Vicente ''Chente'' Brambila & Mariposa

Vicente leaps into the sky with outstretched limbs / Vicente speaks at a panel about the Global Barometer of Gay RightsVicente presents a research poster while wearing a blazer and tie / Vicente wears skeleton makeup and extends his butterfly wings before a crowd.
Image credits Vicente Brambila and Raluca Rilla (IG: @raluca)

Vicente ‘‘Chente’’ Brambila (1998-2021) grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from Franklin & Marshall College in May 2020 as a joint major in Dance and Government. As a student at F&M, Vicente was active in student groups such as Mi Gente Latina, IMPACT, and SAGA. He worked as a researcher with F&M’s Global Barometer of Gay Rights, and he was known throughout campus for his award-winning dancing and choreography as well as his activitism for justice. Tragically, Vicente was killed in a car accident less than a year after his graduation. He is missed by his family in LA, by his boyfriend and creative partner Joshua, and by many others in both Pennsylvania and California.

This page is a celebration of Chente’s life. It describes how he helped change the way I think about my research in galaxy formation and his connection to a special galaxy we now call Mariposa in his honor.

Dance, History, and Justice

I had the privilege to see Chente perform many times, and we shared several conversations while he was enrolled in an astronomy class called Changing Concepts of the Universe that met down the hall from my office. We spoke and exchanged occasional emails about about astronomy, social justice, and understanding ourselves and our world through studying the past. In May 2020 I sent him an email congratulating him on his graduation, and his reply back to me (the last email I received from his school account) included the following:

Your email inspires me to continue dancing! Dancing is my political message. Existing is political. Movement transforms the roots of action. Dancing is liberating. It is also ephemeral in its frame of movement.

Rehearsal footage of "La Batalla," a work-in-progress of Vicente's choreography for the F&M Dance Company Spring Dance Concert 2020. Originally shared by Vicente in February 2020 in honor of the Monarch Butterfly Human Rights Activists killed the preceding month. Credit: Vicente Brambila.

Chente often used dance to explore themes of justice. He was likewise interested in using dance to connect with his ancestors, particularly those indigenous people of the lands of modern-day Mexico whose stories had been obscured by colonialism. Several of the dances he performed and choreographed used the image of the monarch butterfly (Spanish: mariposa monarca) to explore this theme.

Mariposa: a Dance of Galaxies and Gas

Around the time that Vicente and I were discussing Changing Concepts of the Universe, I was studying a fascinating new galaxy our team had discovered. Initially designated Q1603-NB2500 and then Q1603-BLOB1, its name did not capture the exciting nature of the object: this was a galaxy with huge butterfly-like “wings” of illuminated hydrogen that extend well beyond the galaxy itself, clearly demonstrating the mysterious interactions between galaxies and their surrounding gas.

A diagram showing Mariposa, a galaxy with two wings displayed as colored contours / Vicente holding his wings out to the side in a similar shape to Mariposa
Left: A Lyman-alpha image of Mariposa from the Keck/KCWI instrument, with annotations indicating emission by other species and the wing-like outflow/ionization geometry. Right: Vicente with his Monarch Butterfly wings. Photo credit Raluca Rilla (IG: @raluca), costume design by Joshua Arroyo.

The interactions between galaxies and their gas is often called “feedback” because the growth of stars or supermassive black holes in the galaxy produces complex effects that slow down future growth. These interactions play an important role in shaping the history of our own galaxy, and they are often framed as a violent battle using words such as “strangulation” and “disruption”. However, I have been inspired by other astronomers to rethink my use of violent language to describe the Universe, especially with respect to the processes that brought our Galaxy into being. One of the questions Chente and I discussed was what would it mean to see our own cosmic history as a dance rather than a war?

After Vicente’s death, many F&M community members and I were able to meet with his family and share our memories of his college years. In those conversations, the Brambila family and I talked about the connections between Vicente’s study of history and ancestry through the lens of dance and my own studies through the tools of astronomy. Through those conversations, we decided to name the unique galaxy described above Mariposa in memory of Vicente and in gratitude for the way he helped shaped my own perspective on galaxy formation. The wing-like shape of Mariposa evokes Vicente’s many dances with his Monarch butterfly wings, providing a reminder of the artistry he shared and of the power of dance to re-imagine our relationship to our ancestors–both on Earth and in the cosmos beyond. In this framing, the slow growth of galaxies through feedback interactions is not a matter of domination or of death; it is more like the rhythm of a drum that keeps galactic evolution precisely on time.

Chente’s Memory

A video including clips from many of Chente's dance performances at F&M. Credit: Vicente Brambila and Franklin & Marshall College Dance.

Chente’s legacy lives on in Los Angeles and Lancaster. Many of his friends and community members contributed to a tribute page, and the Vicente Brambila Visual & Performing Arts (VAPA) Scholarship is now awarded to a student at a California Green Dot High School who intends to pursue an education in visual and performing arts after high school. An Eastern Redbud tree has also been planted on F&M’s campus in his memory near the hall where he used to perform.

An Eastern Redbud tree planted on the F&M campus in honor of Vicente. Below, the plaque reads "A warrior for peace and justice, an artist of ancestral vision, and dear friend to many. Y olvidarte no puedo."

In the final year of his life, Vicente became very interested in the ecological protection of monarch butterfly habitats in Mexico, particularly after the deaths of the environmental activists Homero Gómez and Raúl Hernández in early 2020. Please consider supporting these habitats, including the rights of their long-term human inhabitants.