From Superhero to National Hero:
The Populist Myth of El Santo
Kerry T. Hegarty
This article analyzes several films from Mexican masked wrestler El Santo's lucha libre series (1958-82) and explains their popularity and social function within mid-twentieth-century Mexican society. The analysis takes into account specific factors such as the role of the production system, the Mexican national film industry, and the social, political, and economic circumstances that contributed to the emergence of the lucha libre genre, as well as to the figure of El Santo as a mass-mediated phenomenon. It ultimately argues that these films created a populist mythological system that functioned to fill the social and political void that emerged as a result of the Mexican government's transition from an inclusive discourse of agrarian populism after the Revolution (in the 1930s and 1940s) to one of industrial capitalism in the 1950s, which, by foregrounding modern ideals such as science, technology, and progress, was perceived as a threat to the stability and identity of the country's masses. The existence of this discourse within the realm of the fantastical, I argue, allows for the recasting of the dominant historical narrative within the context of myth itself, thus creating a metaphorical sense of participation in the drama of history, for which the struggle inherent in lucha libre is the perfect metaphorical vehicle.
There are people who think that wrestling is an ignoble sport. Wrestling is not sport, it is a spectacle, and it is no more ignoble to attend a wrestled performance of suffering than a performance of the sorrows of Arnolphe or Andromaque. —Roland Barthes, "The World of Wrestling"
During the course of his long career as a fighter for justice, the Mexicanwrestler El Santo battled ancient mummies, mad scientists, and international espionage rings; escorted glamorous women around Mexico City in his Bentley convertible, and saved the earth from a nuclear holocaust— all while donning his trademark silver mask. A sort of Mexican James Bond,
Studies in Latin Ameritan Popular Culture, Vol. 31, 2013 © 2013 by the University of Texas Press
DOI: 10.7560/SLAPC3102 4 Studies in Latin American Popular Culture
El Santo's suave manner and unmatched crime-fighting skills made him a central player in the arena of international intelligence. His state-of-the-art technological gadgets—such as a wristwatch surveillance system and a time machine—gave him added advantage over his enemies. The fact that these gadgets were in reality made of plastic and cardboard did not diminish his reputation as "el ídolo de las multitudes"—an icon of heroism both on and off the screen who always fought for the good of the common people.
Born Rodolfo Guzman Huerta in 1917, the masked superhero started wrestling on the professional circuit in the late 1930s, after the promoter
Salvador Lutteroth, who had witnessed matches in Texas, began introducing the sport in Mexico as lucha libre (literally "free fight"), which later became Mexico's version of professional wrestling. Guzman began as a rudo., "the wrestler who breaks [the] supposed rules in order to gain what the audience should consider an unfair advantage," as opposed to the técnico^ who is the "clean wrestler, in that he follows what are supposed to be, and what are perceived by the audience as, the rules."' In 1942, Guzman changed his then stage name from "Murciélago II" ("Bat the Second")—a referenceto the original "Murciélago," who was one of the first luchadores to use a mask in the ring—to "El Santo" ("The Saint"), after emerging victorious in a "brutal eight-man Battle Royale in Mexico Gity," in which his signature style of dynamism and agility was born.^ Ten years later he became the star of a comic-book series created by artist José Guadalupe Gruz (one of the first to use the technique of photomontage, whereby photographs of
Santo in action were superimposed onto illustrated backgrounds), and then began starring in his own film series, which ran from 1958 to 1982. These films, produced in rapid succession for astonishingly low budgets, solidified
El Santo as a national icon—a champion of the people who fought rudos in the ring, as well as criminal masterminds and supernatural monsters outside of it, and protected the whole of society from impending doom.
El Santo's iconic status is evidenced by the fact that for the past six decades, his image has been cross-marketed to millions of fans through comic books, action figures, and wrestling-mask replicas, and it still continues to be highly marketable today, with his son. El Hijo del Santo, continuing his legacy in films like Mil Máscaras vs. the Aztec Mummy (2007), and the current popularity of Gartoon Network Latin America's five-part television miniseries Santo contra los clones as just some examples. The fact that
El Santo never removed his mask, except for once on the television program Contrapunto a few months before his death, and was buried in it as well, reveals that his iconicity was powerful enough even to eclipse reality in the end.^ El Santo's heroism in the ring and on the screen was taken for a real-life heroism, which granted him mythological status in the pantheon of Mexican popular culture. The annual pilgrimage to his mausoleum on the anniversary of his death (February 5, 1984) is still attended faithfully by people across Mexico, officially elevating his legacy to the consecrated status of his name.
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Despite this undisputed iconic status, however, El Santo's lucha libre films have had a mixed reception over the decades, from both Mexican and international audiences alike. Written off by many as churros—low-budget "snacks" fed to mass audiences—and vulgar entertainment aimed at the poor and uneducated, they have been revered by others (mostly outside of
Mexico) as cult classics, kitsch masterpieces, and documents of high surrealism.* It is true that, given their extremely low production value (they were shot, on average, in two to three weeks on the lowest possible budgets), these films cannot be valued primarily for their artistic merit. Their profitability, however, (the fifty-four films of the El Santo series, along with other "exploitation" genre films, accounted for 20 percent of the Mexican film industry's output at the time they were produced) suggests that these lucha libre films served a social function that transcends their aesthetic shortcomings, for a large sector of Mexican society was willing to "believe" in the terms of El Santo's struggle on the screen for more than two decades.^