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Manuel Alvarez and The Mexican Astronaut

The problem with septuagenarians, octogenarians, and nonagenarians is that they don’t really ‘do’ social media. I guess the reason is, at that point in one’s life, your brand is pretty much established and perhaps there are better things to do with one’s time.

Fair. 

But that’s also the first hurdle I faced on the piece I wrote about Alvarez. I did some research, but it’s such a common name in Southern California that looking for a M. Alvarez in Downey California yielded hundreds of results on social media, and none of them looked like the right person. I hoped that maybe, just maybe, the article would fire up a synapse or two in a stranger. It worked out well for the Sentovic piece, right?

Anyway, a couple of days after I published the article, I got an email from Mike. The story had stirred a synapse or two and he’d remembered an article he’d read written by Apollo engineer Anthony Vidana called “I Remember Bldg. 290.” In the article, the author recalls a career at North American Aviation, presenting a fascinating memoir that includes a story about him and others trying to push NASA towards hiring a Mexican American astronaut. As part of the campaign, he’d used some of his clout at Rockwell to get a company artist to create a painting.

As Anthony recalls, “I envisioned an astronaut and an Aztec with similar head gear and an Aztec pyramid, observatory, moon and statue in the background. The artist, Alvarez, added the Space Shuttle and the Mexican Olympics as an added touch.”

Alvarez!

The article includes a thumbnail of the painting – subsequently gifted to the President of Mexico – and it’s gorgeous but low resolution, and the signature is pretty much cropped out, but it’s there and it’s by Alvarez for sure. I can make out an M and maybe an L. Mike emails me. “At the risk of stereotyping, could it be Miguel or Manuel?” It could, but perhaps we’re reaching. Look at it long enough and we’ll start to see what we want to see.

So I reached out to Anthony Vidana, who has a social media presence. Sadly no success.

In the meantime Mike kept digging and found another clue, a Directory of Spanish Surnamed and Native Americans in Science and Engineering, published in 1978 by San Diego City Schools. One of the entries is a Manuel Alvarez working at North American Rockwell.

1. Jake I. Al4irjd (b. New Mexico) /North American Rockwell
2. Humberto F. Alcantar (b. California), North American Rockwell, NASA Space Division
3. Manuel E. Alvarez (b. California), North American Rockwell

And there’s more – and I’d completely missed this while trying to track down Mr. Vidana – Anthony has a YouTube channel, where he shared a delightful video in 2020. The clip retells the story of The Mexican Astronaut, and mentions the artist again, this time using his full name.

Manuel E. Alvarez.

Above: A screengrab from Anthony’s video. Enlarged, the signature is pretty clear. Below: An early study for the painting, the astronaut is clearly modelled on a yet-to-be-born Ryan Reynolds.

Below: Last but not least, and also grabbed from the video.

MOTIVATION OCCUPATION – Space Division and Autonetics employees comprise the board of directors for the Youth Incentive Through Motivation organization combating the school “drop out” problem. Planning activities are, seated, Fred Rodriguez, Robert Arabelo, Autonetics; Manny Alvarez, Space; standing, Hank Martinez, Phil Padilla, Jake Alarid, Joe Gomez, Ted Garcia, Space.

If by any chance you’re Manuel Alvarez and you’re reading this, or perhaps he’s your dad, or an uncle, or your grandpa; please reach out to me. I’d love to talk to you, and I know there are a lot of people who’d love to know more about you and your career.

If you have a minute, take a look at Anthony’s channel and y’know, ‘smash the like button’. Hopefully he’ll be encouraged to release more videos.

Mike, thanks again, you’re a legend!

Image credit: North American Rockwell

Image source: Anthony Vidana

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