Professional wrestling is undoubtedly one of the most widely denigrated forms of entertainment out there, endlessly ridiculed as being juvenile, violent and just generally idiotic. The thing is, it’s kind of hard to argue with that assessment. In the end, though, it doesn’t really matter much whether it’s real or fake, and it makes some sense when fans say they enjoy the outsized characters and the athleticism (hey, to each his own right?), but the whole endeavor just seems almost irredeemably corny. Still, even if it’s a kind of a low rent area of popular culture, its biggest stars can sometimes transcend the confines of the ring, become something more than just a wrestler. That said, Hulk Hogan or Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson making the jump from wrestling to acting seems almost pathetic compared to the extracurricular activities of El Santo, Mexico’s most famous luchador. Beyond simply being the standout among a host of colorful contenders, El Santo was a national icon, more myth than man. In much the same way pro wrestling blurs the line between reality and fantasy, he was about as close to being an actual superhero as anybody could hope to be, becoming an enduring symbol that continues to live on even after his death.
The man who would become the silver-masked El Santo was born Rodolfo Guzmán Huerta on September 23, 1917 in Hidalgo, Mexico. Always an athlete, Huerta excelled at baseball, American football and Ju Jitsu before beginning his wrestling career around age 18 (the exact date of his professional debut is unclear). His entry into the ring more or less coincided with lucha libre’s breakthrough from imported regional pastime to national phenomenon, and he cut his teeth in the nascent industry playing a variety of different, largely unremarkable, characters. For years he was just another masked fighter, working regularly, but only one of many young upstarts trying to make a name for themselves. That changed in 1942, when his manager tapped him to be part of a new team of wrestlers, bestowing upon him the El Santo moniker and the metallic mask that would be his identity for decades to come.
That’s an unassuming origin story for a budding folk hero, but in any case the change triggered something in Huerta. He took the opportunity to reinvent himself as a populist crusader for the common man (think “Truth, Justice and the Mexican Way”), with a fully developed fighting style to match, and quickly set about working his way toward national titles. It may be a little hard to understand from an American perspective, but the transformation was more than just a costume change, it was an incredible commitment. For all intents and purposes, Huerta no longer existed, there was only El Santo. When a match ended, the mask remained firmly in place, and he went to great lengths to protect his secret identity. “[El Santo] wasn’t just a fictional character, he was an actual person…” explains expert David Wilt. “Whenever he was in public he always wore his mask. He had different masks for different occasions. When he had to eat he had a mask with the chin cut away, you couldn’t eat with the small hole in his mask.” The air of mystery wasn’t just for the public either, whenever he travelled for work, he arrived at customs ahead of time so that even crew members remained in the dark as to what he actually looked like.
The heroic figure was a hit, and by 1952, Santo was the star of his own comic book, extending his brand beyond the world of wrestling for the first time. His larger than life persona became even more fantastic, since in addition to besting opponents in the ring, Santo used an array of newfound powers to battle supernatural baddies of every stripe, including famous monsters ripped off from Hammer Horror films and, in one instance, the four horsemen of the apocalypse. The comic was done fumetti-style, with photographs of El Santo (or, once the publishers lost access to the real deal, a stand-in) which were arranged and combined with illustrations to tell the story. The series ran for over 35 years, outliving the man himself, and was immensely popular; at their height they were published three times a week, with each installment selling over a half a million copies. Unfortunately, even though the sheer number of issues printed and sold was nothing short of mind-boggling, only a precious few copies survive, thanks mainly to shoddy, cut rate printing and binding. Today even reprints are hard to come by, as much of the original artwork was scrapped as soon as it was no longer needed.
It was the unstoppable popularity of the comic book titles that led Santo to make the leap to movies, having turned down film work in the past because he wasn’t convinced it would be commercially viable. When he finally relented, they confusingly didn’t capitalize on his by now well-established wrestler-by-day/crime-fighter-by-night image, instead inserting him into supporting roles where he wasn’t even referred to by name. It wasn’t until his third feature, Santo contra los Zombies that they embraced the legend and put El Santo center stage. That film set the formula for most of the 50 odd movies he made over the course of his prolific career, unashamedly campy, lovably cheesy B-movies in which Santo spent his free time between bouts dispatching Martians, mummies, vampires and other fantastic terrors. Typical of the Mexican cinema of the day, the horror/sci-fi action was cut with elements from a variety of genres, often detouring into romantic melodrama, broad comedy and kooky musical numbers. With the help of schlock-film producer K. Gordon Murray, the films became staples of late-night TV in the US, where they were badly dubbed into English and the El Santo character was somewhat bafflingly Anglicized as Samson (what was wrong with “The Saint,” I couldn’t tell you).
Trying to contextualize the characters' phenomenal success for English speaking audiences often involves comparisons to looming patriotic symbols like Babe Ruth or John Wayne, but in all honesty, there really isn’t an appropriate American analogue for El Santo. His commitment to the character often made it hard for fans, especially the countless children who adored him, to differentiate between the real and the imaginary, as the El Santo that they saw in the movies, in the pages of comics or in the ring was always the same person. Whether he was fighting zombies or opening a supermarket, he was always El Santo, existing in flesh and blood as well as in flights of fantasy. Shortly after his retirement from the ring in 1982 however, after decades of hiding his identity behind la máscara de plata, Santo shocked television viewers by momentarily revealing his face on the Mexican talk show Contrapunto . Many interpreted the move as a way of saying goodbye to his loyal fans, for within a week, El Santo was dead.
But that’s not entirely accurate, as it was Rodolfo Huerta who had passed, not El Santo. Not long after the funeral, when thousands of fans choked the streets of Mexico City hoping to catch a glimpse of the procession (he was entombed, as per his wishes, with the mask on) it was announced that his son would carry on his legacy, donning the trademark silver disguise as El Hijo del Santo, literally “the Son of Santo”. According to the story (or maybe legend is a better word since the facts are appropriately apocryphal) the elder El Santo passed the torch on his deathbed, a mantle his son accepted, vowing solemnly that he would never be defeated and unmasked. Whatever the truth of the matter, the new El Santo is almost as beloved as the original, with many drawing little distinction between the two. The craze for luchador exploitation films may have long since faded, but the vast El Santo canon is still constantly rerun on Mexican television, leading younger fans to believe there was only ever one man under the mask. Mere mortals are destined to perish, but myths live on forever; even if they are wrestlers.