by doing this event we are raising funds so more people can accomplish their dreams.”

Máscara Celestial (Photo/Kristina Puga)

Máscara Celestial (Photo/Kristina Puga)

The 23-year-old luchador who goes by the name Máscara Celestial is accomplishing his childhood dream of becoming a professional luchador. Originally from Mexico City, he says his parents didn’t believe him when he would tell them he wanted to be a luchador when he grew up, but he’s been practicing since he was 15. Two years ago, he moved to New York to challenge himself to a higher level.

“Life in the U.S. is not easy,” says Máscara Celestial, who works 12 hours per day at Kennedy Fried Chicken and trains in the gym for three to four hours every morning, with only one day off from work to compete. “I haven’t slept for the past three days, but I don’t want to remain stagnant. I want to excel as a luchador.”

He explains he wants his good guy character, Máscara Celestial (“heavenly mask”), to develop a great story line, until his body can’t take it anymore.

“I love my character — a good character in a very difficult world,” he says.

Pequeño Pierroth (Photo/Kristina Puga)

Pequeño Pierroth (Photo/Kristina Puga)

Pequeño Pierroth says when a luchador puts on his mask, he is also putting on his alter ego identity. He was born and still lives in Mexico City, but in Lucha Libre world, he plays a Puerto Rican. His job as a “rudo” is to get the audience riled up.

“I tell them, ‘Why are you proud to be Mexican if you are dying of hunger?” says Pequeño Pierroth, named the diminutive form of a famous Mexican luchador – Pierroth. “Some people really get angry for real.”

He has 21 years of experience in the ring — a few months of which were with the WWE.

“When I was a boy, I was the little one and other kids would bully me,” says Pequeño Pierroth, who was also poor as a kid, selling candy and singing on corners to help support his family. “Now I travel to Madrid, London, Denver, Chicago and Philadelphia…I’m not rich, but I’m stable and happy. I love Lucha Libre — maybe more than my wife.”

Caveman (Photo/Kristina Puga)

Caveman (Photo/Kristina Puga)

Caveman is a 20-year-old Puerto Rican from New York. He trains with a Dominican coach at the Bronx Wrestling Federation.

“When I was growing up, my brother and family watched wrestling faithfully,” he says. “Going into high school, I met a girl and she broke my heart. I went through a depressed phase and almost committed suicide.”

His low self-esteem at the time transformed the shy and timid youth into the Caveman today. He says he let his beard and hair grow, forming his version of a mask. He had the urge to become a hermit, but his wrestling coach made him a Caveman outfit and urged him to keep wrestling as the Caveman persona. Today, he says he easily transforms into his character, pretending to pick bugs out of people’s hair and acting surprised whenever he sees a modern object — the most important thing to him he says is to make his fans happy.

“Now professional wrestling is my life,” he says, although he still doesn’t get paid for it. That’s a privilege that comes once your name becomes known in the Lucha Libre world. “I’ve dropped a lot of things because of wrestling, because it saved my life…I’m actually living my dream.”

Originally published on NBCLatino.com.