Raul Cruz would take a bullet for El Santo, so it was nothing for him to make the long trip from Oak Lawn through a foot of snow to the Congress Theater last Saturday afternoon. As vice president of the El Santo International Fan Club, it was nothing less than Cruz’s solemn duty to do all he could to secure an audience with Mexico’s greatest wrestler.

It wasn’t really El Santo he was trying to pin down, but his son, El Hijo de Santo, who wears the same silver mask, enjoys the same deified status, and more or less assumed his father’s identity when the old man dropped dead of a heart attack while performing as an escape artist in Mexico City 21 years ago next week.

Cruz, who’s 29, has idolized the man in the silver mask since he was three and caught a rerun of the wrestler’s 47th film, Santo contra el Doctor Muerte. “Back then I was into Lone Ranger and Batman,” he says. “I saw Santo and said, ‘Whoa! Who’s he? He’s wearing a mask! He doesn’t even take it off. I wonder what he’s gonna do?’ And then of course 20 minutes into the movie he’s at an airport and some hit man goes after him and he beats him up in the bathroom. I’m like, ‘Wow!'”

Cruz knows pretty much everything there is to know about Santo and son and the florid spectacle of Mexican wrestling, or lucha libre. He also seems to have developed superior breath control, enabling him to issue long rivers of historical and statistical minutiae without stopping. And he has little patience for the plague of inaccuracies he finds on the Internet, which is why he manages two Yahoo groups on El Santo: Santolives is mainly for news, Santolives2 for pictures. He has seen countless lucha libre matches, and even took a couple classes at a training school for luchadores, or wrestlers, in San Luis Potosi. His preference for El Santo has never wavered. “I was into the simplicity of it,” he says. “He did what he had to do because he was a good guy. He stopped the bad guys because that’s what he did.”

When El Santo padre died, Cruz transferred his loyalty to El Hijo de Santo. “He’s following in his father’s footsteps,” says Cruz, “which is not the easiest thing in the world to do, considering what his father accomplished. It would be like being Elvis’s son.”

A few weeks ago Israel Aguilar, one of Cruz’s chat-group correspondents, invited Cruz to join the El Santo International Fan Club. He accepted, and was immediately made vice president. The club–about 70 members headed by president Nohemi Romero, Aguilar, and now Cruz–talked about making El Santo T-shirts and other merchandise. But although luchador identity can seem remarkably fluid–characters’ names and costume designs are often franchised out to create female or dwarf versions, or to keep a character going after its originator retires–it’s subject to no less litigation than any other form of intellectual property, and Cruz and his partners knew they’d need El Santo’s blessing before they put his likeness or name on anything. Romero claimed to have spoken with El Santo on the phone and discussed the venture, but the club’s follow-up e-mails to the wrestler’s Web site were unreturned.

Cruz had spoken with El Santo too–four years ago after a bout in Aurora. The wrestler was posing for Polaroids at $20 a pop, and seemed sort of tired and grumpy. He’d been traveling and wrestling on a brutal schedule, so Cruz didn’t mind.

When the Congress announced that El Santo would be wrestling at the theater on the 22nd at the top of a traveling 15-luchador card, Cruz, the club’s only local representative, was expected to summon all the powers of his office and somehow win El Santo’s permission to use his likeness on behalf of the club. “I had only been in the club two days when they asked me,” Cruz says. “It was like joining the army one day and being sent to Iraq the very next day.” He approached the Congress’s management and placed himself at their disposal in return for a few minutes of mask time before the match.

Congress Theater managers Jason Raider and Eddie Carranza are planning to host monthly lucha libre events at the Congress with marquee names from Mexico, and they wanted to prove to promoters that they could pack the house with die-hard Latino fans and white hipsters. For this initial event they contrived to admit the first 1,000 free. They asked Cruz, who quit his job packing screws a month ago, to pass out flyers and posters and hype the event in his chat groups.

The days leading up to the match seemed cursed, which only added to Cruz’s anxiety and anticipation. First El Santo’s Web site crashed and was down for two days. Then on the day of the match, when the wrestlers were due to arrive by plane, the snowstorm hit.

By 3 PM that day Cruz was sitting at a desk in the theater’s projection room taking phone calls from worried fans, reassuring them that, yes, the wrestlers were still coming and tickets were still available. But he was worried too. Rocky Roman, the promoter, was still waiting at the airport for the luchadores and was being evasive about when they’d be arriving. No one seemed to know where they were coming from or whether they were traveling together or separately.

Maybe Roman was also worried. Or maybe it was simply kayfabe, the unwritten code of silence that protects the mystique of professional wrestling. Cruz says kayfabe (the word is an old carny term) is a lot less strict than it was a couple decades ago, when wrestlers were rarely ever unmasked in the ring and would never admit to being pals when they weren’t fighting, and it’s less rigid in the U.S. than in Mexico. Still, he worried it might keep him from penetrating the inner sanctum.

Downstairs families began filling the lobby two hours before the scheduled 6 PM fight time. Jason Raider scuttled around with his cell phone to his ear, looking anxious. At five o’clock, when the doors to the theater swung open and people began to fill the front rows, there were still no wrestlers in the house. An hour later the rock band Vestido Rojo cranked up in the echoing lobby and the fans waiting in the theater began whistling their impatience. The racket bounced off the domed ceiling, and Cruz looked down on the crowd from the projection booth. “I shoulda brought raw meat,” he said. “Fight for it, dogs!”

A few masked figures appeared behind a metal barricade to the right of the stage and began signing autographs–a handful of local luchadores brought on to fill out the card. Swat Cat wore a green-black-and-silver mask and running shoes and jeans. El Tigre had a sleek feline black-and-white mask that clashed with his baggy earth-toned sweater. A more august presence was referee Oscar “El Apenitas” Ramos. In lucha libre the referee is practically a supplementary wrestler, and Ramos, who lives in Chicago but started refereeing 31 years ago in Matamoros, had officiated matches with many lucha libre legends, including the original El Santo.

At 7:25 Cruz abandoned the phones to watch the first match between a pair of maskless wrestlers described as the “lower end of the talent scale” by Chris Kowalsky, a writer for the fan site Chicagowrestling.com. Tojo Yamamoto Jr., like El Hijo de Santo and many others, is a second-generation wrestler, whose father made a name for himself wrestling in Memphis. Bald and pear-shaped, Yamamoto is a typical rudo, or heel–a bad guy. He walked into the ring wearing black-and-red tights and waving a Japanese flag. He stood on the ropes and began taunting the crowd, the Rising Sun stitched to his ample backside. His opponent, Jose Guerrero, made his entrance with a Mexican flag draped over his faded green tank top and baggies. He gave Cruz, who was standing ringside, a bear hug before climbing into the ring. Cruz was puzzled. “I don’t know who he is, but what the hell?” he said.

Guerrero, the technico, or good guy, seized the announcer’s mike. “Mexico es numero uno!” he bellowed, and the fight was on. The wrestlers were slow and clumsy and telegraphed their moves, but the crowd backed Guerrero and screamed in outrage when Yamamato beat him with his flagpole and blew his nose into his Mexican flag. A dignified-looking woman wearing a shiny Chinese-print jacket was seated in the front row next to her children. She cupped her hands to her mouth and shrieked at Yamamoto: “Chinga tu madre!” (“Fuck your mother!”)

Neither wrestler was able to maintain much dignity. When Yamamato tossed Guerrero out of the ring and began beating him with a folding chair, the Mexican’s pants sank to reveal a substantial plumber’s butt. After the match Yamamoto picked his way through the hostile crowd and along the way refused to sign an autograph for a little boy, calling him a “wetback.”

During the second match, which featured rudo Tyme Paige, a gringo with long stringy hair and red vinyl pants, versus a guy called the Blue Shadow, Cruz attempted to breach the dressing rooms. He tracked down Eddie Carranza, who was running around trying to deal with the 2,000-plus crowd that had braved the snow. Carranza told him that El Santo hadn’t shown up yet. “I get the feeling I’m getting the brush-off,” said Cruz. He returned ringside and watched an orange-and-gray-clad El Maleficio II wrestling El Tigre. When El Maleficio and referee Ramos engaged in a seemingly excessive amount of friendly back-slapping, the crowd chided the wrestler for being a suck-up, chanting “Beso! Beso!” (“Kiss! Kiss!”)

At 8:45 a wide-eyed Jason Raider reported that El Santo had entered the lobby and been hustled to the dressing rooms. Cruz abandoned the phone and beseeched Carranza. “I’m gonna get you hooked up,” Carranza said before darting off. When Cruz caught up to him he was talking to Rocky Roman, who was laughing and handing out beers at the lobby bar. The promoter told Cruz to come back in ten minutes and he’d get him backstage. Cruz returned to the backstage door and folded his arms. “I feel like I’m getting the runaround here,” he said, and went off to find Rocky again.

Meanwhile El Santo emerged from his room and gave an interview to a dapper reporter from Univision. By the time Cruz returned to the dressing room El Santo had gone back inside. “I’m told that Rocky is coming,” he said, joining a small throng of supplicants who’d run over when they saw the wrestler.

A mob of little boys stormed the ring and were staging a battle royal between bouts, when the door swung open and a hand reached out and pointed at Cruz. The fans pushed forward and a handful of goons pushed them back. Cruz was escorted to a small, bare dressing room where an unmasked, shirtless wrestler in Armani Exchange sweatpants did push-ups on the floor. This turned out to be the luchador Psicosis, who would be battling El Santo later in the evening. He quickly stood up and left the room with his face down, protecting his identity.

Just then a silver-masked figure appeared in the doorway. El Santo was short but powerfully built, wearing a white T-shirt and what Cruz later described as a “casual” mask, one that left his mouth uncovered.

They shook hands and the luchador listened patiently as Cruz reminded him about the fan club. El Santo didn’t remember talking to Nohemi Romero–he might have, he said, but just couldn’t recall. What’s more, he said, he couldn’t give permission to use his likeness on commercial property because El Santo is a registered trademark. He invited Cruz to call his office in Mexico City. Possibly his people could arrange for some T-shirts for the club, but he warned Cruz that he wasn’t always aware of everything they were doing. Cruz apologized for bothering the wrestler, they shook hands again, and the interview was over.

“I know he’s tired,” Cruz said. “I felt sorry for the guy. I should not be bugging him. He’s a trouper, man. I was hoping he could sign some flyers, but I couldn’t ask him to do that. I don’t have it in me. He was so cool about it, and he’s still gotta go out there and get thrown around.”

Cruz went back to watch the wrestlers. During the first match among the Mexicans, a full-size wrestler tossed the dwarf Mascarita Sagrada out of the ring and on top of Cruz. “Actually Mascarita took the worst of it,” said Cruz, “because he bounced off of me and hit the side of the ring, and that’s wood and metal.” Afterward Mascarita was mobbed by small children demanding his autograph. “He is a rock star to these kids,” said Kowalsky.

Next, the rudos Acero Dorado and Shamu Jr. faced off against a lithe, acrobatic young wrestler named Sombra Vengadora and Super Porky, an enormous unmovable mountain of flab who entered the ring and flossed his ass with a T-shirt. When Shamu managed to partially tear off Sombra Vengadora’s mask–the most humiliating thing that can happen to a luchador–the crowd chanted “Culero! Culero!” (“Asshole! Asshole!”) After the technicos lost the third fall and the match, two young women pulled down their shirts so Super Porky could autograph their breasts.

Just after 11 PM the crowd began to chant “Santo! Santo!” and the main event, a tag-team matchup, was announced. As in most lucha libre matches, the winners of this one would have to pin their opponents in two out of three rounds. Psicosis, a trim, tattooed rudo with long hair and a horned devil mask, teamed with Villano III, a fuchsia-clad veteran and the most successful wrestler from a family dynasty of five brothers, Villanos I through V.

“Santo! Santo!” the crowd chanted, but first his teammate, the illustrious Atlantis, otherwise know as el idolo de los ninos–“the idol of the kids”–made his entrance. El Santo rose from a trap door in the stage and climbed into the ring. The professionals’ moves were quick and complicated and the twisting, windmilling bodies flew off the ropes and around the mat with a fluidity and grace that made the first wrestlers look like drunken gorillas. Things weren’t going well for the rudos. Atlantis unmasked Villano III, who ran from the ring with his face in his hands, bellowing at his teammate, who followed behind. When they returned for the second fall, Villano leered at the crowd with his horribly scarred face, much more fearsome than his pink mask.

When El Santo tossed Psicosis out of the ring, the rudo lurched into Cruz, grabbed him by the throat, and pushed in him into a tangle of chairs. Cruz was exultant. “That’s the beauty of ringside, man. You just don’t get that in WWE.” El Santo followed Psicosis and began beating him with a chair before forcing him back into the ring, where he unmasked the rudo and tore off his wig. By 11:30 Psicosis was slumped in the corner sobbing, and it was all over.

Atlantis and El Santo signed autographs while security guards hollered at people to get out. Cruz couldn’t manage to get a signature from El Santo, but when Super Porky returned to the ring Cruz pulled a ten-year-old Polaroid out of his backpack. Super Porky signed the photo, which portrayed himself, a teenage Cruz, and Blue Demon Jr. posing for the camera. “I can’t even read his handwriting,” said Cruz. “It’s like chicken scratch.”

Overall it had been a pretty good night for Cruz. “You know what?” he said. “That midget falling onto me more than made up for Santo saying no.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.