A NASA Award-Winning Mexican Robot Made in Public Education

The UNAM Space Team, a group of students from the Faculty of Engineering of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM by its Spanish acronym) won the top prize of the NASA Sample Return Robot Challenge 2016 competition, as it was announced this October 5th, 2016. Jokingly, some newspapers and media outlets have criticized Trump’s anti-Mexican campaign by mentioning this extraordinary achievement.

“Fans of Donald Trump can officially start freaking out: Mexicans are invading the US space program,” said a columnist in remezcla.com. It is indeed ironic that Ana Buenrostro, Érik Gutiéerrez, Genaro Marcos, Bryan Pérez, Luis Gerardo Guitiérrez, Yessica Reyes, Eduardo Solís and Luis Ángel Castellanos from UNAM and César Augusto Serrano from the Polytechnic Institute (IP) received the Hans von Mulan NASA/Worcester Polytechnic Institute Award for Best Team with their “Rover-2” robot precisely the year that a US tycoon won the Republican presidential nomination partly because he boosted his campaign insulting Mexican people.

However, the irony goes well beyond this presidential campaign’s Martians-invade-us-like narrative and a Mexican robot able to perform tasks like the Curiosity’s on Mars.

These computer, electronic engineering and industrial mechanic students who started building their robot in 2012 studied in a public – not semi-public, not chartered – university. It means they don’t have student loans to pay. They won’t reach retirement with a pending college debt to pay, like many people in the US. Their tuition is completely free in a capitalist system. Their excellent teachers in one of the best world universities and the largest of Latin America didn’t cost them a penny, and most of them come also from public elementary schools.

It doesn’t mean that their free tuition didn’t cost anything at all to anyone. Like widely respected Mexican historian Alfredo Lopez Austin put it during his keynote speech inaugurating the Anthropology career in August this year, “education gratuitousness means a lot of things. It is not just about not charging any money, but about not seeing education as a commodity. Education should be for everyone, and it is paid by the people’s taxes money, not the government. Most of all, by sharing knowledge with everybody, public education leads us to a commitment.”

It took about a decade for many UNAM professors like him to acknowledge this, but eventually some of them did. If the Sample Return Robot Challenge 2016 winners were able to study regardless of their parents monthly income, their financial status, social class, race or religion (which are all a factor to access private universities), that is not only because they are brilliant and disciplined but because their predecessors did pay the price of keeping UNAM public.

Some of them – more than 600 – were willing to go to jail and confront emeritus professors as renowned as López Austin himself during the longest and heavily smeared student’s shutdown of the university facilities (April 20th, 1999 – February 7th, 2000), just to prevent the University Governing Body (Consejo Universitario) to force the students to pay a small fee, which in privatization language translates as “the first month is on us, only to set skyrocketing interests for the rest of your life,” as credit cards do.

Many low-income students knew that, so they refused to settle for the trick of “only a small fee.” That’s why they put on a very uneven fight at the turn of the millennium, welcoming 2000 on the picket lines. As one of their emblematic banners read, “We are closing this university’s doors today so that they are open for you tomorrow.” Their fight against the government’s privatization reforms didn’t count on social media activism resources at that time but it was set to benefit Mexican millennials, while their counterparts at the specialized US colleges with no comprehensive education face now loans that will take some of them decades to pay.

There was a lot a stake in that transitional fight between analog and digital era. It paid off richly, but it also faced new enemies and forms of attack. Like all of the student movements defending public education in Mexican history, this one faced police infiltrators, espionage tactics to divide the movement, corporate media slandering campaigns and Catholic Church top leaders promising hell for the strikers’ supporters. That was not new. However, unlike no other one, these students must fight an unprecedented form of “friendly fire” – that from older generations. Legendary ´68 leaders who survived the infamous October 2nd massacre were now elected officers, newspapers’ editors in chief, publishing houses’ board members, famous columnists and award-winning intellectuals who wanted to keep their seats in Congress or editorial boards by cutting a deal with the Government and being “the heroic ones” who “managed to end the strike.” These heirs of the ´68 Movement had the progressive media in their hands to portrait as “the good, moderate fellows” those students who wanted to cut a deal, while the strikers were nothing better than “infiltrators,” “irrational,” “violent,” scary kids who kidnapped the facilities to destroy them. They even had a menacing nickname, “los ultras,” (“radicals”), against “los moderados” (“moderates”) as if defending universal college education were the most sectarian thing to do.

When strikers refused to accept an unbelievable proposal of “voluntary increase,” daily reports started depicting them as indolent squatters who didn’t want tougher examinations. US press presented as “insiders’ images” pictures of garbage and rats which could have been photographed at any dump. Even now, more than a decade later, a Cannes-awarded movie (“Güeros,” which means “blonds,” defending blond people, no kidding), portrays them celebrating Dionysian bonfires and ruining scientific research by shutting down labs (which was not true, since strikers allowed access to labs so that sciences students could go on with their experiments).

The “coup de grâce” against their image as a legitimate students’ movement came from journalists, scholars and authors frequently associated with, or board members of “La Jornada” progressive newspaper, whose reputation preceded them as the ´68 student movement champions, like Elena Poniatowska and Carlos Monsiváis. They not only joined the slandering campaign against the strikers but signed a letter asking law enforcement authorities to enter the facilities and arrest the students. Nevertheless, those leaders who were called “moderates” are now elected officials themselves, with one of them, Carlos Ímaz, notoriously involved in a video-taped corruption scandal.

Where are now the tenacious, scary “ultras,” who made public education possible for over fifteen years more? Was time in prison worth the results? Former Hispanic Literature student Guadalupe Lezama, who was arrested during the strike, has a daughter who was just accepted in the public pre-college school system heading to UNAM. Zara, 14, who just passed the examination, is often called by her mother “daughter of the strike.”

“I was never privileged,” she explains when being interviewed for CounterPunch. “I was never an indulged daughter. No one in my family were activists of the Students Movement of 1968 which ended up in the ‘leftist’ PRD. I belong to ‘the resented ones,’ those who are tossed crumbs and still won’t accept them. We were the unfitting ones, without even money to buy the books, whose presence made the University look ‘bad.’ The media featured us like that. After 10 months of barely sleeping and not eating well, with a destroyed morale, anyone ends up lumpenized. They put us off limits – at the end of the strike we didn’t care if we died right there for an ideal. Even so, they expected us to smell like Chanel perfume.”

Q: Many professors at your Faculty in particular portrayed you as obtuse, ridiculous, and dangerous. They even wrote books making fun of you. Weren’t you scared that your teachers could retaliate and thought all that about you after the strike?

A: They already thought that already before the strike. I remember these professors’ discriminatory treatment at the Faculty before – their scolding of students who couldn’t afford the books and their looking down on our humble outfits. You don’t need a strike to know all that.

Q: What about famous intellectuals who would be in your way in the future, especially in your line of work?

A: We weren’t afraid of the intellectuals’ views about us. Actually, during a XEW radio interview and conference call with them, Monsiváis tried to lecture the audience on why we were such a plague; I replied and he insulted me a lot, but ended up hanging up the phone. On that day, I won the debate.

Guadalupe was arrested on December 11, during the strikers’ protest to free Mumia Abu Jamal. “We were charged for mutiny, and illegally sent to prison for allegedly breaking an anti-mutiny officer’s shield and boot. Thanks to the lawyers in our Strike General Council (CGH) and our fellow fundraisers, we were released five days later.”

Sixteen years later, CGH former law students and graduate lawyers like Jorge Miranda, 35, are now instrumental in helping release political prisoners unjustly charged in Mexico City. Miranda belongs to the Lawyers League Primero de Diciembre (honoring the date of the protest for which it was founded), which successfully defended and helped release political prisoners like students condemned for protesting President Peña Nieto’s inaugural ceremony, and the San Bartolo Ameyalco community leaders fighting against the construction of an hydraulic system for the privileged 1% (while they didn’t have running water).

“History proved we were right. It is now impossible to deny, even for the most reactionary student, that it is because of CGH that everyone gets free education at the University, and therefore have access to a better quality of life” Miranda informed CounterPunch. “A majority of our opponents must now keep their opinions and threats to themselves, because the strikers’ generation is facing and solving many of the problems caused by State terrorism and capitalism in our country.”

Miranda’s Lawyers League just won a major legal victory for political prisoners, after the Supreme Court ruled that the new Article 362 – Attacks on Public Peace for Mexico City is “unconstitutional,” and therefore should be void.  “It was a collective effort, not just mine,” Miranda says. “For the first time in Mexican history, through an appeal process, it is now forbidden to criminalize and stigmatize political protesters. Former Mayor Andrés Manuel López Obrador proposed this law, which was implemented by his successors Marcelo Ebrard and Miguel Ángel Mancera. The Article, now declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, contained ambiguous language for ‘violence,’ ‘extreme violence,’ and ‘public peace,’ leaving a wide range of free interpretation for whoever is in charge of enforcing the law. Because of its ambiguity, the law could be applied to almost anyone protesting in the country’s capital, sending a dissuasive message to the people across the country about ‘the risk of getting involved in politics or rallies.’ At the end of the day, it is a violation to free speech. We provide legal assistance to political prisoners without asking for monetary compensation, since it is a way to give back to the people the support they gave us during the ten-month strike. UNAM is sustained by public budget, that is, money paid by all Mexicans.”

If anyone considers this kind of legal assistance “radical,” Miranda would say it is important to remember where the “moderates” ended up working. “They are now in government offices at medium and low levels,” he says. “They were rewarded by their opportunistic, divisive role as strike breakers, acting then and now from the fake left of PRD and Morena political parties. Some of them are also scholars who are still working to dismantle public education in UNAM. They had embedded teams in the unsuccessful movement YoSoy132, which undemocratically forced these new students’ groups to proscribe the CGH legacy. It is a legacy for which we learned many different ways of thinking and organizing ourselves. I read all kinds of authors and learned and experienced how the State turns fascist, how the media and paramilitary groups are used to strengthen State terrorism, increase US military intervention and apply FMI and World Bank policies. It’s all about turning Mexico into a maquila country.”

Malú Huacuja del Toro is a feminist Mexican novelist, playwright and screenwriter with eight fiction published books in Spanish. She wrote the first “anti-soap opera” in Mexico. Recent credits include the screenplay of the movie Tattoo of Revenge, directed by Julián Hernández, about raped women in Mexico City, to be released this year. She lives in New York. She can be reached at: otroslibros@otroslibros.com