Printer Friendly


The novel Mejicanos en el espacio (1968) by Carlos Olvera (Mexico, 1940-2013 is premised on the science fiction trope of traveling in spaceships to faraway planets and having close encounters with extraterrestrial entities. (1) In this touchstone work of contemporary Mexican science fiction, the action is located in the twenty-second century when space travel has become routine to the point where Mexican spaceships whisk astronauts off to other planets like so many camiones. Raul Nope, the protagonist, is a restless young man who, out of boredom on earth, seeks adventure in space. As an astronaut, he soon finds himself on Mars, a colony of earth, where he discovers that his country's missions to explore space are more fabrication than reality. He begins to empathize with the Martians who have been written off as primitive and stupid by both Mexican and American colonizers. After a botched secret mission with a Martian he is detained and accused of desertion. What begins as a comic adventure ends in tragic confinement in a jail cell. Olvera's novel is not so far-fetched as to be completely unrealistic, whether it be the credible technologies described here or a Mexican government that is still undemocratically repressive in the twenty-second century.

Here I analyze Mejicanos through the dynamics of space imperialism. I focus on the levels of estrangement created upon contact with the Other, whether it is a Martian, a Mexican or an American and how, in spite of technological advances, human relations, in the context of empire, are still defined by distrust and solitude. Raul Nope, feeling alienated from his own society, seeks and finds companionship with the Other in the form of a Martian but in the end he is pulled back into his own society where solitary confinement is a perfect metaphor of how hegemonic entities, such as empires, often repress any possibility of subalterns affirming solidarity among themselves and thus posing a challenge to the status quo.

In order to understand the type of Mexican youth Raul represents I contextualize this novel in the literature of La Onda from the 1960s and 70s characterized by the centrality of youthful rebelliousness evident in its young, idealistic but alienated protagonists and their casual use of slang--calo--a clear signal of their alienation from bourgeois Mexican society. La Onda literature is valued as a unique expression of youthful perspective long absent in conventional Mexican narrative: "La juventud mexicana por primera vez se atrevia al autoanalisis, a la busqueda de una identidad propia y a la definicion del papel personal dentro de la sociedad" (Gunia 22). Central characters in Jose Agustin's La tumba (1964) and Gustavo Sainz's Gazapo (1965) are young men struggling to find their voices and their place in society after rebuffing their parents' middle-class norms, and Olvera's Raul finds himself in a similar predicament. This restless search for a genuine identity, however, is not without its light moments since another central aspect of La Onda is its humor in the form of slang, crude jokes and various levels of satire and parody, and here too Olvera's novel is no exception. Nevertheless, even though there are clear uses of parody in Mejicanos, the overall intention however is not to produce a burlesque tongue-in-cheek novel but a sobering tale about the persistence of dictatorial entities even in a scientifically advanced space age. As Linda Hutcheon states, "parts of a work may be parodie without the entire text being so labeled" (18). In general, writers of La Onda attempt to desacralize conventional approaches to writing literature; the local and the personal take precedence over Big Questions about Mexican history (e.g., The Mexican Revolution). La Onda writers worked against the mandates of officialized literature. As Jose Agustin observes: "Es decir, la intencion era literaria. Lo que habia cambiado eran los conceptos. La esencia estaba en la apariencia, lo inmediato era lo eterno; lo local, universal, y la idea de cultura borraba fronteras y jerarquias" ("La onda" 10). In a broader sense, La Onda literature is emblematic of young Mexicans' desire to join a universal youth culture informed by rock music, drugs and political movements. As Eric Zolov notes, "fashion was becoming politicized, and rock music, in particular, was again becoming a wedge against traditional social values and a vehicle for free expression" (102). Youthful idealism, however, ran smack into repressive government actions when peaceful protestors were gunned down in Tlatelolco Square in Mexico City in the fall of 1968, the same year in which Olvera's novel was published. The dictatorial government portrayed in Mejicanos may very well be a stand-in for the one in power in Mexico at the end of the turbulent sixties.

The conflict between idealistic Mexican youth in the sixties and their repressive rulers regarding how society should be organized and governed makes us re-think our concepts of "culture", which, as Edward W. Said states, cannot be separated from its political implications since it

is a system of exclusions legislated from above but enacted throughout its polity, by which such things as anarchy, disorder, irrationality, inferiority, bad taste, and immorality are identified, then deposited outside the culture and kept there by the power of the State and its institutions. [And] this differentiation is frequently performed by setting the valorized culture over the Other. (World 11-12)

Since the Other by implication represents all that one is supposed to shun according to a particular national master narrative, citizens negatively define themselves by what they are not, thus denoting differences between a particular way of being, doing and sizing up the world as opposed to that of the Other. In order for countries with their specific officialized national cultures (defined in the most general sense by both the ruling classes and their intellectual cohorts) to co-exist, these chasms of differences will have to be firmly in place. However, rarely does there exist between two countries--especially ones that share a border--a relationship of neutral political power and economic parity. Even though some countries--such as Germany, France, Europe and Spain--may, on the surface, proclaim a "European union", there exists a clear economic hierarchy among them, not to mention memories of past bloody conflicts which continue to inform present political postures. In the case of Mexico and the U.S., since the beginning of the nineteenth century the latter has almost always enjoyed the economic upper hand over the former, and this is still true in the twenty-second century space age of Mejicanos.

While Mexicans and Americans have almost always been mutual Others due to their sometimes contentious histories, in this novel there is a third Other, the Martian, who finds himself antagonized by both of these foreigners colonizing his planet. Even though both Americans and Mexicans have imperial designs in space, a clear hierarchy of political and economic power exists with the U.S. on top, followed by Mexico, and, lastly at the very bottom, the Martians. On the one hand, this extraterrestrial, like most Others in science fiction, is anthropomorphic since, as Patrick Parrinder notes, "it is not possible for man to imagine what is utterly alien to him" ("The Alien Encounter" 150; emphasis in original). Nevertheless, Patricia Kerslake in Science Fiction and Empire (2007) concludes that in science fiction "the Other must forever remain a figure apart: poised somewhere between angel and demon, an existence hovering on the imaginary boundaries of the known [since to do otherwise would be to deny this genre's] speculative power over humanity's continued development and growth" (11). The science fiction Other in the form of an extraterrestrial can never be wholly understood, embraced or assimilated; although, as we will see, optimistic attempts can be made. Olvera speculates on what could happen in the depths of space between Americans, Mexicans and Martians, even though in the end what does transpire can be viewed as an extrapolation of power relations between earthly colonial entities and their subalterns. Specifically, the Martian character, Lobelto, is portrayed as a manifestation of "the noble savage". As problematic as this representation may be, Raul's friendship with him is a proxy for the acknowledgement of ancient indigenous cultures in his native country, Mexico, in this space age in which he suffers from cognitive estrangement due to a repressive government's insistent projection of a monolithic national culture. Unlike other works of La Onda where young restless men and women wander the streets and tenements of Mexico City, Olvera's rebellious young protagonist rejects his earth-bound society to the extent he flees from it in a spaceship. He feels like a stranger in his own society; he wishes to find a more interesting existence beyond this realm: "Aun habia mucho por hacer y, sobre todo, por ver" (18). He is thus drawn to space exploration with its promise of exciting adventures and encounters with extraterrestrials.

The notion of space travel and exploration is replete with positive and negative overtones: on the one hand, it represents the age-old human desire to seek adventure beyond the bounds of everyday reality. If Ulysses sought adventure in a distant war and islands populated by strange, otherworldly beings, then Raul launches off into space in hopes of experiencing an adventure that will liberate him from "esa clase de vida pareja, insipida, sistematica y vacia" (16) on earth. If, as Robert Scholes notes, science fiction is a "special case of romance" in which there is "a radical discontinuity between its world and the world of ordinary human experience" (46-47), then space exploration is an extreme form of romance where one can encounter new marvelous worlds and come into contact with wondrous extraterrestrials. The dark side of space exploration, however, is that it is often a euphemism for the conquest of foreign territories; in short, imperialism. After all, Christopher Columbus's curiosity about what lay on the other side of the ocean turned out to be the first step towards the eventual Spanish conquest of vast territories in America to set up what became the Spanish Empire. Parrinder notes that empire is indeed an important motif in science fiction:

[the] ultimate symbol of the 'conquest of nature' advocated by modern scientific thinkers is the foundation of a galactic empire [...] it is invariably a theatre of war. Such stories are at once a projection of twentieth century imperialist violence and a prediction of a non-utopian future in which the brute facts of power and self-assertion will remain very much what they are [...] the universe may appear as a virgin land empty save for a few shiftless natives, as an ocean in which little green men are constantly threatening the trade-routes, or even as a complex division of superpowers and spheres of interest. ("The Alien Encounter" 82; emphasis in original)

Although Parrinder bases his observations on works of science fiction from the U.S. and Europe, they can all be applied to Mejicanos as well: here both American as well as Mexican space programs have the goal of colonizing other planets and securing natural resources; even though there is no declared war as such in this novel, Martians were once subjugated through violent means; since the space race between various countries bears a bellicose undertone, aggressive action is always an option; finally, the Martians here are seen as "shiftless natives" assumed to possess no distinctive culture in their colonized state. Implicit in Parrinder's observations is that in a "non-utopian future" invading forces are by definition imperialistic, even if a form of democracy is practiced at home (e.g. England, Europe, the U.S.).

On the other hand, Raul lives under a tyrannical regime in Mexico, a fact he is not cognizant of at the start of his career since he is naively enthusiastic about new adventures in space. His idealism entails him to become a member of the Liga Humana since he is a firm believer in "preservar la civilizacion humana para nosotros solamente, y evitar a toda costa que se les comunique a 'otros'" (31). Raul unwittingly subscribes to the mandates of empire which "appropriates territory, while it also appropriates the means by which such acts of appropriation are to be understood" (Spurr 28). The colonizer is not open to dialoguing with the subjugated Other since that would assume the Other is an equal and "civilized" partner in the sharing of natural resources. The individuals opposing the Liga Humana are the "universalistas" who come to Mars disguised as missionaries with the slogan "pro igual trato universal", but according to Raul they are "revoltosos" (31) because they once almost managed to tear down a government building. By the end, however, Raul too becomes a revoltoso himself when he attempts to rescue Lobelto from almost certain death at the hands of the Mexican government.

Raul's disenchantment with the imperial exploitation of other planets is evident on the first page since the novel begins in media res with an account of a three-month mission to locate valuable natural resources on other planets. Even though their commander orders them to carefully explore each planet on which they land, as Raul says, "Pero no encontramos nada. Absolutamente nada" (9). Raul is not so much exasperated by having to do the dirty work of digging around for what could be valuable minerals as he is by his commander's insistence on doing something for the sake of doing it, and doing it quickly. He rhetorically asks: "?Acaso puede alguien imaginarse los estragos que causa en el organismo la absurda prisa en todas las actividades de a bordo? ?Es normal ese afan por despojarnos de nuestra saludable calma?" (9). It becomes clear that Raul will never become a model astronaut who, in military fashion, follows orders unquestioningly. Thus, typical of a youthful protagonist in a La Onda novel, in these opening paragraphs the protagonist's newly affirmed nonconformist attitude is immediately established.

What is also evident from the beginning is the almost slavish use of U.S. technology and methodology by Mexican space authorities. Raul notes that his commander "esta acostumbrado a los metodos de America, donde fue entrenado" (9). By aping their neighbors to the north, Mexicans are not thinking carefully about their national priorities. Raul and fellow astronaut Gus Blazquez send the director of the Mexican space agency a letter in which they protest the recent acceleration of space exploration. Significantly, the official stationary that they use carries the slogan "POR UN ESPACIO LIBRE" (11). This slogan's purported idealism is disingenuous since it cynically obscures the fact that in this age of imperial space conquest there is no such thing as free space when every country, including Mexico, is trying to expand its territories to other planets blessed with valuable natural resources.

Raul eventually leaves the Liga Humana to become a member of "la Vieja Calma" founded by a certain Saint Gonzalez around the year 2100 and whose purpose it is to "reinstituir nuestros antiguos sistemas de vida, cuando eramos felices" (12). This may be doubletalk for an essentialized concept of Mexican character as one that prefers play to work: Mexicans put off everything until an ephemeral manana while their Puritan northern neighbors do everything according to strict rules and plans, leaving nothing to chance. However, Olvera does not use this stereotype here to parody Mexicans so much as to critique their convenient opposite exemplified by Americans. Also, "la Vieja Calma" may be a reference to American hippies whose countercultural rebellion in the sixties against mainstream society obsessed with money and technology was emulated by a certain segment of Mexican youth who came to be called jipotecas. As Zolov notes, these foreign hippies' "stylistic emulation of indigenous cultures introduced an image of modernity that reflected a composite of 'modern' and 'folkloric' traditions" (110). By imitating these foreigners, Mexican jipotecas unwittingly discovered their own indigenous cultures. As we will see, a parallel can be drawn between Raul's relationship with Martians and that of jipotecas with Mexican indigenous cultures.

While Americans and Mexicans continue to exhibit familiar stereotypical characteristics in the twenty-second century--the former are still efficient, optimistic and technologically advanced while the latter continue to be corrupt, pessimistic and prone to spontaneous revelry--the political boundaries of their countries have changed. The fact that Raul refers to his country as "nuestra patria chica" (15) indicates that Mexico is now one among many states within a larger federal entity: it is now a member of a consortium of republics that include Baja California, Isla Tiburon, Zihuatenejo, Potrero del Llano, Encarnacion, Relampago Azteca and Mazatlan, and the whole national entity is called Centromejico. It is not clear if what was the Mexican republic in the twentieth century has grown in size or shrunk, and if what were once Mexican cities and regions have declared autonomy. Also, it is not clear exactly how much political power the U.S. wields over this entity, but the fact that "pesollars", a combination of Mexican pesos and American dollars, is now the common currency indicates that national identities have been blurred in an attempt to create a unified economic entity.

Other linguistic changes, both subtle and blatant, are indicative of Mexico's subaltern position relative to the U.S. The X in Mexico has been replaced by J to render its pronunciation phonetically "correct", as Spaniards, the linguistic patria madre, have always determined, and what would be more logical for English speakers. The fact that "Espangles" is now recognized as a language and not simply a mongrel linguistic form is further proof of the extent to which traditional Mexican language and culture continues to be diluted. Throughout the novel, in typical La Onda fashion, Raul sprinkles his narrative with Espangles, such as, "no queremos rush" (13), "mental sanity" (13), "mejican-way-of-life" (15), "un gran bisnes" (21) and "Rrrrooooaaaarrrrrr" (41). While among La Onda writers such as Agustin and Sainz the use of Anglicisms was mostly a way of playfully defying the literary establishment's linguistic formalities, in Olvera's novel it is a clear indication of a twenty-second century Mexico now even more culturally and economically colonized by its northern neighbor. In this hybrid state of political and economic affairs the U.S. retains the upper hand while Mexico remains diminished in its secondary role. Also, the fact that Raul refers to the U.S. as "America" (9), and not the technically correct "E.E.U.U.", shows the extent to which Mexicans have capitulated regarding American linguistic preferences. Since in Spanish "America" actually refers to the whole continent, from Canada to Argentina, and not just one country, calling the U.S. "America" is suggestive of the hegemonic reach of this powerful country over the whole continent. Finally, Raul's second name, Nope, is indicative of La Onda's playful language posing a rebellious attitude (it is a slang expression favored by Agustin's characters). More importantly, in this context of U.S. imperialism, this English slang family name, while parodie, is also suggestive of the warped state of cultural identity in which Mexicans now find themselves.

While on the macrocosmic scale Mexicans chafe under a kind of economic and cultural colonialism practiced by its more powerful northern neighbor, on a microcosmic scale Mexicans are squeezed under the thumb of their own dictatorial government. For example, when Raul is still sanguine about his government's intentions and before he becomes an astronaut, he works at an institute where he teaches classes on "Logica del Partido, que viene a ser algo asi como la mistica de nuestros gobiernos" (17). By using the euphemism "Logica", the government attempts to obscure the reality of a shadowy government; transparency (democracy) as opposed to opacity (dictatorship). By describing the government as "mistica", Raul refers to its enigmatic nature, similar to a religious sect demanding unquestioning obedience from its followers. As a colleague cynically reminds Raul, "entre mas tonto fuera uno, con mas carino lo trataria el Partido" (17). More disturbing than these classes he imparts is the "Ley Negra" which grants the government carte blanche to interrogate and disappear citizens without first registering an official accusation. As Raul says, "Nomas se lo enfriaban a uno sin decir agua va y enviaban a casa un 'muerto en cumplimiento del deber'" (67). Among those who carry out the "Ley Negra" are the unnerving "Brigadas Juveniles de Admiracion Controlada": admiration is controlled since it can only be focused on the ruling party and no other rival entities. In spite of the darkly humorous name (or perhaps because of it) their activities are deadly serious:
   Generalmente comenzaban su adiestramiento cuando todavia eran
   chiquitos y crecian en la ciega creencia de que todo lo que decia
   el Partido era la verdad absoluta. Despues de anos de observacion,
   los mas fanaticos son automaticamente alistados en el cuerpo de los
   temibles Guardias Meshicas que, como todos saben, son una mezcla de
   Gestapo con santa inquisicion y policia judicial (todas de antano).
   Todo lo que sucede en el pais lo saben inmediatamente los de la
   Guardia, todo. No puede haber nada que pase desapercibido para
   ellos, hasta los mas infimos detalles estan bajo su control.

Present here are three typical characteristics of a hegemonic entity: citizens brainwashed from an early age to never question the Party's authority or doctrines, fanatics who spy on and torture "suspicious" individuals and panoptic surveillance of all citizens. The fact that these agents are called "Guardias Meshicas" (phonetic spelling a La Onda) is a dark allusion to the fierce warriors from Aztlan, los mexicas, who conquered the inhabitants of Anahuac in central Mexico and founded the Aztec Empire in the fourteenth century. With allusions to the "policia federal", the Gestapo and the Spanish Inquisition, it is strongly implied that suppressive forces are nothing new in human history: they only change names and forms, whether they are governments, religious institutions or another entity. History repeats itself in Mexico, even in the scientifically advanced space age of the twenty-second century.

Although space imperialism here creates conflicts and inequalities between the conquerors and the conquered, Raul's meeting with Martians, the marginalized Other, turns out to be a closer encounter than he could have foreseen. Although he initially looks down upon these aliens, his eventual bonding with one of them, Lobelto, signals his attempt to free himself from the constraints of society since in the Martian he finds a kindred oppressed Other. Here extraterrestrials are reminiscent of humans, confirming what Parrinder noted earlier about the impossibility of imagining extraterrestrials devoid of anthropomorphic characteristics:
   se penso que se trataba de animales, de simios, de changos de
   alguna especie desconocida en la Tierra. Como son tan parecidos a
   nosotros siempre era medio feo eso de verlos dando brincos por
   todas partes y grunendo y pataleando cada vez que trataban de
   acercarseles. Andaban completamente encuerados, hembras y machos, y
   parecia que nunca tenian frio a pesar de lo extremoso del clima
   marciano. Pero son rete raros: muy muy flaquitos y con una cabeza
   casi dos veces mas grande que la nuestra, y sin cejas ni pestanas
   ni pelo de ninguna clase. (59)

By portraying the Martians as similar to monkeys and apes Olvera draws a clear parallel to humans who are descended from these ancient primates. These inhabitants of Mars are playful, standoffish and unabashedly naked, which signals, on the positive side, a precognizant state of human innocence, a kind of edenic perfection. Martians represent atavistic humans since they are not yet "civilized" in a modern Enlightenment sense. In this aspect Olvera does not stray far from science fiction convention since, as Gary K. Wolfe notes, stories about aliens are "inevitably stories of mankind's earthly origins, since they must gain their power partly from the reader's awareness of the terrestriality of mankind and the accident of evolution" (205). Wolfe adds that science fiction aliens "clearly partake of the icon of the monster", but that some authors avoid creating monsters by "describing the alien in terms antithetical to conventional monster imagery" (202, 204). Even though Olvera's Martians clearly represent the Other, they are neither monsters nor monstrous in their behavior. In spite of the fact that their heads are twice the size of ours and therefore indicative of a bigger brain, which implies greater intelligence, they are not--on the surface--clever, cunning or mystical, thus humans are not impressed by them. Like the natives Christopher Columbus encountered upon his arrival in the Americas, these alien beings too seem harmless and meek and therefore easily exploitable by earthlings.

At the beginning of Raul's time on Mars the native inhabitants for him are mere background props. Since the red planet has been conquered by humans and their inhabitants colonized, the natives are considered inferior to "terraqueos", earthlings (30). Mary Louise Pratt's term "the contact zone"--"the space of colonial encounters, the space in which peoples geographically and historically separated come into contact with each other and establish ongoing relations, usually involving conditions of coercion, radical inequality, and intractable conflict" (6)--can be applied to this novel. Here humans and Martians do not mingle freely in this "contact zone": this is a kind of apartheid state where the latter are marginalized in their peripheral neighborhoods and carry out menial tasks while the former wield power from their exclusive communities. Prostitution is restricted to an orgasm-producing machine for humans since sexual contact with Martians is strictly prohibited. Mexicans or Americans cannot risk engendering human-Martian hybrid creatures--indeed, mestizos--who would not be easily categorized according to strict definitions of race. These mestizos would "dilute" the colonizer's race and, therefore, his power over his subjects. This has its parallel in Spanish colonialism in the Americas where natives were often viewed as barbarous and less than human since, as Said reminds us, colonialists thought of "European identity as a superior one in comparison with all the non-European peoples and cultures" (Orientalism 7). A clear caste system was established in the Americas with Spaniards at the top and all the Indians and mestizos (often bastards) at the bottom. Even though Spaniards would sometimes marry Indian women and have children, their blood would automatically be considered less than "pure," a form of ostracism, which is the fate Raul eventually suffers.

Mirroring economically and socially marginalized natives in terrestrial European colonies, here Martians live in ghettos, "pocilgas colectivas" and they are "limosneros" because they are "guevones" (32). Spurr observes that, according to imperial rhetoric, "social problems in health and sanitation, unemployment, or population growth come to be associated with individual filth, indolence, and sexual promiscuity" (76). Through this circular logic colonized subjects are blamed for their own socioeconomic woes, and not the imposing regime, which maintains them permanently marginalized from the centers of power. Raul initially adopts the condescending, xenophobic attitude that tourists from a technologically advanced country can display towards natives in a less developed country. As Kerslake notes, "the contemporary Eurocentrism of the technologically advanced northern hemisphere has, quite simply, been extrapolated into SF" (18). Ironically, Raul on Mars in the twenty-second century is reminiscent of a stereotypical "Ugly American" tourist in Mexico in the twentieth century. He imitates the worst aspects of economic and cultural colonialism while still living in the imperial shadow of the U.S. On another level, Raul's disdain towards Martians is not dissimilar to the way in which many Mexicans have viewed indigenous peoples in their country as uneducated, lazy and cunning (ladinos); for them, they will always be the Other even if they too are Mexicans. As Guillermo Bonfil Batalla notes, Mexican indigenous civilization has been excluded from official national culture since it is "contemplada unicamente como simbolo de atraso y obstaculo a vencer" (11). Similarly, Martians here are deemed unworthy subjects of study or sympathy since they do not represent a significant culture.

If physical features, customs and inferior socioeconomic levels render the Martians as the Other, then the lack of a common language further exacerbates this breach. Spurr notes that for "Western thought, one of the fundamental measures of a culture is the quality of its language" (102). This is under the assumption that the colonizer's language is "superior" to that of the colonized subjects whose lack of the same "upholds the justice of colonial rule" (Spurr 103). What further hardens this colonial posture is that the Martian language does not resemble anything spoken on earth since it consists of strange sounds to humans: "Siqui tisiquit siquititi tisiquiti. Bam ba ra bam ba baa" (57). For Raul these are "sonidos raros e ininteligibles" (57) even though for a Martian, Spanish, English or "Espangles" would be equally unintelligible. Nevertheless, since humans have colonized Martians here, it is their language which is considered superior while the Other's is relegated to gibberish. As Kerslake observes, "If two centres cannot communicate through a shared language, then the Other remains problematic and unapproachable" (21). Kerslake then mentions the "SF cliche of a universal translation device" (21), which Raul does wield in order to communicate with the Martians. But it is revealing that the translation device here is an after-thought of the colonizers who have assumed that Martians would "comunicarse con nosotros por telepatia" (59). Although these human invaders may have nurtured lofty ideals of universal communication with these extraterrestrials, their imperialistic priorities are laid bare when they land on Mars loaded down with more "pertrechos y equipos de guerra" (59) than with any practical means to communicate with the planet's natives. In fact, even years after Mars has been colonized Martians and earthlings still communicate solely through translation devices; neither has taken the time to master the other's language. Language, however, is inextricably linked to the culture from where it arose: "Language is the outward manifestation of the spirit of the people: their language is their spirit, and their spirit is their language; it is difficult to imagine any two things more identical" (Humboldt 42). Language is culture. Consequently, what is lost in translation is a true understanding of the Other's way of viewing, understanding and interpreting the world around him or her. On the other hand, the fact that Martians do not speak any of the colonizers' languages maintains them in a marginalized and disenfranchised position. As Kerslake notes, the alien as "the Other is doubly damned: unable to speak because of difference and, 'lacking' speech (and therefore power), unable to defend that difference" (21). But this is typical of imperial enterprises. Hernan Cortes may not have learned the local native languages, however, he was pragmatic enough to acquire his "translation device", Malinche, and she would prove to be key in the conquest of the Aztec Empire. Since Malinche astutely masters the colonizer's language in order to navigate the shifting sands of this inchoate society, the conquistadors did not have to master the colonized subjects' language since they were, after all, the new rulers atop the pyramid of power. On the other hand, the very nature of imperialism and its concerted efforts at erasure of other ethnic entities' cultural practices through violent invasion precludes any attempt to truly apprehend the Other's culture.

Reminiscent of the way in which natives of the American continent were shipped off to Europe to be displayed as exotic objects and scrutinized like animals, here Martians are brought to earth to be studied by American scientists. After five years of subjecting them to tests and experiments they conclude that "[no] daban senales de inteligencia" (60), and are subsequently returned to their planet since they pose no threat to humanity. However, their latent cultural sophistication is reflected in the structure of their highly condensed language reminiscent of a pictographic language such as Japanese or Mayan in which images express a variety of concepts. For example, the brief Martian phrase "Rscxht rsscstresh" is translated as: "El de la Botella Llena desea descansar sus sentidos y mojar una vez mas su sedienta boca antes de continuar con este fatigoso y por demas prosaico asunto interplanetario" (65). The fact that so much information can be condensed and transmitted with just two phrases in Martian is indicative of a highly efficient civilization. Nevertheless, Martians are considered ingenuous creatures until access to their historical memory is accidentally discovered when a Mexican astronaut gives tequila to some Martians who go into a state of happy frenzy and carry him off on their shoulders and begin to recall their ancient history. It turns out that a million years ago a "maldicion biblica" (62) fell upon the Martians and their God condemned them to wander the plains indefinitely until an angel gives them a special elixir to awaken them from their stupor. The similarity of this story to that of the desert-wandering Jews in the Old Testament may seem parodie, especially since tequila is the longed-for elixir. But the underlying more serious message is clear: a native Mexican beverage, tequila, is able to accomplish what no American technology had been able to achieve--pry open the door to ancient Martian history. Even in the twenty-second century characterized by deep space exploration and planetary colonization, an ancient Mexican drink distilled from the blue agave cactus through indigenous herbal technology possesses the precise chemical formula to unlock the Martian collective memory. The discovery that Martian history goes back much further than written human history and that, like humans, Martians are also capable of weaving complex mythologies about their origins as well as their future destiny is proof they are not merely half-naked "shiftless natives" running around. The Other turns out to be very similar to us. More importantly, there are clues that not only does Martian civilization go back thousands of years but that it became technologically sophisticated long before human civilization since it is proven that the Martian satellite Phobos is actually "un satelite hueco y, por ende, construido por seres inteligentes y en posesion de una tecnologia muy avanzada" (67). Again, imperial assumptions about supposedly "primitive" civilizations are proven to be unfounded. Similarly, the Mayans possessed astronomical and mathematical knowledge superior to that of their counterparts in Europe. And it is a well-known fact that volumes of Mayan history and knowledge were obliterated when the majority of their codices were burned by fanatical Catholic priests. But like Mayans in southern Mexico and Central America today, for whom their past glory can seem to be a distant memory even as they hawk arts and crafts under the shadow of the magnificent pyramid at Chichen Itza, these Martians too are marginalized and looked down upon by their colonizers.

Just as there are countless indigenous ruins in Mexico, there may also be ancient Martian ruins on Ganimedes, one of Jupiter's moons, where the Mexican government suspects the U.S. is carrying out secret excavations. Raul and Lobelto are chosen to carry out a mission to spy on the American operations on Ganimedes. Lobelto is helpful and cooperative with humans in all their activities, one of the best Martian "colaboradores" (58), and in this sense he is an exemplary colonial subject: "education... moral reflexes [and a] love for harmony... instill in the exploited a mood of submission and inhibition which considerably eases the task of the agents of law and order" (Fanon 3-4). Lobelto has apparently been well trained and brainwashed to cooperate with his colonial masters since he never shows any outward signs of resentment or anger against the established order. As for this Martian's name, Olvera may simply be assigning him a comically outlandish name a La Onda, but it may very well be the author's pseudo-Caribbean Spanish twist of "Roberto" into "Lobelto". Significantly, the Caribbean is where Europeans first came into contact with the natives of the "new world" and viewed them as both barbarous and harmless--the former because some were considered cannibals, the latter because most were friendly. Lobelto becomes a proxy for natives from this part of the world who to this day have a problematic cultural relationship with their former European colonizers who still doubt the existence of a unique Latin American culture: "poner en duda nuestra cultura es poner en duda nuestra propia existencia, nuestra realidad humana misma... se sospecha que no seriamos sino eco desfigurado de lo que sucede en otra parte" (Fernandez Retamar 20). As a Latin American who also chafes under the imperial thumb of the U.S. as well as his own dictatorial government, Raul discovers a kindred soul in Lobelto.

After their secret mission to Ganimedes fails when they are caught by the Americans and returned to the Mexican spaceship, to save face the captain fabricates a report to his superiors on earth according to which the mission was successful. Raul will be sent back to earth to be debriefed by the fearful Brigadas Juveniles, and the only way to avoid punishment will be to uphold his captain's lies. But he flees and takes Lobelto with him since he is now certain that his Martian companion will be put to death to keep the embarrassing truth from leaking out. Raul sympathizes with Lobelto's situation since by now he is no longer merely an extraterrestrial Other but, rather, a human-like being: "Humano o no, aquel tipo sentia y pensaba y quiza hasta quisiera a alguna; y sobre todo: confiaba en nosotros" (96; emphasis in original). Lobelto's trusting nature provokes compassion in Raul; he crosses the line by not only sympathizing with Lobelto but, more importantly, discovering in him the highest civilizing qualities that a human may possess--to think, to feel, to love. Also, by learning to empathize with another intelligent and sentient being, Raul takes a big step towards maturity. Consequently, he decides to go down fighting in an "arranque de quijotismo" (96) and escape from the spaceship with his Martian companion.

Like many master narratives conceived by imperialists to justify their invasive activities, here too the colonized subject, Lobelto, is portrayed as a kind of "noble savage"-"a mythic personification of natural goodness by a romantic glorification of savage life" (Ellingson 1)--who needs to be rescued from his simple but "primitive" condition by a superior civilization from afar. If aliens in science fiction are not portrayed as a monstrous threat then they may be friendly, compatible creatures. However, as Kerslake notes, "any text that attempts to relegate the Other to the position of 'friend' is guilty of the very crime it strives to prevent. The issue is not the approachability (or otherwise) of the Other, but that the myth of the alien as the noble savage has been perpetuated" (20). If the Martians in Mejicanos are negatively viewed by human colonizers as lazy, odorous natives who should be corralled into their ghettos, then the only way Olvera finds to portray them positively is by resorting to the stereotype of the noble savage, and in this aspect he does not digress from conventional science fiction tropes from early twentieth century science fiction (with which he would have been familiar). Olvera's Martians fall under Parrinder's category of "foreigners--especially those whose cultural distance from the writer and his audience is such as to make them familiar objects of anthropological or social-psychological speculation" (Science Fiction 155). Nevertheless, taking into consideration the fact that science fiction even in the U.S. and Europe in the late sixties was just beginning to evolve away from the comics-inspired adolescent and testosterone-dominated stories and novels of the 1950s, Olvera may be forgiven for his limited portrayal of extraterrestrials. Rather, what is relevant here is the way in which he uses this particular stereotype of the Other to evolve his protagonist.

Here Lobelto is portrayed as a noble savage who not only deserves to be rescued by the protagonist but who also helps his valiant savior. When they leave the spaceship it is the quiet Lobelto who suddenly shows his warrior side by knocking out a sentinel with a karate chop. But when they flee in a stolen space pod Lobelto exudes a serenity that calms the rattled Raul: "al ver la tranquila expresion de Lobelto me senti mas decidido a todo" (118). Lobelto does not panic in a very tense situation but, rather, stays quiet and calm, which wins Raul's admiration. He now considers this noble savage to be "un amigo verdadero" (120) who never turned his back on him. Significantly, Lobelto as a subaltern does not speak, even in his own incomprehensible (to Raul) language. He does not produce any texts, written or oral, of "autoethnography," defined by Pratt as "instances in which colonized subjects undertake to represent themselves in ways that engage with the colonizer's own terms" (7; author's emphasis). Lobelto does not contest the conqueror's discourse in articulate verbal terms understood and acknowledged (though almost never respected) by the centers of imperial power. Rather, Lobelto's noble actions towards Raul exemplify his state of subaltern obedience.

Raul and Lobelto land on the Martian moon and find refuge in a village called Rkkiff where Lobelto acts as a mediator while defending Raul and calling him a "verdadero amigo de los marcianos" (121). Raul's experiences here are practically a parody of a traveler's account of life among noble savages, although Olvera's tongue-in-cheek humor here is not gratuitous; rather, he signals that in spite of his noble actions, Raul is not immune to carrying out colonial practices with which he has been inculcated. Similar to the master narrative of a European colonist in the African, Asian or American continent, Raul brings "civilization" to these "primitive" natives by teaching them efficient methods of agriculture and fashioning practical tools for them. He is not producing new knowledge nor is he dreaming up new tools but simply passing on well-known earthly knowledge. Being the only human in this Martian village--now an extraterrestrial himself--he is deemed a divine being. The Martians are so grateful they offer him various wives. They even build him a temple in the form of a pyramid and give him the title of El Hijo de los Cielos (122). Sitting atop the pyramid Raul imparts justice in god-like fashion. Thus, in an ironic twist of events Raul has become a kind of colonizer himself by literally being placed at the top of the local hierarchy of power. Nevertheless, by siding with the Martian natives he has crossed the breach between himself and the Other. Raul's assimilation into Martian society is considered both a threat and a betrayal by his superiors, so when he returns to earth he is immediately detained by the Mexican authorities and placed in solitary confinement. No one bothers to interrogate him about what valuable insights he may have accrued about Martian society and culture; he is classified as a traitor to his country and species, and not as a possible source of rich anthropological, social and psychological knowledge about these extraterrestrials.

Raul has upset the official master narrative of Martians as lazy, barbarous natives, and for this he must be punished. This repressive government has no interest in truly scientific enterprises which by nature are democratic and objective, and may therefore threaten the ruling class's grip on power; the principal interest is exploitation of natural resources on other planets. The Mexican space program is not a very professional national enterprise since it is rife with cronyism and corruption. Outdated, clunky spaceships (as opposed to the Americans' sleek, swift ships) are used for laughable missions in which genuine planetary exploration does not take place. Open-ended scientific inquiry a la Star Trek is not the goal here; only science and technology that perpetuates the status quo is permitted. Embarrassingly enough, when Raul and Lobelto are caught spying by the Americans, the latter do not bother to interrogate them; they know these Mexican astronauts will not provide any valuable intelligence. In the end Raul's disillusionment goes beyond his country's space program:
   He visto demasiadas cosas y que le vayan a otro novato con el
   cuento de la 'hermandad del espacio' y del 'trabajo creador para la
   humanidad'. A veces ni fe tengo en lo que hacemos los humanos.
   ?Ultimadamente para que? ?Para que dentro de cincuenta anos haya
   otra guerra--que ya andan profetizando, entre amarillos y
   blancos--por el dominio del Sistema Solar? (91)

In this passage there is a specific allusion to the major armed conflict at the time of the novel's publication--the Vietnam War. There was nothing noble or honorable about Americans ("blancos") fighting against the Vietnamese ("amarillos") in order to stop the much-feared spread of communism during the Cold War when Americans expanded their influence around the world by "colonizing" other countries through military, economic and cultural means. Raul comes to see "space exploration" as merely a euphemism for empire-building and little to do with universal fraternity, a youthful ideal of the sixties. Regarding the ideals of jipis (hippies) and jipotecas (Mexican hippies) in the sixties, Agustin states that they "propusieron la idea de un individuo consciente, despierto, que se desarrolla mejor si lo hace en funcion de los demas... lo cual venia a ser una reelaboracion de la idea cristiana de 'amar a tu projimo como a ti mismo'" (Contracultura 135). Raul rejects imperial colonization powered by sophisticated technology and embraces Martians as equals. Mejicanos was published six months before the Mexican government's bloody crackdown on students and workers demanding democratic reforms in Tlatelolco Square in 1968, thus demonstrating to the world the extremes to which a dictatorial government (e.g. the PRI, Partido Revolucionario Institucional) will go to maintain its decades-long grip on power. Raul's indefinite solitary confinement (after a farcical military trial) in which he is treated "como si fuera perro" (125), and during which he loses all track of time, takes on new, urgent meaning in the context of the Tlatelolco massacre when hundreds of protestors were tortured and many disappeared. His dreams are shattered to the point where he now fantasizes--paradoxically--about emigrating to Venus as a slave worker. If Mars, the Roman god of war, has made his life hell, then perhaps Venus, the Roman goddess of love, will be his salvation.

Gabriel Trujillo Munoz, the best-known scholar of Mexican science fiction, notes that in Mejicanos en el espacio, "nuestro autor construye un futuro posible, un manana impecablemente caotico como para que podamos considerarlo seriamente factible" (Los confines 146). Even though Olvera chooses to place his protagonist in a recognizable science fictional environment, he firmly grounds his novel in Mexican history and contemporary society. That is, his novel is a critique of the Mexican dictatorial government in 1968 which remains entrenched even as the cultural revolutions of that decade propelled to the fore youthful creativity and yearning for universal human rights. As I have shown here, the dynamics of a repressive government on earth and imperialism in space stifle the protagonist's longing for youthful adventure in space and close contact with Martians, the Other. Raul turns into a stout anti-imperialist: "creo que no tenemos ningun derecho a imponer a nadie nuestro mejican-way-of-life" (15). In the end both he and Lobelto are subalterns that imperial forces must keep apart since solidarity between these Others would be a threat to their power. Raul unwittingly evolves into an Other, an ambiguous hybrid self who is neither Mexican nor Martian, and who must consequently be disappeared. After all, mejicano is almost a homonym of marciano.

To conclude, in the last three decades we have been witnessing a veritable "boom" in both the production and study of Latin American science fiction which continues to gain respectability among hispanists. (2) If science fiction was once seen as lowbrow literature in a continent where the production of literature with Big Ideas is almost viewed as a patriotic duty, it is now being accepted as a genre with almost endless creative potential to make pointed commentaries on historical and cultural processes, as I have demonstrated with Mejicanos. If Olvera was almost singular in his time, now "many young science fiction writers feel freer to declare themselves as such and focus their energies on the promotion and production of SF" (Lockhart xii). Important scholars such as Rachel Haywood Ferreira, Luis C. Cano, J. Andrew Brown, M. Elizabeth Ginway and Andrea L. Bell, among others, have all produced critical studies which have both "excavated" as well as expanded this promising new terrain in Hispanic Studies. It turns out science fiction has been present in Latin American literature almost since the birth of these republics in the nineteenth century. As Haywood Ferreira notes, Latin American science fiction has "consistently proved to be an ideal vehicle for registering tensions related to the defining of national identity and the modernization process" (3). Her observations can certainly be applied to Mejicanos.

Finally, the motif of space travel has been central to Latin American science fiction as evidenced in the early novels Viaje maravilloso del senor Nic-Nac al planeta Marte by Eduardo Ladislao Holmberg (1875, Argentina) and Desde Jupiter by Francisco Miralles (1877, Chile), which are studied in depth by both Cano and Haywood Ferreira who take into consideration the cultural epoch and the influence of Spiritism on these authors. In the well-known story "El cosmonauta" (1964) by the Cuban Angel Arango a cultural and linguistic misunderstanding leads to a human astronaut being chopped up by octopus-like extraterrestrials on a planet. Apparently Cold War politics informs the irony and black humor in this story. This story is included in Cosmos Latinos: An Anthology of Science Fiction from Latin America and Spain (2003), edited by Andrea L. Bell and Yolanda Molina-Gavalan. Ginway has studied space travel motifs in Brazilian science fiction and notes that "spaceship stories portray the future of male and female relationships as a microcosm of Brazilian society facing technological change" (76). Her observation that spaceships are metaphors for societal shifts may be extrapolated to science fiction from most other Latin American countries.

In Mexican science fiction the motif of space travel harks back to the foundational text of this genre in this country (and Latin America), Manuel Antonio de Rivas's story "Sizigias y cuadraturas lunares" (1775) (3) in which a Frenchman flies to the moon where, before an audience of lunar beings, tells them how he had studied physics in Paris and then been under the tutelage of Isaac Newton before inventing a flying machine which took him to the moon. In the following century Pedro Castera published the novel Querens (1890) in which space travel is more mystical and informed by Spiritism than actual advanced technology. On the other hand, in Dr. Atl's (Gerardo Murillo) novel Un hombre mas alla del universo (1935) a man invents an oversized technologically advanced crystal ball which transports him at phenomenal speeds through many galaxies and solar systems in the universe leaving him full of wonder. Contemporary Mexican authors have taken the tropes of space travel and extraterrestrials to even more innovative iterations in a post-modern deconstructive sense. For example, in the popular Bef s (Bernardo Fernandez) short novel "El estruendo del silencio" (2006) a spaceship sent into deep space exploration is actually piloted and controlled by an artificial intelligence superior to its human passengers; the "alien" here is a human invention which gains "consciousness" and destroys its progenitors. In Blanca Mart's story "Terraformacion" (2015) a writer's imagined conquest of Mars engenders real Martians who, in a twist of irony, end up conquering and destroying Earth. Next to these works, Olvera's novel, an example of La Onda literature, may seem "old school". Nevertheless, it is a milestone in the evolution of contemporary Mexican science fiction for its witty mixture of comedy and tragedy with a pointedly social message in a year of national political turbulence, an admirable literary feat halfa century ago in Mexico when science fiction was still relegated to the shadows of sanctioned literary production.

Samuel Manickam

University of North Texas

Works Cited

Agustin, Jose. La contracultura en Mexico: la historia y el significado de los rebeldes sin causa, los hipotecas, los punks y !as bandas. Mexico, D.F.: Editorial Grijalbo, 1996.

--. "La onda que nunca existio." Revista de critica literaria latinoamericana 30.59 (2004): 9-17.

Bonfil Batalla, Guillermo. Mexico profundo: una civilizacion negada. Mexico, D.F.: Grijalbo, 1987.

Dziubinskyj, Aaron. "The Birth of Science Fiction in Spanish America." Science Fiction Studies 30.1 (2003): 21-32.

Ellingson, Ter. The Myth of the Noble Savage. Berkeley: U of Califorina P, 2001.

Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. Trans. Constance Farrington. New York: Grove P, 1968.

Fernandez Retamar, Roberto. Caliban y otros ensayos: nuestra America y el mundo. La Habana: Editorial Arte y Literatura, 1979.

Galan, Carmen F., ed. Syzigiasy quadraturas lunares... Mexico: Factoria Ediciones, 2010.

Gunia, Inke. "?Que onda broder? Las condiciones de formacion y el desenvolvimiento de una literatura de la contracultura juvenil en el Mexico de los anos sesenta y setenta." Revista de critica literaria latinoamericana 30.59 (2004): 19-31.

Haywood Ferreira, Rachel. The Emergence of Latin American Science Fiction. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan UP, 2011.

Humboldt, Wilehlm von. Wilhelm von Humbodt Werke, Vol. 7. Ed. Albert Leitzman. Berlin: Behrs Verlag, 1907. Web.

Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Parody: The Teachings of Twentieth-Century Art Forms. London: Methuen, 1985.

Kerslake, Patricia. Science Fiction and Empire. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2007.

Lockhart, Darreil B., ed. Latin American Science Fiction Writers: An A-to-Z Guide. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood P, 2004.

Olvera, Carlos. Mejicanos en el espacio. Mexico, D.F.: Editorial Diogenes, 1968.

Parrinder, Patrick. "The Alien Encounter: or Ms Brown and Mrs Le Guin". Science Fiction: A Critical Guide. Ed. Patrick Parrinder. London: Longman, 1979. 148-61.

--. Science Fiction: Its Criticism and Teaching. London: Methuen, 1980. Pratt, Mary Louise. Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transcultitration. London: Routledge Press, 1992.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978.

--. The World, the Text, and the Critic. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1983.

Scholes, Robert. "The Roots of Science Fiction." Science Fiction: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Mark Rose. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1976. 46-56.

Spurr, David. The Rhetoric of Empire: Colonial Discourse in Journalism, Travel Writing, and Imperial Administration. Durham: Duke UP, 1993.

Trujillo Munoz, Gabriel. Los confines: cronica de la ciencia ficcion mexicana. Mexico, D.F.: Grupo Editorial Vid, 1999.

Wolfe, Gary K. The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction. Kent: Kent State UP, 1979.

Zolov, Eric. Refried Elvis: The Rise of the Mexican Counterculture. Berkeley: U of California P, 1999.

(1) Besides this novel, Olvera also wrote some science fiction short stories--"Desde el despegue", "Disloque II", "Un buen descubrimiento" and "Relacion"--published in tnnAstral, a student literary journal he helped found at the Autonomous University of the State of Mexico in Toluca in the 1960s. An excellent introductory anthology to Olvera's works (stories, cronicas, theater, newspaper columns, etc.) is Martin Mondragon Arriage's 2015 El flujo de la mariposa.

(2) An early anthology (and perhaps the first) is Primera antologia de la ciencia ficcion latinoamericana (1970), ed. Rodolfo Alonso et al. Another one is Lo mejor de la ciencia ficcion latinoamericana (1980), eds. Bernard Goorden and A.E. van Vogt; however, it does not include any Mexican SF. Three now indispensable anthologies of Mexican science fiction are: Mas alla de lo imaginado, Vols. I, II, III (1991, 1994), ed. Federico Schaffler; El futuro en llamas: cuentos clasicos de la ciencia ficcion mexicana (1997), ed. Gabriel Trujillo Munoz; and Visiones perifericas: antologia de la ciencia ficcion mexicana (2001), ed. Miguel Angel Fernandez Delgado.

(3) Pablo Gonzalez Casanova, a Mexican historian, discovered Rivas's manuscript in the Mexican National Archives and writes about it in La literatura perseguida en la crisis de la colonia (1958). The best annotated transcription of this story to date is by Ana Maria Morales. Two excellent studies of this obscure work are Aaron Dziubinskyj and Carmen F. Galan (Mexico, Factoria Ediciones, 2010).
COPYRIGHT 2019 Chasqui
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2019 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Manickam, Samuel
Date:May 1, 2019

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters