Race and Labor, Unplugged: Alex Rivera’s Sleep Dealer
Dale Hudson / NYU Abu Dhabi

dude no way

1-2: Changing Responses to Televised Images in Sleep Dealer

Alex Rivera’s Sleep Dealer (USA-México 2008) is a feature-length extension and development of his investigation into the questions raised by globalization’s accelerating interconnections and interdependencies involving labor, migration, and experimental technologies that he introduced a decade earlier in Why Cybraceros? (USA 1997). The short video makes a satirical critique of the Council for California Grower’s Why Braceros? (USA 1959), a privately financed domestic propaganda film that presents itself as a “public service.” Deploying the conventional arsenals of expository documentary—a rational, masculine, white-sounding-but-well-intentioned voiceover that unequivocally interprets meanings from a disparate series of visual images—the film attempts to convince U.S. citizens that “imported” labor from México benefits them. The film’s formal strategies erase racialization from technical solutions to the “age-old burden” of finding “stoop labor,” broadly defined as “farms jobs that are tough, dirty, or unpleasant,” through a lively montage of images of (male only) Mexicans not being exploited but receiving medical attention, food and water, live entertainment, and access to television [images 3-6]. The film further uses the secondary evidence of testimony from a Mexican politician, dubbed into Spanish-accented English, that U.S. policies do not exploit Mexicans.

braceros why

3-6: Medical Care, Food and Water, Live Entertainment, and Television in Why Braceros?

The film’s primary voiceover, however, inscribes racialized differentiation at the level of language. In anticipation of “new and remarkable experimental equipment,” the voiceover assures audiences that “Mexican citizens”—“sometimes called nationals or Mexican nationals” but “the term most commonly used is braceros”—benefit the United States through policies that ensure braceros only appear “in right place at the right time.” The film closes with the explanation that “in Spanish braceros means someone who works with arms and hands, but in American lingo they are called lifesavers” to “the housewife, the grocer, transport, the canner and the processer” and other industries that are closely interlocked and dependent on domestic agricultural production. The film’s deception is its erasure of the underlying conditions that drive transborder migrations.

With Why Cybraceros? Rivera un-erases racialization within transborder migrations. He questions Why Braceros? for its limiting notions of rationalism, based on scientific reason and logical thought, and its limiting notions of progress and development, defined in terms of efficiency and profitability. A female voiceover conveys alarmist anti-immigration rhetoric that some “Mexican workers” stay “illegally” in the United States or “cross the border illegally and then blend in with the bracero workforce,” so that “no matter how they arrived here, the presence of braceros contributed to a climate of racial and economic suspicion” that is framed to continue more than three decades after the end of the Bracero Program (1943–1964).

High-speed Internet connections facilitate the digital interface of globalization, so that a technical solution becomes economic and social as well. Mexican workers manipulate video-game controllers in México, which translates into real-time movements of remote-control “robotic farm workers known as cybraceros” that perform stoop labor in California [images 7-10]. “For the worker, it’s as simple as point and click to pick,” announces Rivera’s narrator; “for the American farmer, it’s all the labor without the worker.” “In Spanish, cybracero means a worker who operates a computer with his arms and hands,” she continues; “but in American lingo, cybracero means a worker that poses no threat of becoming an citizen—and that means quality products at low financial and social cost to you, the American consumer,” atop stock images of a blonde white woman in a modern supermarket.

cyberbraceros why

7-10: Digitalized Manual Labor in Why Cybraceros?

Sleep Dealer extends this analysis of power relationships within this transnational connectivity of being connected, literally and metaphorically being “plugged in.” Whereas the (white) Council representative places a telephone order for a desired and legally sanctioned number of braceros [image 11] in Why Braceros?, the (brown) protagonist of Sleep Dealer, Memo (Luis Fernando Peña), does not have the agency to initiate or execute transborder migrations. He must rely on clandestine connections of “coyoteks,” technologically savvy “coyotes” (smugglers). Memo is literally connected by optical fiber cables attached to nodes inserted into his body, mostly his arms since his labor, like a bracero’s, is mostly manual [image 12]. Subsequent scenes show the robot, controlled remotely by Memo controls, on the steel girders of a construction site in the United States. Memo works physically in a factory where other Mexicans plug into distributed network.

performing labor

11-12: Ordering Manual Labor in Why Braceros? and Performing Labor Remotely in Sleep Dealer

The trailer for Sleep Dealer offers the story’s context: “Mexico… the near future. The border is closed… but the network is open….” The near future, I would argue, is really an already past. The thirteen words describe conditions of the Mexican-U.S. borderlands, not only since the invention of the Border Patrol in 1924, but specifically since the War on Drugs (1971–2011) through the ratification of NAFTA (1994) and into the War on Terror (2001–present). The term “sleep dealers” refers to factories where digitized labor is outsourced across the militarized border into the United States. The factories are corollaries to actual maquilladoras where labor performs repetitive actions, such as inserting smart-phones and laptops into protective packaging.1 The film depicts the border in its fractal multiplicity: it exists not only in physical walls that extend into the ocean but also in physical factories inside México where labor is digitized and performed in real time in the United States.

The border is also performed across the ubiquitous screens, including the one that Memo’s brother watches. Channel surfing becomes a means of describing and critiquing transborder racialization, particularly through the reaction shots of Memo and his brother as they respond to images broadcast within and into México. Like the montage sequence in Why Braceros?, these images construct some of Sleep Dealer’s central arguments. The first are black-and-white images of singing and dancing from classical Mexican comedias rancheras (“singing cowboy” films). Both young men smile at the familiar gendered structuring of visual relays from looking male faces to fragmented female bodies [images 13–14]. Next appears an advertisement for “Trunode,” a service that allows people to sell digital representations of their memories and stories, linking television spectatorship in rural México to the transnational flows of capital and information. Later in the film, Memo will meet Luz Martinez (Leonor Varela), who sells her memories as a means to make a living. Luz’s memories, however, are forms of decentralized information gathering. The only ones that sell well involve “rebels”—and later Memo, who is suspected of links to terrorism.

fragmented bodies

13-14: Seeing Male Faces and Fragmented Female Bodies on Mexican Screens in Sleep Dealer

The next images are a talking fry followed by a talking head for the reality game show Drones. The images of the screen continues to convey power and conflate security with corporate privatization, as a fly-through camera shows images of a dam that produces drinking water, threatened by protesters, combated with remote sensing technologies that locate potential security breach points, calibrate with information of “aqua-terrorists” and terrorist organizations, so as to identify security breaches and destroy targets from remote locations.2 Memo and his brother’s responses move from initial amusement (“dude”) over potential recognition of their village as the target location for the live show to disbelief (“no way”) and horror (silence) over images of their father, a milpa farmer, being remotely assassinated by the drone [images 1–2, 16]. This response differs from an earlier scene in which Memo’s brother exclaims “right on!” [image 15] over the target’s destruction.

right on

15-16: Changing Attitudes Through Televised Images in Sleep Dealer

The show Drones attempts to construct a racially/ethnically and nationally undifferentiated “soft” spectatorship; however, it does not fully succeed in erasing racialization within its construction of heroes and terrorists. The show’s visual display of heroic American masculinity as transborder power expands from the cocky white host to the patriotic Latino American contestant, Rudy Ramirez (Jacob Vargad), to sustain the illusion of an ever-expansive masculine whiteness inflected by multiculturalism until Rudy aligns with suspected aqua-terrorists to liberate the privatized water supply. He refuses to perform a type of racialized labor that Sharon Willis defines as the “guest figure” in Hollywood cinema, the token person of color in the role of the doctor, the judge, or the police officer, for example, who represents the system that historically supported white-male privilege.3

Hollywood films from Blade Runner (USA-Hong Kong 1982; dir. Ridley Scott) to The Matrix (Australia-USA 1999; dir. Wachowski Brothers) and Source Code (USA-France 2011; dir. Duncan Jones), along with films produced at the margins of Hollywood, such as David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ (Canada-UK-France 1999), have explored human/labor rights by structuring a dystopic “system” that resembles a distributed network with a seamless digital interface and game-like narrative where racial/ethnic tensions are erased, as in Keanu Reeves’s non-presence as Hapa or Asian American.4 Sleep Dealer, however, disrupts erasures of networked racialization.

Image Credits:

1–2 and 12–16: Sleep Dealer (2008). Alex Rivera. Used with permission.
3–6 and 11: Why Braceros? (1959). Prelinger Archives. Creative Commons License.
7–10: Why Cybraceros? (1997). Alex Rivera. Used with permission.

  1. Maquilapolis: City of Factories (USA-México 2006; dir. Vicky Funari and Sergio de la Torre) brilliantly includes scenes of female workers, who stage performances of the motions of the repetitive labor that they perform inside the factories. []
  2. The fictional Mayan Army of Water Liberation suggests the actual Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN, or Zapatista Army of National Liberation), whose online and onsite protests against the Mexican state’s destruction of indigenous nations were sometimes criminalized in U.S. news media. []
  3. Sharon Willis, High Contrast: Race and Gender in Contemporary Hollywood Film (Durham, USA and London, UK: Duke University Press, 1997): 5. []
  4. Cronenberg’s earlier film Videodrome (Canada 1983) is an analogue precursor to these digital films in which the white female character of Nicki (Deborah Harry) becomes a contestant on a live-broadcast (snuff television) game show from Malaysia. The film represents globalization as having analogue (videocassettes inserted into sexualized openings in the human body) rather than digital (nodes and masks) interface.


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