Thinking Through Science and Fiction: the Maquiladora and Its Remote Labor



In 2008, Alex Rivera released a film that struck many of us when we first saw it. Sleep Dealer introduces a near future in which the border between the United States and Mexico has been definitely closed, water has been privatized and is sold at outrageous prices, and Central American laborers have no choice but to implant “nodes” in their bodies to “connect their nervous system with the system of global economy.” The protagonist, Memo, flees his village after his house is destroyed by a U.S. military drone and sells his work power to a maquiladora in Tijuana. Hung like a puppet to phosphorescent cables plugged in his body, he operates a construction work robot in a city on the other side of the border. On November 19, 2020, we talk with Alex Rivera about this depiction of a near future that only slightly exacerbate existing conditions.

LÉOPOLD LAMBERT: For the purpose of this interview, I re-read the short article I had written about your fantastic film, Sleep Dealer, eight years ago when I watched it for the second time. What had struck me back then was the representation of the maquiladora as the site of complete dissociation of labor and the body of the laborer. This seems to me the ultimate phase of capitalism: labor power, without the “inconvenience” of the laborer’s racialized body on the site of labor. Could you tell us how this dissociation and its potent representation came about?

Rivera Funambulist 1
Memo engaged in remote labor in a maquiladora of a near future. / Still from Sleep Dealer by Alex Rivera (2008).

ALEX RIVERA: Thanks so much for engaging with the film. Sleep Dealer is set in a near-future world where workers in the Global South enter factories, but in those factories, they don’t make products. Instead, what they do is connect their bodies to a kind of high-speed internet to control machines, robots that accomplish their labor, in the Global North, or in the First World — whatever you want to call it. So these sites of labor, these factories, are not about producing material products, but are about packaging and transmitting pure labor, through a digital system, to be then realized as physical labor in a distant market.

That idea came to me from observing reality in the 1990s. Back then, there were two big political transformations that I was interested in. One of them was the emergence of the internet, and its attendant dreams, the dream of a global village, the dream of working from home. All of that was fascinating to me. And more fascinating, when I put it up against this other transformation which was happening in the mid-1990s, which was the fortification of borders. I come from a cross-border family, an immigrant family, and so I was following the politics of immigration. In the mid 1990s, the construction of the border wall between the United States and Mexico, the emergence of anti-immigrant propositions in states like California, the emergence of vigilantes on the U.S.-Mexico border, all of that was happening, simultaneous to the emergent discourse of the global village and a borderless world on the internet.

And so there was this kind of cleavage happening in our mindspace where one half of our brain was being invited to think about a borderless land in the digital world, and the other part of our mind was being invited to think about the ways in which nations should close down, and build walls, and punish and dispose of immigrants. And so I had this nightmare of a world where immigrants could sort of “telecommute” to the Global North. And that was where the idea came from really.