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Uncovered: Masks That Reveal Who We Are, a guest post by Matt Wallace

In another time I might have started this by asking if you, the reader, have ever worn a mask, perhaps for Halloween or to a masquerade-themed party. That is, of course, an irrelevant question. It’s even a laughable one at this point. We all wear masks now, some of us more stringently than others. Of course, for folks from certain cultures and countries, wearing a mask for public health reasons is nothing new or particularly shocking. It is, in fact, entirely commonplace for many. For others, masks have been and are a major adjustment. Some of us react more reasonably than others to this adjustment.

It didn’t really hit me that I have a novel coming out featuring a largely masked protagonist and the extra significance of that in the year 2021 until I sat down to compose this essay. I looked at the cover of my debut middle-grade novel, BUMP, and the face of the young girl smiling through the mask she wears, perfectly and joyously depicted by artist Kat Fajardo. I started thinking about what that character’s mask means, both to her and in a much larger sense.

It is a strange time to write about wearing masks, to say the least. However, it may also be the perfect time to examine and explore what masks mean to us, in different ways and different cultural contexts. We often use “wearing masks” as a metaphor for hiding one’s true self, either out of fear, insecurity, necessity, or even duplicity. These connotations give the very idea of masks, especially as an everyday fixture, an already negative foundation before we even get into the larger issues surrounding them today.

I was raised to view masks very differently. I was raised on professional wrestling, both the American style and the quintessentially Mexican style known as lucha libre. The enmascarado is the particular variety of Mexican wrestler, or luchador, who dons an often colorful mask, or máscara, as the central symbol and costume of their wrestling persona. These masks can draw a direct line and lineage back to the time of ancient Aztec warriors. They have been and are used to represent animal essences, gods, heroes, and heroines. Traditionally, the enmascarado not only wrestles in their mask, they live their entire public life inside that mask. It is inseparable from their identity. It even becomes the public identity of entire families and generations, often handed down from parent to child along with the corresponding ring name. To lose one’s mask is the ultimate disgrace.

In BUMP, the protagonist, MJ, is a young girl who is dealing with grief and feelings of total isolation. She’s lost her main connection to what she perceives as her identity, and what’s left of that sense of self is derided every day by bullies at school. She is given the máscara of a fallen luchador to wear as her own, along with their name. The mask gives her a new sense of identity. It does not replace who she is, but reinforces and gives her a new outlet for her self. It also inducts her into a community of like-minded individuals who become her new family. The mask and the persona it represents allows her to become more than she ever thought she could be.

Returning to the cover I mentioned, it was so important to all of us to depict MJ smiling as she flies through the air above the wrestling ring, to really see the joy she’s taking in what she’s doing and who she is and also who she is becoming. It was important to me for children of color, particularly little girls like my nieces, to see a character like that, to see themselves reflected in it. MJ’s mask doesn’t inhibit that, it amplifies it in a very special way. It’s a symbol of culture and heritage and belonging. It’s the garb of a warrior who is larger than life. It is equal parts superhero cape and flag.

More people could learn from that, especially at a time when masks are vital to public health, safety, and even survival. They could learn that a mask is not inherently a way to stifle or hide one’s identity, or restrict their freedom of expression and choice. In fact, choosing a mask can be a liberating experience. It can be opting into a culture of solidarity and celebration. It can enhance and clarify one’s own identity in a million different ways and with a million different individualistic shades. The right mask doesn’t cover up who you are, it announces it to the world.

Luchadores wear their masks proudly. Every day, they strive to be the kind of people who earn the masks they wear, because those masks are a symbol of what is best in all of them.

Meet the author

Matt Wallace is the Hugo–winning author of Rencor: Life in Grudge City, the Sin du Jour series, and Savage Legion. He’s also penned over one hundred short stories in addition to writing for film and television. In his youth he traveled the world as a professional wrestler, unarmed combat, and self-defense instructor before retiring to write full-time. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Nikki. You can visit him at www.matt-wallace.com.

About Bump

A moving and triumphant middle grade contemporary debut from award-winning author Matt Wallace about a heroic young girl—who dreams of becoming a pro wrestler—learning to find courage and fight for what she loves. Perfect for fans of Kelly Yang, Meg Medina, and Jason Reynolds’ Track series!

MJ knows what it means to hurt. Bruises from gymnastics heal, but big hurts—like her dad not being around anymore—don’t go away. Now her mom needs to work two jobs, and MJ doesn’t have friends at school to lean on.

There is only one thing MJ loves: the world of professional wrestling. She especially idolizes the luchadores and the stories they tell in the ring. When MJ learns that her neighbor, Mr. Arellano, runs a wrestling school, she has a new mission in life: join the school, train hard, and become a wrestler.

But trouble lies ahead. After wrestling in a showcase event, MJ attracts the attention of Mr. Arellano’s enemy at the State Athletic Commission. There are threats to shut the school down, putting MJ’s new home—and the community that welcomed her—at risk. What can MJ do to save her new family?

ISBN-13: 9780063007987
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 01/26/2021
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years