Palm trees, other trees and bushes and grasses near water.

“¡Fuera SpaceX!”: Imagining New STEM Futures in Latinx Communities

Palm trees, at least the most iconic species, are not a plant native to the southern tip of Texas, where the Rio Grande Valley (RGV) sits at the crossroads of the U.S., Mexico, and the Gulf of Mexico. No, in fact, they were brought in to entice white settler-colonial entrepreneurs from the midwest in the 1920-30s to invest in the region’s growing agricultural business. The idea? To create a tropical paradise where white Midwesterners could spend the day relaxing under the shade, while the poor, “docile,” predominantly Mexican and Mexican American population does the work for them.

In return, growing this economy in south Texas would surely benefit the people who called the Valley home. After all, business moving into the area would only mean more job opportunities, and more job opportunities means people, their families, and their communities could only be better off.

Only, the problem was (and is to this day) that this story is not what ends up playing out–and the Latinx, Black, and Indigenous communities that live there pay the price. The palm trees were hardly the first and are certainly not the last piece of evidence of the ongoing colonialism and exploitation of the Valley. Now, its space debris washing up on the coast, the destruction of native wildlife, and effective expulsion of residents, all leading back to the same culprit, that is of immediate concern. As someone who grew up in the Valley and who researches STEM education, I consider the work of several activists and groups organizing against the negative impacts of SpaceX colonization in offering an alternative vision for a STEM future that honors the cultural, social, and environmental ways of being that already exist.

The Valley is my home. It is where I took my first computer science class, where I participated in Hispanic Engineering, Science, and Technology Week (HESTEC) from middle school on, and where on my visits home I saw a new STEM academy show up. Yet it took me experiencing a computer science major as a light-skin Latinx person far away from the Valley to truly understand the many implications for my participation in STEM. As a researcher, this realization has been a core motivation for me: as important as increasing access to STEM education is, so is making sure that the education doesn’t just create a “pipeline” of learner to worker. That is, we should also be concerned with shaping a STEM education that can be used for challenging injustice and uplifting communities.

“¡Fuera SpaceX!” and the Fight for the Future

SpaceX’s launch center on Boca Chica beach has been called the “gateway to mars” by people excited about the scientific progress that SpaceX claims to represent. However, the way that SpaceX has gone about opening this “gateway” clearly leaves much to be desired. In the nearly decade since they broke ground, SpaceX has run into regulatory trouble on numerous occasions relating to their environmental impact plans and increased demands for the site. Yet, public officials and educational entities continue to show support despite growing calls for attention to the social and environmental impacts it has and will continue to have.

“¡Fuera SpaceX!” is a response and a rallying cry to oust the company causing yet untold levels of economic, social, and environmental damages. It is also an organizing tool for the future: the struggle to have community voices heard and respected has spurred the need for a nuanced discussion on how interest and participation in STEM, especially with regard to Latinx learners, can be encouraged without perpetuating the same harms the community already faces.

It is important to note here that while the “gateway to space” is being held open, gateways between countries are being forced closed. The U.S.-Mexico border, which creates one of the defining lines of the Valley, is facing increased militarization from both the state and national governments. The juxtaposition of the open border next to the “closed” one brings into stark relief what—and who—will be sacrificed in the name of keeping STEM the purview of a select few.

Situating a STEM Future

The issues facing the Valley are replicated in communities across the country. I see a need to locate my work in the RGV because of my own position as a STEM education researcher from this area, but what we can learn from building community-led visions of STEM futures can be applied in many contexts.

Research has illustrated many of the barriers that Latinx people face getting into STEM disciplines, such as poor treatment when they are in the field. Though we know this, the promise of high-paying careers is often offered as a salve. That is, if Latinx students made it through the STEM “pipeline,” they will be rewarded on the other side with a lucrative career in an expanding field. In this logic, it stands to reason that increasing access to STEM education in a region with a large Latinx population will actually have ripple effects across the community.

After all, access to STEM education in the Valley would mean higher paying job opportunities, and higher paying job opportunities means people, their families, and their communities could only be better off.

Sound familiar?

What this logic misses are cases where those higher paying jobs come at the expense of the communities themselves. With this in mind, we can see that the argument for economic development via opportunities for STEM jobs is a pretext for colonialism and extraction. Naming this allows us to see it for what it is, and to begin to imagine alternatives. We could start to ask: what if STEM was taught for more than just economic competitiveness? What if we looked first to communities and the environments they inhabit for cues on how STEM education can be the most meaningful?

I begin to answer those questions by looking at “STEM Futures.” This term is inspired by the growing calls to develop imaginaries around what participation in STEM could look like beyond the confines of economic development rationale. While we need to be concerned with what we do in the here-and-now to support Latinx people and their communities engaging with STEM, we also need to know what we are working towards. The STEM futures offered by SpaceX and unfettered technological development are grim: we need to orient our future towards supporting the many visions created in the community of the Rio Grande Valley.

Dreamfood for the far-out future

So, how do we begin to imagine what a Latinx-led imagination of technological futures looks like?

I would start at what already exists across artistic and research fields. For example, the 2021 Fuera SpaceX zine released by Joteria Cientifica, a POC Queer and Trans collective based out of Texas. In the zine, they not only catalog the many infractions made by SpaceX’s expansion, but they use art as a vehicle for critiquing economic development rationale for SpaceX’s development. With a focus on voices from the local Valley community, they imagine, critique, and otherwise create a basis for our imagination to take hold. They do this by offering essays on neocolonialism, STEM, and the socio-political implications of how SpaceX has developed.

What is offered in this zine is a collection of artifacts representing the voices of those most affected by technological development, and how they are resisting the carelessness that has characterized it. Further, it has been made widely accessible as a resource for learning more about the activism that has been going on around SpaceX in the Valley. Critiques like what was published in the zine can be used to imagine STEM futures by taking into account what the major contemporary concerns are, and envisioning what it would look like to address these in the future.

Imagining new STEM futures also involves telling stories. For this, I look to the speculative album created by Valley-raised creators/academics/artists Charlie Vela and Dr. Jonathan Leal, entitled “Futuro Conjunto.” We are brought into the world of Futuro Conjunto through the experience of someone over 100 years in the future looking for information on an ancestor who lived through our current moment of the 2020s in the Rio Grande Valley. What he finds is a sonic exploration of a pivotal moment in time in the Valley, and the world.

What Futuro Conjunto does so well is bringing together critiques of injustice, such as those in the zine, and combining it with the existing culture to build the world where Rio Cristal, the future Valley, exists. This was completely intentional, as they describe in writing about their album:

We then began drafting materials that bridged the gap between speculative poetics, genre fiction, and the corrido tradition. […] We went through a number of sketches and drafts to arrive at the narrative frame for the music: a future, triumphant concert atop the ruins of a Space-X rocket facility, and a far-future narrative about an individual looking for clues about an ancestor’s life and listening to an old, archived recording. – Charlie Vela and Jonathan Leal, creators of Futuro Conjunto, on their process of creating the speculative album based in the Valley

When Vela and Leal talk about how they went about creating the story line for the album, they include how they thought about the many elements of the culture of the Valley should show up. It is evidence that the future does not have to be dictated by corporations, by capitalism, or by oppressive forces. It can be grown from existing community structures; structures that are deeply entrenched in Latinx cultures, that give life to communities instead of taking it away. Futuro Conjunto takes as its premise that the Latinx culture of the Valley is not only worth preserving, but it can also be the basis for how we imagine the future to be.

Futuro Conjunto and Joteria Cientifica are both aiding in imagining STEM futures from the lived reality of the Latinx community in the Valley. I argue that this can be taken even further, by designing learning environments that explicitly engage learners of all ages in the process of futuring. Put another way, I am arguing that there are already ways in which people work to bring about their desired futures in their everyday lives. There needs to be opportunities to engage those ways of being in the context of imagining STEM futures, so that what is created is rooted in community practices.

Ultimately, what I envision through my work is a world where STEM education has multiple endpoints that are good for communities, ecosystems, and the larger world. To get to this place, we need ways to foreground the communities we are a part of when we enter into conversations around technological innovation. The Rio Grande Valley is at a critical juncture, where there is an opportunity to build on the voices of community members to build a more just future where Latinx people can engage in technological innovation without the harms currently associated with it.

Between now and the distant future, I return to Futuro Conjunto’s opening setting of an abandoned launch pad turned concert stage. The launch pad, instead of an edifice to exploitation that the Valley has endured, becomes a gathering point to foster resistance, and a symbol of how a community can reclaim their future. Much like the palm trees are viewed now, the concert stage becomes a symbol of the resilience of a vibrant culture that continues to flourish.


Photo Credit: Photo of Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park by Vince Smith, CC BY 2.0.

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