El Santo: The Man and the Myth
[note: this column was originally written on the 32nd Anniversary of El Santo's death this past February. It's been updated today in honor of his 99th birthday. Enjoy]
Transcendence; so many strive for it and so few reach it. For to transcend is to reach a level that is indeed larger than life, the sort of the status you only see reached by movie characters. This is not the same thing as greatness mind you. Anyone and anything can be great, provided they go into their field with the right motivation, effort, and commitment to be great. To transcend, however, takes something more, something that you just can’t quite put your finger on. It’s what makes those that do so special, so rare. In wrestling, it’s even rarer to see someone transcend the scope of the business, so much so that I can count all the ones who have on one hand. In America, Hulk Hogan transcended beyond wrestling, and then pulled off the even bigger feat of nuking his reputation one stupid moment after the other. In Japan it was the legendary Rikidozan. In Mexico it was and forever will be El Santo.
“El Santo?” you may ask, “Are you sure he was real?” Some people may find that a dumbfounding question, but in reality it’s not. In the current age of social media and long before everyone knew every single detail about anyone who ever entered this planet, there’s little evidence that El Santo truly did exist. His greatest matches have long since disappeared, victims of an era long before television. The only proof of El Santo are the numerous statues of him around Mexico, dozens upon dozens of feature length films featuring a silver masked warrior battling everything from vampires to zombies and a comic book than ran for thirty years. A quick read of all that and it’s pretty clear why someone would assume that El Santo was just a creation, a superhero created from Mexican mythology the same way us Americans created Superman. For how could a man so great, so beloved actually exist in this world?
And yet, he did. El Santo, aka Rodolfo Guzman Huerta, was a real man of flesh and blood. He grew up like many kids wanting to be a star athlete, with interests in football and baseball (among other sports). He struggled in his early years to find his identity before donning that famous silver mask. He married and had children, one of whom would follow in his footsteps in becoming a luchador. And oh yes, he was a star of every entertainment medium he took part in. El Santo appeared in over 50 films and was a lead character in all of them. He was indeed the title character of a comic book series created by writer Jose G. Cruz that ran for over 30 years. And he was the most famous luchador to ever step foot into the world of lucha libre, Salvador Lutterroth’s prized top star who turned EMLL/CMLL into a wrestling superpower, the man who teamed with the father of Eddie Guerrero and waged wars with the legendary Blue Demon. For all of that, El Santo’s birth, 99 years ago today, and death, 32 years ago this past February, are national days of celebration and mourning in Mexico. One day represents, well, endless possibilities; the other represents the end of an era, the day where myth and reality met to create a cold truth no one wanted to believe.
On this day, my mind often went to El Santo. But then again, as a massive lucha libre buff, my mind often goes to El Santo on most days. How can that be so? How can a man who I’ve never seen wrestle, who I’ll never see wrestle, who I can only get a glimpse of in his films or the spirit of his son be of such importance to me? The truth is if you even have to think about the answer for that question, you’ll never get it. I don’t need to see El Santo fight Black Shadow, Blue Demon, vampires or zombies to know that I wouldn’t be writing about lucha libre if not for him. But then again without El Santo, a lot of things couldn’t happen. What would tonight’s CMLL Super Viernes show look like if El Santo had never come along? Would we even have a CMLL Super Viernes, or better yet a CMLL? How different would the famous When Worlds Collide tag team match involving Santo’s son have been if the importance of El Hijo del Santo losing his father’s mask was gone? How would Lucha Underground, a show built on the influences of Santo’s movies and mythmaking, look if the saint in the silver mask had never reached the heights he did? For all the greatness of a Hulk Hogan or Ric Flair, professional wrestling in the United States would’ve likely turned out the same way it did regardless of who played the roles. But lucha libre without El Santo? Better yet, Mexico without El Santo? It’s incomplete; it’s deformed. And it tells you all you need to know about why this man still means so much.
Of course, there’s another reason that El Santo ultimately transcended in a way only fictional characters do, and that was his humanity. Unlike Superman, El Santo was a real life hero who bled like us, dreamt like us, feared like us. He was a son, a husband and a father, just one who happened to do amazing things along the way. Most importantly, especially to us wrestling fans is that he loved with he do. It’s been widely documented that El Santo was buried in his famed silver mask, a fact that you can interpret as having several meanings. The most cynical of us may suggest that it was a sign of Santo becoming a Superman esq character envisioned by Kill Bill’s Bill; someone who came to believe that El Santo was his true identity and that Rodolfo Guzman Huerta was the costume he put on. Perhaps to some extent that’s true, but in my opinion there’s more to it. I believe Santo going into the earth with his mask on was a clear symbol of the great love of his life (besides his wife and kids); lucha libre. For all the movies he was involved in and all the fame he received from comic books, El Santo was a man who loved wrestling, who spent more than half of his life wrestling. It’s what made him great, it’s what made him transcendent, and it’s what made him, most importantly of all, human.
So the next time you sit down to watch CMLL, AAA, Lucha Underground, or whatever lucha libre show, I implore you to please keep El Santo in your thoughts, even if it’s just for a second. Without him lucha libre wouldn’t be where it was today. Without him lucha libre wouldn’t be transcendent.