Famed masked luchador El Santo has long held a firm place in the heart and soul of Mexico. Born Rudolfo Guzmán Huerta, El Santo is a legend of the ring – an icon, the greatest, most popular Mexican wrestler of all time.
He was a celebrated movie star, comic book character and a most-coveted action figure who still pops up in today’s popular culture: He made a cameo in the 2017 Disney Pixar movie, “Coco.”
But he’s so much more.
El Santo, or The Saint, is a folk hero. He was a champion for the common man and, by the same turn, a unifier of all – young and old, rich and poor, man and woman. He was the real People’s Champ.
Born in Tulancingo, Hidalgo, Mexico, in 1917, El Santo wrestled for nearly five decades.
He retired years before anyone caught so much as a whiff of what The Rock was cooking.
El Santo died in February 1984 – a week after taking off his mask for a TV audience for the first time. He was buried wearing the iconic mask.
The masked hero always returns, however, and is on his way back to the big screen in El Paso.
In all his silver-masked glory, El Santo will be the highlight of Cine Fantastico at the Plaza Theatre Thursday, Nov. 1. The free event will feature a screening of a newly restored copy of his big-screen debut, “Santo Contra Cerebro del Mal.”
Cine Fantastico also will celebrate the Mexican family with border ties that put him on the big screen, and will serve as the launch of the Permanencia Voluntaria Film Fund, a collaboration between the Paso del Norte Foundation and Mexico’s Permanencia Voluntaria Archive to fund the restoration of more classic Mexican films.
Viviana García Besné is the director of the Permanencia Voluntaria Archive, an organization dedicated to restoring and preserving Mexico’s film history.
Her family’s legacy has deep roots in Mexican cinema. Three of her great-uncles were theater owners who became filmmakers: Pedro A. Calderon, Jose Luis Calderon and Guillermo Calderon. Her grandfather, Jorge García Besné, produced El Santo’s first forays on the big screen.
“My family started early in the theater business,” said García Besné. “In 1904, they worked for the railroad in St. Louis. At the World’s Fair, they saw the magic of film projection for the first time and they fell totally in love.”
It wasn’t long before García Besné’s ancestors purchased their first theater in Chihuahua. They eventually owned 35 movie theaters, including six in El Paso.
But it’s not only her family’s legacy that led García Besné to create the Permanencia Vountaria. The film archive holds more than 300 neglected Mexican films, some of which suffered damage in the 2016 earthquake in Mexico City.
She was guided by her passion for movies.
“All of my family’s theaters opened their doors to people who didn’t feel welcome at other theaters in El Paso,” García Besné said.
At the time, many movie theaters, including The Plaza Theatre, were segregated.
From ring to screen
When García Besné’s grandfather decided he wanted to produce movies of his own, he didn’t have the budget to create the Hollywood-style monster- and sci-fi movies that inspired him.
So he found the next best thing. A real-life superhero: El Santo.
“My grandfather liked sports and he was friends with many wrestlers, including El Santo,” García Besné said.
El Santo would go on to star in more than 50 movies, reinvigorating his career and launching him into a pop culture icon in Mexico. García Besné’s grandfather produced El Santo’s first two movies, “Santo Contra el Cerebro del Mal” and “Santo Contra Hombres Infernales,” simultaneously, in Cuba. Her family’s company, Producciones Calderon, made about 12 movies featuring El Santo.
“It was a great friendship,” García Besné said. “The movies catapulted him to a unique fame that no one had ever seen before. He became a flesh and bone hero, who was able to fight against everything that the writers and producers could think of – woman vampires, Dracula, the Wolfman, aliens, corruption, drug dealers.”
And, more importantly, she said, his movies brought people together.
“These movies entertained all types of people; adults, children, parents, grandparents, poor, rich,” García Besné said. “Everyone got together in a theater to enjoy these movies, not only in Mexico. They crossed borders to the U.S. and were shown in Turkey and Japan.”
Through her efforts to preserve her family’s and other popular Mexican films, and her ties to the border, García Besné met El Paso film historian and former Plaza Classic Film Festival director Charles Horak.
Horak was very supportive of her efforts to restore and preserve these films, she said. It was his idea to set up a fund through the Paso del Norte Foundation, so other El Paso movie fans could contribute to those efforts.
“We’d like to restore a movie every year and premiere it in El Paso so people can feel proud that they are helping preserve that heritage,” she said.
Part of the reason that funding these film’s restoration is so hard, is that they aren’t necessarily critically acclaimed.
Nevertheless, García Besné said, they are an important part of Mexican culture and film history.
“We should recognize the value of these movies and restore them, preserve them for future generations to enjoy,” she said. “Classic Mexican cinema has the capacity to unite people in one theater, enjoying the same movie.”