From Mexico to the Moon

Five stories about Mexican entanglements with outer space.

A cover of “The Sections Edition: Moon Landing” of “Anthropology News” from July/August 2019, Volume 60, Issue 4, which is published bimonthly by the American Anthropological Association. The cover includes a water painting of a star-filled galaxy with the earth and the moon in the background. In the foreground, a Día de los Muertos skull astronaut and a stylized Chinese dragon float in front of the galaxy background. Purple-blue blocks sit on top and bottom of the image.
Paloma Romano Andrade, La alegoría mexicana en el cosmos. Winner of first place in the “juvenile” category of the Third Annual Space Art Contest of the Agencia Espacial Mexicana. Agencia Espacial Mexicana

Lunar analogies

The Biosphere Reserve of El Pinacate in northwestern Mexico, sacred to the Tohono O’odham, is considered a paradise by biologists for its diversity of plant and animal life, and by geologists for its immense dunes and lava fields. Its lunar-like landscape inspired NASA to send astronauts of the Apollo Program to train for moon missions between 1965 and 1970. The recently created Mexican Space Agency (AEM) would like to return to El Pinacate with a new series of analogic missions, this time to Mars (Aurreola, 2017).

For many space professionals these days, the moon serves less as a destination than as a launching pad for Mars, and red planet missions have already been carried out in variousextreme Earth environments. In December 2018, the first all-Mexican crew undertook a mission at the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah, although Mexican STEM students and professionals have participated in other missions with international crews since 2016. Since the AEM has neither a crewed space flight program nor rocket launching facilities, these young Mexicans participate in training programs around the world as cosmopolitan “citizen astronauts,” not only with the support of NASA, but also with the European, French, and Russian space agencies as well as private enterprises. The AEM, often called “the Mexican NASA,” has a love-hate relationship with the original NASA. One Mexican space engineer told me, after mentioning with pride that she had been invited to tour one of NASA’s facilities, that the iconic space agency “lacks humanity,” that “they’re only interested in what’s best for the United States.”

Lunar conquest

“México hasn’t even launched a spoon into space,” lamented Rodolfo Neri Vela, Mexico’s first astronaut (Santillán, 2017). Neri is Mexico’s only astronaut, if you don’t count José Hernández, a NASA astronaut born of Mexican parents in the United States. (Neri is also credited with introducing tortillas to the astronauts’ diet after requesting they be included on the 1985 space shuttle mission in which he participated.) However, Argentinean astrophysicist Gustavo Medina Tanco, director of the Space Instrumentation Laboratory at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), tells me he has agreements in place with Mexico’s National Science and Technology Council (CONACyT) and the US company Astrobotic Technology to launch eight “autonomous, intelligent, and self-organizing robots” to the moon very soon. The robots would work together like a “beehive” to construct solar panels on the moon’s surface. This project, he says, would make Mexico “the first Latin American country to conquer the moon.” He and many of his colleagues argue that projects like this have the potential to launch Mexico as a major player in space technology on a global level, but also that the development of space technology has important applications for Mexico on the ground: satellites, for example, can be used to shorten response times to natural disasters. “Satellites are noble,” Genaro, a young STEM professional told me, “they are agnostic.” Born in the troubled state of Guerrero, Genaro believes that promoting careers in space science could also provide alternatives for young people whose futures are being threatened by the violence that has plagued Mexico for the last 10 years.

Lunar rabbit

The generous rabbit offered himself up to be eaten by Quetzalcoatl, and in thanks the god lifted the rabbit high into the air, all the way to the moon.

One day, the Mexica god Quetzalcoatl was wandering about the earth. As he was in human guise, he became hungry. He came across a rabbit having his supper, and asked him, “What are you eating?” “Grass,” replied the rabbit. “I can’t eat grass,” said Quetzalcoatl, “perhaps I will die of hunger.” The generous rabbit offered himself up to be eaten by Quetzalcoatl, and in thanks the god lifted the rabbit high into the air, all the way to the moon. The image of the rabbit became stamped onto the moon’s surface so that all of humanity might remember the rabbit’s sacrifice.

There is an alternative, somewhat more violent version of why the rabbit’s outline is imprinted on the moon. Before day and night existed, the gods met to decide how to illuminate the world. Two gods, the rich Tecuzitecatl and the poor Nanahuatzin, offered to sacrifice themselves by fire. Nanahuatzin threw himself into the fire eagerly and became the sun. Tecuzitecatl hesitated before immolating himself and became the moon. At first, the two gods burned equally brightly, but as punishment for his earlier doubt, one of the other gods threw a rabbit into Tecuzitecatl’s face, diminishing his brightness.

Lunar art

Mexico on the Moon, a scratchboard etching submitted by Alan Roberto Castillo Ávila to the Third Annual Space Art Contest sponsored by the AEM in 2018, recalls these prehispanic narratives about the rabbit in the moon. It features the silhouette of a rabbit springing from the Caracol (an ancient Mayan building at Chichén Itzá thought to have been an astronomical observatory) to the modern Mexican National Observatory, located in Baja California. Behind the rabbit and the two structures is the pocked and pitted outline of the moon. Quetzalcoatl and the Moon, an entry to the contest in the “juvenile” category, was painted by Francisco Martínez Calzada and has as its central motif a plumed serpent, its tail firmly planted in Mexico, snaking its way up and away from the earth toward a pyramid constructed at the moon’s north pole. In the collage Mexican Allegory in the Cosmos, Paloma Romano Andrade also represents Quetzalcoatl, but accompanies the plumed serpent with an astronaut, an eagle with a snake in its beak that evokes the foundational myth of Mexico-Tenochtitlan, and a ring of brightly colored papel picado around the moon. Instead of a human face, a candy skull from Day of the Dead is visible through the astronaut’s visor.

Mario Aurreola, the director of the Science and Technology Outreach Program of the AEM, is bemused by the amount of prehispanic imagery in the submissions to the space art contest he created. “Are they saying we should build our future on past knowledge?” he asks me. “How do we do that?”

Lunar heresies

The Franciscan friar Manuel Antonio de Rivas arrived in Yucatán, Mexico, in 1742 from Spain. He is best known for his proto-science-fiction story “Syzygies and Quadratures of the Moon Arranged to Merida of Yucatan’s Meridian by an Anctitone or Moon Inhabitant, and Addressed to Bachelor Ambrosio De Echeverría, Deacon of Funeral Kyries at the Parish of Jesus of Said City, and at Present Professor of Logarithms in the Village of Mama on the Yucatan Peninsula, in the Year of Our Lord of 1775,” in which the missionary imagines an exchange of scientific information between terrestrial and lunar scientists. In the narrative, a French astronomer called Dutalon educates the moon dwellers on the theories of Descartes and Newton, while they, in turn, express their doubts about biblical messianic teleology, and inform Dutalon that hell is located in the sun. That same year, Rivas was put on trial for heresy, but the charges were dropped after the Inquisition determined that the tale should be considered a fable.

Anne W. Johnson is a professor in the graduate anthropology program of the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City. She works on performance, popular memory, and space culture in Mexico.

Cite as: Johnson, Anne W. 2019. “From Mexico to the Moon.” Anthropology News website, July 12, 2019. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1209

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