Thursday, October 20, 2022

Chicanonautica: Exploring Mexico With the Cuban American Jules Verne

by Ernest Hogan

For a lot of Americans, Mexico is still Terra Incognita. They look at the border with fear and loathing, imaginations filling it with their worst nightmares.  These concepts are not modern creations, they have a long history in popular culture.

An early example is Frank Reade Jr. Exploring Mexico in His New Air-Ship by Luis Senarens, who was a Brooklyn-born Cuban American, and times being what they were, published as “NONAME,” and was called “The American Jules Verne.” 

I’ve reviewed another Frank Reade dime novel for La Bloga a few years back. Now, Barnes & Noble is making the series available again. Exploring Mexico in His New Air-Ship was first published in 1885. Frank is older, looking forward to spending the rest of his life with his wife and kids when he is contacted by a group of New York millionaires, who want to build a railway across Mexico, opening the country to investment and “development.”

They would like him to fly an airship to survey the route. He balks, but after appealing to his patriotism, he agrees.

Then he has to convince his assistants Barney, an Irishman, and Pomp, a black man, to go along to provide comedy relief, keep the airship running and use rifles on occasion.  

So, Frank designs and builds a new airship with a “rotascope,” making it more of a helicopter than a dirigible.

They also bring along two Americanos, Kensel, and Sallinger, hired by the millionaires to do the actual surveying.

The flight to Mexico takes them through Texas, where they rescue a beautiful Mexican girl from the Comanches and deliver her to her family’s idyllic farm on the American side of the Rio Grande.

The Rio brims over with dangers: a giant, black, anaconda-like snake, and alligators. Plus smugglers, though it’s not said what they are smuggling.

The Mexican side is a desolate wasteland where they save a town with a lot of beautiful girls from a vicious band of guerrillas. One of the beauties falls for Kensel, but he finds her lacking:  “She is beautiful in form and face, but after all is nothing but a doll. She is ignorant and superstitious in the extreme.”

Even though Pomp and Barney speak in thick dialects, since Frank speaks “perfect” Spanish, the Mexicans speak plain English rather than the bandito-speak of the Wild West dime novels of the time.

They pass a lake, and Frank remarks: “And yet there is not a house within miles of it, which shows that these Mexicans do not appreciate the beauties or resources of their country. The natural resources of Mexico are such as would make them the richest country on the globe if they were properly developed.”

And Kensel notes: “It is a beautiful sheet of water, and may ultimately become a famous resort when the railroad opens up this country to the outside world.”

Sallinger says: “I am going to put it down on the survey map as Lake Reade.” 

To which Frank says, “Don’t do anything of the kind. It may have a name that is known throughout all Mexico, and in that case we should be laughed at.”

The rest of the trip is a series of encounters with nature: bears, a condor, a cyclone, a volcano, and yes, more giant snakes and alligators.

In a chapter titled, “Frank Teaches a Wholesome Lesson to the Natives,” a Castilian-speaking landowner tells them to leave his property, and they take him prisoner until they catch and eat fish for breakfast.

And there are more guerrillas, bandits, and rebels. After defeating some of these bad hombres Frank declares: “I am the guardian of Mexico!”

Finally, they end up in the jungles of the Yucatan, where they find mummies and a fantastic treasure of silver and perfume that they take back to New York and sell for big bucks.


Frank is inspired to speculate on the future of airships: “Oh, they’ll be cheap enough after a while, and as common as umbrellas.”

Meanwhile, I’m imagining Frank Reade’s daughter in the year 1900, riding the Trans-Mexican Railway, staying at a lakeside resort, attending a conference where she’s about to unveil her latest invention–a wireless, portable telephone–but is kidnapped by Yucatecans who want her to return the treasure her father stole . . .

Ernest Hogan, Father of Chicano Sci-Fi, is judging the Extra-Fiction Contest 2022. Writers of the Latinoid Continuum, send your fantastic stories now. The deadline is October 31. 

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