The Sons of El Rey

Image of The Sons of El Rey
Release Date: 
June 11, 2024
Simon & Schuster
Reviewed by: 

“Alex Espinosa has drawn rich, fascinating characters and offers a detailed picture of Mexico at a politically turbulent time and Los Angeles at key moments in its recent history.”

Alex Espinosa’s powerful novel, The Sons of El Rey contains multitudes. On one hand, it is a family saga, particularly of men’s legacies to their sons and grandsons, and of the bitterness of a woman without power in a macho culture, but it is also a story of migration from a Mexican town to the big city to Los Angeles. Above all, it is a tale of the power of that unique Mexican form of wrestling, lucha libre, which gave poor, powerless Mexican men cultural expression and a mythology. Lucha libre is a colorful, spectacular form of wrestling in which the wrestlers wear masks and flamboyant outfits as they enact the battle between good and evil. Putting on the mask removes the luchador’s identity: “Donning those costumes, you literally become someone else entirely.” 

Though the novel moves through three generations, much of it centers on the day of the death of Ernesto Vega, once a luchador and now the co-owner of a failing Los Angeles gym used by poor immigrants. The gym has been mortally wounded by the COVID lockdowns. The novel alternates the memories of Ernesto; his son Freddy (Alfredo), who is dealing with the failure of the business he ran with his father; and Freddy’s gay son Julian, an adjunct professor of composition and a nighttime prostitute. There are two additional voices: Ernesto’s bitter, wife, Elena, who died decades before but haunts Ernesto’s deathbed; and the spirit of Ernesto’s luchador persona, El Rey Coyote.

The story the reader pieces together from these memories focuses on Ernesto’s ascent from poor laborer to successful luchador. His son Freddy recalls, “Lucha libre was his home, his religion, the thing that gave him control.” Ernesto also lived in an emotional triangle. Married to Elena, who wanted the stability of a conventional marriage, he spent most of his time with the man he loved, Julian: “There was no language for what was growing between them. Just a silent understanding that they were different, meant for other things, meant for each other.”   

When Elena becomes pregnant with Freddy, Ernesto acceded to her wish to move to Los Angeles, where he worked in a mannequin factory until he opened his gym. When his son Freddy becomes a stoner, Ernesto, trains him to become a luchador, El Rey Coyote, Jr. There Freddy feels the same liberation as his father. When he first sees himself in the mirror in his costume, “The person staring at me was a luchador, he was menacing. It was like I’d stepped out of my own body, and I was hovering high above, watching myself from a distance.”

Father and son’s career together is brief as lucha libre runs its course in Los Angeles, where everything becomes debased. Ernesto is hired by a taco restaurant to become their trademark, clowning around in his luchador costume. Son Freddy becomes a security guard at a grotesque Hollywood burlesque of lucha libre. The Mexican working man’s entertainment has become a camp joke for wealthy whites. Grandson Julian makes extra money posing as a Latino tough guy to fulfill the sexual fantasies of middle-aged white men. The elaborate masks of the luchadors are replaced by the required COVID face masks.

Grandson Julián becomes obsessed with a photograph of his grandfather as a young man with his hand on the thigh of another man, “Unashamed and intentional. Almost like he wanted someone to notice.” Only Elena knows fully the importance that other man has for everyone in her family. Ultimately Julián, Ernesto’s lover and best friend, has the saddest story.

One cannot help but be drawn into The Sons of El Rey. Alex Espinosa has drawn rich, fascinating characters and offers a detailed picture of Mexico at a politically turbulent time and Los Angeles at key moments in its recent history. In his novel, lucha libre is not only a cultural phenomenon, it is also a powerful metaphor for masculine power as a mask covering complex feelings of inadequacy. Through the rich family saga he has created, Espinosa also explores various forms of male love: paternal, companionate, and erotic.