TULANCINGO, Mexico — You may have never heard the name Rodolfo Guzman.

But his silver-masked alter ego, El Santo, was a larger-than-life presence in professional wrestling rings, in comics and on the silver screen, helping popularize Mexico’s “lucha libre” around the world and entering the pantheon of pop culture icons.

“Lucha libre wouldn’t be what it is today if it weren’t for El Santo,” said Roberto Shimizu, art director for the Old Toy Museum in Mexico City. “And for us Mexicans, El Santo is a figure of rectitude, of integrity, of dedication. He represents every virtue.”

Even as Mexico remains in shock from this week’s devastating earthquake, the country has been quietly marking Saturday’s centennial of the birth of El Santo, or the Saint. On Friday his son — also a pro wrestler who wears a silver mask and goes by El Hijo del Santo, or El Santo’s Son — hosted a Mass in memory of both his father and the victims of the quake.

Born Sept. 23, 1917, in Tulancingo, a small city about two hours northeast of Mexico City, Guzman’s family moved to the capital’s notoriously gritty Tepito neighborhood with his family as a boy. Today a statue of El Santo stands in Tepito, where he began his career.

He became a superstar after a legendary match in 1953, around the dawn of the television era in Mexico, in which he wagered his mask against nemesis Black Shadow.

Soon afterward a comic book series featuring El Santo was a smash hit, and the next step was obvious: movies. El Santo shot his first, “Santo vs. the Evil Brain,” in 1958, and went on to star in nearly 50 films including the most celebrated, 1962’s “Santo vs. the Vampire Women.”

“While Americans had Superman, Batman or Spider-Man, we had Rodolfo Guzman, El Santo, fighting everybody from the mummies to the Nazis,” said Felipe Carrillo Montiel, an El Santo expert. “But unlike those American superheroes, he was a real man — you could read his comics during the week and then go see him wrestle on the weekend at your local arena.”

The silver screen cemented El Santo’s international celebrity and laid the foundations for what remains a profitable brand. El Hijo del Santo, his youngest son and the only one who followed him into wrestling, has similarly crossed over into films and comics and even environmental activism. The younger Santo runs three stores where you can buy all manner of merchandise, from T-shirts to posters to El Santo-brand tequila.

Tuesday’s earthquake led to an El Santo event in Tulancingo being partly rescheduled, and a lucha libre show planned for Saturday was also postponed.

Yet despite the muted celebrations, observers say Guzman’s legacy at 100 is palpable. This summer an exhibit in Mexico City’s Chapultepec Park showcased 100 photographs to mark the centennial, and El Hijo was the guest of honor at a celebration at city hall honoring his father.

“He was the original action figure,” Shimizu said. “His image was reproduced millions of times, and every single kid in Mexico had one.”

Guzman died of a heart attack in 1984. He was buried wearing his silver mask.

Author photo
GUSTAVO MARTINEZ CONTRERAS
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