Researching an event in my own life, I came across a story on the internet: “The Night A Santana Brother Conned Me” by Sarah Fister Gale.1 In her story, Ms Gale is conned, robbed, and embarrassed by a man claiming to be the brother of guitar player Carlos Santana. Though I’m sorry for her traumatic experience, I’m personally amused and bemused, because my wife Sally and I were also taken in by the imposter who called himself “Malo Santana”.
In the late spring of 1974, during an extended period of self imposed homelessness, all for the sake of youthful adventure, Sally and I were enjoying the incredible U.S. Highway system of the American West, and visiting National Parks in our recently acquired, and most excellent, 1966 VW Microbus. Heading out of town after a sleepless night in the bustle of Las Vegas, we picked up a couple of hitchhikers on the way to Zion National Park. Pat and James were two polite Texas boys that had hitched rides to the southern California coast on a whim. They had enjoyed the sun, sand, and sea, and were thumbing their way back to The Lone Star State when we picked them up on the road to Utah.
|Pat and James|
That was an exclamation I’d never heard before, and after a quick double take at each other, Sally and I broke into laughter. I again looked in the rear view mirror, and sure enough, the driver of the Maverick was waving a chicken leg out the window. So, even though I was cautious at what danger might come from a chicken leg-wielding, Maverick-driving road stranger, I had to pull over to see what the dude was up to. Who knows? Maybe he had to warn us in case we had gotten a batch of bad Colonel Sanders back in Vegas? What if he was trying to tell us he was having a fried chicken induced myocardial infarction and needed our assistance? This could be serious… or funny.
I looked for a wide spot on the shoulder and pulled over. As we came to a dusty stop on the crunchy gravel, we were motioned to come to the back of the Maverick by a somewhat overweight Latino man, waving his upraised hand in a “come over here” motion. The man had a thick, black head of hair, an overall layer of baby fat, and gave the appearance he could use a better diet and a few laps around the jogging track. I remember he had a huge smile, and presented himself with an almost open arms greeting. And there was a skinny, mousy, most unremarkable Anglo girl accompanying him.
The Maverick’s trunk lid, or maybe it was a hatch back, was already wide open. As we came around the back of the Maverick, we were greeted gregariously, and were amazed to gaze upon every kind of snack food one imaginable. There amidst that booty sat a couple of buckets of Colonel Sander’s fried chicken, explaining the chicken semaphore the driver had used to hail us over.
The Latino man introduced himself as Malo Santana – brother of Carlos Santana the famous guitar player. He said he played congas and was a vocalist in the band Santana. His “girlfriend” – for the life of me I can’t remember if he ever referred to her by name – he explained was heir to the King Ranch, “the biggest ranch in the United States!” Malo tells us. Presumably she was some one of substantial wealth. We were all impressed with the credentials Malo presented. We may have even been a bit star struck, at least for the moment. Maybe not so star struck with his girlfriend, though. Even though she seemed to have an impressive pedigree, she was bland and ordinary. She spoke only to Malo, when she spoke at all, and she spoke quietly as if to guard herself from attention. Or maybe she was just so overshadowed by Malo’s outsized personality that she seemed to fade into the backdrop of desert earth tones. Either way she struck me as unremarkable, though somehow she was an important complement to the persona that was presented to us as Malo Santana – brother of the famous rock star.
“You guys want any of this food?” Malo asked us. He explained how he and his girlfriend had been partying all night after playing a Santana concert in Las Vegas. He told us how they had gotten the munchies after smoking marijuana, then lost their appetite after snorting cocaine (neither of which he offered to us, so the claims are unverifiable, if not unbelievable). The man had an assertive aura about him; something like the cheesy charisma of an overbearing appliance salesman. There was, in his manners, something just a bit creepy, but it was subtle.
As a casual conversation started up, we somewhat reluctantly reveled to him that we were heading to Zion National Park. He said “That’s great! I’m a city kid and I’ve never been camping,” a claim he would repeat a few times as if to make it more genuine. Or maybe it was to honor our expertise because we were obviously more hippie and natural and wise in the ways of camping. Maybe it was a con man’s ploy to gain our trust. We didn’t know. Most likely he was a city kid and had never been camping just like he said. At any rate, it seemed he had just invited himself into our ensemble. Not wanting to be rude or hurt his feelings, we uneasily accepted his membership. After all, he had snacks – and lot’s of them, and he was a real celebrity! So we headed off in our mini two car convoy. On to the Zion!
|"Malo" and his girlfriend|
Malo, being a city kid and all, had a different idea of camping than we did. He rented a room at the park lodge. While he was in the lodge getting his room, Pat and James waited in the van with Sally and me. The conversation was all about Malo. “Is this guy for real? Is he too weird? How did WE hook up with HIM?” We didn’t seriously doubt who Malo claimed to be. He was a professional musician playing in a famous band. He was flashy and he had lots of cash. Still, something seemed hard to believe, but it was probably our own limited experience creating doubts.
When he returned from renting his room in the lodge, we went to find the campground and stake out a picnic area where we could cook, camp, and, presumably, party like rock stars. The picnic area was among beautiful mature pine trees and a broad grassy scape in the center of the park. We parked the van, hopped out, and started to unload the groceries that Malo had purchased back at the store. Malo was exuberant. He started to sing loudly a line from a song, coughed a bit, and reported to his girlfriend “I’ve gotta get my voice in shape, babe”.
We hadn’t been at the campsite for mere minutes, and people from other parts of the campground started inexplicably wandering over to our picnic table. They were being drawn to Malo. Campers were gravitating to our area as if they had been waiting for Malo to arrive and he was finally there. From the farther reaches of the camping area they were following a radar beam straight to our campsite. It was really strange. I’ve never figured out what attracted these uninvited people to come on over and make themselves at home? What radio signal were these people tuned into? Sally and I just looked at each other and shrugged our shoulders at what was going on? It was all very weird! Like a carnival barker urging an audience to watch a sideshow, Malo’s outgoing energy was bringing people over to see what was going on.
Maybe up to ten had gathered at our table. Everyone was enjoying themselves and communing in a very mellow and peaceful way. It was as if a mini love-in had broken out spontaneously (looking back it was probably just more of a free beer party). A long haired, bearded guy was playing Neil Young songs on an acoustic guitar. Some people sang along with him. Someone started a fire with Malo’s charcoal briquettes and lighter fluid. Hot dogs and steak seared side by side on the grill. Strangers treated each other politely. People were talking and laughing. Most notably there was a constant circle of partygoers around Malo. They wanted to be close to him. Every few minutes he would try to sing, then cough, and again admonish to his wimpy girlfriend “I’ve gotta get my voice in shape, babe”.
|"Malo" and me|
As peaceful as the gathering was, Malo himself was wound up like a pocket watch and couldn’t sit still for very long. After a couple of hours of the party’s placid kum-ba-ya, Malo announced to Sally and I, as if we were somehow in charge of things, or maybe respecting us as the only married couple in the area, that he needed more money and was leaving to make a phone call to his manager. Malo and his girlfriend got in the red Maverick. Headed back toward the park exit, the unpaved road’s gravel and chert crunched under their tires, becoming quieter as they moved farther down the road.
It was an interesting afternoon. The pilgrims who had migrated to the little impromptu celebration enjoyed a quiet party into the evening. But hanging out with a group of strangers wasn’t something Sally and I were particularly into. So at some point, soon after dark, we were growing weary of the crowd, becoming groggy from long hours of sleeplessness, and tired from the long day with Malo, who seemed to restore his energy by drawing it out of the people around him. We told Pat and James they were welcome to the extra bed in our room when they got tired. We drove back to the room, and left Pat and James with plans that in the morning we were all going north to Bryce Canyon National Park. Malo was in on that plan, and, as far as we knew, he and his girl friend would be coming along.
In the morning, Pat and James were across the room sleeping in the twin bed we’d left for them. They had turned in at opposite ends of the tiny mattress, with their heads next to each other’s feet. It was a funny sight, and we realized we should have slept on that bed, and left them the one with more sprawling real estate. It would have been more comfortable for us to cuddle then for two grown men to establish their private space in a cramped bed where there was none. Oh well, it wasn’t perfect. But they did get to sleep in a bed and not on the ground as they had assumed they would. As we all woke up and shook off the morning cobwebs, I for one was starting to develop a bit of a panic attack about spending another day with Malo. That was probably a shared emotion. The day before was an experience we wouldn’t forget. However, in the context of a new day, it seemed we all had the same anxiety about letting Malo stay with us as we journeyed on the next leg of our trip.
Sally and I were thinking alike. We did not want to continue on with Malo. He drew too much of our energy to stoke his own boiler fire. Being in Malo’s proximity demanded a mental expenditure, and the prospect of that was becoming daunting. We started a conversation with Pat and James, which rapidly evolved into a plan of escape. To a person we agreed that Malo was a “nice guy”, and he had been generous to us, and nobody wanted to hurt his feelings. All those things being said, we also held the collective urge to flee immediately. A mild panic was spreading among us like nervous mutineers scheming treason. There was an unspoken urgency to hurry up and not be discovered. If we were to run into Malo that morning, we would be stuck another day with him. Malo’s company was somehow now starting to feel a bit… malo, which is the Spanish word for bad.
Bryce Canyon was still our objective. We hatched a plan like this: leave Malo a note at the Lodge’s front desk thanking him, telling him we had fun, but we needed to go back to Las Vegas for some reason. I have no idea what excuse we used as the necessity to return to Las Vegas, but I remember we didn’t have total confidence in its believability. So, we quickly slinked out of the park, heading north to Bryce, but misinforming Malo with our letter we are heading south to Las Vegas. With some guilt that we might be hurting the feelings of a good person with our deceit, we were none the less leaving Malo and relieved to be gaining distance from him.
We did make it to Bryce Canyon later that day. However we didn’t stay long. We also took time to get off the road and check out the desert close up a couple of times. But the entire morning we had been looking over our shoulders to see if a red Maverick and a man with a chicken leg might be catching up with us. About mid afternoon we reached the junction of US 89 and Utah 12. That is where Pat and James left us. They were going east to visit an aunt in Colorado before finally ending up back in Texas. Sally and I were heading north to hook up with a friend in Idaho. In about thirty-six hours, Sally and I had developed a bond with the young Texans. We left them with heart felt hugs. Pat gave Sally his gray Stetson cowboy hat as a parting gift. We later found some money stuck in the hat’s band and a note of thanks for the ride we had given them. They were good men of excellent character, and our fond memories of them are strong after all these years.
We did not develop a relationship with Malo. He was an interesting character, and it was much harder for us to pin down how we felt about him. We told our story of hanging out with a genuine rock star many times over the years. Still, there was always an odd feeling of doubt about the authenticity of Malo’s claims. We didn’t have any evidence to question who he said he was, but something was off. Malo Santana seemed to be more a legend or a hoax than a real person.
Almost 40 years passed, and, to paraphrase from Ms Gale’s article, the age of Wikipedia dawned. With no detective skills necessary, Sally and I were able to find out there is no Santana brother named “Malo”. A quick Google search turned up Sarah Gale’s story of the fake Santana brother and how she had been conned and robbed by him. I have no doubt her Malo and our Malo are the same guy! Our Malo did not have a teardrop tattoo as described by Sarah Gale, but he probably got that later; most likely in prison somewhere. Otherwise the stories fit together. The physical description of the man, his behavior, and his grandiose egotistical exuberance; they are all comparable characteristics. But the grandest comparison is his claim to be Malo Santana, the brother of Carlos? How many people, in the whole wide world of imposters, could be using that bogus claim?
He didn’t steal from Sally and me like he did from Sarah Gale in her story; as a matter of fact he was quite generous and gracious to us. But he did deceive us with a well rehearsed and tested con. Looking at Ms Gale’s story, and putting two and two together, we realize that someone else was unwillingly paying for Malo’s excessive munificence. He wasn’t the celebrity he claimed to be, and his money was earned dishonestly. Sally and I were unwittingly the beneficiaries of someone else’s loss, even if all we had to show for that day was an interesting story. Who had Malo had taken advantage of to be able to spend so wildly that day? Whoever they were, I would like to let them know we appreciated the comfortable bed in the lodge at their expense. And I enjoyed my straw cowboy hat for many years. During the time I believed it to be true I enjoyed telling the story about Malo and our rock star encounter. I still have a vivid memory of a chicken leg-wielding arm waving from a red Ford Maverick in my driver’s side rear view mirror. When I think of that day I just have to laugh, realizing when I saw that chicken leg, Sally and I were about to be taken in by an honest-to-goodness huckster: the unknown man calling himself Malo Santana.
1 Gale, Sarah Fister. "The night a Santana brother conned me." Salon,
DEC 8, 2010 05:20 PM PST