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THE SANTO AND US Dr. Wakiv & The Blond Vampire

There are men who fight for a day and they’re good,
There are men who fight for a year and are better,
There are men who fight for many years and are very good,
But there are those who fight every Sunday, those are the cool ones.
¡Santo, El Enmascarado de Plata! (Santo, the Silver Masked Man!)1

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Photographs by Toumani Camara, with the valuable support of Roberto Shimizu who gave us access to his collection of El Santo objects in MUJAM, Museo del Juguete Antiguo de México (Museum of the Antique Toy of Mexico). 

In this day in age, to speak of The Santo, the Silver Masked Man, might be considered idle. It would be if we spoke of him through some cheap artifact that would take us back to the incomplete memory – so persistent in us Mexicans -, and we’d only remember the man-wrestler, the sportsman with the iconic tights, a characteristic of a supposed simple show. But as with most things in Mexico, although we might ignore him, The Santo is made up of all the possible ways that the inhabitants of this country dream of themselves and their worlds, which is precisely why we can’t only think of him within the boundaries of the show because Santo was and is a cultural phenomenon that embraces us in our daily lives. And he will continue to do so.

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The heroic city and its tales  

The story of our hero is closely related to our city’s history. At the beginning of the 1930’s, Mexico City witnessed the massive arrival of multiple and greatly diverse rural immigrants, who were relocated in the most popular neighborhoods of the historic center (downtown Mexico City). This event concurred with the nationalist boom that had its most intense expressions through muralism and rancheros (Mexican cowboys) films, which heightened the image of the cowboy and that of the native Indian as symbols of what is typically Mexican.

As time went by, specifically during the 40’s and 50’s, the folkloric discourse was abandoned due to the modernization of the country. The people of the capital must have bought into the idea of the benefits of progress and urbanization, and with that, the new values and beliefs of the moment. This was also reflected in the movie industry which shifted its attention to a more urban and realistic kind of cinema that was interested in the night life, the underworld of Mexico City and its inhabitants’ daily and tormented lives. In this post war era, the United States were clearly the dominant culture and their influence permeated through all sectors of Latin American societies; Mexico was not the exception. In this context, it was common to imitate the American way of life and the expectations of Mexicans always pursued that sense. Even a strong invasion of North American superheroes took place that fueled the Mexican imagination from a very particular point of view, with clear ideological tendencies.

On the other hand, contrasting this modernizing environment, in the neighborhoods of the city where a large part of the rural immigrants lived, Mexican traditions fought a great battle to stay alive in the collective imaginary and every day practice. Wrestling was a privileged scenario for this battle and the figure of The Santo was the perfect personification of this conflict.

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Why us and the Virgin of Guadalupe?

Mexicans of the 20th century are the direct heirs of a strong pre Hispanic tradition based on a world view where opposites are constantly and cyclically facing each other: light-darkness, life-death, feminine-masculine. World balance could only be maintained through the opposition of said forces and the rituals that guaranteed stability and continuity of the universe. These practices were captured in indigenous books and European chronicles as myths that the population knew and has continued to reproduce through oral tradition. The epic tales of ancestors fighting memorable battles and conquests, along with gods and fantastic beings, converted many characters of pre Hispanic history into myths. The importance of this cultural inheritance rich in myths and gods was essential for consolidating the catholic religion in colonial Mexico. In this manner, the juxtaposition of the most relevant religious images strongly worshiped among the indigenous population gave way to the emergence of fervors that are maintained to this day, such is the case of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

We have reached a vital point that sustains the myth of the Silver Masked Man: the Virgin of the Tepeyac is the protector of our hero, he commends himself to her, full of faith before going to combat and shows gratitude when he comes out of his battles alive. This was undoubtedly a point of convergence with the Mexican people, a key component to identify ourselves with him and award the superhero almost divine qualities. The Santo hence becomes a warrior of the Lord, an avenging angel, the nightmare of the enemies of good.

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Let’s see each other then

This proximity with the Mexican people was made possible and constantly reinforced through the appearance of the 1952 comic where José G. Cruz, its creator, emphasizes the faith of the Masked Man in the Virgin of Guadalupe2. The comic was such a success that at its peak, 3 episodes were published a day, each one with a print run of 550,000 copies.

Facing such cultural, and shall we say, media impact, The Santo was moved to the big screen for the first time in 1958, consolidating the path of a fascinating genre for 30 years: wrestling cinema. In his first films, The Silver Masked Man appeared as a tough wrestler, however to remain coherent with his caring and exemplary nature that originated from his close relationship with the Virgin of Guadalupe3 and other religious symbols, he was turned into a coach to give a good example to the young audiences. During the initial stages of The Santo’s cinema, he is presented as a firm advocate of the moral values of Mexican society: “the devotion to the Virgin, chauvinism, women’s submission and family unity as the only means of achieving happiness.”4 Santo is portrayed as a gentleman free of vices, who is borderline celibate and a convinced abstemious.

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It is possible however to clearly distinguish a second stage in this “silver” cinema where, to the public’s satisfaction, the adventures of our leading man take place in more exotic scenarios with distinctly fantastic characters. In this phase, sublime productions are achieved like those of Santo contra las mujeres vampire (Santo versus the vampire women, 1962)5Atacan las brujas (Witch attack, 1964), El Tesoro de Drácula (Dracula’s Treasure, 1968), Santo y Blue Demon contra los monstruos (Santo and Blue Demon against the monsters, 1969), and the apogee of churro (cheesy)6 cinema: Las momias de Guanajuato (The mommies of Guanajuato, 1970).  The fundamental themes here focus on suspense and the integration of monsters like Frankenstein, Dracula and Werewolf to Mexican pop culture. Other relevant phenomena, other symbols of evil include: lamps that make you loose your mind, violin chords with diabolic sounds, bloody paintings and choking wigs 7. It is then that Santo begins to be internationally renown, becoming famous in Latin American, Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

Like every myth and cultural phenomenon, The Silver Masked Man transcends because he adapts to the needs of his time and undergoes the necessary transformations for the specific moment in history: he changes his wardrobe, replacing his trademark cape and tights for more trendy outfits (turtlenecks and sober suits), he also leaves his celibate and discreet character behind and starts dating beautiful and seductive women. Nonetheless, he never looses his chivalry, modernity and that very particular Mexican interpretation of elegance.

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Thus begins the transition to crime film, as international productions – with the distinguished James bond as the leading man – impose spy films. This is how our hero becomes – in addition to being a monster killer – an INTERPOL agent who works closely with the Mexican and international authorities, as he appears in Santo contra la mafia del vicio (Santo versus the vice mafia, 1970), Santo contra la magia negra (Santo against black magic, 1972)8 and Misión suicida (Suicide Mission, 1971).

At the end of his prolific cinematographic career, The Santo picks up a bit of the fantastic theme that awarded him so much success in the 60’s, shooting movies like El puño de la muerte (The fist of death, 1981), Santo en la Furia de los karatecas (Santo in the karate expert’s fury, 1981) and lastly, going back to the crime genre, Santo contra el asesino de la TV (Santo against the TV assassin, 1981), which did not, unfortunately, return him to his former glory. After 15,000 fights and 52 movies, Santo continued playing with our imagination, touring Mexico as an escapist and finally passing away on February 5, 1984, leaving an huge vacuum in the imagination of all Mexicans.  

The Santo watches over us, the ins and outs
of outrageous daily unreality.9

The formula for the this character’s success through his time in comics, television and film, was the fact that in any of these genres, all of Mexican society’s aspirations and fears, true to each period in time, were reflected in the adventures told and portrayed by each and every villain and enemy. This was the case of the vampire women, a symbol of the independent and seductive woman10; of the monsters and our fear of the unknown, and of the aliens and our fear of the accelerated progress of technology in a society profoundly conservative at its core.

The phenomenon and transcendence of The Silver Masked Man was able to exist because of the conditions that only our culture can offer, where the absurd is completely possible and the fantastic is an everyday custom. Santo clings on to our cultural life because not only is he a wrestling instrument between good and evil, he goes even further and becomes more human by bringing justice, which is something we all wish we could do. The Masked Man brings a popular justice, a justice to all. The Santo is then a hero who responds to the need of a faith that is so scarce in our time. He fights against the violation of authority and balance by policemen, presidents and judges, all of whom us Mexicans mistrust chronically and almost genetically, filling the void they leave behind. He does this through fantastic tales, through the mask that identifies him and at the same time hides him from the masses, where anyone one of us could be Him. The Santo was a superhero, but he was alive, he was real, and he also lived under the name of Rodolfo Guzmán. The Masked Man played with the boundaries of reality and imagination by being acclaimed on the ring and outside of it, having divine attributes but, as many others, portraying himself on the screen as a man in the flesh: he would lock his garage door, he’d lay down to rest, his phone number was easy to find, he even used a band aid when he got bit by a spider. He knew of his existence and also confused his life with that of the character11. Before passing away, he sacralised his mask by inheriting it to his son to remain alive in our memory.

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Nowadays, the most common ways of finding the legacy of The Santo is through various Mexican pop artworks: plaster and plastic figures, graffiti, T-shirts and other clothing articles, masks, DVD or VHS movies, posters, etc., which are extremely popular among audiences of all ages, sex and social status. Some think El Santo only represents the purchase of his image; but Santo is much more than that, we must take the whole picture into consideration and remember that he “represents and makes everything we are possible, what we imagine, what we want” 12; that is why he is endless.

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1. Botellita de Jerez, “Guacarock del Santo.”

2. In the back cover of Issue One of the comic, El Santo appears kneeling before the image of the Virgin.

3. A relationship that was portrayed masterfully in some of his movies, where our hero fends off his great enemy, Dracula, not with a crucifix – as one would normally do – but by showing him an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe he carried in his underpants.

4. Ricardo Pérez Montfort, 2000.

5. In 1965, Santo contra las mujeres vampiro (Santo against the vampire women) was screened in the San Sebastian Film Festival in Spain, where it was acclaimed by important European critics as authentic surrealistic cinema.

6. Churros are very low quality movie productions, with no logic and an extremely low budget.

7. Profanadores de tumbas (Defilers of tombs, 1966)

8. This time around, Santo is an agent that works with the INTERPOL and must face zombies that are mentally manipulated by Sasha Montenegro (an important Mexican showgirl), priestess of voodoo, who possesses a uranium deposit with which she plans to rule the world.

9. Jorge Ayala Blanco, 1986.

10. How can we forget a disturbed Santo in Atacan las brujas (Witch attack, 1964) saying: “I am the subject of a diabolic seduction!”

11. From his early fights, Rodolfo Guzmán lived with his character and knew him perfectly: on one occasion when he fought against Jack Blomfield, Santo was unmasked by the latter, however, he had another mask underneath, a trick he later used as common practice in his movies.

12. Álvaro Fernández Reyes, 2004. Santo el Enmascarado de Plata. El Colegio de Michoacán y CONACULTA.

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Marisol Reyna studied Anthropology and has a Masters in Regional Studies from the Instituto Mora. She is currently a consultant for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and wrote this article alongside her evil accomplice because she is a huge fan of The Santo.

Verónica Velasquez S.H. is an archeologist and also a huge fan of The Santo.

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Special thanks to the MUJAM for having opened its doors to photograph some of the objects of their collection. If you would like to contact them, you can do so via Twitter in the following account: @MuseodelJuguete.

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