Alien Sightings and OVNI Culture in Argentina
Summary and Keywords
During the Cold War, there were thousands of Unidentified Flying Object (UFO) sightings in Argentina (in Spanish, Objeto volador no identificado or OVNI). The mainstream media reported on many of them. In a field termed ufología, some events were explained scientifically or somewhat scientifically; most were not. These sightings and their stories lived on in a culture of thousands of OVNI aficionados and their literatures, frequently spilling into larger popular cultures.
OVNI culture disrupts chronologies. It offers a picture of Cold War Argentina that breaks with longstanding popular and academic chronologies that stress a dictatorship-versus-democracy binary. That binary is real. However, OVNI culture superimposes an often-neglected Cold War chronology on the mid- to late 20th century. OVNI stories and their cultural consumption evolve and vary not with reference to violent Argentine political and historical change, but in the context of a larger transnational Cold War culture in an Argentine context. Hallmarks of OVNI culture in Argentina include the enormous influence of U.S. popular culture, as well as references to apocalyptic nuclear weapons, and unscientific notions of psychoses in explaining late-night sightings of spacecraft and extraterrestrials.
Keywords: Unidentified Flying Object (UFO), Objeto volador no identificado (OVNI), ufología, Cold War, science fiction, flying saucer, armed forces, Comisión Nacional de Energía Atómica, film, psychology
Cold War Cultures
Argentines don’t generally organize their past in a Cold War strategic or cultural framework. During the Cold War and in the years after 1990, an unlikely consensus emerged in Argentina and the United States casting Argentina’s post–World War II era as anti-American. In the United States, that narrative was launched by the mid-1940s when U.S. diplomatic antagonism toward the rapidly rising military officer Juan D. Perón began. Perón served both as labor minister and vice president before the end of World War II. After he was elected president of Argentina in 1946, many Americans wrongly tagged him a Nazi sympathizer. Although U.S.-Argentine relations improved markedly by the end of the decade, leading Washington to supply Buenos Aires with an experimental nuclear reactor in 1958, the idea of Argentina as a haven for Nazis stuck. It was bolstered by the Israeli capture of Adolf Eichmann in Buenos Aires in 1960 and by low-level white noise in American popular culture linking Argentina with ex-Nazis. (This was a recurring theme, for example, in the 1960s Mel Brooks-Buck Henry television situation comedy, “Get Smart!”).1
The United States was a more important object of political antagonism in Argentina than Argentina was in the United States. Historians and others exaggerated the extent of bilateral antagonisms in the late 1940s and wrongly insisted that relations between the two countries were poor after 1950. The presidency of Cristina Fernández often made it politically expedient for leading political leaders to remind Argentines of their supposedly troubled relationship with the United States. Writers so commonly reasoned that Argentina had consistently adopted strong anti-American foreign and economic policies for most of its post-1945 history—without focusing on Argentina’s anti-Soviet Union leanings—that U.S. enmity became a false truism regularly reproduced by intellectuals and in the media. Perón’s tercera posición, a purportedly unique, nationalist diplomatic position outside superpower orbits, fueled the idea of Argentina’s break with the United States. For some observers, Argentina’s geographical and strategic distance from the worst of Cold War violence, including the Guatemalan genocide, confirmed the idea that Argentina was apart from Cold War power politics and cultural influences.2
According to a corresponding story, the Cold War reached Argentina but only within a narrow framework.3 In that context, the Cold War in the underdeveloped world was defined by the brutalization of subject peoples through U.S.-sponsored state terror. As such, it touched Argentina only at times and peripherally. The most important case occurred during the period of dictatorship from 1976 to 1983 when marginal Argentine military and intelligence intervention in Central American conflicts took place. More important still, Argentine scholarship and political culture stressed the severe breaks from government to government—through peronismo, military rule, and postdictatorship democracy. This approach has cast Cold War continuities as peripheral to Argentina’s historical processes. It has also masked the extent to which the Cold War shaped Argentina in a manner that is often tied to U.S. cultural, political, and strategic leadership.4
Some have noted the wide-ranging influence of the United States on Argentina’s cultural Cold War in the Ford-Chevrolet rally car-racing rivalry, in the impact of playwrights Lillian Hellman and Tennessee Williams, in U.S. child-rearing guru Dr. Benjamin Spock, in the 1960s sexual revolutions, and in cartoonist Robert Crumb’s work for the counterculture magazine Fierro, among others.5 Yet no one has yet considered in this context the historian Penny Von Eschen’s maxim that cultural exchange “was the commodity that closely pursued the quintessential Cold War commodities, oil and uranium, along with many others critical to America’s seductive abundance.”6 None of these or other reference points highlight U.S. cultural influence as central to understanding Argentina after 1945.
Argentina’s UFO story predates the Cold War and has unique components. But the period when UFO activities were most intense coincides with the years of the Cold War. In its contours and its evolution, the UFO narrative corresponds to the growing influence of U.S. culture and, as such, reflects an important case of both U.S. influence in shaping an Argentine cultural Cold War and of the Cold War period itself as a meaningful way to understand post-1945 Argentina.
From Early Imaginings to Cold War Touchstone
Argentines first became aware of OVNIs and extraterrestrials two hundred years ago in the larger contexts of the occult, spiritualism, and the literature of the fantastic, all of which were tied to nation-building and how to achieve a modern society. Esteban Echeverría and other distinguished fiction writers addressed mysteries of the spiritual world. Key political figures, including Domingo Faustino Sarmiento and Juan Bautista Alberdi, invoked the occult and the mystical to rehearse political arguments. Alberdi advocated European immigration to Argentina’s rural areas in his famous dictum, “to govern is to populate,” and helped shaped the 1853 constitution through his political essays. In his fictional Peregrinación de Luz del Día (1871), the character “la Verdad” (the Truth) arrives mysteriously in Argentina as an alien, disguised as a woman called “Luz del Día” (Light of Day). Her search for moral integrity is in vain.
Eduardo Holmberg launched the OVNI genre in Argentine fiction. In 1875, he published Viaje maravilloso del señor Nic-Nac, the first Argentine novel on interplanetary travel. Like other works in the fantastic literature genre, Viaje links the resolution of scientific problems to spiritual, moral, and political themes. The protagonist, Nic-Nac, travels to Mars where he comes across “Aureliana,” an allegorical Argentina. In an anticlerical jab, Holmberg describes the city of Theopolis, home to religious fanatic humanoid Martians. Like later OVNI aficionados, Holmberg saw himself as (and in this case was) a scientist. He trained in medicine, zoology, and botany at the University of Buenos Aires. Beginning with Viaje a Patagonia (1872), in which he reported on an expedition to collect flora and fauna specimens for the Museo Nacional de Buenos Aires, through the end of the century, Holmberg wrote over a dozen books and tracts on natural history. At the Museo Nacional and in other venues, in the company of the explorer Francisco “Perito” Moreno and the paleontologist Florentino Ameghino, among others, Holmberg helped advance a scientific revolution in Buenos Aires that was framed by Darwin’s theories and advances, but also by “frontier” sciences that included early psychiatry, phrenology, and the “occult sciences,” of which spiritualism was a central element.7 In Argentina and elsewhere, medicine and the hard sciences would break firmly with the occult after World War I, consigning practitioners of the occult to a fringe status. Those who explained UFOs, however, clung to the overlap, asserting their often-doubtful scientific credentials throughout the Cold War.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the linked cultures of science, the occult, and politics were also evident in Europe and the United States, as reflected in Arthur Conan Doyle’s notorious fascination with the occult and with spirits of the dead. In Argentina, distinguished members of the late 19th-century literary movement “La Generación del 80” met to contemplate such matters. They included the prominent political essayists Leopoldo Lugones and José Ingenieros, and Socialist Party leader Alfredo Palacios. Also part of the group was the Danish immigrant Nicolás Kier who, in 1907, founded Argentina’s most prolific publisher of spiritual, occult, and OVNI-related books. During the Cold War, visitors to Editorial Kier’s bookstore in downtown Buenos Aires included Queen Sofía of Spain and the Argentine film star Tita Merello. In 1967, Kier published the first edition of Jorge Luis Borges’s El libro de los seres imaginarios. The publisher also released important OVNI studies by Argentine and non-Argentine authors whose works often reflected the fantastic imaginings of 19th-century writers, the occult, and the seriousness of purpose evident in more mainstream fiction writers, like Borges, who saw connections between their everyday lives and the spiritual world. At the same time, Kier’s Cold War era library reflected new elements specific to the rapid expansion of popular interest in OVNIs during the Cold War—to which OVNI writers appealed.8
The physicist José Álvarez López was keen on applying science to understanding the purportedly inexplicable. In search of Atlantis, he developed arguments based on what he claimed were modern paleontological, geophysical, and archaeological methods.9 In Argentina, as elsewhere during the Cold War, the study of mysterious “intraterrestrials”—humanoid and like beings living in deep, undiscovered cave networks or under the oceans—emerged as an adjunct to the search for extraterrestrials. Like other “scientific” interpreters of OVNIs and the occult, Álvarez López reached a larger and more sympathetic popular audience than academic scientists. All the same, ufólogos and other interpreters of the unexplained correctly saw themselves as shunned and unappreciated by academic scientists. Álvarez López dedicated Reconstrucción de Atlántida (1978) to Florentino Ameghino, the paleontologist whose discovery of prehistoric remains came to be known as “Argentine Man.” Initially confirmed by experts as one of a small but growing number of human ancestors that, in this case, once roamed the pampas, the finding was hailed as a triumph of Argentine science. Among the many tributes that followed was a monumental bust of Ameghino carved into a rock wall in Mar del Plata. Later, the discovery was discredited, though never as a fraud as Piltdown Man was. Many, like Álvarez López, remembered Ameghino as a misunderstood hero of Argentine science, which is how Argentine ufólogos tended to see themselves after 1945.10
The cover photograph of Reconstrucción de Atlántida (1978) touches on another important backdrop to the Argentine beguilement with the occult during the Cold War. As in the United States at the same time, the fascination with UFOs collided with popular atomic fears and fascinations. The illustration depicts an Egyptian pyramid with the familiar mushroom cloud of an atomic explosion in the background. Álvarez López wondered whether an atomic explosion might at some point in the near future reduce human civilization to an Atlantis-like underground or underwater existence. In another Kier publication, La astrología sobre el fenómeno OVNI (1978), the astrologer Boris Cristoff raised the specter of nuclear ruin by suggesting that recent OVNI sightings signaled a massive atomic disaster for 1983. In a reprise of a longstanding association cited by ufologists in the United States, Cristoff explained the first foo fighter sightings as being mysteriously connected to the first atomic explosions. He also argued that extensive flooding in Uruguay had been caused by a nuclear explosion, and he claimed that the human immunodeficiency virus was a mythical invention of Big Pharma.11
Kier was far from the only publisher of OVNI-related material. In 1988, the largest publishing house in Argentina, Planeta, brought out Los hombres de negro y los OVNI (originally published in 1978) and in 1990, El reino subterraneo, both by Fabio Zerpa. During the Cold War, Zerpa became the foremost Argentine interpreter of UFOs. In 1966, he launched one of several long-running popular radio shows on the subject, followed soon after by an equally well-liked television series, “Más allá de la cuarta dimension.” Tens of thousands of copies of Zerpa’s magazine Cuarta Dimensión sold in kiosks in cities around the country, while Argentines bought thousands of books in the “Cuarta Dimensión” series edited by Zerpa for the Cielosur publishing house. Zerpa published not only his own works, but also those of other Argentines, like Gustavo Mário Fernández, and foreign authorities, including James MacDonald.
As they did in science fiction and other genres in the United States, atomic fears and extraterrestrials came together in film and print. The most famous of these included Héctor Germán Oesterheld’s postapocalyptic graphic novel El Eternauta, first serialized in the magazine Hora Cero Semanal from 1957 to 1959, and filmmaker Emilio Vieyra’s Extraña Invasión (1965) and Placer Sangriento (1967).
Cold War Stories
On July 3, 1965, at 7:40 p.m., a naval meteorologist stationed at Argentina’s Base Decepción in Antarctica spotted a strange sight in the sky. An Argentine Navy communication would later describe the object as a “lenticular mass”—that is to say, a body with two concave, connected shells. In addition to other Argentines on the base, personnel from British Base “B” and Chilean Air Base Pedro Aguirre Cerdá also identified what the media would call a flying saucer. The journalist Guillermo dos Santos Coelho described what followed in Argentina over the next three months as an agitated “collective psychosis.” The photographer Jorge Hugo Stanich took pictures—but they didn’t come out. Scientists reported strange reading shifts in their geomagnetic instruments. Testimonies followed from Mendoza to Chaco to Mar del Plata. Those in the stands on August 1 at the Hipódromo de Palermo racetrack heard an announcement that the powerful binoculars normally trained on the horses had been shifted to the night sky, just in case. For weeks, Argentines reported hundreds of new sightings.12
On October 28, 1973, at 1:15 a.m., Dionisio Llanca was changing his tire on a road outside Bahía Blanca. He noticed an intense yellow light about 2 kilometers away. The light came up behind him, above the trees. When he tried to stand to look toward the now bluish, brilliant light, he found he didn’t have the strength to move. He then saw a large disc above the tree line. Three humanoid figures stood behind him. Llanca would later describe the extraterrestrials as “Nordic”—two men, and a woman with long blonde hair. They spoke to one another in a language Llanca didn’t recognize—the words sounded like a radio improperly tuned. Llanca blacked out. He woke up several hours later about 10 km from where he had had his close encounter. He remembered nothing of these events. On November 5, Llanca was placed under hypnosis. In this state, he remembered having been taken onto the spaceship. At one stage, the woman humanoid had made an incision on his head, then struck him by accident, causing a bruise.13
On June 14, 1980, at 7:00 p.m., from a runway at the Jorge Newberry Airport (Buenos Aires) an Austral Airlines pilot asked the tower for permission to take off. “Please hold for a few moments,” came the reply from the tower. “I see a flying saucer to the northeast. Hold position.” The pilot held. “Can you see the phenomenon?” the tower asked. “Yes,” the pilot replied. “I’ll hold position until the object disappears.” Widely reported in the mainstream media, Argentines saw the OVNI at 7:06 p.m. in Corrientes, as well as in Rosario, Córdoba, and Resistencia. By 7:11 p.m., it was gone. One pilot who didn’t believe in OVNIs told the popular magazine Gente that there had to be a reasonable explanation for what people had seen. “But I have to say,” he went on, “I haven’t found one.”14
These three UFO stories deviate from the more cerebral tradition of ufología represented in Kier and other publications targeted at OVNI aficionados, though the latter drew on these stories in constructing larger arguments to explain the phenomenon of OVNIs. In a departure from how the public followed UFOs in other countries—where a subculture of fans remained largely apart from the mainstream—as they did hundreds of other sightings, these three stories crossed into the media mainstream and into broader international Cold War cultures. On October 4, 1976, for example, the widely read newspaper La Razón revealed in a front-page story that one night in 1944, the U.S. armed forces shot 20,000 rounds of antiaircraft fire at UFOs over Los Angeles. More striking than the story as the newspaper’s lead (and an important error—the infamous “Battle of Los Angeles” took place in 1942 according to American specialists) was the pseudoscientific rationale for the information. This included the unfounded assertion that NASA’s Apollo XI rocket had proved the existence of OVNIs with photographic evidence. During the Cold War, La Razón and other mainstream newspapers published dozens of OVNI-related front-page headlines.15
In 1947, there were 11 UFO sightings in Argentina. The number increased to 14 in 1950, 24 in 1954, 71 in 1962, and 127 in 1968. By and large, through the early 1970s, sightings by province corresponded roughly to population size, with 240 in Buenos Aires, 54 in Córdoba, 54 in the federal capital, 22 in Tucumán, and 3 in Formosa. The first recorded OVNI landing in Argentina came on February 20, 1949, in a remote region of southern Chubut province. Edmundo C. Sánchez, a member of the Gendarmería, was guarding a military base at the time when he saw the UFO land. Like many other sightings, this one evokes the question of Argentine national security and frontiers during the Cold War period, as did the unusually large numbers of sightings over Antarctica.16 A July 3, 1965, Antarctica sighting prompted a statement in the Boletín Informativo de la Secretaría de la Marina Argentina (a publication of the Argentine Navy) on July 7, 1965 (No. 172) confirming that Lieutenant Coronel Daniel Perissé had reported spotting UFOs a few days earlier. According to the ufólogo Antonio Las Heras, a military cover-up followed to conceal evidence in this and other cases of UFOS.17 Las Heras reproduced a central narrative of UFO followers in the United States. Using the most modern technologies, the U.S. military had gathered some of the most crucial information on the first UFO sightings. At the same time, the armed forces were responsible for hiding that same information, as in the case of the 1941 Cape Giradeau, Missouri, UFO crash. UFO writer Leonard H. Stringfield maintained that the U.S. military forced witnesses to keep quiet after they had seen alien bodies at the crash site.18
OVNI specialists became convinced that another military cover-up took place after an incident on July 19, 1968 in Olavarría, Buenos Aires province. Shortly before 2:00 a.m., a large area where military exercises were being conducted was illuminated. Soldiers of the Segundo Regimiento de Tiradores de Caballería Blindada armed with machine guns approached the light in a Jeep. They spotted an oval flying object and quickly found themselves facing three humanoids, each 2 meters 78 inches (unusually tall) in height, in silver uniforms. The three figures advanced toward the soldiers. One soldier fired on the extraterrestrials.
At that same moment, the three humanoids each lifted a hand, revealing a small illuminated ball. The soldiers suddenly felt ill and tired. They were unable to use their weapons. The beings returned to their spaceship and left earth without, it seems, having been affected by machine gun fire. The armed forces refused to confirm the “attack.”
On August 31, 1968, two casino workers, Fernando Villegas and Juan Carlos Peccinetti, were returning to their homes at 3:42 a.m. when they were surprised by five anthropomorphic figures that transmitted messages to them, punctured their fingers, and left strange marks on the door of their car. By midday, news of the encounter was being reported on local radio and television stations in the city of Mendoza, where the encounter took place. Shortly after, people began to gather at the site of the apparition and at the police station where information was being provided to the media. Transmitted messages had included instructions not to be afraid, delivered in a persuasive voice that was Spanish but with a strange accent. The monologue ended with the phrase, “Mathematics is the universal language.” On the vehicle door, among the signs were the Greek letters for alpha and pi. Alongside the spaceship was a circular screen, appearing much like a giant television, 70 centimeters in diameter. At first, the screen projected a waterfall, then the image of an atomic explosion. Villegas and Peccinetti maintained that the humanoids held their hands and made three incisions each on their fingers. The spaceship then departed with a sonic boom, and the two ran to a nearby military college. They were then transferred to a police station where an investigation began immediately. The forensic physician who assessed Villegas and Peccinetti reported a high level of psychomotor activity and verified the three small punctures each had described on their fingers. On testing, there was no alcohol or drugs found in the blood of either.19
That morning, technicians from the Comisión Nacional de Energía Atómica (CNEA) arrived, led by Francisco Muñiz. CNEA officials checked the car with a Geiger counter, as they also checked the metal objects the men had in their pockets. Radioactive levels were normal, as they were on the landing site. The CNEA was founded in 1950 with a federal government mandate to conduct research into and develop policy on all commercial and experimental aspects of the nuclear sciences. It was roughly equivalent to the Atomic Energy Commission in the United States and the Atomic Energy of Canada Limited. Unlike its two counterparts, CNEA quickly became well known to Argentines and a source of pride in the modernizing state. CNEA never commented on the Villegas/Peccinetti or any other OVNI investigation, nor did it report publicly on the results of its findings. A CNEA presence likely signaled a concern that whatever may have fallen to earth was, in fact, earthly and potentially radioactive. That said, like other aspects of most OVNI reports that reached the media, stories were rehashed so many times that a clear-cut historical record is hard to come by. Whatever objectives the CNEA investigators may have had, it is certain that their presence in probing reports helped legitimize OVNI stories in the public mind.
Several days later, a judicial investigation was launched into Villegas and Peccinetti’s declarations. Judge Jorge Marzari Céspedes sought to determine their veracity, despite the fact that no criminal complaint had been made. The police reminded an agitated public that the Argentine penal code called for the imprisonment of anyone convicted of creating public fear without grounds. According to OVNI writer Roberto Banchs, the reasons for the police communication were clear. They wanted to intimidate those who saw OVNIs, to put an end to reports of OVNIs in Mendoza, and to consign sightings to hallucinations or to a range of psychopathologies under study at the University of Colorado in the late 1960s. According to the Mendoza chief of police, Roberto G. Hartkopf, the goal of officials was to avoid in Mendoza the panic caused by Orson Welles’s infamous 1938 radio drama, “War of the Worlds.”20
The details on the hundreds of OVNI observations ranged from the form of dress extraterrestrials wore to their number (most often, three), to the nature of the light emanating from the OVNI and resembled equivalent stories, witness accounts, and fictionalized versions in print and on film from the United States. In Perico de San Antonio, Jujuy, postal worker Dominiciano Díaz reported that on July 23, 1965, a bright light in the sky had surprised him and burned his skin. The light descended to earth. In its details, the story precisely replicated a 1954 event in the south of France well known to Argentine OVNI aficionados and a second UFO sighting from New Berlin, New York, on November 25, 1964.21 On March 18, 1950, Wilfredo H. Arévalo, the owner of a wool and leather factory in the Lago Argentino tourist district saw two lenticular-shaped lights moving quickly in a circular formation across the sky, descending toward the earth. Arévalo thought at first that they were falling stars but soon noted that one of the two remained in the sky while the other descended to earth. Still, Arévalo who was about 3 km from the landing, calculated on a reasonable explanation, possibly an airplane accident. As he approached the light on the ground from about 160 m away, he realized he was seeing something else: an unidentifiable form generating a circular, fluorescent otherworldly light, giving off green-blue vapors. Inside what he now believed was an OVNI, Arévalo saw four tall, slim “men” dressed in white robes. Their flying saucer gyrated constantly and appeared to be made of aluminum with a glass circular cabin in the center. Each of the details in Arévalo’s story reconstituted equivalent reports that at the time were coming from the United States.
The Argentine release of Bert I. Gordon’s blockbuster film, The Cyclops, in 1958 launched a late 1950s and early 1960s deluge of translated U.S. dime store novels and Hollywood films with Martian themes in Argentina. This was followed, long after the 1875 publication of Eduardo Holmberg’s novel, by the first recorded Martian sightings in Argentina. In early February 1965, witnesses described extraterrestrials that landed in Torrent, Corrientes province, as “Martians.” News spread rapidly after a farm worker, in the company of family and co-workers, spotted five bright lights over the horizon moving rapidly toward them. The lights, they concluded, were Martians who had descended from a spaceship. They were 2 meters in height, slim, and with only one eye. One of those who witnessed the Martian arrival had a gun. The Martians, having apparently perceived danger, surrounded the group and grabbed one of the men by the arms. They then let him go, after which the man developed a strange inflammation on his skin. The Martians retreated to their vessel and fled.
As in the United States, OVNI observers sometimes came up with alternative explanations that were quickly dismissed by ufólogos, who were anxious to add data to their growing compendium of sightings. On July 20, 1965, 18 kilometers from Buenos Aires, Ramón Eduardo Pereyra was driving his delivery truck on a bread and milk route. He saw what he called a glowing parachute descend from the sky. He stopped his truck and walked about 500 meters toward the sighting where he found what he called a small “airplane,” which was 1.8 meters in diameter and oval in form. Inside, he saw a man with a hood. Pereyra retreated into the surrounding nearby forest. At about 30 meters from the vessel, he spotted a second individual with a paper in his hand looking at the sky. When Pereyra began walking, the individual with the paper noticed him and moved quickly toward him. Pereyra asked him if he needed something, convinced that the airplane had simply experienced engine trouble. There was no response. Pereyra watched the second person return to the craft and then seat himself. The airplane took into the air where it hovered 30 meters above the ground and then headed sharply upward, like a meteor ascending. The two people Pereyra had seen were about 1.75 meters in height. His immediate conclusion was that he had spotted “Russians.” He had had no previous encounters with OVNIs and waited several days before telling anyone about his sighting, worried that it might simply have been a bad dream for which he would be ridiculed. Even though many of the details were difficult to explain, such as the vessel’s meteor-like ascent, and proved impossible to document from Pereyra’s original remarks, years later Pereyra still believed that what he had seen was not otherworldly. But those obsessed with OVNIs considered it another extraterrestrial sighting.22
Like Roswell and other notorious UFO cases in the United States, many stories—like that of Dionisio Llanca—lived on in debates among experts for decades. Llanca became the most famous foil for a handful of UFO experts who considered themselves “scientific” observers of OVNIs and who buttressed their work by disproving the supposedly frivolous reports of flying saucers. The prolific OVNI writer Roberto E. Banchs was among several Argentines to style themselves after the American Stanton T. Friedman, a self-identified ufologist whose writings combined a belief in the existence of UFOs with a scientific background that formed the basis for what his readers considered an informed ability to determine methodically which UFO accounts were credible and which were not. An atomic physicist—that is, an expert in an area that screamed Cold War scientific modernity—Stanton worked for McDonnell Douglas on nuclear aircraft prototypes before dedicating himself to investigation of UFOs after 1969. He concluded famously that the 1947 UFO sighting at Roswell, New Mexico, was legitimate. More than forty years later, he is still cited on that point.23 By debunking “crackpots” like Llanca, Stanton and Banchs saw an opportunity to establish their authority on UFOs through their scientific expertise. Each invoked what their readers viewed as cutting-edge science and hard-boiled detective work.
Banchs picked apart the details of Llanca’s claims. He reasoned that the location where Llanca claimed to have seen the OVNI was frequented late at night by romantic couples seeking privacy and by truckers looking for a spot to spend the night by the side of the road. Curiously, however, Llanca saw no one but the extraterrestrials. When he recovered from his ordeal, Llanca claimed to have not known who he was, what he was doing in the middle of nowhere, and how long he had been there. Banchs found it incongruous that despite this profound state of disorientation at 3 a.m., Llanca managed to walk 9 kilometers to the city. Though Llanca claimed not to have profited from his ordeal and the media frenzy that followed, a group of physicians in Bahía Blanca claimed to have given him money, as did another group in Monte Grande. In April 1974 in Bahía Blanca, according to witnesses, Llanca announced in a loud voice in the restaurant “El Rincón de Ramoncito” that 80% of what was being reported on the case in the media was false. However, those who accepted Llanca’s testimony after the sighting argued that its details corresponded exactly to the media reports he was now repudiating. In March 1976, Llanca claimed publicly that he had had new contacts with the extraterrestrials that had captured him in 1973 and that they would come for him again in 10 days. Nothing came of it and Llanca continued to travel, repeating his story in different parts of the country, until he was interned at the Hospital Neuropsiquiátrico in Rawson, Chubut. Sadly perhaps, the hint of mental illness helped confirm in the public mind the “irrationality” of his specific OVNI claims. In 1986, Llanca was falsely reported dead. More recently, he has come forward to state that because of what he considers negative attention, he wishes he had never told anybody about the abduction.24
While Llanca’s insistence that the extraterrestrials would be back for him coincided with the March 1976 military coup d’état, like other U.S.-inspired cultural influences, UFO sightings in Argentina rarely correlated to important cultural, social, or political moments. On June 1, 1978, in another exceptional case, during the inaugural celebrations of the 1978 World Soccer Cup, held in Argentina, a “terrible ball of fire” appeared over the Río de la Plata. According to an air traffic controller, Omar Vera, the fireball rendered the electronic instruments at Carrasco Airport in Uruguay inoperable for a short time. It was like an atomic bomb to Vera, and it set off airport alarms while shutting down all lighting. There were several reports of encounters between indigenous Argentines and extraterrestrials, linking discriminatory tropes of first peoples’ “mysticism” with the “mysteries” of OVNIS. On February 21, 1965, for example, an OVNI supposedly landed in a Toba indigenous community in the northern province of Formosa. Three extraterrestrials were said to have left the craft. Indigenous witnesses called the police, but by the time the police arrived, the beings had returned to the spaceship, which was now airborne. The police reportedly took photos of the departure, which the public never saw. Some fifty Toba people claimed they met with the humanoids, but their communications were never explained to other Argentines.25
Eliseo Subiela’s film Hombre Mirando al Sudeste (1986) portrayed the intersection of psychopathologies and humanoid–human interactions. The film’s protagonist, Rantés, mysteriously appears in a Buenos Aires psychiatric hospital in the present, a time when Argentines were coming to grips with the desaparecidos (“the disappeared”) of the 1976–1983 dictatorship. Rantés self-identifies as an extraterrestrial who has come to earth to study human beings. At a crucial moment in the film, the psychiatrist working with Rantés has a moment of doubt when he wonders if his patient might be telling the truth. While in other countries, as in Argentina, psychologists and a host of amateurs often raced to analyze the mindset of OVNI observers, the Argentine psychology of extraterrestrial sightings emphasized the everyday psychoanalytical aspect as a reflection of the force of that therapeutic orientation in middle-class urban popular culture. There were numerous OVNI apparitions at psychiatric facilities, for example.
On July 22, 1968, Adela Casalvieri de Panasitti, a psychiatric nurse on duty at the Hospital Neuropsiquiátrico de El Sauce in Mendoza, was surprised by a deafening noise. At first, she thought it might be a broken heater in the building. When she walked out onto the patio, she saw a large aluminum-colored object with a series of square windows. In one window she saw various humanoid figures moving around. Casalvieri suffered first-degree burns on her hands and face from light emanating from the object. In addition, she was left paralyzed in both legs. When the OVNI took off, it apparently left stains on the patio and a sulphur smell in the air. Testing later showed a high level of radioactivity in the area. CNEA investigators were called on the scene. Some parts of Casalvieri’s story anticipated Subiela’s film. Like the patients at the hospital Hombre Mirando al Sudeste, those at the Mendoza hospital responded to the extraterrestrials with a strange tranquility. On the night of the sighting, the patients were unusually quiet. Whereas normally at bedtime, there were fights and screams, that night, according to Casalvieri, there was perfect calm. Some have offered a psychological interpretation for the sighting, positing that it had been fueled by Casalvieri’s delirium resulting from a state of semiconsciousness produced by an overheated office.26
On January 5, 1975, Carlos Alberto Díaz was working as a waiter at a wedding reception in Bahía Blanca. Walking home at 3:50 a.m., he spotted a strange light in the sky. His arms and legs would not move. An instant later, he felt as though an air current had absorbed him. He lost consciousness. When he regained awareness, he found himself in a fetal position inside a 3-meter-high sphere. There was no instrumentation inside the sphere. Three humanoids appeared behind him. They were normal height and moved toward him slowly. They had no mouths, noses, or eyes. Despite his fear, Díaz was unable to yell and the extraterrestrials were silent. Díaz struggled with the extraterrestrials until he blacked out again. He was awakened at about 3 p.m. about 30 meters from a road. His watch was stuck at 3:50 a.m., when he had first spotted something in the sky. Díaz was far from Bahía Blanca. The man who woke him told him that he was near Buenos Aires, 650 kilometers to the north and offered to give him a lift to the capital. Díaz accepted. Almost immediately, those who heard his story questioned it because of the distance Díaz would have had to travel from his sighting to Buenos Aires. At the Hospital Ferroviario in Buenos Aires, he was checked over for injuries. None were found, nor was there any evidence of violence.
Though not a psychologist, Banchs undertook a study of Díaz’s personality based on material that appeared in the press and without interviewing the subject. He used that assessment to discredit the case. Díaz, argued Banchs, was pudgy and bipolar, of sanguine temperament, intelligent and quick, but lacking in analytical depth. He had a rich imagination, was impulsive, and had a tendency to distraction. Díaz was skilled at mechanical work and best at concrete thinking. He did not like to be alone, and his dreams were a reflection of his daily life. What Banchs called a psychometric study resulted in the finding of an insecure, conflicted, isolated, and inhibited personality inclined to exaggerate but with a strong memory and deep sentiments. Banchs referenced Freud who had established that all round or concave forms had a feminine tendency. As a result, OVNIs had a fecund quality. For Díaz, the OVNI became a uterus. By his own account, he appeared inside the spaceship in a fetal position and unconscious. For Banchs, Díaz’s description of himself corresponded to that of a fetus at the moment of birth. The light he saw inside the OVNI was equivalent to the light inside a mother’s womb. As for Díaz’s claim that he had been left briefly paralyzed, Banchs argued that during pregnancy, the mother transmits powerful emotions to the fetus that can prompt uterine contractions and momentary paralysis. The intense light that Díaz saw at one point represented a similar light that a child sees on emerging from the womb. That the three extraterrestrials were unknown marked a newborn’s perception of others, as did the absence of facial features on the humanoids. The movement of the humanoids toward Díaz made him feel powerful, which, according to Banchs’s Jungian interpretation, indicated a reaction of the unconscious where a person experiences feelings of inferiority and a lack of psychological signification that can threaten the individual’s personality.27
The unusually prominent place of OVNI reports in popular media reflected the influence of often-cited U.S. equivalents to Fabio Zerpa. How Argentines told OVNI stories faithfully reproduced the ways in which Americans understood UFOs. Argentine OVNI culture reflected a larger Argentine interest in and affection for U.S. cultural trends in film, clothing, music, and many other areas. Local OVNI clubs, in twenty locales across Argentina, as well as mainstream media all used American terminology such as “foo fighter.” The clubs frequently published mimeographed monthly newsletters. Some had sections in English, anticipating—or more likely, hoping against hope—that their findings on local sightings would be read and recognized as authentic and similar to those in the United States. Periods of especially heavy UFO sightings and activity in Argentina—in 1947 and 1978, for example—correspond exactly to equivalent waves of sightings in the United States. As in the United States, those in Argentina who followed OVNI sightings and searched for meaning were wary of what they believed were federal government efforts to conceal “the truth.” More striking still, was how Argentines’ skepticism of their government reflected little of the typical Argentine criticism of their state but rather the same sorts of tropes that Americans used in denouncing Washington’s UFO cover-ups in the 1950s and 1960s. In criticizing their own government, Argentines did not distinguish between its military or democratic components. After the U.S. Air Force began to study the possibility of UFOs, the Argentine Air Force did the same. And when the U.S. Air Force closed down that branch of study in 1969, the Argentine Air Force shut down its investigations as well.
Humanoid forms and their evolution in sightings and in the popular Argentine imagination dovetail with trends in the United States. In the 1950s, for example, extraterrestrial sightings varied considerably among a range of animal-like and humanoid forms. By the early 1970s—in keeping with developments in the United States—extraterrestrials reported in Argentina had bodies that were increasingly human-like, almost always walking upright with four limbs and large heads. Moreover, as in the United States, by the 1970s, as in the Dionisio Llanca case, abductions increasingly accompanied sightings. American UFO experts such as J. Allen Hynek were regularly cited and their reports disseminated in Argentina, as were non-Americans with wide appeal in the United States, especially the British writer Arthur C. Clarke. Clarke’s famous dictums on the intersection of science and the supernatural and the notion that any sufficiently advanced technology could not be distinguished from magic appeared frequently in print in Argentina. After 1970, both Hynek and Clarke buttressed “scientific” ufología. A former adviser to the U.S. Air Force on the subject; a believer in extraterrestrial life; and a debunker of “false” sightings, Hynek influenced an entire generation of Argentine “scientific” observers including Roberto E. Banchs.28 The “science” of OVNI investigation was reminiscent of 19th-century botany. As did Hynek, Banchs and other Argentines catalogued reported sightings and encounters. Banchs touted his scientific training as an urban planner and, oddly, in something called “ology.” In 1970, he organized the Second Argentine National OVNI Symposium where he proposed the first national network of OVNI information. In 1970, Banchs published the first index of UFO observations for Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile.29
In addition to OVNI information circulating in books published by Kier and by other publishers, there were many other media reports and stories. The Spanish writer Juan Gallardo Muñoz published the dime store novella Espía cósmica in Buenos Aires under the pseudonym Addison Starr, as a tribute to American pulp fiction of the day.30 Printed as a pocketbook novel, Espía was part of a genre that revived the tradition linking science fiction and the study of OVNIs. It was also part of a larger genre of cheaply made pulp novels published immediately after their English-language equivalents appeared in the United States. Neil MacNeil’s La muerte elige was one of dozens of hardboiled crime novels and Oscar J. Friend’s El jinete nocturno part of a series of dramatic westerns.31 Printed in six issues between May and October 1984, PARSEC was among the numerous cheaply manufactured, short-lived science fiction magazines of the period. Four of the five featured stories in the second issue were by popular American science fiction writers such as Zenna Henderson, Robert F. Young, Harlan Ellison, and Alfred Bester.32
Frequently, stories of extraterrestrial life overlapped with a steady stream of headline news on the U.S. space program. Written to be read to children under 10 years of age, the 1973 oversized children’s book Fanfán viaja en un cohete, printed by the publishing giant Atlántida, tells the illustrated story of a white, middle-class boy who is magically transformed when he puts on a space suit. He is now able to float as in space and to travel to the moon and the sun. Twenty years later, Rodolfo Otero published Un viaje muy “especial” for an adolescent readership. Like the protagonist of Fanfán, the children in Un viaje are blond and light skinned. The fun begins when one of them spots an OVNI. Adventures follow in which the children meet extraterrestrials in space and then beam back to familiar places in Argentina, like the zoo in La Plata and Plaza Francia in Buenos Aires.33
After the Cold War
In February 2016, a helicopter crashed in Capilla del Monte, Córdoba. Immediately, on television programs and in other venues, Argentines began speculating about OVNIs. But in a departure from Cold War OVNI reports, the question of aliens was quashed by an Air Force inquiry that found pilot error to have been the cause of the crash. Capilla del Monte residents had first witnessed an OVNI in 1986. The report took on many tropes of the era—an intense light, an oval flying object, and burn marks on the ground where the saucer had landed. A year later, residents of the town claimed that a forest fire nearby had mysteriously bypassed the 1986 OVNI landing site. In 1991, Mercedes and Sonia Anchorena, two sisters who had first reported the OVNI, bought a large tract of land around the landing site. In 2000, there were media reports that the 1986 sighting had been staged to generate tourist activity in the area. No more OVNIs were observed, but Capilla del Monte became a tourist destination drawing 10,000 visitors annually and in 2012, the municipality celebrated the first Carnaval Alienígena.34
After 1990, times and attitudes changed. Argentines became more skeptical, and like the Capilla del Monte case, other sightings were frequently debunked, generally far more quickly than previously. Popular interest in this phenomenon had waned. Mainstream media abandoned uncritical reports of OVNIs. With few exceptions, local OVNI societies disappeared. Mimeographed newsletters for a handful of followers faded as related websites proliferated. Where once local OVNI societies proclaimed such events in their mimeos, now OVNI websites did so, though they remained culturally isolated from the mainstream, making claims that nobody bothered to assess “scientifically.” No new generation of OVNI experts like Zerpa or Banchs emerged with the capacity to break into the mainstream of popular culture. The end of the larger Cold War and the decline of the nuclear threat and U.S. space program may have made an impact on these altered perceptions, along with changes in media venues and advancements in information technology.
There are no accessible, archived Argentine government primary sources on this topic. The Fuerza Aerea Argentina (Argentine Air Force) likely has relevant, classified documentation from the 1960s, 1970s, and perhaps later. Works cited by Antonio Las Heras and Roberto F. Banchs in “Further Reading” have photographic evidence either of OVNI landings or of the cultural reception of those “landings.”
Newspapers and magazines contain thousands of articles on these phenomena. They include the Buenos Aires dailies Clarin, La Nación, La Opinión, and La Razón, as well as the popular magazines Gente and Siete Dias. These sources are available at the Biblioteca Nacional (Buenos Aires) among many other libraries.
Newsletters and small-run magazines dedicated to OVNIs in private hands include Atom (Buenos Aires), the untitled newsletter of the Centro de Investigación de Vida Extraterrestre (Avellaneda, Argentina), Investigación: Organo de difusion del Centro de Estudios de Fenomenos Aereos Extraños (Buenos Aires), and Canopus (Buenos Aires).
Abraham, Carlos. La literatura fantástica argentina en el siglo XIX. Buenos Aires: CICCUS, 2015.Find this resource:
Alonso, Ricardo N. Ciencia y pseudociencias: Ovnis, extraterrestres, profecías, apocalipsis, fin del mundo, seres fantásticos y demás creencias. Salta, Argentina: Mundo, 2012.Find this resource:
Banchs, Roberto F. Los OVNIS y sus ocupantes. Buenos Aires: Tres Tiempos, 1980.Find this resource:
Carreras, Sergio. Turistas espirituales: gurus, ovnis y otros tesoros de Córdoba. Córdoba, Argentina: Recovecos, 2013.Find this resource:
Felitti, Karina. La revolución de la pildora: Sexualidad y política en los años sesenta. Buenos Aires: Edhasa, 2012.Find this resource:
García Blanco, Javier. Humanoides. Encuentros con entidades desconocidas. Buenos Aires: Edaf del Plata, 2003.Find this resource:
Las Heras, Antonio. O.V.N.I.S. Los extraterrestres entre nosotros. Buenos Aires: Rueda, 1978.Find this resource:
Morales, Rubén. Los Ovnis de la Antártida. Buenos Aires: Marimbo, 2016.Find this resource:
Rein, Raanan. Argentina, Israel, and the Jews. College Park: University Press of Maryland, 2003.Find this resource:
Scolari, Carlos A. Historietas para sobrevivientes: Comic y cultura de masas en los años 80. Buenos Aires: Colihue, 1999.Find this resource:
Sheinin, David M. K. Argentina and the United States: An Alliance Contained. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2006.Find this resource:
(1.) Raanan Rein, Argentina, Israel, and the Jews (College Park: University Press of Maryland, 2003); and David M. K. Sheinin, Argentina and the United States: An Alliance Contained (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2006).
(2.) Carlos Escudé, El estado parasitario: Argentina, ciclos de vaciamiento, clase política directiva y colapso de la política exterior (Buenos Aires: Lumiere, 2005); Mario Rapoport, “Argentina: economía y política internacional. Los procesos históricos,”Diplomacia, Estrategia, Política 10 (2009): 26–50; Mario Rapoport and Noemí Brenta, “La gran inundación,” Página/12, March 26, 2013; and David M. K. Sheinin, “Peripheral Anti-Imperialism: The New Revisionism and the History of Argentine Foreign Relations in the Era of the Kirchners,” Estudios Interdisciplinarios de América Latina y el Caribe 25.1 (2014): 63–84.
(3.) Leandro Morgenfeld, Relaciones peligrosas: Argentina y Estados Unidos (Buenos Aires: Capital Intelectual, 2012); Mario Rapoport and Claudio Spiguel, Relaciones Tumultuosas: Estados Unidos y el primer peronismo (Buenos Aires: Emecé, 2009); and Martin Edwin Andersen, Dossier Secreto: Argentina’s Desaparecidos and the Myth of the “Dirty War” (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1993).
(4.) Marguerite Feitlowitz, A Lexicon of Terror: Argentina and the Legacies of Torture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011); Germán Ferrari, 1983, el año de la democracia (Buenos Aires: Planeta, 2013); and Horacio Gaggero, Alicia Iriarte, Humberto Roitberg, Argentina, 15 años después: de la transición a la democracia al menemismo, 1982–1997 (Buenos Aires: Proyecto Editorial, 2000).
(5.) Irma Emiliozzi, Los Emiliozzi: De la historia a la leyenda (Buenos Aires: Claridad, 2015); Carlos A. Scolari, Historietas para sobrevivientes: Comic y cultura de masas en los años 80 (Buenos Aires: Colihue, 1999); Karina Felitti, La revolución de la pildora: Sexualidad y política en los años sesenta (Buenos Aires: Edhasa, 2012); Isabella Cosse, Pareja, sexualidad y familia en los años sesenta (Buenos Aires: Siglo veintiuno, 2010); Matias Raña, Guerreros del cine: Argentino, fantástico e independiente (Buenos Aires: Fan, 2010); Mabel Bellucci, Historia de una desobediencia: Aborto y feminismo (Buenos Aires: Capital Intelectual, 2014); Valeria Manzano, The Age of Youth in Argentina: Culture, Politics and Sexuality from Perón to Videla (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014); and Raúl Manrupe, Breve historia del dibujo animado en la Argentina (Buenos Aires: Libros del Rojas, 2004).
(6.) Penny M. Von Eschen, “‘Satchmo Blows Up the World’: Jazz, Race, and Empire during the Cold War,” in “Here, There and Everywhere”: The Foreign Politics of American Popular Culture, eds. Reinhold Wagnleitner and Elaine Tyler May (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2000), 164.
(7.) Carlos Abraham, La literatura fantástica argentina en el siglo XIX (Buenos Aires: CICCUS, 2015), 190.
(9.) José Álvarez López, Reconstrucción de Atlántida (2d ed.) (Buenos Aires: Kier, 1989 ), 95–106,
(10.) Carolyne R. Larson, “‘Argentine Man’: Human Evolution and Cultural Citizenship in Argentina, 1911–1940,” in Making Citizens in Argentina, eds. Benjamin Bryce and David M. K. Sheinin (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2017), 51–69.
(12.) Guillermo dos Santos Coelho, “El OVNI que paseó por la Antártida y disparó la psicosis argentina,” Clarín (Buenos Aires), July 2, 2015. Retrieved from http://www.clarin.com/especiales/paseo-Antartida-disparo-psicosis-argentina_0_1386461474.html.
(13.) “Si me volviera a pasar, no se lo contaría a nadie,” La Nueva (Bahía Blanca), December 8, 2013. Retrieved from http://www.lanueva.com/sociedad-impresa/212094/-si-me-volviera-a-pasar-no-se-lo-contar-237-a-a-nadie-.html.
(14.) “¿Que fue?” Gente (Buenos Aires), 15.778 (June 19, 1980): 4–9.
(15.) “Revelan que se Dispararon 20.000 Cañonazos Contra 3 OVNI que Sobrevolaron Los Angeles en 1944,” La Razón, October 4, 1976: 1.
(16.) Roberto E. Banchs, Los OVNIS y sus ocupantes (Buenos Aires: Tres Tiempos, 1980), 9.
(17.) Antonio Las Heras, O.V.N.I.S. Los extraterrestres entre nosotros (Buenos Aires: Rueda, 1978), 45.
(18.) Leonard H. Stringfield, UFO Crash/Retrievals: Amassing the Evidence: Status Report III (Charleston, SC: CreateSpace, 2015) [orig. 1982 self-published].
(19.) “Los platos voladores,” La Razón, September 2, 1968, 6.
(20.) Roberto E. Banchs, Los OVNIS y sus ocupantes (Buenos Aires: Tres Tiempos, 1980), 88–92.
(21.) Richard H. Hall, The UFO Evidence: A Thirty-Year Report, vol. 2 (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001), 472.
(22.) “Caso Pereyra: El incidente ‘Roswell’ de San Francisco Solano,” La Tercera, August 25, 2016. Retrieved from http://www.diariolatercera.com.ar/nota/22494-caso-pereyra-el-incidente-roswell-de-san-francisco-solano/.
(23.) Stanton T. Friedman and Kathleen Marden, Fact, Fiction, and Flying Saucers (Wayne, IN: Career Press, 2016).
(24.) Roberto E. Banchs, Los OVNIS y sus ocupantes (Buenos Aires: Tres Tiempos, 1980), 131–133.
(26.) “Relato Fantástico,” El Andino, August 13, 1968. Retrieved from http://marcianitosverdes.haaan.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/08/mendoza5.jpg.
(27.) Banchs, Los OVNIS y sus ocupantes, 162–165.
(28.) Roberto E. Banchs, Los OVNIS y sus ocupantes (Buenos Aires: Tres Tiempos, 1980); and Javier García Blanco, Humanoides. Encuentros con entidades desconocidas (Buenos Aires: Edaf del Plata, 2003), 97–100.
(29.) Roberto E. Banchs, Fenómenos Aéreos Inusuales (Buenos Aires: CEFAI, 1970).
(30.) Addison Starr, Espía cósmico (Buenos Aires: Toray, 1969).
(31.) Neil MacNeil, La muerte elige (Buenos Aires: Acme, 1961); and Oscar J. Friend, El jinete nocturno (Buenos Aires: Acme, 1952).
(32.) PARSEC, 1.2 (1984).
(33.) “En pos de otra hazaña,” Clarín, June 3, 1965, p. 1; María Alicia Domínquez, Fanfán viaja en un cohete (Buenos Aires: Atlántida, 1973); and Rodolfo Otero, Un viaje muy “especial” (Buenos Aires: Sigmar, 1994).
(34.) Sergio Carreras, “El día que llegaron los aliens,” La Voz, January 3, 2016. Retrieved from http://www.lavoz.com.ar/ciudadanos/el-dia-que-llegaron-los-aliens.