For this President’s Day in the United States, we’re honoring the first black president in the Americas. No, not Obama – this guy was Vicente Ramón Guerrero Saldaña, the first black and indigenous president of Mexico. Known as the George Washington and the Abraham Lincoln of Mexico, Guerrero was a leading general in the Mexican War for Independence, and abolished slavery in 1829, forty years before Lincoln would do the same. Not only that, but he came from the “las clases populares” aka the working classes of Mexico, and rose from there to become one of the most influential leaders in Mexican history.
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Note: This is first in a two-part series, cross-posted with permission from The Disgruntled Haradrim. Check on Part 2 about Anti-Fascism and Ethiopia on Wednesday!
I was watching Guillermo del Toro’s excellent dark fantasy realism flick, El laberinto del fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth) the other day, and it reminded of an excellent blog article I read on Emma Goldman and dieselpunk late last year. Huh, you ask? Yes, like a Third Stage Guild Navigator, my mind “moves in strange directions.” Stay with me, and I’ll connect the dots….
Guillermo del Toro’s tragic tale, told through the eyes of an imaginative little girl named Ofelia, is set during the brutal Franco regime in the wake of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), a conflict that is almost lost in the long shadow cast by WW2. Yet like Mussolini’s brutal campaign against Ethiopia, the Spanish Civil War was one of the first battlegrounds against fascism. While Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy supported the right-wing General Francisco Franco, with weapons and bombing campaigns, the leftist Republican government was supported in part by France, Mexico and the Soviet Union.
Beyond nation-states, brigades of international volunteers also flocked to fight what they saw as a war against fascism. Some forty thousand men and women from fifty-two countries, many of them socialists, communists and radicals, traveled to Spain to join the International Brigades in support of the anti-fascist Republican government. Some 2,800 of them were from the United States, and served in what was called the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.
When thinking about the retrofuturistic side of science fiction, people have categorized it in various ways. Just recently, Lorenzo Davia went all the way as to delineate the various uses of “-punk” in science fiction, sorted by time period. Although this is one helpful way of thinking about retrofuturism, it is also quite limiting in the sense that that time periods and examples he lists run in accordance to Western history.
Does that mean non-Western cultures don’t have a concept of retrofuturism? Of course not, but one of the challenges of conceptualizing retrofuturism in a non-Western context is the understanding that non-Western cultures may conceptualize time itself in a completely different way than how it is realized in the West. In this manner, the flow of time can be circular rather than linear; a person can look forward into the past instead of backwards; destines are repeated or mirrored or fractured in a dream space; the relationship between one’s perception of history can fully exist in the now as opposed to happening back then.
Thus, a non-Western retrofuturistic aesthetic take may not necessarily translate to anachronisms within known history, but change the flow of time, technology, and human advancement to truly create an alternate world divorced from our own. Take, for example, the school of Afrofuturism; though stemming from Futurism, the concept behind this science fictional aesthetic combines ancient African myth, legends, and non-Western cosmologies with sci-fi tropes of space travel, alternate universes, and alien planets to carve out a space where the racial and cultural Other can exist in this extraordinary “future” outside of normative time.
I’ve seen Afrofuturism have a big impact on non-Western aesthetics in science fiction. There is also a distinctive musical element to this concept of retrofuturism too, especially with the involvement of jazz, techno, hip-hop, and dub (all genres that also have roots in the African diaspora).
The dynamic of this past-future-musical influence is seen in the latest work of visual artist and writer Gustavo Alberto Garcia Vaca, who identifies as Columbian-American with African, Native, and European ancestry. He has been published in the United States and internationally, and his works have been on display in numerous mueums, including the Mori Museum/Mado Lounge in Tokyo, Japan; LACMA in L.A.; MOCA in L.A., the Institute of Contemporary Arts [ICA] in London; and Parco Museum in Tokyo, Japan. Much of his work also incorporates collaborations with a diverse group of artists, writers, and spoken-word poets known as Unification Theory. According to their website, the art collective is described as:
street futurism: visualizing the possibilities of the future through the prisms of Graffiti, Hip Hop, Spoken Word, Digital/Video Artwork, Techno, Funk and Jazz. The unification of these diverse creative minds builds new visual and sonic structures. This innovative collaboration of live music, DJ mixing, digital/video artwork projections and live painting is a new form of performance.
Now how much of Vaca’s work can be considered retrofuturistic, when it is also futurist? The key is the conceptualization of his art as working under the same guidelines that Afrofuturism had established: as an artistic method that recognizes the importance of the past when re-imagining the future. So it’s not too difficult to see how Vaca has become interested in the steampunk aesthetic. After the jump, I talk a bit more with Gustavo himself about his recent work.
It’s no secret that what we currently call “steampunk” has its roots in the speculative, imaginative fiction of the 19th century. People often cite Jules Verne as the founding author of the steampunk genre, but he was one of a number of authors who wrote fiction dealing with elaborate, futuristic technologies. During the 19th century, there was one man referred to as “the American Jules Verne,” whose works are full of quintessentially steampunk elements. There’s a steam-powered mechanical man, racing across the American plains, a bullet-proof, electrically powered 19th century stage-coach, hot in pursuit of the Jesse James Gang, not to mention an electrical flying machine. The stories revolve around a boy-genius inventor, and all of them are set, and were written, before 1896. The author’s identity was appropriately exciting to the imagination; he wrote under the intriguing pseudonym “Noname,” a mysterious, unknown presence, producing fantastic works at an astonishing rate, including twenty-six stories in 1893 alone.
Before there was television, before there were movie theaters, before there were comic books, there were dime novels. Called “penny dreadfuls” in England, these were cheaply printed, floridly written adventure stories, lurid, exciting, and intended for a popular audience. They were read by children and adults, men and women. They were working class entertainment, easily purchased, easily hidden from a schoolteacher or other disapproving authority figure, and easily devoured in a single day. They ranged from romances to detective stories, from horror to western, covering every genre that might appeal to readers eager for excitement. The works of Noname were wildly successful dime novels, telling stories of adventurers and inventors.
What is interesting about Noname, apart from the stories he created, is that he was two people. Much like the Dread Pirate Roberts, “Noname” was a pseudonym that was handed down from one man to another. The second, and by far the most prolific of these two men was in reality Luis Senarens, a Cuban American man from Brooklyn, who was just sixteen years old when, in 1879, he took over writing a series of dime novels about a boy inventor and adventurer named Frank Reade.
Whose technology inspired Jules Verne’s conceptualization of the Nautilus? It was this guy’s, Spanish inventor and physicist Narcís Monturiol with his submarines Ictineo I and II. His series of submarines were the first successful working subs, improving upon plans made by inventors in the 17th century.
Not only was Monturiol a talented scientist, he was also a political radical, whose ideas for safety for the working class gave him the motivation to invent his submarine.
Buena Rejon was created by Charles E. Averill and appeared in The Mexican Ranchero; or, The Maid of the Chapparal (1847). Averill (?-?) was a popular dime novelist. He is best known for his Kit Carson, Prince of the Gold Hunters (1849).
The Mexican Ranchero is set in Mexico in the aftermath of the Mexican-American War, after the American troops have occupied Mexico City. The truce between the Mexicans and the Americans is broken when Raphael Rejon attacks a squad of American soldiers. Raphael Rejon is the “Lion of Mexico,” the “mortal foe” of Americans. The American soldiers burned his home, his parents died in the fire, and he and his sister were left both orphaned and homeless. Since that time Raphael and his sister, Buena Rejon, the “Maid of the Chaparral,” waged a guerrilla war against the occupiers; “hundreds of Americans…have become the victims of her unerring lasso.”