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When he was growing up in Mexico City, Oak Park social worker Octavio Torres used a Spanish slang expression, "¡que chida!" or "how cool!" to express enthusiasm. Torres and his wife, Jill, an ESL teacher in Forest Park Public School District 91, are big fans of Mexican folk art.
For many years, the two made trips to Mexico to collect painted wood sculptures of fantasy-animals called alebrijes. These lavishly-decorated wooden statues have been made by family workshops in Oaxaca, the Mexican state with the highest number of indigenous people. The Torreses developed a relationship with specific artists who harvested copal wood in an ecological way. They brought the alebrijes back to the U.S., where people would say, "Que chida!"
Inspired by these modern yet traditional artists, Octavio and Jill looked for something else to collect and sell in the United States. The answer came to them in Mexico City, where family workshop vendors craft, by hand, the colorful masks of the superhero-like, high-flying Mexican wrestlers, the luchadores of luchalibre.
Octavio Torres had a special mask created for himself to wear to Chicago Fire soccer games at Toyota Park. This flame-embossed mask had a special mouth hole enlarged to make it easier to eat and drink. When he wore it to games, it caused a stir.
"People were shouting at him and giving him high-fives," said Jill Torres. "Strangers hugged him and asked to take his picture. Fans were asking where they could get a mask just like his," she recalled. Soccer fans said, "How cool!"
Octavio began to sell his masks to soccer fans and the Torreses' company, "KChida," was born.
"When I was a little kid in Mexico City, you would save enough money to go to a wrestling match," said Torres. "It was the theater of the working class."
When he wasn't attending the family-filled matches at a local arena, Torres was watching old movies of El Santo, the caped, silver-masked luchador who became the hero of his own comic book.
"I was always seeing El Santo and the Blue Demon fighting with mummies or witches or wrestling on TV."
Initially, the couple figured U.S. children would wear the masks, as Mexican kids do in the audience at luchalibre wrestling events, but Octavio said adults are the one who have been wearing them.
"It's exciting to wear a mask. You feel like a rock star, a celebrity," Octavio said.
Fans at Toyota Park are seen on the company's website cavorting in KChida masks: "This mask makes me feel invincible!" said one masked fan. "Game ON!" yells his companion.
Octavio had the idea to create masks made of modern materials: UV and jersey fabrics to cool the head and protect from sunburns, sparkly material, spandex. He decorates them with elaborate eye designs and custom patches.
Mexican masks are popping up in American culture. Locally, Oak Park lawyer Tom Benno wrestles, masked, as "Apocalypto" in the Gladiators Azteca LuchaLibre Association (GALLI) in Lombard. Another luchalibre event takes place at the Eagles Club in Berwyn.
Luchador masks are the mainstay schtick of the Nashville-based surf band "Los Straightjackets," which performs twice a year at FitzGerald's in Berwyn.
"Someone even asked me to make a mask for the Occupy movement," Octavio said, displaying a mask with a red fist-patch he called "Democracy Man."
Jill and Octavio Torres started an Indieagogo.com campaign this week to start a fair-wage sewing factory in Mexico City. They are attempting to raise $20,000 to buy 10 industrial sewing machines and bulk supplies of the special fabrics.
Jill teaches English for emerging learners at Grant-White and Garfield elementary schools. She formerly taught English in Berwyn.
KChida partners with mascareros who stitch the masks in Mexico City. "The mascareros are almost all men. It's a skilled craft. You can't just give some fabric to a sewer and say, 'Make a mask.' We tried that," said Jill.
Octavio went to Mexico to look for an experienced mask sewer to help him meet the demand. Although there are thousands of masks being sold on the streets of Mexico City every day, they are all made by small, family businesses.
"There is so much competition that it's difficult for them to earn a good living," said Jill Torres. The mascareros families have been making the masks since the 1930s (when the wrestling style was invented).
When the Torreses tried to partner with a Mexican sewing factory, they were dismayed by the labor practices standard in Mexican factories.
"The Mexican minimum wage is $1,500 pesos ($113) a month," Jill Torres said. "We are going to start paying $3,000 pesos per month, plus benefits, including health care, paid vacation, and paid holidays, etc. Eventually, we would like to have a profit-sharing system."
As a business model, KChida sounds like something out of the satire television show Portlandia, and it's not surprising that the two lived in Portland, Ore., for a couple of years after meeting in Seattle while Jill finished her master's degree in Social Work at the University of Washington.
"Everything on that show about Portland is true," Octavio said without a hint of sarcasm.
For a tiny micro-business, KChida is doing very well.
The couple can start beefing up production because of the masks' overwhelming success at the Advertising Specialty Institute trade show held this summer at McCormick Place.
Their tiny booth was swamped with interest from representatives of high school and college sports teams. Librarians inquired about using the masks for reading prizes. Liquor companies sought the masks to promote specialty tequila brands.
"It was kind of crazy at our booth," noted Jill. "People just kept streaming in to see the masks."
The time seems right to the Torreses to push KChida to the next level.
With help from a lawyer buddy in Mexico City who is familiar with workplace and legal regulations, the couple hopes to raise enough money to be able to create specialty masks to order. But they want to pay the mascareros a fair wage, they said.
"There's a new wave of young entrepreneurs in Mexico who want to reverse some of the old-fashioned ideas," said Jill.
The Indiegogo.com campaign website is: http://igg.me/p/275876?a=1770933. Donors have 30 days to fund the project. Donors get their own luchalibre mask as a premium - with varying designs and fabrics depending on donor level - which could have folks saying, "ÁQue chida!"
"You can express yourself in a mask in a way that you can't do in regular society," said Octavio Torres.