The den is quiet now.
Years, no, decades ago, Merced Solis' three sons, Matthew, Michael, and Mark, would invite their friends over to rough house in this man cave, leaving a mess for their mom Leah to clean up afterwards. Their dad was on TV every weekend, a muscular, tanned Latino babyface under the name Tito Santana, his long flowing brown hair brushing muscular shoulders.
The few days Merced had at home with his family in this small town in suburban New Jersey, he treasured every moment. If an autograph-seeking fan (and there were many) came up to him when he was out grocery shopping with the kids, he would politely explain that he wanted to be with his family uninterrupted, and that he wanted to teach his kids a lesson. The one exception was if the fan was a child; Merced always signed for kids.
The lesson was that I'm no better than anyone else, and so as my sons, neither are you. It was a lesson ingrained the hard way during a childhood spent as a migrant worker around the country; every harvest season, Merced's father, Merced Senior, uprooted his wife and four kids and put them to work as part of his army of fruit pickers. Leaving Mission, Texas every year gave young Merced a hard lesson in the prejudice that permeates so much of the country--he got funny looks, was called a "wetback," and even back home in Mission, he had to sneak around if he wanted to date a white girl. Merced never forgot what it felt like to have so little, and so when he eventually had so much (he made around $300,000 in his best year in the WWF, a princely sum in the mid-1980s), he made sure his kids kept both feet on the ground and their heads level.
Tito Santana was one of the WWF's top good guys, an Intercontinental Champion whose career paralleled that of Hulk Hogan (they were the only two wrestlers to peform in all 9 of the first Wrestlemanias). Merced Solis was a football player at West Texas State University and now teaches Spanish at a local middle school. Tito hurled his body through the air to land a blunt forearm on the forehead of his opponent. Merced spent this morning in this den, surrounded by plaques and awards and artwork of Tito, laying on a weightlifting bench and pressing away 69 years.
When the inquisitive writer rings his doorbell today, who will answer?
Brad Balukjian is on a nine-week road trip, driving 16,000 miles around the country for his next book, The Six Pack, to be published by Hachette in 2024, about myth vs. reality in pro wrestling and the true identities of 1980s WWF wrestlers.