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Famed masked man rides to the rescue

Lucha libre wrestler El Hijo del Santo takes on environmental and social issues. Beware of the head butt!

August 14, 2007|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY -- During his long, sweaty career as a lucha libre wrestler and occasional B movie actor, El Hijo del Santo has grappled with borderland outlaws, green-faced vampire assassins and such fearsome adversaries as Negro Casas and Heavy Metal.

Now he's battling opponents that are as hazardous and hard to pin down as any foe he has faced in the ring, including environmental radiation, child poverty and a system that he believes neglects the needs of many of his fellow stretchy-panted warriors.

El Hijo del Santo, "The Son of the Saint," is arguably Mexico's most famous living luchador, or freestyle wrestler. His signature moves, including the Tope de Cristo (diving head butt) and the dreaded "Camel Clutch," in which the wrestler plops down on his opponent's spine and tugs his head backward like a deranged Lawrence of Arabia, are widely admired and imitated. The coffee shop that El Hijo del Santo owns on the edge of this capital's modish Condesa district displays enlarged wall photos of his greatest hits (oof!) and smash triumphs (wham!!).

But mostly you can chalk up his celebrity to his formidable bloodlines. Born Jorge Guzmán here 44 years ago, El Hijo del Santo is the youngest child of El Santo, a.k.a. Rodolfo Gúzman Huerta (1917-1984), a lucha libre legend whom many Mexicans regard as a national folk hero mentionable in the same breath as Emiliano Zapata or Pedro Infante.

"I believe that the most valuable thing about El Santo as a person, as a human being, was that he was always a very humble man," says his son in Spanish, echoing the hagiographic tones that many of his countrymen use when speaking of the Saint. "He knew that when he put on the mask he turned into someone very famous, very beloved. When he took it off, well, he was a normal man."

Though some experts regard El Hijo del Santo as a technically superior luchador to his famous father, El Santo fils hasn't yet equaled El Santo pere's silver screen accomplishments. El Santo made 58 movies, several of them camp masterpieces, with such titles as "Santo vs. the Diabolical Brain" and "Santo vs. the Zombies."

But El Hijo del Santo is even more of a multimedia impresario, with a weekly radio show, a column in the Mexico City sports newspaper Record and a soon-to-be-launched Sears clothing line. Since inheriting his father's silver mask in the early 1980s and transforming himself from the less-colorful El Korak into El Hijo del Santo, he has become the official keeper of his dad's sterling legacy, along with the lucrative licensing and merchandising rights that go with it.

Today's lucha libre lacks some of the oversized, mega-marketable personalities such as El Santo and Blue Demon, who bestrode it like colossuses in decades past. But the pseudo-sport still draws large crowds in Mexico, as well as in Los Angeles and other U.S. cities.

It also has acquired a certain retro cachet among hipsters who relish its kitschy morality-play aspect of Good Guys (técnicos) vs. Bad Guys (rudos). Classic masks and other memorabilia from lucha libre's golden age sell well. A Cartoon Network animated series inspired by El Santo's exploits continues in production, and some prominent directors have toyed with the idea of making a biopic about the Saint.

Like father, like son

Meanwhile, El Hijo del Santo is doing his best to carry on the family heritage. He recently started a new wrestling "fraternity" that may loosen the grip of Mexico's two all-powerful lucha libre associations. While superstars like himself are well paid and can afford health insurance, he says, many Mexican wrestlers earn as little as $30 a night and must cover their own costs of repairing broken bones.

"In Mexico, there is exploitation of the people, in many senses, and the luchadores aren't an exception," El Hijo says in his surprisingly even, low-decibel voice.

Last spring he raised his level of social consciousness another notch when he joined forces with Wildcoast (CostaSalvaje), an environmental organization with offices in Imperial Beach, Calif., and Tijuana. Since then he has been gaining recognition (and valuable media coverage) for his activism on behalf of the endangered sea turtles and gray whales that roam Mexico's long coastlines.

In recent months he has visited the border state of Tamaulipas, where he helped steer hatched baby turtles into the water, and Tijuana, where he encouraged children in poor neighborhoods to tell their parents not to throw waste in the ocean. Water-born garbage and pollution blight both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, he says, though some people seem to think that whatever junk they toss into the surf will wind up as the next-door nation's problem. In coming months, El Hijo del Santo says, he may take part in lucha libre exhibitions against nemeses with names such as "Sewage Man" and "The Pirate Who Robbed Turtle Eggs."

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