El Santo: Wrestler, Saint and Superhero – Gabrielle Murray

Abstract:In Santo, el Enmascarado de Plata Álvaron A. Fernández Reyes notes that within the immense cultural productions of modern Mexico, the ritual and myths that revolve around the heroic figure of Santo, are peculiarly diverse, embodying the creation of new traditions and the recuperation of old ones.

In Santo, el Enmascarado de Plata Álvaron A. Fernández Reyes notes that within the immense cultural productions of modern Mexico, the ritual and myths that revolve around the heroic figure of Santo, are peculiarly diverse, embodying the creation of new traditions and the recuperation of old ones. Santo is a “real” flesh and blood figure, the silver-masked wrestler; he is the fictional wrestling star of crime, horror and fantasy films, a “saint” who battles bad guys, vampires and mummies, and for his predominately Mexican audience, Santo is a also a magical “superhero”(Fernández Reyes 2004).1 To understand Santo’s immense popular appeal, we need to explore his different manifestations of wrestler, saint and superhero. In turn, this will enable us to investigate the generic hybridity of the films, whereby a noirish crime or a campy vampire tale will be interrupted to allow Santo to engage in wrestling matches, with little attempt within the narrative, or in the film’s aesthetic sensibility to integrate the matches.

Santo was a major Mexican professional wrestler, known as a luchador, who became a huge star and attained the status of “superhero” in B grade genre films of the 1960s and 1970s. Lucha libre, which translates roughly as “free fight”, is an extremely popular form of entertainment in Mexico, specifically for the working classes or working poor, who are known in Mexico as the “popular classes”. Originally inspired by the U.S. professional wrestling of the 1930s, yet more highly choreographed, lucha libre is renowned for its tradition of full-face masks, and its high-flying or airborne style, which is characterized by its flips, tosses and dives off the ropes. Each match involves a good guy, known as a técnico (craftsman), who wears white or lurid colours and generally wins, whereas the bad guy or rudo (rule breaker) wears dark colours and is heckled by the crowd. Its ritualised form re-enacts a story–a mythic battle between good and evil. Mr Niebla (Efrain Hernández), one of the luchadors, comments in The Herald Mexico (March 28, 2005): “There’s sympathy, anger, happiness, sadness…it’s all the things that the popular classes deal with all the time. This is therapy for these people.”

Born in 1917 in Tulancigo, Hidalgo, Mexico, Santo (whose real name is Rodolfo Guzman Huerta) began wrestling in 1934 and continued wrestling until 1982, having a professional career that lasted forty-eight years. Initially, Santo wrestled under numerous aliases until 1942 when, wearing a simple silver mask, he debuted as El Santo (The Saint). Much like the fictional superheroes that he had affinities with, he went to enormous lengths to hide his identity and always appeared in public in his mask, which greatly enhanced his mystique.2 However, Santo stunned audiences when almost fifty years after he began wrestling, he unmasked himself on the Mexican television show Contrapunto on 26th January 1984. Prophetically, his unmasking seemed to be his undoing. A little over a week later, he died from a heart attack and, as per his request, was buried wearing his silver mask. His son, Jorge Guzman, who wrestles as El Hijo del Santo (The son of Santo) continues to have an illustrious career and has also appeared in several Mexican films. Although Santo has been dead for more than 20 years, he is still an important figure in the Mexican popular imaginary. At the “Vive Latino 2005” youth, music and arts festival at the Foro Sol in Mexico City, two performance artists suspended in harnesses above the crowd enacted a mock battle between the legendary wrestler and the U.S. president George W. Bush. So, in the 21st century, the figure brought out to do battle with the “big guys” is still the wrestling superhero, Santo.

In 1952, a publisher named Jose Cruz started a comic book featuring Santo’s adventures fighting crimes and monsters, while also continuing to wrestle. The comic books portrayed Santo as a superhero although until then he had performed as a rudo in the ring. But with the creation of the comic book and his increasing popularity, it was decided that he should undergo a gradual change and eventually become a técnico (Cotter 2005, 22). Considered one of the most famous superhero comic books in Mexico, it ran continuously for 35 years.3 Santo’s status as a luchador and therefore a “popular hero,” along with the comic books, further developed his hero status with Mexican audiences. Although initially declining film offers, the success of the comic books encouraged him to appear in films. He first appeared in Cerebro del Mal (Brain of Evil) in 1958; however, it was in 1961 that producer Alberto Lopez hired him to star as “El Santo” in the classic Santo Contra Los Zombies (Santo versus the Zombies). Between 1958 and 1982, Santo starred in fifty-two Mexican films as “El Santo”.

Lucha Libre

Lucha libre is Mexico’s most watched sport after soccer. Wrestling heroes and villains enact symbolic battles between good and evil that provide an avenue of escape for its audience, who are predominantly poor working Mexicans (although in more recent times, the sport has become more popular with the middle and upper classes). Many of the luchadors come from the same areas and similar backgrounds as their audience so there is an instant bond of recognition. Often they gain superhero status among their young audience and become role models for poor, disenfranchised youth. As an example, it is worth thinking about the practice of lucha libre in Mexico City, where there are two venues, the intimate Arena de Mexico, and the much larger Arena Coliseo, which has 17,000 seats. Both are shabby, rundown venues in poor neighbourhoods in Centro Histórico, the old, historical centre of Mexico City. Between them they feature wrestling three nights a week. A sagging old building, with weeds growing from its signage and men with shot guns guarding the ticket box, the Arena Coliseo is situated in what is considered one of the toughest neighbourhoods in the city. Yet lucha libre is family entertainment, relatively cheap and therefore possible, an exclusive ringside ticket costing only AUS$7, with children under 10 gaining entrance for AUS30 cents.

Tourists are often warned to be careful in these areas but on a night when lucha libre is taking place, the venues erupt in a circus-like, festive atmosphere. Impromptu stalls appear outside the venues selling publicity photos of the current, reigning champions and a selection of both adult and child size masks. Inside the arenas, more vendors wander through the crowds and orders are taken for food, soft drinks and alcohol, while cigarette smoke billows through the air. The audiences are made up of families, from grandmothers through to toddlers, young couples, fathers and sons, and groups of youths. In the smaller Arena de Mexico,you are very close to the action, with the luchadors entering the ring through the crowd. Enclosed behind wire on the circular second story of the arena, audience members stand and lean against the wire to gain a bird’s eye view of the action. The luchadors stand on the ropes, addressing themselves to the upper floor and leading them in chants. On leaving the arena, the most popular ones are mobbed by small children seeking autographs from their heroes. The action inevitably ends up in the front rows and aisles, with the audience and luchadors in constant interaction: the ring seems too small to contain these performances.


This contemporary use of the mask is directly related to its pre-Hispanic function. Traditionally made of wood, masks are now frequently constructed of papier-mâché, clay, wax, leather, latex and nylon. They are painted and embellished with real teeth, hair, feathers and other adornments. Sometimes actual, sometimes mythic, masks have historically depicted deities, anthropomorphic figures and animals such as tigers or birds. Since the time of the conquistadors and the introduction of Catholicism, they have also depicted the face of Christ, devils and Europeans, often comically. Masks were and are still worn for magical, transformative purposes in dances, ceremonies and shamanistic rites. In the confines of the ritualized performance, the mask wearer temporarily becomes the creative being, person or deity whose mask they wear.

The luchadors are often outrageously dressed in skin-hugging, day-glo tights, with the occasional tiny bikini. Historically, most wore full face masks, whereas now many of the younger men bare their faces. Those of an older generation, like Santo and his wrestling buddy, the Blue Demon (Alejandro Cruz), always wore a full face mask with zips or ties at the back. Although Santo’s silver mask is a very simple affair, now many of the wrestlers’ masks are generally brightly coloured, with streaming tassels hanging from the back. Sometimes they take the form of other beings and animals. Like Santo’s, most masks have only small, tear-drop shaped cut-outs for the eyes, a small hole for the tip of the nose and nostrils, and a slit for the mouth. These masks completely obscure the luchadors’ physiognomy,4 thereby making their appearance anonymous and other worldly. The mask becomes the symbol of the wrestler who wears it. As Michael “Bobb” Cotter comments, “To be unmasked [is] the ultimate disgrace and defeat, and once unmasked, a wrestler [can] never wrestle with a mask again” (Cotter 2005, 14).

In Aztecs: An Interpretation, Inga Clendinnen notes that in Aztec rituals, one of the ways in which the sacred is signified is through “the sudden darkening and narrowing of vision as the mask slid down over the face”(Clendinnen 1991, 258). However, the mask not only affects the perception of the wearer but the also the audience’s perception of the wearer. What Santo’s and the other luchadors’ full-faced masks do is they obscure their faces and therefore their individual humanity. Literally, the mask hides the face of the wearer and substitutes another face from myth or history. Donald Cordry notes that Mexican Indian groups associate the face with more than just an individual’s personality: “they directly relate the face with the soul” (Cordry 1980, 3). To cover the face with a mask is to remove the identity and soul of the wearer from the everyday: but it is also to substitute it with a new face, soul or persona. Traditionally, the Mexican Indian used a mask to cover their soul and transform it by assuming the identity of a god to afford protection against, and control over, the harshness of their existence (Cordry 1980). For the luchadors and their contemporary Mexican audience, the mask is still one of the elements that enable the alteration from luchador to superhero or villain. Speaking of this experience, the Mr Niebla says in an article on lucha libre (The Herald Mexico March 28, 2005): “When I put on the mask and step into the ring, it changes my character and my emotions. I look out and I feel the happiness of all the people, and there’s so much adrenaline…and I am somebody different.” A profound transformation occurs in which the individual withdraws from the everyday and a new a “super” persona is presented. Understandably for the working poor of Mexico, a desire for protection and control over their existence is still of keen significance. Therefore, in assuming the persona of luchador, Santo is transformed into a super persona, an identity who through audience identification offers his audience the heroic possibility of control over their existence.

In her essay “Watching Wrestling/Writing Performance”, Sharon Mazer provides a summation of wrestling that incorporates the work of Clifford Geertz, Umberto Eco, Victor Turner, Robert Bly, John Preston and Andrea Dworkin. Working with these thinkers’ ideas, Mazer says of wrestling:

The practice and performance of wrestling is more than “the game”—it’s a “mechanism to neutralize action” (Eco), represents the “creative power of aroused masculinity” (Geertz), acts as a kind of initiation (Turner) by which men come into a man’s world (Bly), and as such carries with it homoerotic implications which are at once celebratory (Preston) and assertive of patriarchal values (Dworkin) (Mazer 2002, 280-1).

These broad foundations also underpin the practice of lucha libre; however, there are in its presentation further elements that are specific to Mexican wrestling and its audience, especially in relation to the social and political circumstances of the performance, the wrestlers, and the spectators. The act of wrestling, the costumes, the small rectangular, roped ring, the chanting crowds, the re-enacted stories, the good/bad characters: these are all elements of a ritual performance.5 In this context it is worth noting that Clifford Geertz has concluded in his discussion of the Balinese cockfight that just as “much of America surfaces in a ball park, on a golf link, at a race track, or around a poker table, much of Bali surfaces in a cock ring” (Geertz1976, 656). Although more performance than sport, much of Mexico surfaces in lucha libre. In Geertz’s description of the cockfight, he turns to the concept of “deep play” to explore its symbolic significance. Geertz takes the notion of “deep play” from Jeremy Bentham: “By it he means play in which the stakes are so high that it is, from his utilitarian standpoint, irrational for men to engage in it at all”(Geertz 1976, 666).6 But, as Geertz notes, men do engage with passion in these games because what is being explored is something more than material gains; it is the relations that exist between these protagonists and their world.7 Likewise, the function of the luchador is not simply about earnings or winning. In “The “World of Wrestling” Roland Barthes calls wrestling a “real Human Comedy.” He says: “What the public want is the image of passion, not passion itself. There is no more a problem of truth in wrestling than in the theatre. In both, what is expected is the intelligible representation of moral situations which are usually private”(Barthes 1993, 22). Discussing Barthes’ essay, Henry Jenkins further comments on wrestling’s function as a morality play: “Wrestling like conventional melodrama, externalizes emotion, mapping it onto the combatants’ bodies and transforming their physical competition into a search for a moral order”(Jenkins 1997, 48).

The luchador’s function consists of the exact realisation of the gestures that the audience expects of the fighter; these excessive gestures are explored until there is an “outburst of their significance”, which corresponds with the expression of the tragic tone of the performance”(Fernández Reyes2004, 89-90). Lucha libre may be seen as the most important popular theatre of Mexico. Fernández Reyes calls it a melodrama “lúdico”. On the surface, it is a game that appears to be about good and evil, involving basic theatrical elements like the mask, the wardrobe, and the characters who act out specifically scripted dramas within montage scenes. As with all wrestling, there is a peculiar relation between the protagonist and antagonist because they are, in actuality, accomplices. This relation is further complicated by the complicity of the audience, who know it is not real, but believes in the tumult of performance. Thus as Reyes argues, just as in the theatre, the public enter an arena and incorporate the conventions of defined rules of communication—rules that can generate a kind of “public frenzy”. The public know that they are attending a performance and in this knowledge accept certain conventions. The elements of good and evil function as complimentary elements (one does not exist without the other). This ritual performance has certain rules that produce a kind of intensity of feeling or frenzy in those present, while generating participation, projection and identification. The public outburst is later diffused by the function of finding justice for the rudo or técnico and therefore for recuperating the order that encodes the “needs and demands of every spectator”(Fernández Reyes,2004, 90).

A night at the lucha libre follows a series of bouts of tag team members and individuals, involving young to middle age men.8 The action is generally recorded for television broadcast. The well scripted performance of the drama is sometimes comic, sometimes hammy, but often exhilarating. Grown men fly though the air, with an agility and fluidity that seems incongruous to their age, size or physique.9 The referees tolerate everything except hair-pulling–for that you are slapped down. Yet it is perfectly acceptable to continue to pummel a wrestler when his face wears a “crimson mask” of blood. The final match is always between the best fighters and involves intricate holds and acrobatic stunts. Mazer has noted, for wrestlers, a “relatively large proportion of training time in the gym is spent learning and practicing ways of making openings for spectator participants”(Mazer 2002, 275). The practice of lucha libre is renowned for its level of audience participation. This is due to the relation of familiarity, or recognition that exists between the wrestlers and the audience, the neighbourhoods and intimate space in which the fights take place, and also that complicit understanding by the audience that they are a “character” in this exhilarating drama.

More than just a battle between good and evil, what emerges out of the background of identity and identification with the luchadors is also an expression of everyday circumstances and authority. As with most ritual performances, lucha libre permits an official transgression whereby members of the audience chant and shout what they cannot voice in ‘normal’ circumstances: they rebel against the repression and hardship they confront daily in their social life. In discussing the Rocky films, Valerie Walkerdine argues that the “fantasy of the fighter is the fantasy of a working-class male omnipotence over the forces of humiliating oppression which mutilate and break the body in manual labour” (Walkerdine, quoted in Baker and Boyd, 1997, 55).10 A similar fantasy exists in the audience’s relation to and experience of lucha libre. Fernández Reyes claims wives go to shout what they cannot say to their husbands; men shout what they cannot say to their bosses at work; “children yell insults that are not permitted in the house”(Fernández Reyes, 2004, 90). Therefore the wrestling match becomes a form of what Geertz terms, “imaginative realization”, whereby the struggles, unresolved difficulties, and ambiguities of everyday life are acted out for the Mexican audience in a way that is exhilarating and meaningful(Geertz 1976, 671). Through identification, these rituals of wrestling empower the audience by offering them access to heroic possibilities, in which they can transform the circumstances of their everyday lives.

It is interesting to note that the passion for lucha libre continues and is spreading and growing. According to the U.S. Census, of the estimated 40 million Hispanics that are in the U.S., about two-thirds of them are of Mexican descent. Just as telenovelas have become popular, so has lucha libre. Ana M. Lopez comments that U.S. Latinos recognize themselves through television melodrama and cherish “their own, crossover, star system”(Lopez 1995, 267). A similar point of recognition is now occurring with lucha libre. In the U.S. the luchadors now draw sell-out crowds, appear in commercials, and have inspired the animated children’s show “Mucha Lucha”.

Historically, many of the luchadors have often worn a saintly mantle due to their involvement in charity work, social justice, and politics. Super Barrio, champion of the rights of Mexico’s poor, went into politics and joined the leftist PRD (Partido de la Revolucíon Democrática, All Party of the Democratic Revolution). A crowd favorite, Mr Niebla is known outside the ring for his charitable work with disabled children. In Mexico, the sport has also inspired a subculture of political activists who advocate their causes dressed in lucha libre garb. There is Super Ecologist, fighter for environmental causes; and Super Gay and Super Animal, masked crusaders for gay and animal rights. As a técnico Santo brings to the El Santo films this same heroic, saintly aura. He is a fighter for good, a masked figure the audience instantly recognizes. He is familiar because he is one of them but somehow he is also different: an invincible, powerful, authority figure. The audience’s champion, he conquers evil and enables justice to be carried out. Yet the El Santo films do more than just transfer the personae of Santo to the screen, by intercutting real and staged footage of wrestling matchesthe films attempt to literally reproduce for the audience the ritual functions of lucha libre.

The Santo Films

In Magical Reels: A History of Cinema in Latin America,John King comments that the state funded Mexican commercial cinema of the 1950s, and continuing through the 1960s, was mainly:

dedicated to the quick commercialization of churros (‘quickies’ named after the doughy sweetmeat, a breakfast staple)….Myriad middle-class melodramas, increasingly boring comedies from Cantinflas—whose humour had lost its cutting edge many years previously—prurient sex films which lacked the tacky dynamism of earlier ‘brothel’ films, copies of US adolescent rebellion films, non-rebels with a cause and without an aesthetic, series focusing on masked wrestlers (starring ‘El Santo’…), attempts to gloss over the quality by employing colour or costly Cinemascope–all contributed to an industry at the lowest point in its development (King 2000, 130).

Yet if you are a fan, this period is considered the era of the ‘golden age’ of Mexican B grade movies. Much can be said about these films in relation to the way they display facets of the anxieties, repressions and fears of a particular social and cultural milieu. The main characters are nearly always played by actors who look European, and Santo’s string of girlfriends are often blondes. Mestizos and indigenous people generally play peones, other worldly creatures, or enact tales from their own pre-hispanic history. There are occurrences of anti-semitism and racial stereotypes such as the dopey, easily frightened professor in Santo en La Venganza de la Momia” (Santo and “The Vengeance of the Mummy”, 1970); or Eric, the treasure-hungry, evil coward, who comes to an unfortunate end in Santo y Blue Demon contra Dracula y el Hombre Lobo (Santo and Blue Demon versus Dracula and the Wolf Man, 1972). Yet the above film is interesting in that the Wolf Man, in human form, is played by a blonde-haired, blue-eyed pretty boy. There is also a reoccurring theme of both the celebration and fear of science, modernity and new technology. However, what becomes fascinating about these Santo films is the way in which Santo functions as a kind of cipher for both the ritual functions of lucha libre and ancient and modern myths. In fact, these films embody what Nelson Hippolyte Ortega calls a “striking example of a very strong Latin American cultural trait: the concomitant use of the old and the new, sometimes at the same time”(Ortega 1998, 80).

The El Santo films are similar to Mexican telenovelas in that although the films were made as a series, “they always have clear-cut stories with definite endings that permit narrative closure”(Lopez 1995, 256). Like the melodramatic telenovelas, they have a notorious “Manichean vision of the world”(Lopez 1995, 261). The films’ production values are generally B grade but, as King notes, some employ colour or Cinemascope. They incorporate broad generic elements of crime, horror and fantasy genres. The stories involve classic tales of vampires, zombies, witches and wolf men such as in films like Santo en “Atacan Las Brujas (Santo in “The Witches Attack, 1964), and Santo y Blue Demon contra Los Monstruos (Santo and Blue Demon versus The Monsters, 1969). Sometimes they lean more towards science-fiction, such as in Santo contra La Invasion de Los Marcianos (Santo versus The Martian Invasion, 1966). In the case of Santo en “El Tesor De Dracula” (Santo in “Dracula’s Treasure”, 1968), a time machine is used. Films like Santo en El Museo De Cera (Santo in The Wax Museum, 1963), and Santo Contra La Mafia Del Vicio (Santo versus The Mafia of Vice, 1970), mix elements of noir, crime and fantasy. As well as the fantasy, horror and crime elements, many of the films are loosely based on investigations into past history and civilizations, or myths. The stories are often initiated by a mystery or an kind of anthropological quest, such as in Santo en “La Venganza de la Momia” (Santo and “The Vengeance of the Mummy”, 1970), in which Santo protects a group of researchers who are looking for the crypt of “Nanoc, the great Opache Prince”. When the crypt is found, the researchers are warned that if they disturbed it a curse will be unleashed that will result in their death. The mummy comes back from the dead and begins killing people; Santo remains sceptical until he captures the mummy and reveals that he is one of their own team members. Santo says, “See the dead don’t rise. It’s the evil of the living that harms our fellow man”. So there is an attempt at the demystification of particular beliefs and myths.

As well as Santo being a kind of saintly, moral guide, in this film he also takes it upon himself to become an orphaned young boy’s guardian or father figure. While many of the stories are fantastic, some can involve a historical or mythic figure and a familiar place. For example, Santo en “El Tesoro de Moctezuma” (Santo in “The Treasure of Moctezuma”, 1967), Santo contra Los Cazadores de Cabezas (Santo versus The Headhunters, 1969), Las Momias de Guanajuato (The Mummies of Guanajuato, 1970), and the various films which invoke el Día de los Muertes (The Day of the Dead), such as Santo en “Los Profanadores de Tumbas” (Santo in “The Grave Robbers”, 1965), and Santo y Blue Demon en El Mundo de Los Muertos (Santo and the Blue Demon in the World of the Dead, 1969). Yet, none of these films deal with thematic elements of the wrestling genre. They are not interested in the struggles, brutality or raise and fall of Santo, or any other luchador. Even through in these films Santo wrestles both in and outside the ring, there is only ever minor discussion of the fact that he is a luchador. The audience brings to the films a prior understanding of Santo, so there is no need for the films to establish his status. What we find is the direct transference of lucha libre matches into these hybrid films.

There is no attempt in these films to create an aesthetic integration between the wrestling and other generic elements. Although in real life Santo lost some of his wrestling matches, in the films he might lose a bout but he ultimately always wins. The films literally intercut large sections of recorded and sometimes staged footage of often complete lucha libre matches. Generally there are at least two sections of lucha libre that can run from seven to fifteen minutes in any of the El Santo films, which run between eighty to ninety-five minutes. So the wrestling matches can take approximately between fifteen to thirty minutes of the reel time. Sometimes a match will open a film, sometimes conclude it, or a story will be interrupted to allow Santoto fight. Although the film Santo contra La Invasion de Los Marcianos integrates the fantasy story and the wrestling, ultimately concluding with Santo fighting a Martian in the ring; there is rarely any attempt to introduce the wrestling matches or integrate them into the story other than a casual comment from Santo that he needs to retire or leave as he has a fight. The real-live footage is in particularly sharp contrast to the general B grade fantasy and crime aesthetic. It inverts the way the lucha libre arena functions, in which we go from the everyday into a frenzied, circus atmosphere. In the films, the wrestling footage works against the fantasy aesthetic to generate something “real”—a kind of social realist or documentary feel that acts as a point of direct contact with the ritual performance of lucha libre. Furthermore, while the action is sometimes heightened by the introduction of the re-enactment of close-ups of certain stunts that the single roving camera used at the lucha libre has missed, the audience is often in the background. The distancing of the audience is then compensated for by cut-aways to both real and studio audiences. So the films attempt to literally reanimate the experience of lucha libre.

It is worth remembering that Santo continued his wrestling career along with his acting one. He is credited on all the films with his pseudonym and not by his real name. We never see him in public or in his films without his mask. In fact, in some films, we even see him sleeping in it. He is “super” in the eyes of his audience but apart from the traits of a champion wrestler–strength, fitness and agility–he has no magical or science based super-powers. However, because he always wears his mask, he is a transformed persona in the every day life is capable of creating control, yet due to his human skills, he is also an emphatic figure. For his Mexican audience, he is the same figure whether in the strange and fantastic world of the films or in the wrestling ring—a singular persona who lives in dual worlds, and never without his mask. Yet the wrestling skills he brings to the films enables him to dispose of all manner of phantasms, including mummies, zombies, evil doctors, mafia figures, lascivious witches, and even Dracula. Although in the films he is contained but charismatic, he is also an authoritative being who sometimes has the skills of an anthropologist, a politician and a scientist. He reassures the audience in regards to the increasing modernization of their world, by displaying his comfort at dealing with time machines, scientific experiments, and secret tools of communication. In the wrestling ring, he occasionally wears a cape, but in the fantasy world of the films, he generally wears casual clothes along with his ubiquitous mask. Out of the ring, his appearance is disconcerting, casual in dress but with his face hidden by his silver mask, we again have that sense of familiarity but also difference—in fact, a sense of otherworldliness. He is sometimes captured, or takes a beating, but is never really hurt. It is with human strength that he kills superhuman and monstrous beings. He is not complex in the sense of being emotionally wounded like some superheroes, nor does he ever engage in soul searching, or interior monologues. He is simply a wrestling hero—in fact, a one dimensional figure. And it is this singular façade that enables the films to maintain the continued generation of participation, identification and projection, aroused in the audience in the lucha libre arena. Therefore, for the audience, Santoalways remains their superhero, the famous luchador.


1. All subsequent translations of this text are mine: Álvaron A. Fernández Reyes, Santo el Enmascarado de Plata (Michoacán: El Colegio de Michoacán; 2004), 15.

2. See Scott Rhodes, “And in This Corner…El Santo: El Mascarado de Plata,” Filmfax, 49 (March/April, 1995): 44. Rhodes claims that “Huerta wore the mask so often, it affected his features: his skin became very sensitive and his ears became permanently pinned back against his head.”

3. The length and focus of this chapter does not allow me to deal with the comic books. For further discussion, see Álvaron A. Fernández Reyes, Santo el Enmascarado de Plata (Michoacán: El Colegio de Michoacán; 2004), specifically pp. 107-122.

4. Many of the younger men do not wear masks as they want to be seen and eventually become recognizable figures.

5. For discussion of US wrestling as a ritual form see Michael R. Ball, Professional Wrestling as Ritual Drama in American Popular Culture (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 1990).

6. For further discussion, see Jeremy Bentham, The Theory of Legislation [originally published in 1802] (London: Kegan Paul, 1931).

7. Elsewhere I have discussed the ritual elements of cinema, specifically in the western. See Gabrielle Murray, This Wounded Cinema, This Wounded Life: Violence and Utopia in the Films of Sam Peckinpah (Connecticut: Praeger, 2004).

8. Although the sport is dominated by men, women know as luchadoras also wrestle.

9. Tag teams of middle-aged, girdle-wearing men display amazingly flexible; whereas some of the younger wrestlers with U.S. inspired gym-buffed bodies are incapable of such high flying feats.

10. For further discussion, see also Valerie Walkerdine, “Video Replay: Families, Film and Fantasy,” in Formations of Fantasy, eds. Victor Burgin, James Donald and Cora Kaplan, 173 (London: Methues, 1986).


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Sullivan, Kevin. “Lucha Libre’s popularity grows in the U.S..” The Herald Mexico, 8. March 28, 2005.

Author Bio:

Gabrielle Murray is a Lecturer in the Cinema Studies program at La Trobe University in Australia. She has published in several journals, edited anthologies and is the author of This Wounded Cinema, This Wounded Life: Violence and Utopia in the Films of Sam Peckinpah.

This essay was originally written for the anthology Super/Heroes: from Hercules to Superman , edited by Wendy Haslem, Angela Ndalianis and Chris Mackie (2007), and published with the kind permission of New Academia Publishing , Washington.


  1. Pablo says:

    This is by far the best article i have read about wrestling masks, especially the part about the mexican masks is very impressive and detailed. Also thank you for adding the bibliography and the endnotes.