‘Nacho Libre’ Is a Classic, but Many Don’t Know It’s Inspired by a Real Life Mexican Priest and Luchador
When “Nacho Libre” was released in 2006, it became such an instant classic with Latinos, it didn’t even matter that Jack Black was playing a Mexican guy. It’s a movie that gets Latinos to crowd around the TV and wonder why Ramses is not dancing at the party.
However, the inspiration behind the movie may not be as fictional as you might think. In fact, much of its story was based on a real-life priest named Fray Tormenta who moonlighted as a Lucha Libre wrestler for more than twenty years to support a local orphanage.
Tormenta, who was originally named Sergio Gutiérrez Benítez, was born in 1945 to José Gutiérrez García and Emilia Benítez. He was the second-youngest of seventeen children and was raised in Hidalgo. His father, according to a profile in Vice, worked as a carbonero, turning burned wood into charcoal and selling it 10 miles away in the city of Pachuca.
Tormenta was already a drug addict and gang member by the age of nine, after his family moved to Mexico City following his uncle’s murder. The future priest and wrestler worked here and there as a pencil maker and paleta salesman at the circus. At 20, Tormenta sought out the guidance of the church, but a priest told him he wasn’t at a rehab center and threw him out on the street.
By 22, Tormenta was a full-blown alcoholic and addict with no direction. He turned his attention to the priesthood because of his prior experience of being ostracized by the church and eventually became part of the Piarists Order. However, a couple of years before that, Tormenta was inspired by two Mexican films from 1963, “El Señor Tormenta” and “Tormenta En El Ring,” about a priest who works secretly as a wrestler to support orphans.
According to the Vice profile, Tormenta was known to bend the truth about his origins, with some of his interviews directly contradicting something he said in another. For instance, Tormenta once denied the rumor that Pope John Paul II endorsed his decision to pursue the life of a luchador but had also confirmed it had, indeed, happened on a separate occasion.
It may have been hard to separate fact from fiction when it came to Tormenta’s life, but the highlights are enough to fill a dozen books. Tormenta lived the kind of life you only see in the movies, which is probably why directors Jared and Jerusha Hess decided to make one about him. Despite their film’s tame PG rating, “Nacho Libre” retains Tormenta’s benevolent nature and the selfless way he fought, literally, for the orphans he loved and cared for.
The story behind his decision to jump headfirst into luchador life isn’t exactly PG-friendly, but it does add a layer of depth to the man behind the mask and the character who was based on him. While preparing to take his final vows and officially become a priest, Tormenta found himself in the company of the prostitutes, addicts, and juvenile delinquents who comprised a parish in Veracruz.
Instead of heading for greener pastures, Tormenta made it his mission to guide and care for his people while studying for the priesthood. One night, a young man named Pinguino accidentally overdosed on some unknown substance. While rushing him to the hospital, Tormenta agreed to, instead, listen to his final confession despite the fact that he was not supposed to until he officially became a priest.
Pinguino died in Tormenta’s arms, leading the priest-to-be to take his final vows just three days later, opting to take those vows in the church he had come to see as home instead of a much more regal cathedral in Veracruz. Soon after, Tormenta began taking in orphans, moving with them from city to city as Tormenta was transferred and he looked for a permanent home for the boys.
He eventually found a suitable orphanage in Texcoco, but the diocese refused to fund it, leaving him to figure it out for himself. It was there that the character of Fray Tormenta was born. For a year, the priest woke up in the wee hours of the morning to train as a fighter before returning to perform the 8 AM mass. He found fights here and there, slowly building up a loyal following.
Tormenta ran into roadblocks along the way, most notably the disapproving words of the bishop in Texcoco who ultimately relented when Tormenta said he’d quit fighting if the diocese would cover the costs of the orphanage. Not long after that, Sergio Gutiérrez Benítez and Fray Tormenta became one and the same. He would minister with his luchador mask on while blessing well-known fighters and baptizing their children.
The priest continued to live in poverty through the 1990s, dedicating all of his winnings as a fighter to the orphans he vowed to protect. Tormenta sold his life rights twice, once for a 1991 movie called “The Man in the Golden Mask” and again in 2006 for “Nacho Libre,” in which he made a cameo appearance. He used his earnings from the films to build two orphanages: one in Hidalgo and another in Texcoco.
“Nacho Libre” may be a goofy little comedy for kids and parents alike to enjoy, but the story behind it is one of selflessness and perseverance, the story of a man who channeled his own hardships into the pursuit of a better life for the children he loved. Fray Tormenta may be larger-than-life, but the man who created him is the definition of a human being: deeply flawed but overcome with compassion and the urge to leave the world better than he found it.
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