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Joshua Iván Muñoz Salazar: Lights above Mexico City

Joshua Iván Muñoz Salazar, a DarkSky Delegate from Mexico, discusses Mexico City's lighting system and explores cultural and social aspects of light use.

Joshua Iván Muñoz Salazar, DarkSky Delegate in México.
Joshua Iván Muñoz Salazar, DarkSky Delegate in México. Photo credit: Melissa López Portillo Purata.

Each month DarkSky International features a DarkSky Advocate from the worldwide network of volunteers working to protect the night. This month we’re highlighting the work of Joshua Iván Muñoz Salazar in México.

Joshua Iván Muñoz Salazar grew up spending time under México’s dark skies. His grandparents had a hacienda (ranch house) in Peña del Aire, a high-altitude canyonland and nature reserve in the state of Hidalgo that is home to multiple species of bats and special types of cactus.

Located about 85 miles (136km) northwest of México City, Peña del Aire is a protected nature reserve in Huasca de Ocampo. In addition to being one of the last dark-sky oases in México, Peña del Aire is a UNESCO-designated area recognized for its outstanding natural and cultural heritage. Multiple protected reserves converge here in the Comarca Minera Global Geopark and the Metztitlán Canyon Biosphere Reserve. 

Recalling his childhood spent in Peña del Aire, Joshua says, “It was very, very dark and, at night with my brother, I spent time looking at the sky. At a [later] moment in my life, I was no longer able to return to that place because my parents passed away and the hacienda was sold.”

After that, Joshua spent a decade under severe skyglow in México City, a metropolis of 8.8 million — one of the world’s biggest and most light-polluted cities. It wasn’t until he was working on his Bachelor’s degree in Earth Science that he returned to Hidalgo and rediscovered the night sky there.

México City is one of the most light-polluted cities in the world. Joshua studies the lighting system of México City from a perspective based on complexity and sustainability sciences. Photo credit: Fernando Tomás.

“At that moment, I identified that light pollution was blocking the view of the stars that I had in the city. I realized that I never saw the stars,” he says.

This set Joshua down a path toward night-sky protection. Now, he is working on his Master’s degree in Sustainability Science at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. As part of his research, he is studying México City’s lighting system and how energy use, lighting, and policy are influenced by cultural and social issues.

As a DarkSky Delegate, Joshua also coordinates transdisciplinary efforts between communal landowners, government authorities, and academics with a working group called Luces Sobre La Ciudad (Lights Above the City). The group was created to search for solutions for the city’s lighting problem and is currently finishing a white paper that will propose technical and social best practices to the city government.

As a DarkSky Delegate, Joshua (left) coordinates the transdisciplinary efforts between communal land owners, government authorities and academics to protect dark skies.
Photo courtesy of Comarca Minera Global Geopark.

Joshua says his experiences growing up with access to a dark place were fundamental to his life’s work now.

“It was personal, like an inner thing that allowed me to search for and protect the dark skies,” he says, recalling what led him down the path to dark-sky advocacy. “It was very nostalgic. The things that I remember from when I was a child were fundamental to being able to protect cities now.”

Joshua’s research has led him to study the relationship between nature and humans, including an analysis of the way that Mexican society relates to light. Historically, México City was called Tenochtitlán — the first city established in the center of México by the Aztecs. Joshua has looked at various historical eras, from the Aztecs to the Spanish conquest and the Mexican Revolution. In each, he found very different relationships with light. 

“For the Aztec people, light was very sacralized. Tenochtitlán was, at that time, one of the most lighted cities in the world, but it had a very ritual purpose,” he says, referring to the Aztecs’ “Fuego Nuevo” (New Fire) ceremony performed at the end of the Aztec calendar (every 52 years) to prevent the end of the world. They would extinguish all of the fires in the city and then light one giant bonfire to illuminate all of the houses, buildings, and temples in the city.

“The idea was that there was a balance between darkness and light. After the European conquest, according to the documents I’ve looked at, light use changed drastically. It was used to regulate sins and criminals.”

In his research, Joshua is using the concept of “adaptive cycles” to analyze México City’s complex relationship with light, to identify key points in the cycle to learn how to foster change in the long term.

“This application is not short-term. It takes time, you know. Generations,” he says.

He is also working to have the canyons of Peña del Aire certified as an International Dark Sky Place. The area was home to an ancient village community, Metztitlán, which can be translated as “the people of the moon.” They had an ancient observatory and practiced daily life around the cycle of the moon.

Peña del Aire, Huasca de Ocampo, Hidalgo, México. In addition to being one of the last dark sky oases in México, Peña del Aire is an UNESCO multi-designated area recognized by its outstanding natural and cultural heritage. In this site converges the Comarca Minera Global Geopark and the Metztitlán Canyon Biosphere Reserve. Photo credit: Juan López Hoyos.

“For this community, nature and culture were the same. One cannot exist without the other, you know?” says Joshua. “It’s not only the importance of dark skies with nature but also the responsibility of everyone to use light in a proper way. In larger part, it’s about how we, as a society, can use our energy or resources in a more sustainable way. And that’s why I think that I am in love with that project.”

You can find Joshua Iván Muñoz Salazar’s papers on ResearchGate.

To join the DarkSky Advocate Network, go here.