By John Burns.

It seems that a number of historians and critics of Mexican film would be happier if the films starring lucha libre wrestler Santo had never been produced. One British university’s website on Mexican cinema called the Santo films “invariably stupid.” In Carl J. Mora’s exhaustive study of Mexican cinema, he labels Santo’s films as being of “atrocious quality” (1989: 102). Another notable critic of Mexican cinema, Paulo Antonio Paranguá used Santo’s films to justify the following statement: “At the end of the 60s it was clear that economically and structurally Mexican cinema was in bad shape” (1995: 99). Nevertheless, more than fifty Santo movies were in fact produced and many of them found a substantial public that, despite its limited disposable income, was willing to pay to see them in largely Hollywood-dominated domestic and regional cinema markets.

Instead of blithely dismissing lucha libre films as “hellish disasters” (García Riera 1978: 480),[1] I propose we ask just who this Santo figure was, and why it would have been of interest to Mexican production companies to transpose the silver masked man from the wrestling ring to the silver screen, and further, why people might have paid to see what some scholars label as garbage. To answer these questions we will look at the following factors: the lucha libre phenomenon itself in Mexico; the economic conditions of Mexican cinema in the decades prior to the Santo films, specifically the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, which set the tone for the production of popular film fare; finally, the discouraging economic conditions of the Mexican film industry during the 1960s and 70s, the two decades in which most of the Santo films themselves were made. Within these contextual parameters we will consider the Santo film texts in their circuit of domestic consumption with a brief consideration of their movement in some rather surprising international circles.

Throughout this article I hope to suggest that despite the limiting factors such as competition from the imported U.S. superhero model (The Phantom, Superman), the low production values or the glaring flaws of craftsmanship, the figure of Santo was capable of resonating with audiences for a number of reasons. I will touch upon some of the possible reasons and briefly trace his continued resonance as a pop culture icon in and beyond Mexico.

SANTO ring villainsThe lucha phenomenon in México probably has its roots in the French occupation of the nineteenth century as something of a carnivalesque sideshow spectacle (Alatriste Galván 2004: 1). It isn’t until the twentieth century that that we see regular mention of the lucha phenomenon in the Mexican press. The first appearance of a lucha champion in Mexico dates all the way back to 1903, and the first mention of Mexican organizations holding regular lucha events can be found in 1910, shortly before the Mexican Revolution (Cárdenas 2003: 3). In the next two decades lucha began to more closely resemble its present form: masked and elaborately garbed wrestlers performing in different parts of the republic on a regular basis through a governing organization (Navarrete 2003: 38).

We can begin to note its change from pure sport to raucous spectacle in the 1920s. In a letter to the mayor dated 5 July 1922, found in the Mexico City Hall archives, we can find an interesting situation described by a city counselor: one of the luchadores in a city-sanctioned lucha event cheated in a match, thus causing the overexcited crowd to nearly riot, until the offending luchador got what he deserved: a punch in the face from the good guy (Bauche 2004: 26-28). The counselor consistently describes the competitors with the black and white moral tones that would characterize the spectacle in its later forms. One competitor is the “correcto luchador” and the other is guilty and fraudulent. The counselor is writing to explain that he used his political power to overrule the decision of the officials that deemed the punch from the “correcto luchador” illegal. He justifies his decision this way: the spectators were pleased. “Isn’t that the best proof, that the public was entirely pleased [by the punch] and felt neither DECEIVED NOR DISRESPECTED” (Ibid.: 28, emphasis in the original).

I mention this letter for several reasons. First it shows how early on the lucha phenomenon was noticeable enough to merit mention in the archives of Mexico City’s government. Second, it shows how the sport was transitioning into the primitive theater form that Roland Barthes would describe over three decades later in “The World of Wrestling.” When Barthes wrote in that essay from his collection Mythologies, “The baser the action of the ‘bastard,’ the more delighted the public is by the blow which he justly receives in return” it’s as if he had copied a line out of this Mexico City counselor’s curious letter (1972: 21). The historical rootedness of the event and its captivating mix of fictional narrativity, physical violence and morality could be seen as a necessary condition for the later lucha films to find their public. The spectacle had had its followers for decades. At its core lucha was a relatively simple morality play that appears to have had some cathartic function for its spectators.

santo_marcianos_poster_largeBy the 1930s the more famous figures of the spectacle were well known enough for Salvador Novo, a prominent member of the literary group Los Contemporáneos that basically shaped the literary norms of Mexico after the Revolution, to include them as references in the little-known essay “Mi lucha (libre).” Calling the luchas, “Much more synthetic than cinema but equally as endowed with a sense of sincere modernity” (2004: 31) and referring to luchadores with such colorful names as “Gorila Macías,” Novo contemplates contemporary world politics as lucha, calling for a match between Stalin and Trotsky “el León de Coyoacán” (Ibid.: 35). As the cinema reference implies, in the 1930s lucha is no longer ambivalently located between sport and spectacle, but has moved firmly toward the side of spectacular narrativity, full of heroes and villains. Even though the lucha films themselves would still be several years from coming into existence, Novo’s tongue-in-cheek use of lucha metaphors foreshadows their cinematic future.

The final touch for the in-ring display of heroism and villainy came in the form of the wrestlers’ attire, specifically the masks. Perhaps the most notable feature of Mexico’s version of professional wrestling (and one of the reasons I am referring to it in this essay as lucha and not as its English-language equivalent) has been, and still is, the abundant number of luchadores who wrestle under a mask. Instead of the saliva-spewing, testosterone-overdosed interview, a staple of American professional wrestling for decades, the luchador frequently communicates his intentions and his significance primarily by means of his mask and his attire. In his autobiography, the luchador Blue Demon, second only to Santo in name-recognition in Mexico, describes how his trainer came up with his masked gimmick in 1948 and how quickly he took to it:

You will use a blue mask with silver trim, blue tights and blue boots. And your name will be Blue Demon.

I agreed because there was always skill in his ideas. I donned the mask that he had had made by an artisan in Monterrey. It was leather and that afternoon I wrestled with my mask in my soul and with my persona as my shadow. I would never wrestle without either in my professional career: they would be my body and soul, my good and evil, my beginning and end. My life would always be an intense blue: deep and always in motion. Never, not even that first time, did the mask bother me. Moreover, I enjoyed the sweat. And I enjoyed the shiny surface that hid my personality, my person; no one, even if they were a friend, could know who I was and who Blue Demon was: the character had been born.” (Blue Demon 1999: 29)

05The mask mystique would function for the spectator as a means of creating a persona, a character that goes beyond the actual flesh-and-blood person underneath it. Look at, for example the tradition of the sons of lucha greats who continue wrestling in their fathers’ outfits and for all intents and purposes simply prolong the life of the persona (El Hijo del Santo and Blue Demon Jr. still pop up frequently on television and are identical in uniform to their predecessors). Of course this also brings many luchadores into the same semiotic sphere of the masked crime fighters of comic books and Saturday matinees.

Lucha became a mass media phenomenon in its own right when it was broadcast over the television in the 1950s. As one critic puts it, “Una de las primeras proezas de la televisión mexicana sería la de llevar hasta el fanatismo el gusto público por la lucha libre.” (One of Mexican television’s first achievements was to carry the public’s taste for lucha libre to the level of fanaticism) (Sánchez 1989: 61). In fact, the first transmission of Televicentro in 1951, Mexico’s second national channel in history, was a lucha event (Mejía Barquera n.d.: 4). Although it was banned for a spell from being broadcast in 1952 (the year coincidentally of the first full-fledged lucha film (Barta 2004: 48), lucha was a fixture of Mexican television, literally speaking, from its inception. What does it mean for lucha to make the leap from popular culture to mass culture? As Jesús Martín Barbero writes, mass culture is “a culture that instead of being a place where social differences are marked becomes a place where those differences are covered up, are denied” (2003: 164, emphasis in the original). Lucha expands its audience beyond the gender and class lines that it had followed as a traveling show. For example, a number of statutes in the laws laid down by state commissions on boxing and lucha had special provisions regarding the attendance of women to lucha events. In Baja, California, as recently as 1976, women were banned from ringside seating by article 257 of that state’s boxing and lucha statute. You could not, of course, ban women from TV-side seating if they chose to tune into the luchas. The potentially unpleasant situations one might experience from physically attending the spectacle (let us recall that up until recently they sold dried-up chicken feet at the entrance of the lucha events in Cuernavaca, Mexico to be flung by the spectators at the performers and, if they so desired, at other spectators) could be entirely avoided, covered up as Martín-Barbero reminds us, by attending virtually.

Television was not the only factor that brought lucha into the age of mechanized reproduction. Mass-produced print media, the so-called fotonovelas helped to further divulgate the spectacle of lucha. These fotonovelas were a sort of comic book with photos of the more famous lucha stars pasted onto fantastic hand-drawn backgrounds depicting their superhero adventures. The mystique of the mask was fully realized in these fantastic narrations, as their semiotic linkage to masked heroes such the Phantom took their pugilistic struggles and converted them into incredible fantasy battles. As one critic put it they existed in “a parareality that could perfectly coexist with real life” (Sánchez 1989: 61). On the one hand, lucha remained in a literal space, the ring, where larger-than-life heroes and villains battled it out in a straight-forward no-frills drama, but thanks to the fotonovelas, lucha came to exist in a virtual space of entirely fictionalized, fantastic battles between good and evil, where the likes of Santo, Blue Demon and El Médico Asesino fought the likes of Satan, the communists and the Martians. In one installment, Santo descends to the underworld to challenge Satan to a fight, startling off demons along the way with an image of the Virgen de Guadalupe. The masked man is eventually tempted by the Prince of Darkness with the promise of wealth and women. The installment ends before we know if Santo will give into temptation, with the simple textual promise, “Conintuará… [To be continued…]” (for reproductions see Bartra 2004: 51-61). With all their bizarre variations, the fotonovelas basically magnified the simple, moralistic narrative quality of the luchador’s in-ring endeavors into complex, imaginary battles for the future of humanity. They tapped into the popular imagination as well as the popular wallet: the penetration rate of the fotonovela is truly remarkable. Armando Bartra estimates that the weekly Santo fotonovela entitled Revista atómica snagged about a 1,500,000 readers a week in a country at that time of about 35,000,000 people (2004: 51).

santofrentealamuerteGiven the success of the print and broadcast forms of lucha libre, the transition of these fictions to the cinema does not seem all that surprising. Lucha was in its origins a narrative spectacle, and thanks to the fotonovela the possibilities for narrative constructions using luchadores was expanded and likely even established some of the norms that the lucha film would follow, such as the inclusion of fantastic, evil monsters, mad scientists, damsels in distress and extraterrestrial seductresses. The transition from ring to fotonovela to silver screen was not as outlandish as it might seem at first thought.

Just what kind of cinema were these fictions transitioning into? Though there were lucha wrestlers included in some of the earliest Mexican feature films ever produced, the lucha film itself didn’t enter production until the 1950s, and the first film actually starring the man who would become synonymous with the genre, Santo, wasn’t produced until 1961. I will argue that the cultural tastes and industrial practices that were established and advanced in the 1930s, 40s and 50s helped to facilitate the production of lucha feature films.

If we insert the lucha film tradition into the larger tradition of Mexican films for the popular classes, we could begin by looking at the post-Revolution film production of the 1930s. Film production enjoyed state sponsorship in the form of the Cinematográfica Latinoamericana S.A.’s world-class studios, “as up to date as any Hollywood or European facility” (Mora 1989: 43), founded in 1934 during the first year of Lázaro Cárdenas’s presidency. Cárdenas was also responsible for instituting a quota system for national film exhibition in 1939 (García Riera 1963: 48). What films were being produced to meet the quotas? For a number of reasons, the comedia ranchera is probably the most important genre to consider in this period. For one, the release in 1936 of the first comedia ranchera, Allá en el rancho grande, established a particularly “Mexican” genre for domestic audiences. Although sombreros and farm animals abound, these are not to be confused with U.S.-style Westerns. As Mora writes, these films are not analogous with nostalgic U.S. films about the expansion westward, but are rather about,

“a minutely ordered feudal society in which the hacendado presides with paternalistic yet firm authority over his socioeconomic inferiors – the hacienda’s employees, tenants, and, of course, women. [—] It is the idealization of an attitude firmly rooted not only in the Porfirian past but in Mexico’s colonial tradition and can be said to reflect a powerful conservative tendency in the society.” (1989: 47, emphasis in the original)

Produced some sixteen years after the end of the Revolution, the films did not challenge the state that sponsored them, nor did they echo the Revolutionary cry for “Tierra y libertad.” Rather they advocated the status quo and followed the general cultural trend of stridently nationalist post-Revolutionary art in Mexico (Levy and Bruhn 2001: 46). Speaking in an overly broad manner, we can say it set the tone for Mexican film in general for decades to come in this respect. As the Latin American film critic Ana López notes, “Mexican cinema, like the revolution, has been a ‘frozen’ icon: often a hegemonic cultural force throughout the Americas while interestingly […] dissociated from the principal cinematic trends of the continent” (quoted in Alemán 2005: 101). The Mexican cinema industry would rarely want to budge from its tried and true formulas and would rarely want to present an overt challenge to authority in the next three decades.

Perhaps a contributing factor to this conservatism was precisely the success of Allá en el rancho grande in foreign markets throughout Latin America. As Antonio Parangúa writes,

“The extraordinary success of [Allá en el rancho grande] did not take [the producers] by surprise: they immediately invested large sums of money to finance a good number of films that, given the favorable reaction in foreign markets, would simply repeat the formula.” (1995: 84)

The success of the comedia ranchera genre established Mexico’s power in the Latin American film market as an alternative to Hollywood, with its own distinct style and substance. As Gabriela Alemán puts it, thanks to Mexican cinema’s regional penetration since the 1930s “Mexican images, icons and music had been Latin Americanized and they were a recognizable part of a common heritage” (2005: 101). In short, in the 1930s the Mexican film industry began to produce a great number of formulaic, conservative films that were regarded in Latin America as decidedly different from Hollywood for obvious linguistic, cultural and geographical reasons.

santo-invasion-marcianos-723051Often referred to as the “Época de oro [Golden Age]” of Mexican cinema, the 1940s was a decade in which the stars of Mexican cinema enjoyed enormous fame throughout the Latin American region. García Riera cites the likes of Cantinflas, Jorge Negrete, María Félix and Pedro Infante to state the following: “For many Latin American spectators the Mexican stars would outshine those of Hollywood” (1963:  48). Despite this star system and Mexican cinema’s status as an alternative to Hollywood, the Mexican cinema industry would slowly grow more and more economically dependent on Hollywood during the subsequent sexenios (six-year administrations) of Presidents Alemán and Avila Camacho. As the U.S. approached World War II, the U.S. film industry saw México as an increasingly important place of film production, and supplied the raw material to make films, celluloid itself, as well as many pro-U.S. propaganda films to the Mexican government. This had two important consequences for the industry: first, it established the Mexican film industry’s dependence for material resources on U.S. providers, and it also created, at least with the propaganda films whose penetration was truly remarkable, a taste for U.S. films’ “enduring transnational visual vocabulary” (Fein, 1998: 407).

In terms of the larger Latin American regional market, U.S. anti-fascist propaganda efforts would also serve to bolster economic support for Mexican cinema. Not only do we see U.S. material aid at the site of production in the Mexican studios, but we also see a decreased amount of competition from Hollywood in the Latin American markets. As one critic sums it up: “Audiences in the Spanish-speaking world were not attracted by Hollywood war films, and thus one of the repercussions was that, for the first time, Mexican cinema did not have to compete with Hollywood for foreign market shares” (Herschfield 1999: 35).

nostalgia-personajes-santoenmascarado4The situation changed dramatically in the 1950s. For one thing, Mexico lost its privileged place in the global market as a Spanish-language film producer. After World War II, the U.S. wasn’t as hesitant about aiding the Spanish and Argentine industries: Spain and Argentina’s fascist leanings weren’t so threatening in a world where the new perceived threat did not come from the extreme right but rather from the extreme left. As Seth Fein explains, the U.S. was, in purely monetary terms, Mexico’s biggest foreign market, but U.S. trade policy began to favor an increased importation of Spanish and Argentine-produced films. By the late 1940s Hollywood was also perceived as exerting pressure on exhibition venues in Mexico to disregard national film quotas, thus prompting President Alemán to make an attempt at protectionist measures, such as taxes on U.S. films.[2] This in turn caused the U.S. to adopt stricter trade policies to even further decrease Mexico’s share of the lucrative U.S. Spanish-speaking market (Fein 1999: 133-150). In essence, the ground gave out beneath the Mexican film industry’s feet.

The Mexican government’s reaction to this uncertain economic footing was to essentially turn the industry into a state-run monopoly that, with some exceptions, would last into the 1970s (De la Vega 1999: 178). What was this monopolized industry’s solution to its economic woes? In a word, it was a matter of keeping costs low and the themes simple. It was also a matter of keeping with the traditions that had made the Mexican film industry a large player in the Spanish-speaking market: conservative, formulaic texts anchored with the most solid star power they could muster. The funding of films underwent a radical restructuring with the so-called Garduño Plan of 1953 (named for the man who took the helm of the Banco Cinematográfico that year). The state, through its Banco Cinematográfico, would lend capital for film production based on a production company’s track record and a number of other relevant factors, such as the actors involved, the genre and so on. As potentially beneficial as that situation may sound in theory, many cineastes felt they were left out of the loop in which the state’s money circulated. As John King describes the plan in Magical Reels:

“State capital thus supported the private investment of certain producers dedicated to the quick commercialization of churros (‘quickies’ named after the doughy sweetmeat, a breakfast staple). The state would also pick up the tabs of any losses and so keep in place a mafia of directors, actors, technicians and studio workers.” (1990: 130)

So just how did this “mafia” work? And how did Santo make himself a member? Even though the industry’s funding by the Banco Cinematográfico is a central complaint in the many laments of Mexican cinema’s sorry state in the 1950s and 1960s, we should recall that, in all likelihood, Santo’s “hellish disasters” did not require the “mafia” in order to save the cinematic day. According to Jorge Ayala Blanco’s estimates, Santo’s films basically funded the early 1960s production in Estudios América, the third largest studio operating in Mexico at the time, (García Riera 1978: 214). According to Federico Heuer, the former chief of the Banco Cinematográfico, Estudios América was worth about 15,000,000 pesos in 1963 (1963: 14). To put that into perspective, the entire Mexican cinema industry brought in approximately 106,000,000 pesos in the box office in 1963 (Gomez 1991:  36). Santo was an indisputable box office champion.

SCDAs another example of the early economic success of these films, we can take the case of Santo contra el cerebro diabólico (Santo Against the Diabolical Brain) in 1963. On its opening night alone it earned about 125,000 pesos (García Riera 1978: 10). Knowing that the ticket price was probably around 4.00 pesos per ticket in 1962 (Gómez 1991: 55), this translates to roughly 31,000 moviegoers for the first day. By recent block booking standards, that number may not sound terribly impressive, but considering that it was given its first run in only eight cinemas in Mexico City (García Riera Historia 1978: 111) then it might be seen as a veritable cultural phenomenon. To give that first night’s earning a context, the state only gave 11 of its 47 production companies around 300,000 pesos or less to conduct their business for an entire year in 1963 (see Heuer 1963: 11-12). In fact, that film’s first night numbers match the entire budget of one company, Producciones Olmeca, for the whole of 1963 (Ibid.: 11).

As a whole, the state-supported production companies in the 1960s did horribly. Although the purpose of the Banco Cinematográfico was to cut risks in film production and give producers access to the necessary capital to keep the industry productive, the Banco did so, after all, with the intention of recouping its investments at some point in the future. The plan, however, was simply not working for most film productions. Of all the funds it loaned to production companies in 1965, for example, it was only capable of recouping, when all was said and done, 23 percent of its investment (Gomez 1991: 54).

Santo’s track record, then, made it a much more viable candidate for the Banco’s startup loans. The Banco Cinematográfico, like any “mafia”, had well established rules. The criteria that decided whether a production would get funded are listed in the Banco’s regulatory norms as follows:

a) Subject matter, adaptation, quality and commerciality based on previous films by the same producer or films analogous in the genre, production plan, filming time, director, cast etc.

b) The degree to which the film constitutes a positive reflection of the reality and mindset of Mexico, its history and its aspirations or its interpretation of great universal themes.

c) Possible earnings for the film in the territories of the three distributors and the measure in which these markets are maintained or expanded.

d) Moral and economic antecedents of the soliciting party with regards to the contracted obligations with the distributors.

e) The projected production budgets, thoroughly revised. To this end, the Bank could request clarifying data from the producer that it deemed necessary.

(Gomez 1991: 51)

There were four categories of loans, “A” through “D”, depending on how many criteria the proposed production met. Achieving “category A” meant the Banco would put up 85 percent of the money required to enter production, while achieving “category D” would garner only 65 percent of the funds needed (Gomez 1991: 51). Obviously, production companies wanted to make films that were as bankable as possible and politically risk-free, lest they sully Mexico’s image. As more and more films flopped and defaulted on their loans, less and less risk was tolerated by the Banco, creating a vicious cycle of low-budget, low-risk films.

As I’ve stated, Santo’s box office success helped support a very unstable industry. For that reason, the money that his films earned didn’t go directly back into the production of future Santo films. The very same cost-cutting norms that applied to other films also applied to the films of the Silver Masked Man. Even his initial salary of 15,000 pesos for films in the early sixties, was pretty paltry when compared to the average budget for stars’ salaries of 100,000 pesos in the 1950s (Heuer 1963: 33). The budgetary limitations are evident in most of Santo’s films where the fight scenes are done in one take, without stunts worthy of stuntmen, with makeup jobs on the monsters that look like they were applied by the actors to themselves, and with flying saucers that look like yo-yos without the string.

There is another budgetary limitation, however, that is less visible to the spectator’s eyes. All Mexican feature-length films funded by the state in theory had to be filmed in the studios associated by workers associated with the STPC (Sindicato de Trabajadores de Producción Cinematográfica, the filmmakers’ union for those who worked on feature-length films). The studios that were designated for the STIC (Sindicato de Trabajadores de la Industria Cinematográfica, the union for those who worked on film shorts, documentaries and series) were significantly cheaper to use since the union wages of those workers were significantly less. The resources available in those studios were also sub par when compared to the resources of the better-funded union (see Mora 1989: 102-103; Riera 1978: 8-12; De la Vega 1999: 176-178). How, then, did some of the Santo films (for example, the very economically successful Santo contra el cerebro diabólico), get away with carrying out their production in studios that, legally speaking, they shouldn’t have even been using? The answer is very simple. When Filmadora Panamericana released Santo contra el cerebro diabólico they bundled it as a series of short, episodic films. Even though it formed a (somewhat) coherent whole, the films official status was as a series of shorter films, not as a feature-length film.

Santo_en_el_museo_de_cera-810936715-largeAdding to budgetary woes was the fact that innovation was not a welcome element of state-supported filmmaking. As a result, we get some easily discernible plot-recycling within Santo’s movies. Let’s take for example, Santo en el museo de cera (Santo in the Wax Museum) from 1963, which is the inspiration for the title of this piece, and Santo y Blue Demon contra los monstruos (Santo and Blue Demon Versus the Monsters) from 1969. In both movies, a mad scientist has animated a series of legendary monsters with the intent of doing all sorts of evil things. In both movies Santo must grapple with the mad scientist’s evil henchman. After that, Santo must grapple with the individual monsters, who include the Werewolf, Frankenstein, Dracula, the Mummy and something that looks like it crawled out of the Blue Lagoon. In both movies there is a gratuitous wrestling match thrown in for good measure and, of course, there are females who need to be rescued from all the dastardly villains that populate the screen.

Here we should note that the wrestling match and the female roles are in some degree different between the two films. In Santo en el museo de cera, the wrestling match pits Santo against one of the evil scientist’s henchmen who has hidden himself under a mask. The match can be seen as moving the plot along since it foreshadows the final battle between Santo and the scientist’s lackeys in his laboratory. In Santo y Blue Demon contra los monstruos the wrestling match occurs at the beginning of the film, and it is a tag-team match between masked women that Santo watches, with approving nods, from back behind the doors dressing rooms, making the footage seem entirely gratuitous if not superfluous.

10295796The female roles in the two films also differ. In the first film, Santo attempts to rescue the bride-to-be of a respectable young man from the clutches of the mad scientist, restoring order to society. In the 1969 film, Santo makes out with every female actress he shares the screen with, from the mad scientist’s daughter who appears to be his girlfriend, to the vampire women who, in theory, he would have to be fighting against. With the later film it may be easier to see the influence of the Banco Cinematográfico’s criteria, with so much emphasis on preserving and expanding existing markets, on making the most commercially successful film possible. It is as if the later movie’s creative crew brainstormed all the potentially commercially-enticing elements they could think of (scantily-clad women grapplers, the hero kissing the lady, no wait! The hero kissing the vampire lady) and tossed them into the movie without considering their effects on the narrative whole. The state-supported commercial system was, as we have said, stuck in its own vicious production cycle.

The potential for corruption in Mexico’s film industry at this time is patently obvious. As Tomás Pérez Turrent describes the methods of many film producers in the 1960s,

“Traditionally, these producers operated on credit from the National Cinematographic Bank…inflating their budgets to such an extent that the loan, theoretically designed to cover a percentage of the total cost, was enough or almost enough to pay for the whole film. To this was added advance royalties for distribution to some South American countries and thus bad quality cinema became a sure-fire business with few risks.” Quoted in Mora 1989: 110)

Mora goes on to point out that the budget inflation was so great that in some cases producers pocketed a good portion of the money before spending any of it on the films themselves (Ibid.).

Owing to the obvious failures of the Banco Cinematográfico, there were major reforms in the 1970s. Private productions were picking up speed, and in 1971 the majority of movies filmed in Mexico were made with more private funds than state funds (King 1990: 139). During Echeverría’s, presidency, and following the momentous events of 1968, some attempts were made to make state-supported filmmaking a more serious artistic endeavor. A major film school was built (King 1990: 136), and there were stabs at “political cinema, social cinema, quality cinema, cinema to educate and raise consciousness” (Pérez Turrent 1995: 101). By 1976, with the Presidency of López Portillo, the system was radically reformed and became, in theory, a much more free market system. López Portillo’s goal was to “encourage private enterprise” (Mora 1989: 138), and keep the state out of the movie-making business. The Banco Nacional Cinematorgrágfico was liquidated in 1978 (Pérez Turrent 1995: 105). With the demise of the Banco Cinematográfico, its track-record clause, which based its funding on the success of other similar films, was no longer of any use to an aging Santo, who turned 60 in 1977. Not that many investors were interested in putting money behind a pot-bellied action hero whose silver mask covered his silver hair. Santo continued making films into the 1980s, but they were not the box-office powerhouses of the 1960s. As a sign of his decreased box-office pull, we can see that his films were given their first release very often in only one or two theaters and that the time they were allotted in those theaters decreased from around three weeks in the 1960s to about one in the late 1970s (see García Riera 1978 and The Films of El Santo website.)

Santo_Frontera_Del_Terror_Poster01The lucha genre, so attached to the figure of Santo, ran its course when the Silver Masked Man faded into the cinematic woodwork. Looking back on the totality of the films, Santo’s movies themselves were always strange hybrid texts, constantly including a nod to the smoky world of lucha halls and arenas, if not actual footage of lucha events mixed in (as with the case of Santo y Blue Demon contra los monstruos, more often than not having nothing whatsoever to do with the film’s plot), inserted in the formulae of the B-series film’s preferred genres: sci-fi, mystery, horror, western and even the later so-called “border film” (such as 1979’s Santo en la frontera de terror [Santo on the Border of Terror] in which Santo must rescue illegal Mexican migrant workers on Mr. Richard’s ranch before they are turned into involuntary organ donors).

If Santo has a seminal work, it is probably 1962’s Santo contra las mujeres vampiro (Santo Against the Vampire Women), which helped elevate him to an iconic status on an international level and probably established some of the textual norms for the consumption of the genre. For whatever reasons, several French film scholars took notice of this work (which in France premiered as Superman [sic] contre les femmes-Vampires), noting its involuntary humor, its grotesque excess and its overall camp quality (Riera 1978: 213-214). Speaking in very broad terms, these scholars seem to have been right about many of the norms of consumption of the lucha film in general. They are texts that give the viewer permission to take pleasure in the sexual and violent excess, incoherence and exaggeration unleashed in the codified good guy vs. bad guys (or gals) text. And their humor, whether involuntary or not, is certainly not lost on spectators, be they domestic or international. As Jorge Ayala Blanco puts it, speaking of Mexican audiences of the Santo films:

The spectators substitute however they can for the lack of comic films and they make fun of the thousand technical absurdities, as judges and accomplices, in these entertaining reels that respond to their desires and imaginative intimacies as a last prophecy. El Santo is the funniest unrecognized comic of a decade of Mexican film.” (1991: 297).

santovsjinetesBy somewhat different norms of analysis, what many critics see as the total failures of the films can be read as a bizarre kind of success. In fact, if there were no analytic tools with which to read these films in some sort of positive way, we would be at a loss to explain how the images made famous in the lucha movies, the masked and caped lucha superhero, continue to resonate in so many ways in so many places. The mask of Santo can be found everywhere from pop-culture-oriented boutiques in the U.S. to street vendors in Mexico City. The serious and respected Mexican literary and political journal Letras libres chose Santo as a Mexican national symbol for the cover of a May, 2003 issue dedicated to U.S.-Mexico power relations (the symbol they chose for the U.S.: Superman). Guillermo Gómez-Peña, cited by Homi Bhabha (1994: 6) as an example of an artist who reinscribes “the social imaginary of both modernity and metropolis” frequently uses the Mexican lucha mask in his work to problematize the image of the Mexican subject. Also in the realm of the fine arts, we can look to the work of French-born artist Hervé di Rosa, who included numerous paintings of luchadores mixed with other popular Mexican images in his Mexico! Mexico! collection at the Musée International de Arts Modestes in Séte, France in 2000 (2002: 32). In the realm of popular animation, Santo contra los clones, a cartoon short on the Cartoon Network in Latin America, was quite successful (Huerta 2005: 1) and the popular U.S. Cartoon Network series Mucha Lucha, about grade school-aged masked luchadores, has signed a deal with Blue Demon’s estate to make his character a member of the cast (Cedillo Cano 2004: 1). Perhaps the most surprising reappropriation of the 1960s lucha phenomenon was the unauthorized version of a Santo movie made in Turkey, with an all Turkish production crew and actors, in the early 1970s, which pitted the heroic Santo against the villainous Spider Man. The list could go on and on as to how Santo and lucha libre are reappropriated in various ways.

SANTO CONTRA EL ESPECTRO DEL ESTRANGULADOR (1966)As to why these images should recur, I would like to suggest a fairly basic idea put forth by noted cultural critic Carlos Monsiváis and the novelist Jorge Ibarguengoitia: the idea of a self-consciously flawed hero for a self-consciously flawed society. Both of these cultural critics present this argument with reference to the crime-fighter in Mexican detective novels. As Ibarguengoitia puts it, James Bond can only come out of a self-satisfied First World society that believes in the saving graces of technology (quoted in Braham 2000: 78). Such a figure, he argues, would simply not be palatable in Mexican crime fiction. Monsiváis states there really isn’t true detective literature in Mexico simply “because there is no confidence in justice” (1973: 11). We are in a context where art that simply affirms the mechanisms of justice would be met with cynicism and disbelief. We can then imagine Santo’s outlandish plots, absurdly designed technical devices, and awkward fight scenes as not necessarily constituting simple escapism. They can be seen, in all their awkwardness and excess, as a parody of a state in which justice isn’t a transparent and reliable concept. The representation of justice on screen, then, shouldn’t be transparent and reliable either. Perhaps we could put it this way: it is precisely his unbelievable flaws that make Santo believably comic.

Whatever the reasons for his fame, domestically and internationally, Santo was something of a success in a dysfunctional film industry. While his films were undoubtedly caught in a vicious cycle of shoddy production, they managed to circulate in a number of markets and still remain recognizable cultural points of reference decades later. Considering the evolution of the lucha spectacle in arenas, on TV, in fotonovelas and in film, as well as the evolution of the Mexican film industry, I hope to have argued that Santo’s trajectory isn’t quite as strange as the plots of his movies.

John Burns is a professor at Rockford University in the United States where he teaches and researches Latin American literature and culture. With Mexican poet Rubén Medina he recently co-edited and co-translated into Spanish an anthology of Beat poetry titled Una tribu de salvajes improvisando a las puertas del infierno: Antología Beat which was published in Mexico in 2012 by Aldus and UANL.


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[1] All translations from Spanish are by the author.

[2] Complicating this matter was the fact that the exhibition venues were essentially run by a U.S. monopoly controlled by the Jenkins Company (De la Vega 1999: 175).

3 thoughts on “Santo in the Museum of the Mexican Film Industry”

  1. Excellent piece, and about time Santo got some serious attention. Really well thought out historical and critical overview of a series of films that never really made it across the US border, yet are a vibrant part of Mexican popular cinema culture. Bravo!

  2. I have always been very very curious about the popularity and the tradition of the Santo films and the Santo persona.

    Thanks for guiding readers through the history, aesthetics, and politics of the lucha phenomena in Mexican popular culture and film history. Fascinatingly rich and detailed analysis. Informed, detailed, and beautifully written.

    Great article, John Burns!

  3. This excellent article prompted me to view again a number of the Santo films, particularly 1962’s Santo contra las mujeres vampiro (Santo Against the Vampire Women), which, as the author notes “helped elevate [Santo] to an iconic status on an international level and probably established some of the textual norms for the consumption of the genre.”

    It’s absolutely true, and the film itself is all business, dispensing with explanations or logic with relentless abandon. The film opens in an obviously haunted house, and within four minutes of running time we’re confronted by a host of vampire women, all bent on Santo’s destruction.

    The narrative doesn’t really matter here – it can do anything it wants, whenever it wants. Logic and reason — or explanations – are simply not forthcoming, nor should they be. The cinematography is appropriately Bavaesque, and the film itself works well in black and white, as with Bava’s Black Sunday – films that could never succeed in color.

    Indeed, these willfully bizarre Mexican genre mashups – not only the Santo films, but the films of Juan Orol, as well as the long series of horror films, including the absolutely surrealist El Barón del terror (1961) – released as The Brainiac in the United States – as well as La momia azteca contra el robot humano (1958) – all deserve a closer look, as films that captivated – indeed, entranced – the society that created them.

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