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Rubenstein - El Santo’s Strange Career Anne Rubenstein it...

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Unformatted text preview: El Santo’s Strange Career Anne Rubenstein it seems safe to say that most readers oftth book will have at least a nodding acquain- tance with the Mexican “macho,” that volatile, violent, unpredictable character who sneers and smiths his way through so many Hollywood westerns, who is immortal- ized in ballads ofsmugglers and bandidos, and who was transformed into a veritable archetype by such intellectuals as Octavio Fag and Samuel Ramos. It may surprise some readers, then. to learn that one of the most popular Mexican media icons of the 1950s, 19603, and 19705 was infact a sober; decent, pious, andfittherlyfiellow in white tights and a silver lame mask who called himself “El Santo” (the Saint). From the wrestling ring to the silver screen, El Santo battled evil in gentlemanly fashion, gain- ing afanutically devotedfiillowing in the process. For the thousands ofpoor migrants who poured into Mexico City and other urban centers fiom the countryside in search ofwork and the attractions of modern life after World War H, pastimes such as lucha libre (wrestling) and the movies not only represented life’s simple pleasures, but also taught new behaviors and ways ofnegotiating the tricky urban environment. As Anne Rubenstein of Yorle University argues in the following essay, El Santa was a uniquely Mexican phenomenon, one who must be taken seriously for what he represented as well as for the legacy he left behind. Rubenstein's writings have significantly advanced our understanding of Mexican popular culture since 1940, particularly the influente that forms of mass culture (for example, the movies, comic books, and lucha libre) have had in shaping the identities ofworhing—class men and women. The first thing about El Santoito his fans, anyhow—was that he was beau- tiful. To look at him now, captured on film in his heyday as the champion wrestler and most important professional athlete of the twentieth century in Mexico, you might think he was just a slightly flabby man in tight white pants and a silver lamé mask. But watch the geometric precision with which he rolls out from under his opponent, the contained force with which he bounces from the ropes toward his partner: this is a gorgeous display of masculine grace and dignity. El Santo in the ring was not so much a sports star as he was El Santa’s Strange Career 571 a brilliant dancer, working in close collaboration with the referees and the lesser stars who fought him. The esthctic beauty of his movement suggested the moral worth of his actions. As in the rest of the world, professional wrestling in Mexico (where it is called lucha libre) is more an entertainment than an athletic contestithat is, most of the bouts have fixed endings. But this form of entertainment has political and moral implications. The world of lucha libre is divided between l0s rudos, who fight dirty and usually win, and los te'cnicos, who play by the rules and often lose. Mirroring postrevolutionary political reality, the referees often refuse to enforce the rules evenhandedly, ignoring the misdeeds of the rudos; often, the técnicos can win only by breaking the rules themselves. But técnicos and rudos both have their fans, and both present themselves as co— workers or relatives. El Santo told Elena Poniatowska in [977, "in the ring we are all enemies, but when the fight is over everyone is a friend . . . the sport makes us all a big family." As in workplace and in family relations, struggles for dominance can take symbolic forms. In lucha libre, a final victory is marked by the unmasking ofthe loser, which has enormous symbolic importance as a loss of face, of masculine status. In Mexican wrestling, the mask can be a mark ofa real man. And El Santo, in more than five thousand bouts, never lost his mask. El Santo started his career as a teenage rudo, fighting under his own name, Rodolfo Guzman. But a referee, spotting his star potential, convinced Guze man to name himself after the referee’s favorite comic~strip character, the Saint. Guzman put on the silver—lanai: mask that became his trademark, and a matching silver cape. Gracious in victory, conspicuously religious, he devel— oped thc dignified bearing that seemed to suit his title. Some years later he became a técnico, but by then he was already a beloved star. His real name remained a secret, but his audience soon learned the outline of his life story from radio announcers, newspaper sports sections, and fan magazines. El Santo's life started out resembling many of his fans’ biographies: born into rural poverty, in his youth he migrated with his family to Mexico City, where they lived in urban poverty instead. As a teenageruas if he were starring in one of the radionovelas and comic-book melodramas that were Mexico’s most popular form of mass media at the timeicuzmén's athletic prowess lifted his family into the new middle class. Fans also learned ofthc prayers El Santo recited before each match, his close relationship with his older brother, his marriage, and his ten children. E1 Santo became a workingclass hero at the precise moment when Mexico‘s urban industrial working class reached the peak of its power and prosperity. 572 Anne Rubens rein El Santo greets fans in Chapultepec Park. l'nlClIQSOS. (Collecion Enrique Diaz, Fototeca del Archive General de la Nacion, Mexico City. Reprinted by permission.) Surrealist Cartoons And at that moment, too, he began to reach a far broader audience: he be- came a comic-book character. The agent ofthis transformation, the cartoonist and publisherjosé G. Cruz, was himselfextraordinarily important to Mexican popular culture, a popular and prolific creator of the melodramatic adven- ture serials that most suited readers' tastes at the time. His innovation was the futonovela, a serial narrative conveyed through posed photographs rather than drawings; in the 1940s he produced them nearly single-handed, some— times putting out episodes ofthree daily serials at a time. Cruz used whatever came to hand—photographs, drawings. old prints, whatever he could find—— to meet the seemingly insatiable public demand for these comic books. In the early 19505, Cruz set up his own publishing house. Among his new projects was a fotonovela called El Santa, cl Enmascarado dc Plato. Cruz hired El Santo to "act" in weekly installments beginning in 1953. This fotonovela was an im- mediate hit; within a year. Cruz was producing three installments a week. By 1977, he was printing goo,ooo copies of every issue. it helped make Cruzi though not E1 Santo -— rich. Rodolfo Guzman was to discover in 1977. when he sued Cruz for royalties, that the publisher had long since taken out a copyright on the name and image of El Santo. The fotonovela gave El Santo a whole new set ofopponents. instead of fele El Santa’s Strange Career 573. low wrestlers with whom he was complicit, El Santo now fought werewolves, witches, vampires, and sometimes even the devil himself. The fotonovelas’ plots usually featured an innocent young working-class boy, but sometimes a pretty young middle—class woman, who discover that they are in terrible trouble, often supernatural. Nobody believes them until a wise friend or neighbor or relative (inevitably an older male) advises them to seek out El Santo. The victimized person finds El Santo in his Mexico City office. The wrestler listens gravely and vows to help. Then he goes to the arena for a wrestling match. That interruption over with, he tracks down the villains and brings them to justice if they are human, or to church if they are not. in espe- cially difficult moments, Santo implores the aid of the Virgin of Guadalupe. She always answers, often appearing in the pages ofthe fotonovela in the form ofa picture cut from a mass card. The Santo of the fotonovela was not the Santo of the wrestling arena. The version of El Santo pictured in the fotonovela lacked visual consistency; it still was cobbled together from old photographs recycled with new word bal- loons. new photographs with other actors in El Santo’s costume, and posters and stills from El Santo’s movies, wrestling matches. and other public appear- ances. This new El Santo had changed social class. In the arena, El Santo was clearly a worker: his fans could see him engaged in sweaty, physical labor in close collaboration with his fellow laborers on the "shop floor” ofthe arena. in the fotonovela, however, El Santo wore a suit (even though he kept his mask on) and usually appeared at the beginning ofa new story working alone, behind a desk, in an olfice. He used new "scientific" gadgets to help him. a conspicuous display of higher education. And, like a businessman or bureau? crat, he aided clients who came to his office for help. El Santo, in sum, joined the new Mexican middle class when he entered the world of the comic book. The Movie Star and Los Churros By the middle ofthe 1950s, El Santo was ubiquitous in Mexico. The fotonovelas were selling well. He wrestled frequently, all over the country, sometimes losing a match but always remaining champion. His audience in these arenas was largely working-class people —a ticket for a cheap seat at the luchas cost slightly less than a cheap seat at the movies. Between [955 and. 1957 the most important wrestling matches were televised, helping this new form of media become an important part ofthe decor in most Mexican barbershops, bus sta- tions and taco stands. Watching El Santo wrestle on television was for most 574 Aime Rubenstein people as communal an experience as going to the luchas in person. From tele- vision and fotonovelas, it was a natural step to cinema. El Santo did not star in a film until 1959, seven years after the first lucha libre movie was released. But his first pictureilil Sarita versus the Evil Brain—became the biggest hit that the Mexican film industry had produced in years. E1 Santo went on to make more than fifty more movies over the next two decades, while maintaining a full~time wrestling schedule through 1977. None of these movies were particularly good. El Santo cheerfully admitted to being a bad actor. claiming that his fans went to see his films only out of pity for him. Cari]. Mora, an eminent scholar of Mexican cinema, calls the era in which their production began as "the darkest days” of the nation‘s film industry. Other recent histories of Mexican cinema simply ignore El Santo's movies altogether, thus avoiding the awkward business of denouncing the most profitable Mexican movies made from the 19505 until the release of Like Water for Chocolate in 1993. Such movies are commonly called charms, a ref, erence to ubiquitous, machine-made crullers: not nutritious. but quick and cheap, delicious, and somehow profoundly Mexican. The plots of El Santo's churros followed much the same pattern as his foto- novelas, as does the form, which was conditioned by low budgets, tight schede ules. episodic format, and Rodolfo Guzman’s other obligations and minimal acting abilities. Most of these movies were designed to be shown on television. so they are black—and-white (until about 1968) and written to fall into three or four more or less self-contained segments. They also made extensive use of stock footage—for instance, one shot of somebody in a Santa suit, who may or may not have been Guzman, climbing a wall, appears six times in El Santa Fights the Witches. Every movie filled time with film of El Santo's real— life wrestling matches. And because he was a bad actor and because his time was so valuable, Guzman did not speak his own lines; other actors looped in his dialogue, sometimes to comic effect. There was one way in which'the Santo movies differed radically from the fotonovelas. Both the fotonovelas and the films portrayed El Santo as an edu- cated bureaucrat, a member of the upper middle classes with a fancy car, suits, an office, and the latest gadgets. But in the fotonovelas his clientele (who of course stood in for the audience) were poorer than he was, often boys not much different than the boy whom the audience knew El Santo once had been. In the films El Santo most often saves light-skinned, well-dreSSed women who also drive fancy cars. His clientele, in other words, hadjoined El Santo in the Mexican elite, leaving the vast majority of his audience behind. El Santa‘s Strange Career 575 El Santa’s Posthumous Career E1 Santo retired from professional wrestling in 1977, after thirty-five years in the arena. Toward the end, it required elaborate strategies to enable El Santo to participate without making it too obvious that the rudos were letting him win. After retirement, he unsuccessfully suedjosé G. Cruz for royalties, and Cruz. shut down the fotonovela. Rodolfo Guzman died two years after his last movie appeared, in 1984, and was mourned vigorously; not since the death of the great singer and movie star Pedro infante had a celebrity’s funeral at, tracted such crowds. But El Santo’s career did not end with Rodolfo Guzman’s funeral. Artists and film-makers adapted the masked wrestler's image to their own purposes, often returning El Santa to his origins as a manual laborer (and not always a Victorious one). In a variety of art films and comic strips produced in the 19905, El Santo is cast either as a benevolent but detached apparition or as an ordinary man, one who takes the metro, farts, and has trouble with women. An interesting twist on the theme of the masked wrestler who defends the poor, the weak and the innocent came with the advent of the political activ- ist Superbarrio (who may or may not also be a "real" wrestler). Unlike the avant-garde cartoonists and independent filmmakers who had previously cre- ated El Santo’s posthumous career, Superbarrio could draw a crowd. Playing on the familiar themes of lucha libre, this housing-rights crusader realized that the Mexican state could not co-opt or corrupt an anonymous person. So he borrowed the persona ofa masked luchador to confront landlords, orga- nize demonstrations and attend government meetings, speaking on behalfof the organized groups of homeless and poor people in Mexico City. In the aftermath ofthe devastating 1985 earthquake and the equally devastating 1994 economic crisis, he was a sign of hope for city—dwellers. (He has taken to com- menting on world issues, too, as when he offered his services as a poll watcher to the United States after the November 2.000 election debacle.) Other masked wrestlers have taken up other issues in defense ofchildren. gay men, and lesbi- ans, and the environment. The most notable ofthese other "social wrestlers" is Ecologista Universal, whose activism brought the struggle against the Laguna Verde nuclear power plant into public view. Even the ski masks used by the Zapatistas in Chiapas might refer to the powerful place of the benevolent masked wrestler in Mexicans' imaginations. 576 Amie Rubenstein El Santa vs. The Macho A single thread connects all of El Santo’s positions within Mexican popular cula ture both before and after Guzman's death. No matter what his social position is or what activities he engages in, the figure of El Santo always personifies a particular image of the good Mexican man: the virtuous man, in stereotype, as the opposite and twin of the stereotypical Mexican macho. Mexican mass media deploys two contrasting stereotypes in presenting an image ofthe good man. Mexican descriptions of machismo often seem both affectionate and mock- ing. Alma Guillermoprieto reported on the self-conscious use of macho be- havior (drinking and weeping at parties, in this case) as an enjoyable catharsis for middle-class men who clearly understand that they are playing a slightly ridiculous role. And in one of the earliest portraits of machismo, the 1946 movie hit Los tres Garcia, writer/director Ismael Rodriguez made all three of the film‘s macho menithe slick womanizer, the dreamy poet, and the drunken lout played by Pedro lnfante—look foolish, though charming, as their ferocious grandmother bosses them around. (And the least macho ofthe three, the gentle poet, gets the girl.) Indeed, outside of Octavio Paz, it seems that relatively few Mexicans in the twentieth century have seen machismo as a unitary, definable, and entirely serious condition. Using El Santo's career as evidence, we can see at least two forms of ideal masculinity. which can be defined by contrasts. Call one the macho and the other, the counter-macho. This counter-macho is self-controlled while the macho is impulsive; he is orderly while the macho is unruly; he is celibate or monogamous while the macho has many women (though perhaps only one true love); he nurtures a family while the macho keeps his distance from his children; he is sober while the macho is drunk, and modest where the macho is boastful. But the two stereotypes share important characteristics. Neither is a loner: the counter-macho looks out for his own children and perhaps for other people who may be more or less clients of his, and the macho shares powere ful bonds of loyalty to his male peers and has strong feelings for his mother. Both are powerful: the counteremacho rules through quiet commands and self-discipline, and the macho through persuasive displays of violence. Both are highly sexual: stories about counter-macho characters frequently include scenes in which they reluctantly turn down the advances ofthe women who are overwhelmingly attracted to them (as E] Santo does in nearly all his films), while stories about machos frequently take as their theme the macho's cle- struction at the hands ofan unsuitable lover. Both display patriotism, though the counter-macho may be thinking ofthe good ofthe nation while the macho El Santa’s Strange Career 577 more often speaks ofand represents his local region, as characters played b Pedro lnfante and jorge Negrete so often did in their charm (cowboy) movie); ofthe [9403 and 19503. These stereotypes define two possible positions for male stars to take. both ofwhich can be —usually are—seen positively. At the wres- tling arena, Mexicans root for both rudos and técnicos. Television in Mexico and in the Mexican diaspora in the United States, endleSSly recycles the old movies that star machos like jorge Negrete as well as counter-machos like El Santo; both have remained heroic figures. El Santo should be seen as an exemplary counteremacho. His style as a wrestler emphasized suave control of his opponent rather than brute force In his films and fotonovelas, he was forever turning away the advances ofgor: geous women—both the innocent victims of the female vampires, and the attractive monsters themselvesibecause audiences knew that the "real" El Santo had a happy home life, a long-standing marriage, and many children Neither El Santo nor the "real" Rodolfo Guzman drank or smoked in public. as constantly reiterated by movie dialogue praising his purity. In the wres: tLing ring he was often called in to "rescue" other técnicos from the violent wiles of their cheating rudo adversaries. while in the movies and fotonovelas he made a career of rescuing people from the forces of evil. His rare public pronouncements conveyed his piety and modesty. The figure of El Santo, through its many transformations over halfa cen- tury, reminds us that this stereotypical image of the good man can be found m representations ofall classes, but perhaps not all ages. Recall that Rodolfo Guzman began wrestling as a rudo, waiting years before taking on the idena tity ofa tecnico, and that the older he got, the more audiences loved him. The counter-macho must rely on—and displayfi a certain authority which would sit oddly on the shoulders ofa teenager. And this authority is both the essence and the political function ofthe stereotype. Consider, for instance, the split between the public images ofthe Avila Ca- macho brothers,just at the moment that El Santo’s career got underway in the 19405. Manuel Avila Camacho, who was president from £940 to 1946, was an ex- emplary counterumacho, with a deliberately constructed persona as a home- body, a church—goer, a prude, and a calm compromiser. His brother—army general and Puebla governor Maximino Avila Camacho — had well-publicized deSlgns on the presidency. exotic mistresses, many out-of-wedlock offsprin a powerful physique, and a violent and infamous political career. Maximitfbl embodied the macho stereotype, at least in the national imagination It is ver unlikely that these men deliberately designed their public behavior for medi: purposes. But their story both fell into and helped to reinforce the categories of macho and counter-macho. This, in turn. supported two related, central 578 Anne Rubenstein political aims of Manuel Avila Camacho’s presidency. He hoped to convince Mexicans that the revolution was over". and he had to show that his govern, ment was the legitimate heir to the revolution. The figure of his charismatic brother helped remind the citizenry that such macho revolutionaries can also be unpredictable. violent, and dangerous. Perhaps such admirable men would be best left slightly to the side of contemporary politics. The President's so, cial and political conservatism, by contrast. looked modern (and safe). Yet the familial relationship and political partnership between the two men also re- minded Mexicans of the connection between the two styles of politician, sug- gesting that this form of the post—revolutionary did draw from a revolutionary heritage. The macho, in other words, is always receding into the past. (The ulti- mate macho wears ranchero costume. after all. referring to a past that is no less real for being mythological). The counterrmacho. conversely. lives in the futureiperhaps an institutional Revolutionary future ofperfectjustice, per haps a modernized Future of technological progress and material abundance. El Santo represented the future and often battled with dangerous figures of a storybook past: ageless witches or aristocratic vampires or werewolves from "the old country.” Both stereotypes are means of legitimizing present-day structures of authority. which the macho does through the invocation of “Ira dition" and the counter-macho does by offering the hope of transcendence. A Conclusion Look again at El Santo’s apparitions after the death of Rodolfo Guzman. and you can see that the figure ofthe counter—macho (like the figure ofthe macho) is now open to question. in the movies and the funnies, this exemplary counteremacho has also become a part of the past, under threat by an onrushe ing future in which he no longer has a secure place. Maybe the stereotype is disappearing, or maybe both stereotypes have been reduced to mere kitsch. But as we consider the political activist Superbarrio. other possible futures for the anti-macho style of Mexican masculinity emerge: at new style ofauthority, a new set of temptations that the good man must refuse, perhaps even a new class position from which it may be possible to hope. After the Earthquake Victims’ Coordinating Council On September 19. 1985. a powerjitl earthquake, followed by a second devastating tremor; struck the heart of Mexico City, killing at least eight thousand people, leaving many more injured or homeless, and damaging about 34 billion worth of property. The government’s ofien slow and self-serving response to the emergency angered many people, and out of the rubble grew several important organizations. Probably the most important was the con (Coordination: Unica de Damnificadas. or Victims’ Co- ordinating Council), which was itself composed of some twenty neighborhood groups formed to demand greater government responsiveness to the disaster As detailed in the recollections of con activists reprinted in this section, the immediate response to the Coordinating Council‘s ejj‘brts was practically magical. With flew resources or means ofcommunication, the con was able to mobilize impressive demonstrations and get tangible results. In the late 1980:, however; without an emergency to respond to, the Council was shaken by lack of direction and political infighting. Nevertheless. some observers claim that the earthquake spawned a new spirit of urban social activ- ism that had a powerfitl influence on both the 1988 presidential election. which many claim was won by opposition candidate Cuauhtémoc Cdrdenas and stolen by the PR1, and the historic election ofjuly 1997, which resulted in Crirdenas’s becoming the first nonepriista mayor of Mexico City. Paco Saucedo: Reconstruction was made possible by the popular organizations that already einsted and by those that were created, and also by a great. well-channeled solidarity. I believe that this was the first defeat the PRI suffered. [ first realized this one day . . . when Cosio Vidaurri, Secretary General ofthe Government of Federal District. arrived with his famous water barrels. the ones that were I brought by an international society to provide us with drinking water. We got Elbe word that those barrels had been held up for four or five days because they ad to put the rat's logo on them; so when Cosio arrived the people were . Vflfyangry and they showed him their displeasure at how the aid was being “ manipulated. . . . ...
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