Addict, Priest, Luchador: The Unbelievable Life of Fray Tormenta

Padre Fray Tormenta has inspired films and wrestled all over the world, but he never sought out fame; all he wanted was to support the orphans of his parish.

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Jan 8 2015, 2:25pm

I

Padre Fray Tormenta lingers in the courtyard in front of his church on a cool Sunday morning in December. The day's first mass has just let out, and he is passing time before the second, basking for a moment in the sunlight, and greeting members of his congregation as they make their way inside.

This is a humble neighborhood, and nobody is especially dressed up. Not even the church itself, a small 17th century building tucked off a main street. Its yellow exterior is slowly chipping away, and the high interior walls are stark white and mostly unadorned. The Padre moves in that deliberate, priestly way, gliding in his purple robe from one group to another, smiling at old ladies, and signing autographs for children.

"He's very compassionate," says a middle-aged woman named Sofia, who has just exited the early mass. "He helps everybody so much. The truth is, he's reached out his hand to us, and for that reason, everybody loves him."

When the crowd outside begins to thin, he disappears into his office and reemerges a few moments later wearing a yellow and red lucha libre mask in addition to his vestments. Trailed by two altar boys wearing tattered cassocks over their blue jeans, he makes his way back across the courtyard, through the large church doors, and down the aisle to the lectern.

He has the manner of a showman, and could just as easily be entering the Arena México, the 15,000-seat "Cathedral of Lucha Libre" in Mexico City, accompanied by valets on his way to the ring. But this is not the Arena México. This is Parroquia San José in Texcoco, a medium-sized city about 15 miles northeast of the capital.

In theory, a priest wearing a lucha libre mask sounds strange. But in the case of Padre Fray Tormenta, it looks and feels completely normal. Perhaps because he designed the mask himself. "The yellow," he says, "is for the liveliness that Fray Tormenta must display in the ring. The red is for the blood that Fray Tormenta must spill on behalf of his orphanage."

Standing before a dozen rows of full pews, the crowd spilling out into the courtyard, the Padre makes a show of removing the mask and folding it ceremoniously. He takes a deep breath, and begins, in a quiet voice, with the liturgy.

Photo by Erin Lee

II

The next day, sitting in his spare office in the parish, his body seemingly held together only by stubbornness, Padre Fray Tormenta recalls the moment 40 years ago when he at last decided to take his final vows and become ordained. He had just been called back to Mexico after seven years of seminary in Spain and Italy. He had not yet opened his orphanage, and not yet become a star of lucha libre, known throughout Mexico as a living, breathing folk tale, and known abroad as the true story behind two movies: the priest who literally fights for orphans in his care.

Back then, he was merely Sergio Gutiérrez, a seminarian with second thoughts about the priesthood. He was working as a lay minister in Veracruz, a port city on the Gulf of Mexico, and had been assigned to pray the rosary at a parish in a run-down neighborhood by the beach. The parish was full of "drogadictos, prostitutas, y delincuentes." When he finished the rosary and went outside, he found that while he had been praying, some of those very junkies, sex workers, and juvenile delinquents had filled the inside of his car with sand.

"Who did this?" he asked the group.

"We don't want clergy around here," one of the parishioners said. "Get the hell out of here."

Then the parishioner made him an unexpected offer: fight for their respect. If Sergio was willing to fight one of them, they would welcome him into their community. But if not, he should get the hell out and not come back. "If I fight, what would people think?" Padre Tormenta remembers asking himself. "But if I don't fight..."

At this point in the telling, Padre Fray Tormenta leans back in his chair, as if savoring the moment. His life, at least as he recalls it, moves in the grand gestures of a magical realist novel. Everything is a metaphor, and the precise details of his autobiography are as fluid as the memories of an old man. The desk where he sits has become a sort of accidental monument to those memories--to a life that, even in progress, even bogged down in the logistics of running a parish and an orphanage, has become a myth. Stuck between the glass top and the wooden surface is a collage of photos, schedules, financial records, business cards, and hand-scrawled phone numbers.

Recently, the sense of heightened reality that surrounds the Padre has only been amplified, as health problems have made the old priest and those around him increasingly cognizant of an end. Nearly 70 years old, he is diabetic, has cysts in both of his kidneys, and is losing his vision. In November, when he had surgery to remove a 13-pound tumor from his stomach, the doctors also had to yank out a section of his large intestine.

Dramatic pause complete, Padre Tormenta crosses himself the same way he crossed himself at the church that day in Veracruz. "Perdoname señor," he says. "Forgive me father. But I'm going." He took a beating, but he got some blows in, too. And after the fight, he looked up at the other addicts and asked, "Who's next?"

This was a life-defining moment, but it was not the moment when Padre Sergio decided to take his final vows.

III

Veracruz was where Hernán Cortés began his civilization-shattering march to Tenochtitlan in 1519--the march that would set Mexico on the irrevocable path to Catholicism. More than three centuries later, Veracruz was where American troops landed to retrace Cortés's steps on the way to conquering Mexico City, built on Tenochtitlan's ruins. They did so in a war that began over the question of Texas--the state where Salvador Lutteroth, the father of lucha libre and founder of the Arena México, was first exposed to professional wrestling in the 1930s.

It's easy to see Catholicism and wrestling as simply colonial inheritances. But both institutions have been remade by Mexico in its own image.

A decade after Cortés's troops killed Moctezuma and conquered Tenochtitlan, a peasant named Juan Diego claimed to see an apparition of a woman on a hill north of the city. The woman spoke to him in his native Nahuatl and identified herself as the Virgin Mary. A few days later, her image appeared on his cloak. Catholicism may have been an import, but this was an indigenous miracle resulting in an indigenous icon. The Virgin of Guadalupe was a decidedly New World version of the familiar Mary.

In present day Mexico, her image is ubiquitous: seen on bumper stickers, baseball hats, church walls, billboards, rendered in a million different ways by artists across the the country. Worship of the Virgin of Guadalupe is a fundamental part of Mexican Catholicism. The Basilica of Guadalupe, built at the base of the hill where Juan Diego had his vision, has become one of the most visited holy sites in the world.

In her book The World of Lucha Libre, sociologist Heather Levi recalls another time the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared on a piece of fabric. It was in July, 1962, when El Santo--The Saint, lucha libre's greatest hero-made the switch from rudo (villain) to técnico (hero). Lucha libre, in its most essential form, is a constant replaying of the morality tale: good vs. evil. The pronounced difference between rudos and técnicos is not just a convenient metaphor, it is the sport's central conceit, and one of the aspects that separates lucha libre from American professional wrestling, where gray areas are more welcome.

According to Levi, who relates the story second-hand, "El Santo accomplished the transition by appearing in the Arena with an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe on his silver cape." By the time Fray Tormenta began his career about 15 years later, Catholicism already was deeply entrenched in the ritualized world of lucha libre.

Photo by Erin Lee

IV

Sergio Gutiérrez was born on February 5, 1945, in a remote little town in the state of Hidalgo called Cieneguillas, the seventeenth of eighteen brothers and sisters. Life there was poor and sad. Sergio's father was a carbonero. He made charcoal out of burned wood, then tied loads of it onto the back of a donkey or mule and traveled ten or eleven hours to the nearest city, Pachuca, to sell it.

When Sergio was a little boy, his father's family ran into trouble. His uncles were murdered in some kind of feud, so his parents packed the family up and left. They landed, eventually, in Mexico City, settling in a rough neighborhood on the north end called Tres Estrellas, in the shadow of the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe. By the time Sergio was nine years old, he had learned how to fight, joined a gang, and had started using drugs, beginning with marijuana.

"At first you smoked to see what it felt like, then pills here and there, then cocaine, and from there all of it..."

Sergio went to school. He worked a few odd jobs to get by: making pencils in a pencil factory, selling paletas at a circus. But mostly he fought and got high. He says he has nearly seventy scars from the various beatings of his youth. He has been stabbed and he has been shot. One time, a drunk hit him over the left eye with a bottle. His eyelid still droops because of it.

During those years, Mexico City was growing fast. The population, which has now climbed to more than 20 million, was still only about 5 million people, but families like Sergio's were arriving in waves, one after another. They filled slums like Tres Estrellas, looking for work in an industrializing economy. Sergio could have been a character in Los Olvidados, the Luis Buñuel film that tells the story of a group of impoverished street kids who are doomed by their circumstances to a life of violence and tragedy. Filmed in a barrio just like Tres Estrellas only a couple of years before his family arrived in the capital, the film could have predicted Sergio's fate.

V

When Sergio was about 20, one of his friends in the gang was murdered, and the police pegged him as the lead suspect. He didn't do it--he was getting drunk in a cantina when the murder occurred. But he had to prove that to the police, going back to the cantina and finding fellow drunks who could remember that he had actually been there. Not such an easy task for an addict who was perpetually high.

Around this time, Sergio entered a church in his neighborhood and went into the confessional. He said to the priest that he was a drug addict and he wanted to get help. The priest told him, "This isn't a rehab center." He came out of the confessional, grabbed Sergio by the ear, and tossed him back onto the street.

Standing outside the church, Sergio realized something. "If there were cool priests, 'de buena onda,' a lot of us would change." So he decided then to become a cool priest. A sacerdote chido.

He went down to Tlalpan, a borough in the south of the city, far from Tres Estrellas, and entered a rehab facility. They strapped him to a bed and injected him with some kind of serum. They told him that, "Here you don't get cured; you get detoxed. Curing you have to do for yourself." Sergio spent almost a week alone in a small room, hallucinating and screaming in agony as the poisons sweated out of his body, afraid the whole time that the lightbulb hanging over his head was going to swallow him whole.

He came out determined not just to get clean, but to get cured. To do that he knew he would need to leave Tres Estrellas behind. "As a drug addict, you know where the drugs are. You know who has the drugs. It's like crap, like excrement. You smell it."

Sergio entered a seminary in Toluca, the capital of Mexico State. But he had not yet abandoned all his old habits. Within a week, he punched one of his fellow seminarians in the face. The Fathers threw him out on the spot.

"How are you going to break a wild colt from night to morning?" Padre Tormenta says now. And these days he looks downright tame: compact and frail, with a neatly parted haircut. When remembering something, his small eyes recede almost completely into his face. When he needs to scroll through the contacts on his cell phone, he looks at it through a magnifying glass he keeps in a drawer. But his gravelly Spanish belies the truth, that the wild colt was never completely broken. He doesn't swear in the full, vulgar sense of the word, but his speech is lively and peppered with street slang you don't expect to hear from a 69-year-old priest.

He tried again soon after, enrolling in a different seminary. This time, it stuck. They sent him to study in Europe: Barcelona, then Navarra, and finally Rome, "a different world entirely." He learned philosophy, theology, medicine, the psychology of juvenile delinquency. He came back to Mexico and the church sent him to Veracruz.

Photo by Erin Lee

VI

That is the story as he told it to me. But that is not the only way Fray Tormenta has told it. In some versions, he played professional soccer for a year. Or the priest didn't throw him out, but encouraged him to go to seminary. Or, better yet, young Sergio wandered into a church while high on one drug or another and had a vision of himself as a priest, standing before the pews, and only then decided to get clean and join the clergy.

One popular legend about Fray Tormenta is that he received specific permission from the Vatican to be a luchador. This he denies. But in other interviews, he has mentioned that he received the blessing of Pope John Paul II.

"It was one of the times that Pope John Paul II visited," he told the Mexican journalist Antonio Esquivel Bernal. "They invited us to a meal, and during that visit he went around saying hello to everyone. When he came to me I introduced myself: 'I'm Father Sergio and also 'Fray Tormenta.' He smiled and said he wished there were many Fray Tormentas in the world. I answered, smiling, 'No sir, because then all the churches would cease to exist.' He placed his hand on me and gave me his blessing."

He has recounted his life so many times that it's difficult to blame him for changing things up and massaging the facts on occasion; he is a performer, after all, and knows how to tell his story so that it most effectively reaches a particular audience. His life has become as allegorical as one of the Bible stories he might expound on in a sermon. Fray Tormenta is a character Padre Sergio plays, but he is also exactly who Padre Sergio is.

When the church phone rings, for example, he tells the person on the other end, "You are speaking to Padre Fray Tormenta." He does this even though it is clearly a wrong number.

"What happened is that without my intending it, Fray Tormenta has become a symbol," he says. "The luchador priest."

But of course he intended it.

VII

This is the story of the moment young Sergio Gutiérrez decided to take his final vows and become a priest, which is also the beginning of the story of how he became a luchador:

In Veracruz, Sergio found a home in the parish full of junkies, sex workers, and delinquents. He had some musical experience, and helped some of the parishioners form a band to play at churches and parties. The band was a moderate success, although a priest once stopped them from playing at a mass because one of the musicians, a teenager named Pinguino, reeked of marijuana. But that was all right. Marijuana was not so bad. At least Sergio was giving them structure.

Things were going well until one day Pinguino took too much of something. Sergio found him in bad shape, and loaded him into his car to take him to the hospital. Certain that this was the end, Pinguino asked Sergio to pull the car over and hear his confession. Sergio told him that he could not do such a thing. He was not ordained, so he was not allowed to hear confessions or read last rites.

"Hear my confession," Pinguino said. "We're not going to make it."

"I can't. Ask God for forgiveness," Sergio said.

"God will forgive you for hearing it."

Sergio pulled the car over. He held Pinguino's head. And here, in the telling of the story in the little office in the church, decorated with a few photos and magazine clippings and little else, Padre Tormenta hesitates. There is a long silence. His red and yellow mask rests folded on a side table. He is 40 years removed from the day in question. But he chokes up. The boy died right there in his arms.

Three days after the funeral, Sergio decided that he would take his formal vows. The priest asked if he wanted to be ordained into the cathedral in Veracruz, but Sergio said no. He wanted to be ordained in the run-down church.

"And the bishop ordained me a priest on May 26, 1973, at one in the afternoon among prostitutas, drogadictos, y delincuentes."

Soon after that, he began to take in orphans. First, one arrived, then another, then another. Within a year he was housing a dozen boys at the parish and wherever else he could, struggling to feed them. He was teaching them music, running two separate bands, when word came down that he had been transferred to another church, 150 miles away in Puebla. When he went to Puebla, the boys followed him.

Padre Sergio continued to care for the boys in Puebla until higher-ups asked him to give up the orphanage. He took the advice of a fellow priest: he left Puebla for a diocese that would accept his works. He found such a place in Texcoco, the quiet city in Mexico State where he still lives. He and the boys were welcome there, but the diocese would not take on any of the costs of the orphanage. Padre Sergio would have to figure that out for himself.

"And from there," he says, "arises Fray Tormenta."

Photo by Erin Lee

VIII

They say there are no original stories, that since Biblical times, we've been telling the same ones over and over. Even the story of Fray Tormenta the wrestling priest--a story that itself inspired the Jack Black movie Nacho Libre and before that a lesser known French film starring Jean Reno called The Man in the Golden Mask--is borrowed. It is borrowed, as it turns out, from another movie: a low-budget Mexican film from 1963 called El Señor Tormenta about, as you might imagine, a priest who begins a secret lucha libre career in order to raise money for starving orphans in his care.

The movie was part of a tide of luchador films that swept Mexico from the 1950s through the 1970s. The country's most iconic wrestlers, El Santo and Blue Demon, gained their greatest fame as movie stars fighting zombies, aliens, and vampires. El Señor Tormenta was a minor wrestling film. It did feature a couple of big names, Black Shadow and Cavernario Galindo (he dressed as a caveman), but only in supporting parts. What makes the movie special is that it came true.

"I said to myself," Padre Tormenta recalls, "'I'm going to carry this thing out'." This was the tail end of the era of when wrestling stars in Mexico were also transcendent celebrities, pop culture icons on the level of actors and musicians. Huracán Ramírez and Mil Máscaras. Tinieblas and Rayo de Jalisco Sr. Padre Sergio took his name and his image from the movie. He had dollar signs in his eyes, but not for himself. "I thought that I was going to earn like Cassius Clay or Oscar de la Hoya," he says. His vision was of expanding, or at least sustaining, the orphanage.

For a year, Padre Sergio woke up at 4:30 every morning and traveled an hour each way from Texcoco to a gym in Mexico City where he learned the art of lucha libre. He had to be back by 8:00 to celebrate the mass. His earnings from his first fight were 200 pesos--at the time, about 10 American dollars. And so it went: he was not exactly making Cassius Clay or El Santo money, but he was not ready to give up yet either. He fought on small cards around Texcoco, and gradually built up a following.

All the while, he was re-entering a world of vice he had left behind long ago. Lucha libre might be a black and white morality tale in the ring, but behind the scenes, the sport is fertile ground for every kind of habit: drugs, sex, booze, all of it. Locker room talk is not exactly Sunday school material. "The luchadors' dressing room is generally mayhem," says a long-time wrestler named Atlantis. "There's a lot of swearing. But he got used to it."

Soon, Fray Tormenta was admitted into the Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre, the sport's foremost promotion, which was founded by Salvador Lutteroth, the man who brought wrestling to Mexico in the first place.

IX

The bishop in Texcoco, however, was not impressed, and demanded that the Padre give up lucha libre, it was unbecoming. Padre Tormenta's arguments fell on deaf ears until, finally, he decided to put some of the showmanship he had learned in the ring to use: he decided to bluff. He told the bishop that he would happily give up lucha libre if the diocese would give his orphanage the money he was earning in the ring. The bishop, under the impression that he was making a fortune, relented. "Be careful," he said.

It's easy to see why a bishop might have objected, especially to the ease with which Fray Tormenta incorporated religious ritual and symbolism into lucha libre. It would be one thing for a layperson to perform as a wrestling priest character. It's altogether different when the man behind the mask, and inside the red and yellow spandex, is an actual priest. El Santo, after all, was not an actual Saint. Fray Tormenta had a finishing move called La Confesora: The Confessor, a submission hold that ended with his opponent lying face down, arms and legs yanked behind him, and screaming in agony for mercy. He was regularly pitted against opponents with names like El Satánico, El Hijo del Diablo, and Judas.

As easily as he brought religion into Lucha Libre, Fray Tormenta brought lucha libre into his work as a priest. He began to minister regularly to fellow luchadors. Sometimes reality and fiction blended, such as when he celebrated masses at the Arena Mexico, or gave his priestly blessing to Místico, a contemporary lucha libre superstar that Padre Tormenta had helped train. But mostly, Padre Tormenta's ministry was straightforward.

"They are two separate things," he says of his character and his real life clerical duties. "Would I ever play around with my ministry? No, no, no."

Padre Tormenta has baptized the children of wrestlers, spoken at the funerals of fallen brethren, blessed their houses, prayed for them as they entered the ring, and even officiated the wedding of Blue Demon Jr. Perhaps most importantly, he has served as their confessor.

"Fray Tormenta is our Father," says Brazo de Plata, a luchador who served as Fray Tormenta's tag-team partner. "He is our lucha libre priest. For me it's an honor, considering his age, to have wrestled alongside him."

Photo by Erin Lee

X

With increasing notoriety came some financial gain. Fray Tormenta began to make some money appearing in the United States and Japan. In Japan, he says he developed a cult following because he resembled Tiger Mask, a 1960s manga character who wrestled to raise money for an orphanage. The character had also been used by a number of Japanese wrestlers over the years, and would later become the backstory for King in the video game Tekken. "They thought Tiger Mask had been reincarnated in Fray Tormenta, and for that reason they followed me a lot," he says, remembering the Japanese crowds drunk on beer and sake and shouting for La Confesora.

Padre Sergio fell by the wayside as more and more of his parishioners began to call him Padre Tormenta, or simply El Fray. If his identity as a luchador was ever secret (accounts conflict), the secret was not kept long. With his wrestling earnings, he was able to buy an actual building to house some of the boys,known affectionately as his cachorros, or cubs.

He spent the 1980s pouring everything he had into the orphanage, continuing to live in poverty even as his profile grew. Yellow in his mask for liveliness inside, and now outside, of the ring. Red for the blood spilled. The boys would receive training in lucha libre and three square meals a day, as well as a chance to make something of themselves, even if not all of them would.

In 1991, The Man in the Golden Mask premiered, and Fray Tormenta got a chunk of cash for the rights to his life story. He used it to build a brick and mortar orphanage in his home state of Hidalgo, which has since burned down in a fire set accidentally by one of the boys. When Nacho Libre premiered in 2006, he did the same thing, but in Texcoco.

XI

"As long as I've been a priest, for 42 years, I've worn a rubber band," says Padre Tormenta, leaning over his desk. "Because the laws of the church should be like a rubber band."

He rolls up his sleeve--he is wearing pinstriped dress slacks and a red University of Oklahoma sweatshirt--and tugs at the rubber band dangling from his wrist, stretching it out and holding it taught.

"But if you pull too much, it breaks."

The wrestling priest, of course, is comfortable stretching rules. It comes with the territory of being a sacerdote chido--the kind of priest he set out to be fifty years ago when he was still just an addict street criminal. Most of the rules Padre Tormenta breaks are simple ones. Some priests have criticized him, for example, for singing mariachi songs in church. But he only does it after the liturgy, and besides, it makes the people happy.

"If Jesus Christ came down, he would sing just like me," he says.

Performance, after all, is an essential part of Padre Tormenta's identity. The priesthood. The wrestling career. The music. Now that his health has abandoned him, and he will no longer be able to earn money for his boys in the ring, the Padre will have to leverage these skills, and his fame, to raise money however he can. Last year, he released a CD, Fray Tormenta Sings for Everyone with Mariachi.

After he makes sure I understand that lucha libre is as physically painful as one could imagine, even for a person who has been shot, stabbed, hit over the head with a beer bottle, and kicked a drug habit, he expands on the theme of performance: "It's circus. As much theater as it is sport."

Then he gets up from his desk to show me. He has me pin his arm behind his back, then he spins around and pins my arm behind my back in the same way, then has me follow his motion, returning us to our original position. We cycle back and forth a few times, building into a rhythm-the way two wrestlers might at the start of a match when they are just feeling each other out. Finally, when I am feeling good about my technique, pinning his arm back, preparing for the next step in the dance, the old priest screams in agony, begins convulsing, and slaps his leg with his free arm. Horrified, I jump backwards.

The old man laughs. He was faking it.

XII

Mid-way through the interview, Fray Tormenta asks if I want a tour of the church. We walk first through a windowless room beside his office, where a woman who helps out around the church and two of his cachorros are watching a dubbed version of the show Cheaters on an old television. Upstairs, he shows me two bedrooms, each cluttered wall to wall with bunk beds where some of his boys sleep. More than 2,000 have come through over nearly forty years, he says, including three doctors, sixteen teachers, nine lawyers, two accountants, twenty computer technicians, and one priest.

Beside one of the bedrooms is a kitchen overrun with flies. The refrigerator is mostly empty, and bags of rice are piled high on a shelf in a corner. Resting on the dining table and leaning up on the wall is a heavy framed painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe. It fell down from the wall the day before, one of the boys tells Padre Tormenta. Somebody will have to repair it soon. Across the room hangs another, nearly identical painting of the Virgin.

Photo by Erin Lee

"I want you to know that I never sought fame out," Fray Tormenta had said a moment before in the office. "I sought out money, which never came. But from the little that God gave me, through people, many have been able to benefit."

The work, the boys, the cachorros, came before everything else.

"They always had bread in their mouths. There was always something. And me? Look at the luxuries I have. I don't have a single luxury. I was born into poverty."

The scene reminds me of something a rudo named Rey Bucanero told me the Friday before, while we stood in the concourse of the Arena México beneath a mural commemorating the recent 80th anniversary of lucha libre in the country.

"Whether he's going to a mass, or going to wrestle, he carries the same suitcase. He simply changes the things inside."