Of all the wrestlers who live in our hearts and imagination, El Santo is the most mysterious and heroic.
We’re at a time when everything is all about great and sophisticated superheroes. We’ve devoted more than a decade to a franchise of these characters mainly because they appeal to our basic human need for idealistic figures that can rescue us from the terrible world we’re living. What do these characters have that makes them so appealing? Their great superpowers, their touching and inspiring backstories, their ability to defeat evil? Their humanity? Perhaps the right answer is all of the above, but it’s also true that what captivates us the most about superheroes is their impressive superpowers. Now, what if I told you that there was once a great hero who defeated monsters, mummies, vampires, evil scientists, secret agents, and zombies, using only his bare fists?
Even if you don’t know who I’m talking about, I can assure you you’ve seen him or a reference to him at least once in your life. The most recent one was in Disney’s Coco, where he makes a hilarious cameo, but the most recognizable thing you’ve probably seen him in is in pictures or his iconic silver mask. Even though he passed away more than three decades ago, he’s still considered one of Mexico’s best heroes and a true cultural icon. “El Santo, el enmascarado de Plata” (roughly translated as “The Saint, the Silver-Masked Man”) is one of those legendary characters who have inspired generations and continues captivating audiences throughout the world, but who was this man, and how did he become such an important emblem of Mexican culture?
Born in 1917, Rodolfo Guzmán Huerta was the fifth of seven children. When he was just a kid, his family moved to Mexico City to a very poor, working-class neighborhood. From a very early age, he was passionate about sports, often practicing baseball and football until he discovered wrestling and Jiu-Jitsu. Little else is known about his early years, but by the second half of the 1930s he was already working as a professional wrestler, a sport often seen as a form of entertainment in Mexico, best known as “lucha libre.” Although he had a really good technique and won many of his matches, something wasn’t clicking with the audience, and his career wasn’t going anywhere.
It all changed in 1942, when an important manager invited him to join a new wrestling team where all the members would wear silver costumes, which would become their signature look. Knowing that he had to have a great name that stuck in the minds of the audience, the manager proposed three simple yet meaningful names: El Santo (The Saint), El Diablo (The Devil), and El Ángel (The Angel). The first proved to have much more impact than the other ones, so with a new image and a cool name, El Santo was determined to conquer the ring.
He focused only on wrestling for about a decade and became quite a popular figure, to the point that, in 1952, a comic book inspired by his image appeared in weekly publications (which actually ran for 35 years). What was so impressive about El Santo, besides his abilities, was the mysterious vibe of his image. One of the main traditions in lucha libre is that the mask represents the wrestler’s dignity. If your opponent beat you and took off your mask, it was seen as the worst humiliation ever. However, El Santo took things further since he would use his emblematic silver mask even in private moments. It’s even said that he would travel alone so that his team wouldn’t see his face in case he needed to take the mask off when passing the security checkpoint at airports.
That same year, 1952, he had one of the most memorable matches of his career. He fought against Los Hermanos Shadow (The Shadow Brothers), formed by Black Shadow (who he defeated) and his brother Blue Demon, who swore revenge on the ring and led to the most epic feud of this time. El Santo was already seen as a local hero who fought against evil in the ring, but his real breakthrough happened in 1961, when the movie El Santo vs. The Zombies was released. He was a legendary wrestler by day and a superhero by night. His movies were such a hit in Mexico that they basically created a whole new genre known as “cine de luchadores.”
Throughout his career, he made 52 movies that followed the aesthetic of classic B-movies, but filled with folkloric elements that the audience loved. In these movies, he would fight against and defeat all sorts of supernatural creatures (including many classic gothic characters), evil scientists, secret agents, criminals, and many other villains, with his bare fists. Of those 52 movies, only four of them were dubbed into English and screened in the US under the name of Samson, including what’s considered a masterpiece of the genre, El Santo Vs. Las Mujeres Vampiro (Samson vs. the Vampire Women).
This movie, besides the classic action sequences that characterized his films and better production, offered a background story of the character that made him seem deeper and more serious than before and ended up consecrating him as one of the most important icons of modern Mexican culture. His films in general, and this one in particular, as it happens often with B-movies, had something kitschy about them that turned them into cult classics; in France, for instance, they became a huge success, and they even made it to the prestigious Cahiers du cinema, the film critic magazine.
To this day, El Santo is still considered one of those characters that represent the attitudes, customs, and traditions of Mexican culture. He followed the morals and values of his time, including a fervent religious faith; he imparted the justice so longed for by the population; and he preserved our traditions. But more importantly, he inspired generations who saw in the mysterious masked wrestler a human being with origins as humble as theirs, with dreams and longings like them, and with a strength many aspired to. That’s what El Santo represents, and what no other wrestler had ever achieved: to become the symbol of a diverse and rich culture with a need for inspiring role models.
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