#118 = Volume 39, Part 3 = November 2012
Future Histories and Cyborg Labor: Reading Borderlands Science Fiction after NAFTA
For decades, writers of the US/Mexico borderlands have mined the icons and language of science fiction to articulate experiences not only of alienation, displacement, and marginalization but also those of survival, resistance, and resilience.1 During the rise of the Chicano Movement (el movimiento) in 1967, Chicano agitprop playwright Luis Valdez cleverly used the symbol of the “drone” to examine and mock Chicano/a stereotypes in California in his stage act (acto) “Los Vendidos” (The Sellouts). In Oscar Zeta Acosta’s hallucinatory self-portrait, Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo (1971), the brilliantly cynical “Oscar” aspires to write science fiction in a sudden fit of artistic rebellion during a creative-writing seminar. The post-movimiento 1990s saw a far more pronounced interest in science fiction—more specifically, the subgenre cyberpunk—in Chicano art and literature. Visual and performance artists Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Roberto Sifuentes, and Rubén Ortiz Torres, for instance, militated against anti-immigration racism in the Southland area by creating sf narratives of resistance and parody. Whereas Gomez-Pena’s “ethno-cyborgs” dramatized the ways in which mass-media technologies simultaneously criminalize and police brown bodies (see Dangerous 45-57, 246-60), Ortiz Torres’s 1997 video installation Alien Toy spliced Hollywood images of alien encounters with footage of alleged UFO sightings around the US/Mexico border to comment on the “bizarre resonance of the official misnomer ‘illegal alien’” and the various ways the phrase “physically and ideologically patrol[s] US national borders” (Chavoya 157). In literature, Alejandro Morales’s Rag Doll Plagues (1991) and Ernest Hogan’s High-Aztech (1992)—both uncannily similar to Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1992)—depart from their Anglo counterparts by relocating the familiar cyberpunk cityscape to south of the border.
Chicana feminists Gloria Anzaldúa and Chela Sandoval have turned to science fiction as well to theorize Chicano/a subjectivity in the postmodern era. Whereas Anzaldúa describes mestiza subjectivity as “‘alien’ consciousness” that speaks to an otherworldly experience beyond the “confines of the ‘normal’” (25), Sandoval argues that “colonized peoples of the Americas” possess a type of “cyborg consciousness,” an oppositional consciousness that “can provide the guides for survival and resistance under First World transnational cultural conditions” (375). These examples point to the existence of an under-examined history of Chicano/a cultural practice that employs science-fictional metaphors to render experiences of marginalization visible and to imagine alternative scenarios that are at once critically informed and imaginative. They speak to what Catherine Ramirez has called the “concept of Chicanafuturism,” a cultural practice that “questions the promises of science, technology, and humanism for Chicanas, Chicanos, and other people of color” and “reflects colonial and postcolonial histories of indigenismo, mestizaje, hegemony, and survival” in the Americas (187). Chicanafuturism has become so pervasive that John Morán González, in his forecast of “Chican@ literary studies” in the “next fifty years,” has predicted that Chicano/a writers will continue to turn to science fiction to articulate their political and social concerns and to “outline the increasingly complicated relationship of Chican@s with digital technologies, corporate globalization, and the future of cyborg labor” (176).2
This essay wishes to extend these conversations by putting Chicano/a science fiction produced north of the border in conversation with science fiction from the other side (el otro lado). Specifically, I look at Mexican writer Guillermo Lavín’s short-story “Reaching the Shore” (1994), the sf films of US filmmaker Alex Rivera, and Rosaura Sanchez and Beatrice Pita’s Chicanafuturistic novel Lunar Braceros (2009). Analyzing these texts together invites a transnational reading of science fiction from a specific geopolitical region (the US/Mexico border) and during a particular moment in contemporary history (the era of multinational capitalism). All three borderlands sf texts not only offer critical visions of globalization both today and in the near future but also insist on reading late capitalism as a troubling and enduring extension of colonial relations of power between the United States and Mexico.3 In so doing, they speak to Masao Miyoshi’s insistence that the new millennium is not an age of “postcolonialism, but of intensified colonialism, even though it is under an unfamiliar guise” (734; emphasis in original)—that guise being, above all, neoliberal economic hegemony.
Borrowing from David Harvey, I understand neoliberal economic hegemony to refer to specific social and economic conditions, including “the commodification and privatization of land” and labor power, “the suppression of alternative (indigenous) forms of production and consumption,” and “neocolonial and imperial processes of appropriation of assets (including natural resources),” all in the service of multinational corporate capitalism (159). Since the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), borderlandswriters and visual artists have increasingly turned to the metaphors and motifs of science fiction to articulate concerns over the problems of the so-called “Fourth World,” which ostensibly declares the utopian elimination of national borders but actually promotes the “multiplication of frontiers and the smashing apart of nations” and indigenous communities (Hayden 280). More specifically, these writers and artists enlist the dystopian motifs and sentiments of cyberpunk, a subgenre of sf that emerged in the 1980s as a speculative response to late capitalism and information technologies, to militate against global capitalism’s starvation of the indigenous to fatten the capitalists, thereby suggesting a timely reconsideration of the subgenre’s hallmark ethos to “live fast, die young, and leave a highly augmented corpse” (Foster xiv).
Speculative or not, borderlands labor narratives are always tales of migration and movement, departures and arrivals, of reaching and sometimes crossing the river’s shore. Works such as Tómas Rivera’s …And the Earth Did Not Devour Him (1971), Ernesto Galarza’s Barrio Boy (1971), and Helena Marìa Viramontes’s Under the Feet of Jesus (1996) wrestle with the physical and psychological experiences of displacement that attend the itinerant and often unstable lives of migrants whose labor makes possible the affordability of bourgeois US consumerism. Yet within these narratives, “movement” also signifies the process of collective engagement in social and political issues that have been central to shaping a distinct borderlands literary history. The emergence of borderlands narratives are, then, the formal result of very specific political and historical conditions: the annexation of northern Mexico, the subsequent and steady industrialization of the borderlands, and within that, the creation of a vast working class, now the “long-suffering ‘disposables’ of neoliberalism” (Hayden 271). Ramon Saldívar’s pioneering work on Chicano narrative offers important insight into the relationship between borderlands history and Chicano/a literature specifically: “History,” he argues, “cannot be conceived as the mere ‘background’ or ‘context’ for [Chicano] literature; rather, history turns out to be the decisive determinant of the form” itself (6). Just as the US annexation of northern Mexico in 1848 gave rise to a borderlands vernacular (the border ballad, specifically), so have contemporary neoliberal hegemonic conditions after NAFTA given rise to an increase in borderlands science fiction—which, as I will show, repeatedly interrogates iniquitous labor practices (as we will see, a type of “cyborg labor,” to recall González) in this economically depressed region. Post-NAFTA borderlands science fiction, in other words, is the formal articulation of a specific historical narrative: namely the history of US/Mexico capitalist labor relations in the region and militant fights for an alternative framework.
Representatives of cultural communities not normally associated with this First World genre, borderlandssf writers defamiliarize borderlands topographies, both social and political, to provoke a prolonged and deeper consideration of the devastating human and environmental tolls of neoliberal economic hegemony, the communications technologies that accelerate it, and the impoverished border communities that are forced to live under its so-called invisible hands. In doing so, they demonstrate Carl Freedman’s point, building on Darko Suvin, that “science fiction is determined by the dialectic between estrangement and cognition” (16). Here, “estrangement” refers to the construction of an “alternative fictional world that, by refusing to take our mundane environment for granted, implicitly or explicitly performs an estranging critical interrogation of the latter” (17; emphasis in original). The critical edge of the genre is made possible by the process of cognition, which “enables the science-fictional text to account rationally for its imagined world and for the connections as well as the disconnections of the latter to our own empirical world” (17). By inviting readers to rationalize the eerily familiar futures confronting them, science fiction thus raises an incisive question: what have we as a society done to get here? What in our collective history and our current historical moment has caused this strange, troubling, and uncannily familiar future to take shape? Readers of borderlands science fiction confront not only near and distant futures, but also how the histories of US/Mexico colonial and neo-colonial relations of power have provided and continue to provide the material conditions for this future.
Particularly relevant to borderlands science fiction is the concept of the “future history,” a phrase John W. Campbell, Jr. used to describe elaborately constructed temporal universes. Future history enables sf writers to situate their imaginary futures somewhere along a projected historical time line, one that often begins during or shortly after their real-life historical moment and extends into the future. More generally (that is, beyond Heinlein), the phrase “future history” is most meaningfully applied to texts “in which the processes of historical change are as important as the characters’ stories” themselves (Sawyer 491). The telling of history has, in fact, been central to the development of a distinct Chicano/a literary tradition, which is itself the direct result of shared historical, social, and economic conditions specific to Chicano/a lived experiences (Saldívar 6; McKenna 10). What most interests me in this essay, then, is the possibility for social and political critique at the intersection of science fiction and borderlands fiction—the latter encompassing both Chicana/a border narratives as well as sf from northern Mexican (fronterizo) writers. Although nationally distinct, these authors speak for a shared psychic terrain: the US/Mexico borderlands, where the “Third World grates against the first and bleeds” (Anzaldúa 25). In all three texts, the “future” represents not so much a site of progress and humanistic harmony as a return to the colonial past. Without alternatives, these futures promise to repeat the worst of colonial histories along the US/Mexico border.
For an example of fronterizo sf that immediately responded to the success of NAFTA in 1994, one need look no further than Mexican writer Guillermo Lavín’s 1994 short story “Reaching the Shore” (Llegar a la orilla), which originally appeared in Frontera de espejos rotos (Border of Broken Mirrors), an anthology of sf stories that diversely interrogate the “uncertain economy” of millennial capitalism along the US/Mexico border (Schwarz and Webb ii). With contributions from both US and Mexican sf writers, Frontera de espejos rotos literally offers a transnational sampling of borderlands science fiction. In their introduction, entitled “La búsqueda de un espejo fiel” [The Search for a Faithful Mirror], the editors—Don Webb of the US and Mauricio-José Schwarz of Mexico—frame the anthology as offering two perspectives on the same geopolitical terrain in order to give readers a more authentic and complete image of this politically volatile and complicated region. That the two editors never met in person but instead collaborated by email to complete the project suggests that its very production appropriates the information technologies and transnational social relations imagined in the stories themselves. The metaphor in the title is fitting as it underscores the optical rhetoric of a border aesthetic, which is marked by a type of “double vision” that is the result of “perceiving reality through two different interference patterns” (Hicks xxii). In this way, the border text is structurally similar to the holographic image, with both optics reflecting the collision of two “referential codes,” namely the juxtaposed cultural matrices of the United States and Mexico (Hicks xxiv).
“Reaching the Shore” takes place in Reynosa, a border city in the Northern Mexican state of Tamaulipas. Like the sprawling “hyperborder” cities of Tijuana and Juárez, Reynosa has experienced relentless urbanization and offers hospitable (cheap and deregulated) real estate for hundreds of maquiladoras— large foreign-owned assembly factories that absorb indigenous labor from the nation’s interior (see Romero 223). The story centers on eleven-year-old José Paul and his father Fragoso, the latter a middle-aged maquiladora worker who is literally working himself to death. The story begins on the “special afternoon” of Christmas Eve and narrates José Paul’s desire for a new modern bicycle, clearly a symbol for social mobility: “with it he could journey far beyond the Rio Bravo” to the other, more economically prosperous side of the border (Lavín 234). It is not insignificant that the story takes place on Christmas Eve, a holiday characterized, especially in the United States, by mass consumption of commodities often manufactured on foreign soil.4
Although the story is set in the near future, it is steeped in labor history familiar to the US/Mexico borderlands. Its clear denunciation of Northern capitalism is even reminiscent of earlier American proletarian fiction that sought “to define and coalesce an oppositional group within the political and economic realm of American capitalism” (Schocket 65).This is most evident in the story’s first sentence, which describes a maquiladora whistle “split[ting] the air exactly fifteen minutes before six p.m.” (224). The whistle, likened to an authoritative “order from the team captain,” spreads through the city “to tell some of the workers that their shift had ended” (224). Preceding any mention of humans in the story, the whistle becomes a metonym for US capitalism and its subordination of the human worker to the mechanical demands of the factory. Here, the living cogs-in-a-machine are all but dehumanized and the ominous factories personified. The shrill of the whistle literally confines and controls the daily lives of the maquiladora workers, whose shifts are compared to a “long jail sentence” (225). It echoes earlier proletarian literature from the borderlands, most notably Américo Paredes’s “The Hammon and the Beans” (wr. 1939, pub. 1963) and Rudolfo Anaya’s Heart of Aztlán (1976).5 Both narratives were written during times of Chicano/a political dissent, Paredes’s during the “Mexican American Era,” when Mexican Americans began to interact heavily with the CPUSA (Communist Party of the United States) to address migrant labor exploitation, and Anaya’s—whose protagonist Clémente Chavez is a thinly veiled reference to labor activist Cesar Chavez—at the end of the Chicano Movement itself. In both narratives, a whistle symbolizes US economic dominance over a racially subordinated working-class population. Paredes likens the whistle to authoritative power, “like some insistent elder person who was always there to tell you it was time [to work]” (“Hammon” 172). Similarly, the “shrill blast” of the Barelas barrio whistle in Heart of Aztlán not only signals looming disaster but also dictates and structures the everyday lives of the barrio inhabitants (25). Itself a type of whistle-blowing critique of NAFTA, Lavín’s story, although set in an imaginary future, echoes a long trajectory of labor history and the anticapitalist borderlands literature that has militated against that history. His future history is clear: this is a story not only about the future of labor practices in a hyper-urbanized border city, Reynosa; it is also a story about the deep colonial relations that have led—and continue to lead—to this grim future.
Published in 1994, immediately following the ratification of NAFTA, the story’s critical target would have resonated in the minds of those who opposed the trade agreement and understood it to be a rhetorical euphemism for what is essentially a new manifestation of colonialism (to many, “neocolonialism”) and the systemic exploitation of a vulnerable indigenous Mexican population. On the eve of NAFTA’s signing, Mexican journalist Carlos Monsiváis criticized the utopian stance of the PRI (Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party), exemplified by Octavio Paz’s reference to NAFTA as “a chance finally for [Mexico] to be modern” (Fox 19). In his critique, Monsiváis argued that NAFTA proponents such as Paz demonstrate too much optimism in the agreement and take “as a given that the single act of the signature liquidates centuries of backwardness and scarcity” (20). Monsiváis’s articles spoke in fact for an overwhelming number of Mexicans—including students, progressives, and independent farmers (campesinos)—who believed the agreement promised neither progress nor economic harmony, but rather a new class of dependent, underpaid workers for foreign-owned factories and agricultural corporations. Critics of the agreement foresaw what it eventually would become: a renewed form of transnational capitalism that is realized in the exploitation and administration of workers and consumers through a worldwide division of labor. As one character put it in describing an “economic bloc” to young José, free trade is, in Mexico, “the cause of all problems” (Lavín 227).
Lavín’s laboring body is a cyborg body, the quintessential posthuman hybrid produced at the intersection of technology and humanity. His cyborg, however, functions metaphorically to symbolize not only the dehumanization involved in turning a man into a stoop laborer—a being into a bracero; it also comments on the invisibility of Mexican or indigenous labor in this region, a topic I will elaborate upon in greater detail below. Tracing the function of the cyborg body throughout the story reveals why this particular metaphor is so useful in articulating opposition to the impact of Northern economic (and technological) hegemony on indigenous Mexicans. The transnational corporation for which Fragoso works, a US “leisure company,” mass produces a virtual-reality implant device known as the “Dreamer,” which Lavín describes as a “personalized bioconnecter” that attaches to the base of the cranium and provides virtual fantasies of consumption and recreation (229). The Dreamer, “the most modern and sophisticated North American technology ever,” affirms the lure of the modern, which Mexican pro-NAFTA rhetorical campaigns often promised its skeptics. As someone fatally “hooked” on the idea of “progress,” Fragoso economically and physically depends on the Dreamer, which is slowly destroying him and the fronterizos among whom he lives (227). Having taken on the role of a corporate guinea pig by volunteering to use his own body to test the quality of each computer chip, Fragoso, now a cyborg, certainly evokes a dehumanized image of the maquiladora laborer (227). Lavín here ascribes a critical valence to the cyborg metaphor through two different uses of the idea of dependence: Fragoso is both addicted and attached to the computer chip, now clearly a symbol of US consumerism. We can read this cyborg body through two conceptual frames. First, the fact that the chip itself becomes a part of Fragoso’s body by “attaching” to the base of his brain comments on the idea that maquiladora workers’ bodies are mechanized, mere object-bodies that are almost one with the machines they financially depend upon and produce. Fragoso is also fatally addicted to the Dreamer and by extension the illusion of the American Dream. By attributing Fragoso’s fatal addiction to a US consumer commodity, Lavín suggests that the narcotic epidemic in the borderlands region is symptomatic of the presence and influence of US neoliberal economic dominance and not some savage Mexican predisposition to drugs and crime.
Through Fragoso, Lavín recasts the futuristic cyborg as a colonized subject, one whose labor is extracted by US capitalism at the expense of Fragoso’s very humanity. Lavín’s colonized cyborg clearly departs from Donna Haraway’s more utopian vision of the cyborg as that which can subvert the “informatics of domination,” a new form of power that I read as decentralized transnational capitalism that has replaced “the comfortable old hierarchical dominations” under colonialism (“Cyborg Manifesto” 161). So problematic was Haraway’s sweeping claim that we are all cyborgs that even she would revise it by being “more careful to point out that [cyborgs] are subject positions for people in certain regions of transnational systems of production” (“Cyborgs at Large” 12-13). One such region, I argue, is the hyper-urbanized border city of the late-twentieth century, where the imperatives of multinational capitalism and globalization have produced a new mechanized labor force that, vast as it is, remains largely invisible to the consumers who benefit most from its production. Though it might begin as science fiction, cyborg labor becomes—in the borderlands narrative—nothing more than a politically-charged symbol for real-life labor practices under late capitalism.
Lavín’s Dreamer invokes present-day technologies of visual media and marketing, technologies that in fact pervade the rest of the story. As its name suggests, the machine is a virtual product of empire, facilitating private fantasies of consumption, dreams that in this case involve being able to escape the material conditions of factory life. Because it offers merely the illusion of actual product consumption, however, the Dreamer underscores Fragoso’s curious position of being both within and yet alienated from the global market. Uncritical notions of hybridity and borderland third-space identities are absent in Lavín’s border narrative. In their place is an image of the borderlands as a site of proliferated borders and rigid socioeconomic hierarchies. Lavín’s representation of the borderlands is one in which the colonial relations of power materialize in the very objects of this new consumer-society as they (the objects) reinforce national differences (US exports vs. “shitty imports”). Through this juxtaposition, Lavín is able to comment on the paradoxical coexistence of free-trade border porosity and the rigid maintenance of national boundaries within the borderlands communities themselves.6
“Reaching the Shore” clearly offers a timely critique of present-day capitalist hegemony in the era of free trade.7 Yet although it cautiously peers into the future. it is deeply invested in re-telling the colonial history of the borderlands region as well. Early in the story, for instance, Lavín references Juan Cortina, the nineteenth-century Mexican rebel from Tamaulipas who led two influential raids against the Texas Rangers in 1859-61. An icon of the underclass along the Rio Grande, Cortina symbolized the revolutionary spirit of indigenous fronterizos by defending the land rights of the Mexican Texans (tejanas) after the annexation of Mexico in 1848. When Fragoso and other workers enter a “semi-deserted bar” just outside of the factory grounds,
The cashier pointed a remote control at the wall and the sounds of the big-screen TV filled the air. The men turned toward it and protested with jeers, shouts, and threats, until the cashier changed the channel; they told him they were tired of watching Christmas movies … so the racket continued while the screen skipped from channel to channel. Judith’s face and voice flooded the place with the ballad of Juan Cortina. (226)
Within the borderlands, this particular ballad (corrido) has been, and to some extent continues to be, the voice of indigenous strength and opposition. Conventionally a genre in which community is valued over individuality, the corrido evolves around what Ameríco Paredes calls “a Border man” who heroically confronts Anglo dominance (With His Pistol 34). Lavín’s reference to “The Ballad of Juan Cortina” is thus historically significant: the “earliest Border corrido hero” known (Paredes, With His Pistol 140), Juan Cortina haunts the site of the maquiladora, suggesting a temporal collapse of the neocolonial present and the colonial past.
Merging nineteenth-century borderlands history with the twenty-first-century maquiladora industry, the latter functioning as “the heart of globalization’s gulag” (Brennan 338), Lavín underscores the point that contemporary forms of dominance in the borderlands are in reality logical extensions of colonial domination and exploitation. In other words, although the narrative is set in the near future, its scope is decidedly historical as it retells the history of the “consumer-oriented economic order” that has dominated the political, cultural, and economic landscape of the borderlands region since the late nineteenth century (McCrossen 24). New transportation and information technologies, combined with a dramatic increase in foreign capitalist investment, transformed what once had been a land of scarcity into a “land of necessity,” where the manufacturing of dreams and new consumer “needs” precede the actual surplus production of goods, turning the once arid terrain into a space ripe for rabid consumption and cheap labor production. For Lavín, the narrative of neoliberal hegemonic control of the borderlands’ natural and human environment is not limited to developments in the late-twentieth century. It stands instead as part of a deeper historical continuum and longstanding colonial relations between the north and south that Lavín’s futuristic narrative both retells and contests by imagining new forms of “cyborg labor” that seem ominously doomed to repeat history without sustained political intervention (González 176).
The conflation of history and the future is perhaps most readily apparent in Lavín’s treatment of geography and landscape. The built and natural environments of Reynosa belie a community that has been thoroughly devastated by rapid urbanization and the encroachment of foreign investment. This is the condition of the borderlands’ “horizontal city,” which Fernando Romero describes as a city that sprawls “outward” and is “engulfed by slums due to rapid rural-to-urban migration” (271). Yet this horizontal urban sprawl also comes with tremendous depth—namely, the lost and buried histories of colonial rule and exploitation that perpetually haunt Lavín’s near future, which is also the reader’s defamiliarized present. This future city’s “once magnificent” river—the Rio Bravo that borders the US and Mexico—now looks more “like a dinosaur skeleton,” barely alive with all of its flesh “deserted” (Lavín 228). The built city, at one time a living, thriving organism, is now a “scarred” city, one resembling, curiously, a “zigzag of arteries” (228). The built and natural borderlands landscape demands to be read as both futuristic and historical. Though depicted in the future, the landscape perpetually signifies a “once magnificent” past that, although extinct like a “dinosaur,” remains present in the minds of the fronterizos. Recalling Anzaldúa’s description of the border as an “open wound” (una herida abierta), Lavín returns readers to what Norma Klahn calls “the scene of the crime,” the seat of colonial violence along the US/Mexico border, which in turn reinscribes the colonized territory as the site of past, present, and potentially future conflicts (119).
Three short years after the passage of NAFTA, US filmmaker Alex Rivera would continue to interrogate the dehumanizing effects of “cyborg labor” by recasting the issue in yet another science-fictionalized scenario. In his short film Why Cybraceros? (1997), Rivera splices archival footage from a 1940s promotional video produced by the California Grower’s Association to endorse the guest-worker Bracero Program (1942-64), into a short science-fiction film called Why Cybraceros? Like the original (Why Braceros?), this fictional and speculative promotional video extols the value and convenience of cheap, disembodied Mexican labor. The term “cybraceros” refers to a bracero whose manual labor takes place in cyberspace, providing the US employer with efficient—and, more importantly, invisible—Mexican labor. As the eerily cheerful female voice narrating the video explains:
Under the Cybracero program, American farm labor will be accomplished on American soil, but no Mexican workers will need to leave Mexico. Only the labor of Mexicans will cross the border; Mexican workers will no longer have to. Sound impossible? Using high speed internet connections…, American farms and Mexican laborers will be directly connected. These workers will then be able to remotely control robotic farm workers, known as Cybraceros, from their village in Mexico…. To the worker it’s as simple as point and click to pick. 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. But in American lingo, Cybracero means a worker who poses no threat of becoming a citizen. And that means quality products at low financial and social costs to you, the American consumer.
Rivera uses the cyborg metaphor to riff on the historical figure of the bracero, described by Ernesto Galarza in the 1960s as “the prototype of the production man of the future,” an “indentured alien” who represents “an almost perfect model of the economic man, an ‘input factor’ stripped of the political and social attributes that liberal democracy likes to ascribe to all human beings ideally” (16). In other words, drawing from science-fictional metaphors and images of cyborgs and cyberspace, Rivera is able to comment on the ways in which “real” labor practices in the US/Mexico borderlands region are quite literally exercises in dehumanization and exploitation. The word “cybraceros” alone signals the future of borderlands labor as a type of “cyborg labor” (dehumanized and invisible), as well as the history of migrant labor along the border, specifically the midcentury practices, that initiated the rapid industrialization of the borderlands.
Rivera elaborated his cybracero metaphor in his debut feature-length film, Sleep Dealer (2008), a cyberpunk dystopia that projects life in the urban US/Mexico borderlands into a nightmarish near future where most of Mexico’s indigenous population, once in control of over 80% of the nation’s natural resources, lives in abject poverty. Like Lavin, Rivera privileges a Northern Mexican site of production. More specifically, it is set in the sprawlingborder metropolis of Tijuana, which the film posits as the “City of the Future” but which is also a defamiliarized version of contemporary conditions plaguing this and other hyper-industrialized urban zones in Northern Mexico. Sleep Dealer centers on Memo, a young Mexican from the rural interior (Santa Ana, a small town) who harbors dreams of migrating to the city in the north (Tijuana), where he believes an egalitarian global society awaits. Unlike his brother and father, who are rooted to their family’s land, Memo thinks of Santa Ana as “a trap,” from which he must (and eventually will) escape. He spends most of the first fifteen minutes of the film alone in his room tinkering with old radios and receivers in an attempt to make contact with those living in Tijuana, the city to the North that seems initially to promise freedom, progress, and prosperity. The portion of the film set in Santa Ana ends with the murder of Memo’s father, who is accidentally mistaken for an “aqua-terrorist”—an eco-activist of the future, so to speak.
After his father’s murder, Memo migrates north in search of work to support his struggling family, whose milpa (small, locally-owned farm) is no longer able to compete with the large agribusinesses that now run the Mexican trade economy. Memo quickly finds employment with Cybertek, one of the many “virtual reality sweatshops” that populate Tijuana (and, presumably, all of the Northern metropolises in Mexico). Cybertek is owned and operated by an anonymous (and ominous) multinational corporation that absorbs thousands of expendable Mexican laborers from the nation’s rural interior. These virtual maquiladoras are nicknamed “sleep factories” by the workers because the physical work is so taxing that it eventually leads to blindness and, in some cases, death. To become a cybracero, Memo has several “nodes” surgically implanted into his body, an act that Rivera humorously refers to as “node jobs” early in the film, thus drawing a haunting metaphorical parallel between the laboring body and the body exploited for sexual pleasure (sex trafficking comes to mind). These nodes enable Memo to reroute his physical movements to robots on the other side of the border. With his nodes, Memo can “connect [his] nervous system to the other system, the global economy,” a direct reference to the film’s larger political context: multinational capitalism’s presence in the everyday lives of fronterizo workers whose very livelihood is problematically reliant upon—yet alienated by—the new global (multinational) economy.
It is not long before Memo realizes that the so-called city of the future is really nothing more than a throwback to the colonial past. It is, in other words, less a space of opportunity and innovation than it is an abject contact zone replete with vastly disparate racial and economic hierarchies, tensions, and unrest. Memo’s dreams of progress and futurity—symbolized by his love of technology earlier in the film—come to a startling halt as he realizes that the “future” he imagines is not only economically and geographically inaccessible (the physical border is a highly militarized zone in the film), but problematically made possible by a dying indigenous working class—by people like his father. Motivated by the murder of his father, and by the social injustices that confront him daily, Memo decides to remain in the city and join forces with Luz, a politically progressive cyber-writer who also uses “nodes” to connect to virtual space, but does so solely for the purposes of exposing the injustices visited upon the vanishing indigenous Mexican communities. Essentially using cyberspace for political activism, Luz and Memo appropriate the very information technologies of the maquiladoras by rerouting their purpose, in order to militate against neoliberal economic hegemony and labor exploitation in the borderlands. They fight for the land rights of the indigenous campesinos who suffer most under globalization. The two activists confront the future by honoring those who came before them, represented by Memo’s late father, those whose egalitarian land practices they desire to recover. As Memo puts it in the closing scene of the film, they choose to “fight for a future with a past.” Here, once again, borderlands science fiction works to collapse the colonial past with the neoliberal present and, in Rivera’s case, explicitly calls for a future modeled upon a history that has all but vanished under the demands of late capitalism.
Figure 1 (Courtesy Alex Rivera)
The laborer who functions as nothing more than a cog in a machine, and whose laboring body remains invisible to those who benefit most from it, is a cyborg laborer who helps to ensure the order of things in the imaginary new world economy. So says the excellent film Sleep Dealer. One particular screen-shot from the film speaks to this reading of the cyborg in Sleep Dealer. Captured from a scene in which viewers are finally taken inside one of Cybertek’s factories, the image depicts a dark-skinned female “cybracero” fully equipped with the high-tech nodes that connect her labor to the global economic system (see Figure 1).
Recalling Fragoso’s cyborg body, the image conveys an equally scathing critique of US consumerism’s demand for invisible—and therefore easily disposable—forms of intense physical labor. Moreover, Memo’s voice-over narration injects a healthy dose of irony and cynicism by referring to cyborg labor as “the American Dream,” prompting us to acknowledge the invisible (because disembodied) labor that makes consumerism affordable for the American middle class: physical and embodied, but all the while invisible, indigenous labor. This is what cyborg labor looks like, and Rivera does not shy away from implicating US consumerism in helping to create and sustain it.
As we saw in Lavín’s future history, Rivera’s Sleep Dealer invites spectators to apprehend and understand the future through their own colonial past: they are encouraged to decode this near-future dystopian scenario through the framework of a longstanding history of power struggles between northern capital and indigenous resistance to that power from within the US/Mexico borderlands region. Just as the nineteenth-century revolutionary spirit of Juan Cortina haunted Lavín’s future dystopia, so too does Rivera weave suppressed colonial histories into his own dystopian borderlands narrative. This temporal interplay is especially pronounced in the film’s depiction of the “Mayan Army of Water Liberation,” a paramilitary band of eco-activists who represent the film’s counter-narrative to capitalist hegemony in the borderlands. In one telling moment, Rivera establishes an allusion to the 1994 EZLN uprisings that occurred in direct response to NAFTA (see Figure 2).8
Figure 2 (Courtesy Alex Rivera)
Viewers of this image would be unable to interpret its iconic power without mentally referencing the 1994 EZLN anti-NAFTA uprisings. In an instant, then, Rivera is able to signify a futuristic image and a historical referent, commenting once again on the ways in which post-NAFTA borderlands dystopias are a type of “future history” that forces readers/spectators to read the future through the historical presence of the colonial past. Moreover, Rivera’s reference to the EZLN gestures towards the possibility for counter-discourse and indigenous resistance. Just as Rivera’s film itself repurposes cinematic technologies to voice concerns over imperial power, so too did the EZLN—and the EMLA for that matter—appropriate new technologies (the internet communiqués) to do what so many classic dystopian characters have done. From Offred’s secret cassette recordings in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) to Lauren Olamina’s subversive Earthseed diaries in Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower (1993), dystopian protagonists appropriate the oppressor’s language (a veritable technology) to “recover the ability to draw on … alternative truths of the past and ‘speak back’ to hegemonic power” (Moylan 149).
Shortly after the release of Sleep Dealer, and perhaps influenced by the film, Chicana scholars Rosaura Sanchez and Beatrice Pita, along with visual artist Mario A. Chacon, published Lunar Braceros: 2125-2148, also set in the future (not necessarily near, but certainly not far) and centered on information technologies and fears of hegemonic global capitalism. Lunar Braceros—like Lavín’s and Rivera’s work before it—is also undeniably a border narrative. It too contains stories of migration, labor, and survival in the US/Mexico borderlands region. It too wrestles with issues related to indigenous labor and the white (or, more appropriately, Anglo) hegemonic power that extracts it. And it too insists on the importance of remembering colonial history in imagining the future. Put simply, Lunar Braceros imagines the future of labor exploitation along the borderlands while it simultaneously re-tells a deeper colonial history of the borderlands.
Narrated through a series of letters and emails, primarily between a mother (Lydia) and her son (Pedro), the novel centers on a small group of seven manual laborers—all people of color and primarily Chicano/a—who have been assigned grunt work on the moon. By the end of the twenty-first century, the moon has become an off-world landfill of sorts to store the Earth’s surplus toxic waste, what Lydia tersely calls the “new spatial fix for capital” (59). Multinational corporations in high-tech, energy, and pharmaceutical industries developed these lunar sites to “stimulate capital investment,” which in turn generated an ongoing need for techno-grunts, “low skill contract workers,” including the “lowly lunar braceros” and “tecos” upon which the novel centers (15). Initially, the moon represents opportunity, a welcome respite from the drudgeries of twenty-first-century barrio life. Working under the assumption that their salaries would be wired back to Earth to help the struggling families they left behind, the crew of seven agree to a four-year lunar contract doing little more beyond manual (stoop) labor. As Lydia reasons to Pedro: “We could either be fucked up on Earth or fucked up on the Moon, and by that time, it didn’t matter much. Same shit, different place” (19). Soon, the seven discover that the mining teams who arrived before them—whom, in fact, they were supposed to replace—were all summarily executed and their salaries never actually sent back to Earth. What ensues is a carefully planned escape back to Earth, where the seven “tecos” hope to work with the “World Human Rights Commission” to make “the massacre of miners and braceros … known to the world” (111). In ways similar to the borderlands labor narratives spotlighted above, the narrative trajectory of Lunar Braceros moves from acknowledgment (of labor exploitation) to resistance. It is a narrative of movement in both senses of the word: the movement of labor migration and the movement behind political activism.
As in so many cyberpunk near-future novels, traditional nation-states have given way to corporate hegemonic control. In fact, despite the novel’s title, the majority of Lunar Braceros takes place on Earth and in “Cali-Texas,” a “new nation state” that emerged in 2070 after “the end of the United States as it had been known till then” (11). Encompassing “the US, Canada and Mexico,” all “autonomous regions but economically linked to and dependent on the hegemonic power” (12), it includes “several of the northern Mexican states” and “the former US Southwest states”—the borderlands projected into the future (6). Modern forms of state power have been replaced by transnational corporate power. The world is run by what Lydia calls the “New Imperial Order,” a new form of global dominance that operates solely through multinational corporate and economic hegemony.9 Made up of “ten dominant multinational consortia,” the NIO, which was “pretty much calling all the shots,” “controlled anything and everything that had to do with technology transfer, informatics and any kind of power generation, bio-fuel, nuclear or otherwise” (7, 23).
With its interest in information technologies and its critical assessment of multinational capitalism, Lunar Braceros adheres closely to the conventions of cyberpunk, but with one critical difference: the attention it places on racialized power and on labor practices in the near (dystopian) future. The vast majority of non-white US citizens live in what the novel refers to as “Reservations,” public spaces created by the NIO to “keep the homeless and the unemployed off the streets” (13). As Lydia explains to Pedro, “the state created internal colonial sites” to contain and control a rapidly increasing “expendable, surplus population” (14). Once on “the Res,” the multitude becomes little more than a “controlled laboratory labor force, like lab rats, a disciplinary society that was useful to the state” and that could be “used in a variety of areas as needed and determined by corporate interests managing the Reservations” (14-15). Sanchez and Pita here refer simultaneously to the colonial past (Native American conquest) while peering into and constructing what is essentially a neo-colonial future (“the Res”).
In fact, as futuristic as the novel appears, it simply cannot be understood if extracted from its social and political contexts, specifically the historical practices of indigenous labor exploitation in the US/Mexico borderlands. As Lydia puts it, the lunar excavation sites “were turning out to be a recapitulation of Earth history” (59). They are even described as being modeled after “the ones they had carved out in the Arizona and Sonora desert” (6). To fully appreciate and understand the political critique at work in the novel, readers must thus be familiar with the history of US uranium extraction in the Arizona and Sonora deserts. Historical knowledge enables futuristic speculation as Lunar Braceros—like Sleep Dealer and “Reaching the Shore”—presents a “future with a past.” Indeed, the very idea of a “lunar bracero” speaks simultaneously to the future of labor exploitation (lunar space travel) and the real histories of migrant labor under capitalism, specifically the Bracero Program initiated as part of the larger Border Industrialization Project in the mid-twentieth century.
Lunar Braceros is an enterprise in excavation on two different levels. First, the text’s premise centers on mining and excavation expeditions on the moon. Second, and perhaps more interestingly, the text itself is a project in historical and cultural recovery as Lydia’s letters and emails (and, by extension, Pita’s and Sanchez’s project) excavate borderlands histories, rendering the invisible hands of capitalism visible and available for criticism and scrutiny. Lydia is committed to cultural memory as she works against the government’s project of “revising historical accounts not favorable to the Cali-Texas government” (38). By retelling her personal history to her son, a structure that constitutes the narrative trajectory of Lunar Braceros, Lydia provides “hope that one day what was being purged could be accessed and restored” (39). It is important to take into account, however, that this is a future that must remember the past—for the novel not only projects the timespan specified in the title (2125-2148), but, more crucially, the years leading up to that period (beginning with the year 2000). In other words, the majority of the novel is about its imaginary past: it is a future history. With topics ranging from developments in astronomy, physics, and, of course, transnational capitalism, Lydia’s history lessons trace for her son Pedro not only the rise of global capitalist hegemony but also stories of resistance from the novel’s past (our future). Lunar Braceros, although ostensibly set in the future, thus narrates centuries of colonial “history” (a future history, but a historical narrative nonetheless) while also commenting, quite explicitly, on the importance of historicizing more generally. As Lydia underscores in one of her diary entries about the importance of telling her story to her son (her history, that is): “Perhaps in the telling, in the writing, in the recollection of people, through memory, dialogues and scenes, it’ll all make some sense to [Pedro], fragmented though it may be” (58).
With its trenchant critique of multinational capitalism and its attendant forms of labor and indigenous exploitation, borderlands science fiction produced after NAFTA represents, as I have suggested above, a critical incursion into classic cyberpunk, itself a politically charged sf subgenre that emerged in the 1980s, most notably with the publication of William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer (1984), in direct response to multinational corporate capitalism and the computer technologies that facilitated it. The subgenre was immediately recognized as a quintessential literary reflection of the two “historic originalities” of late capitalism itself: “cybernetic technology” and “globalizing dynamics” (Jameson, Archaeologies 215). For Fredric Jameson, the primary conditions of postmodern life centered on issues of placelessness—more specifically, the postmodern subject’s inability to locate, situate, and organize herself and her relations to others within the intricate webs of the new, highly networked world order. Anchorless, adrift, and disoriented, the First World postmodern subject is incapable of mapping her relative position inside multinational capitalism. For this reason, the postmodern subject needs a type of cartographic proficiency, an “aesthetic of cognitive mapping,” which Jameson argues would “endow” it with a new “heightened sense of its place in the global system” (Postmodernism 54). Moreover, he cites cyberpunk as one possible aesthetic, going so far as to call it the “supreme literary expression, if not of postmodernism, then of late-capitalism itself” (Postmodernism 419n). While it is definitely worth noting that cyberpunk has also come under fire for privileging a white, masculinist, and imperialist cultural dominant, its predominant impulse was productive in questioning the ecological, economic, and existential implications of global multinational capitalism and its attendant information technologies.10 As Tom Foster has argued, cyberpunk of the late-1980s and early 1990s affords a “distinct set of critical resources, an archive” that postmodern technoculture still very much requires (xviii).
In theorizing this marriage of borderlands literature and cyberpunk, it helps to turn to the critical work of Chicana feminist Chela Sandoval, who has convincingly argued for close affinities between the motifs of cyberpunk and the actual lived experiences of indigenous cultures of the Americas. Essentially revising Jameson’s concept of postmodernism as a schizophrenic response to globalization and emergent information technologies, Sandoval argues that these apparently new First World anxieties over place and subjectivity actually find their prototypes in the experiences of colonized peoples. For Sandoval, the schizophrenic postmodern condition is not new; it is anchored in the history of “conquered and colonized Westerners” (33). The first-world subject, that is, inhabits a “psychic terrain” that is “historically-decentered”: colonized subjects have learned to survive and negotiate for centuries (27). “Mere arms detached from intellect or political will,” migrant laborers from the Bracero Program to the maquiladora phenomenon are little more than “tractable” bodies that, forced to migrate far from home, must constantly negotiate a sense of self and place in a rapidly changing urbanized society (Schmidt Camacho 63). Adapting to these neocolonial conditions, indigenous subjects have learned to develop what Sandoval refers to as “cyborg skills,” oppositional and appropriative strategies that enable the colonized to contest, survive, and transform the experiences of cultural dislocation, labor exploitation, and diaspora (174-75). In the same way that Sandoval re-contextualizes the postmodern experience by locating it within the histories of Third World colonialism, so too do these borderlands sf texts embed the cognitive maps of cyberpunk within the lived experiences of millennial capitalism as they are endured by those most subject to its oppressive tendencies.
In retooling cyberpunk to write both within and against multinational capitalism and its ideological underpinnings, borderlands science fiction is a type of postcolonial literature that transforms dominant culture through appropriation. It exemplifies Nalo Hopkinson’s definition of postcolonial sf as that which uses the “familiar memes of science fiction” to create “defended spaces where marginalized groups of people can discuss their own marginalization” (7-8). In similar fashion, these texts recast the dystopian cyberpunk gaze so that it focuses on the oppressive impacts of globalization from the perspective of indigenous communities along the borderlands. In doing this, they critically intervene in an sf sub-genre that has not always reflected the lived experiences of writers whose cultural histories have been intimately inscribed by the legacies of US imperialism and expansion. Borderlands sf practitioners such as Lavín, Rivera, and Sanchez and Pita demonstrate that cyberpunk need not be limited to serving as a mouthpiece for young white males with “biochips in their heads and chips on their shoulders” (Ross 138). As I have shown, these texts not only cast a critical light on the current and potential impacts of multinational capitalism, they also read these conditions as part of a history of indigenous exploitation, suggesting that what exists now and what looms ahead are to be viewed through the lens of deep colonial and racial memory. The persistence of the revolutionary past in Lavín’s near-future Reynosa; the insistence on a “future with a past” in Rivera’s Sleep Dealer; and, of course, the simultaneous reference to the history and potential future of US/Mexico labor practices in the terms “cybraceros” and “lunar braceros” attest equally to the ways in which borderlands science fiction embeds tales of futurity in deep-seated narratives of colonial history, labor exploitation, and racial violence, all of which continue to inform contemporary economic policy and labor practices within the region.
The presence and importance of historical recovery notwithstanding, these narratives invite their readers to speculate about the future as well. Borderlands sf writers refuse to foreclose on the possibility of change: the desire for new oppositional tactics that are simultaneously grounded in a revolutionary past—the desire, that is, for a “future with a past”—motivates these texts, which value cultural recovery but also underscore the vitality of speculation. In this way they mirror the cultural work of contemporary Afrofuturism, or African diasporic science fiction, which aims to “extend the tradition [of countermemory] by reorienting” readers “towards the proleptic as much as the retrospective” (Eshun 289).11 For “power now operates predictively as much as retrospectively ... through the envisioning, management, and delivery of reliable futures” (289). By participating directly in the construction and “management” of their future, borderlands sf writers not only articulate resistance to neoliberal forms of economic hegemony but also speak to the persistent validity of Darko Suvin’s early observation that contemporary sf has “moved into the sphere of anthropological and cosmological thought, becoming a diagnosis, a warning, a call to understanding and action and—most important—a mapping of possible alternatives” (12). Such potent fusions are possible when the political punch of sf merges with the imperatives of borderlands fiction.
The works I have discussed function similarly to what Tom Moylan calls the “critical dystopia,” a cousin of dystopia that rejects the latter’s tendencies towards hopeless resignation by offering “a horizon of hope just beyond the page” (181). Moylan situates the emergence of critical dystopia in the “hard times of the 1980s and 1990s” when “betterment of humanity” was sacrificed to the “triumph of transnational capital and right-wing ideology” (184). Attuned to the difficulties of this time period, the critical dystopia articulated nightmare societies beleaguered by oppressive corporate-owned governments and harsh economic conditions, but it also exhibited a “scrappy utopian pessimism” with strong protagonists who endured the nightmare and sought alternatives to it (147). Octavia Butler’s Parable books (1993, 1998), for instance, imagine a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles decimated by a devastating war and rampant corporate greed, but it also sows seeds of hope, speculation, and optimism through the figure of Lauren Olamina, the strong black female protagonist whose dreams of space travel and an alternative social structure also inform the novel’s vision of the future. In other words, the critical dystopia does not entirely abandon the future, even if that future appears bleak beyond imagining. The subgenre is apocalyptic, but it also imagines “alternative socio-political spaces that always already extrapolate from existing ones” and has the “formal potential to re-vision the world in ways that generate pleasurable, probing, and potentially subversive responses in its readers” (Moylan 43). As it pertains to borderlands science fiction, the critical dystopia is precisely the kind of “skeptically hopeful” work Subcomandante Marcos called for from post-NAFTA activists following the EZLN coup (Hayden 312).
This subversive potential of these borderlands narratives is visible in their open endings, which resist closure and invite a prolonged consideration of the shape of things to come. The futures of their imaginary societies depend entirely on the thoughts and actions of a new, younger generation of borderlands cultures, both Chicano/a and fronterizo. At the end of “Reaching the Shore,” the young José Paul remains uncertain about whether he will succumb to his father’s addiction to the Dreamer. “I really have to think it over,” he says to himself at the story’s conclusion, “I’ll have to think it over” (234). The reader cannot help but hear Lavín himself demanding the same critical thinking of his post-NAFTA readers in 1994. In Sleep Dealer, one can reasonably assume that Memo and Luz—both intimately familiar with the cybernetic technologies that paradoxically oppress them—espouse (and perhaps eventually join) the anti-globalization EMLA, a not-so-subtle allusion to the Chiapas-based EZLN. Finally, the last entry in Lunar Braceros is written not by Lydia but by her eighteen-year-old son Pedro, for whom the entire narrative is in fact written. Pedro concludes the novel by announcing his readiness to join his parents’ indigenous resistance movement, which, “inspired by the Zapatista Movement in Chiapas many years before” (85), represented a “rejection of everything that is hegemonic and dominated by capital relations” (25). Now a new member of the “Anarcho Maquis,” Pedro voices the novel’s oppositional discourse that, in the spirit of the critical dystopia, conveys a sense of cautious optimism tempered by historical awareness. As his mother puts it in one of her letters to him: “Its time for a new strategy … for something else … for a new version of the old urban guerrilla tactics” of the twenty-first century (116).
The past few years have witnessed an explosion of literary collections that have expanded the global sf archive by documenting decades of contributions by writers of color both within and beyond the so-called First World. Collections such as Nalo Hopkinson and Uppinder Mehan’s So Long Been Dreaming: Post-Colonial Science Fiction (2004), Andrea Bell and Yolanda Molina-Gavilán’s Cosmos Latinos: An Anthology of Science Fiction from Latin America and Spain (2004), and Sheree Thomas’s two-volume anthology Dark Matter (2001, 2004)have drawn much deserved attention to the sf of Latin America and the African diaspora. In some cases, these collections invite new ways of reading texts not originally conceived of as speculative or science fiction, as evidenced by the inclusion of works by W.E.B. Du Bois, George Schuyler, and Amiri Baraka in Dark Matter. In other cases, they aim to spotlight a doubly underrepresented literary corpus—people of color and science fiction writers—to vocalize and legitimize culturally specific reactions to universal matters that are unique to sf, including not only technological innovation but also new forms of social relations that have emerged because of these innovations—including, in this case, troubling relations of power under the so-called New World Order. In an attempt to expand these new critical projects, I have examined the science fiction of the borderlands, which puts the defamiliarizing narrative strategies of the genre in the service of both revisiting colonial history and peering into the uncertain future of the US/Mexico border region. Writing about the future from the bottom up or from the margin to the center, is itself an act of agency and will, I believe, become increasingly more appealing to and visible within the broader Chicano/a literary community of the twenty-first century. After all, if the primary task of Chicano narrative is “to deflect, deform, and thus transform reality” by “opting for open over closed forms, for conflict over resolution and synthesis” (Saldívar 6), then it is clear why so many borderlands writers have been drawn to science fiction, a genre that renders the familiar strange and imagines alternatives to the political status quo.
1. For the purposes of this essay, the term “borderlands” refers specifically to the local communities and cultures, both rural and urban, that straddle, fuel, and shape the US/Mexico border. In this sense, I use the term somewhat capaciously to refer to both US citizens and Mexican nationals who, though linguistically, culturally, and racially heterogeneous, occupy the same physical, natural, and geopolitical space, a space unique to the most frequently crossed international border on the planet. To differentiate between Mexican nationals living on the border and Mexican-Americans in the US, I opt for the more eloquent fronterizo and Chicano/a, respectively. A “fronterizo” is a person who lives in the borderlands regions, including the southernmost regions of the US Southwest and the northern Mexican cities of Tijuana, Cuidad Juaréz, and Reynosa. Historically, the fronterizo regions were seen as extremely isolated communities, cut off from the densely populated urban centers of both Mexico and the United States.
2. One figure I have not included in this list is performer/writer Ricardo Dominguez, who has collaborated with filmmaker Alex Rivera, and who co-founded the Electronic Disturbance Theater, a band of performance activists who use computer technologies to protest military dominance through non-violent acts of “cyber” activism.
3. Two important speculative borderlands novels—Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead (1991) and Alejandro Morales’s Rag Doll Plagues (1992)—anticipate twenty-first century borderlands science fiction and, as such, warrant brief discussion. Although not pure science fiction (if there even is such a thing), both Almanac and Plagues combine history and speculation, narratives of the past and future, to rewrite the “alien invasion” of Mexico from the perspective of the colonized and to imagine oppositional tactics of resistance to neo-liberal economic hegemony (Silko 577). Spanning over 500 years of Anglo-European colonialism and indigenous resistance, both novels merge history with speculation; both articulate troubling connections between the colonial past, the neocolonial present, and the possible future awaiting both.
4. Lavín’s depiction of Christmas Eve recalls the vignette “And All Through The House” in Tomás Rivera’s classic borderlands novel, …And the Earth Did Not Devour Him (1971), which recounts a harrowing Christmas Eve story from the perspective of a poor migrant family for whom the sounds and sights of rampant consumerism bring nothing but dread, desire, and anxiety.
5. One also hears the whistle in the everyday life of Mazie, a young miner, in Tillie Olsen’s Yonnondio, written in the 1930s but published in 1974, during el movimiento.
6. For an extremely insightful reading of the persistence of nationalisms in cyberpunk, a genre known for its transnational settings, see Foster’s discussion of “franchise nationalisms” (203-28).
7. For an overview of Marxist ideological impulses in Latin American sf more generally, see Bell and Molina-Gavilán (13-15).
8. Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, EZLN (The Zapatista Army of National Liberation) is a revolutionary leftist group based in Chiapas, the southernmost state of Mexico. They are the non-violent voice of an anti-globalization movement that seeks to equalize and defend the human rights and land privileges of the indigenous populations of Mexico’s interior.
9. Pita’s and Sanchez’s “NIO” recalls Guillermo Gómez-Peña’s “Great Transition” in Friendly Cannibals, a 1997 cyberpunk novella that addresses, among other things, the disappearance of national borders after NAFTA.
10. For trenchant and convincing critiques of racial tension and anxiety in cyberpunk, see Ross (137-69) and Lowe (84-86).
11. As Catherine Ramirez has already pointed out, Chicanafuturism and Afrofuturism are indeed “fictive kin.” This point is immediately brought to bear toward the end of Lunar Braceros during one of Lydia’s many “history lessons.” In it, she explains to Pedro the astronomical phenomenon known as “dark matter,” energy that is “not directly visible,” but knowable “because of its gravitational pull” (110). This reference is not insignificant or incidental: it is, I think, a very clear allusion to Sheree Thomas’s Dark Matter, an anthology of African diasporic speculative fiction, published in 2000.
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