“I’m a Node Worker Too”: Mexican Cyborgs as Resources and Resistance in Sleep Dealer
In 2008, filmmaker Alex Rivera wrote and directed Sleep Dealer, a science fiction film set almost entirely in Mexico, centering on “node workers,” people who are plugged into machines run by multinational corporations so their work can be exploited around the globe. The film centers around three characters, all of whom have cybernetic enhancements. Memo works in construction, virtually controlling a giant robot in a country he himself is not allowed to enter to make skyscrapers he will never see with his own eyes. Luz works for TruNode, a corporation that allows customers to virtually experience the memories of others, selling her memories and creating memories on demand as a form of virtual tourism. Rudy, the only (Mexican) American in the film, is a drone operator, able to kill others from thousands of miles away.
An allegory for Mexican immigration in the United States, the film constructs a future with roots in Oaxaca, Mexico, in which the United States is able to receive all of the benefits of laboring Mexican workers without ever seeing actual Mexicans. Natural resources such as water are controlled by corporations, and farmers in Oaxaca must pay in U.S. dollars to have access to it. Indigenous people who would take control of their own resources or are even suspected of it are killed at the push of a button in another country. Nonetheless, the node workers, who can be considered cyborgs, discover that they can do more than merely survive, and use the very nodes that drain them as a form of resistance, creating a community of cybernetically enhanced humans to improve the lot of those subjugated by corporations.
This paper will examine the narrative and symbolic function of the protagonists through the lens of Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto, specifically, her definition of a cyborg:
The cyborg is resolutely committed to partiality, irony, intimacy, and perversity. It is oppositional, utopian, and completely without innocence. No longer structured by the polarity of public and private, the cyborg defines a technological polis based partly on a revolution of social relations in the oikos, the household. Nature and culture are reworked; the one can no longer be the resource for appropriation or incorporation of the other. (151)
In Sleep Dealer, turning a human into a cyborg (or cybracero, another term for node worker) is meant to exploit human beings as natural resources without agency, and yet it is as cyborgs that effective resistance becomes possible. New relationships and new ways of being are created through nodes by the three protagonists, demonstrating the transformational possibilities of a post-human future.
The film begins when Memo’s father in Oaxaca is unjustly killed by a drone controlled from the United States after being mistaken for an aqua-terrorist. In order to support his family, Memo travels to Tijuana to work in a maquiladora, a type of factory. In this future, though, workers ship their labor north via “nodes,” cybernetic implants that allow them to control robots located thousands of miles away, while connected to giant machinery in the Tijuana maquiladoras, also called “Sleep Dealers,” nicknamed thus because they eventually drain the life force of the node workers. Before he can find work, Memo must locate a coyotec, an illegal dealer in the much sought-after cybernetic implants which transform ordinary human beings into something more—or lesser. The name is also a play on “coyote”—someone who assists undocumented migrants from Mexico to the United States—and “tech”—as in node technology. By chance, Memo meets Luz, a cybernetic journalist who makes her living uploading her own memories directly to the Net, allowing anyone with nodes to experience them. She is able to transform Memo into a node worker, and the two begin a romance.
Before she had gotten to know him better, Luz had uploaded her memory of meeting Memo on a bus, intending to highlight the plight of migrant workers. A mysterious client offers to pay her to create more memories of Memo, which she does without Memo’s consent. It is revealed to the audience that the mysterious client is Rudy, the American drone pilot who killed Memo’s father and now has doubts about the dead man’s guilt. Using the memories Luz had uploaded Rudy is able to track down Memo.
At this point, the film defies audience expectations. Rudy is not there to investigate or arrest Memo; neither is this a tale of Memo avenging his father’s death. Instead, it is a tale of connection, of community, for as Rudy observes, “I’m a node worker too.” Being a node worker unites Memo, Rudy, and Luz across ethnicities, nationalities, and genders. Rudy seeks to make amends to Memo and his family for the harm he has done, and Memo decides to accept them. The three protagonists concoct a plan to destroy the dam that has devastated the farming community where Memo was born, specifically using their cybernetic abilities. The idea is the culmination of the dream of Memo’s father, who had explained to Memo in the beginning of the film that the dam choking off the river made farming nearly impossible. In a life-affirming act that harms no one, they become the aqua-terrorists the United States government feared and sought to destroy.
While initially being controlled and repressed by becoming part machine, Memo, Luz, and Rudy are all able to find liberation utilizing the very tools of their repression. They fit the model of the cyborg proposed by Haraway. As she writes of what it means to be a cyborg:
Taking responsibility for the social relations of science and technology means refusing an anti-science metaphysics, a demonology of technology, and so means embracing the skillful task of reconstructing the boundaries of daily life, in partial connection with others, in communication with all of our parts. It is not just that science and technology are possible means of great human satisfaction, as well as a matrix of complex dominations. Cyborg imagery can suggest a way out of the maze of dualisms in which we have explained our bodies and our tools to ourselves. This is a dream not of a common language, but of a powerful infidel heteroglossia. It is an imagination of a feminist speaking in tongues to strike fear into the circuits of the supersavers of the new right. It means both building and destroying machines, identities, categories, relationships, space stories. (21)
We see this tension throughout the film. The negative aspects of the futuristic technology of Sleep Dealer are highlighted by the plot, beginning with the dam which has nearly destroyed Memo’s family’s milpa, an indigenous farm in rural Oaxaca, then the drone technology which permits Memo’s father to be murdered by someone thousands of miles away, to the Sleep Dealers which are slowly killing node workers, to the exploitative TruNode which colonizes memories.
While this paper examines the characters with nodes as cyborgs, there is also something vampiric about the apparatus associated with the nodes. Many scholars have pointed this out, such as Micah K. Donahue in “Borderlands Gothic Science Fiction: Alienation as Intersection in Rivera’s Sleep Dealer and Lavín’s ‘Llegar a la orilla’”:
The needle-like injection point of the wires that the cybraceros insert into their bodies, an insertion that doubles as the debilitating extraction site of labor and willpower, additionally reprises the longstanding Latin American tradition of the parasitic vampire . . . The dangling cables in Sleep Dealer and the bulbous machines above them form part of that (techno)gothic archive: cybernetic spiders descend from the rafters of the infomaquilas to suck the life from victims snared in their bioluminescent webs. Memo directly addresses the vampiric nature of the transnational Sleep Dealers. “Me estaban drenando la energía y mandándola lejos (They were draining my energy and sending it far away.)” (61)
The impersonal disembodied transnational corporation takes the role of the villainous bloodsucker here. It is not, however, the only way in which our invisible vampire casts its shadow. Luz captures moments of life—both her own and others—which are then consumed through TruNode. Rudy swoops down from the sky and deals death. Even the dessicated farm and village of Memo’s youth can be seen as a vampiric victim, drained of the lifeblood of the river by the private transnational water corporation.
So does this mean that the nodes themselves are evil? It’s complicated. The node technology, which blurs the boundaries of organic and machine and even spatial location, also leads to powerful connections. It is the character of Luz who first sees this. She explains that she became a reporter for TruNode precisely because she wanted to bring to light—which is what “Luz” means in Spanish—the lives of diverse people and to create connections and community through her memories of them. She doesn’t see what she is doing as exploitative until Memo confronts her. Luz realizes Harraway’s promise of cyborg relationships when she suggests to Memo that they make love while connected to one another via their nodes so they can experience the act through the sensations of the other person. Binaries and boundaries—and what human experience means—is blurred in this scene. Luz is the bridge between Memo and Rudy as well.
If Luz wants to use her cybernetic nodes to make human connections, it is Rudy who sees the connections that are already there. He muses, “I’m a node worker too,” highlighting this similarity to Memo: they are both cyborgs. This contradicts and complicates what should be very different subject positions. Rudy is American, while Memo is Mexican. Rudy is middle class, while Memo is poor. Rudy grew up in a highly technological society, while Memo grew up on an indigenous farm in Oaxaca. Rudy is a member of the military, while Memo obtained his nodes illegally from a coyotec. Rudy controls a murderous drone, while Memo controls a construction robot. Yet Rudy sees Memo as an equal, and one he has wronged. Rudy saw Memo’s father die through cybernetic eyes, but still saw the humanity of the man he killed, which made him question everything he had been taught.
Ultimately, though, Memo is the one who must take the final steps in creating a new community blending both his indigenous roots and his new position as a node worker. He is the one who chooses to forgive Luz for appropriating his memories and experiences and to forgive Rudy for having killed his father. By choosing connection over repudiation, he is able to come up with the plan to return the river in his home town to his people by having Rudy pilot his drone to destroy the dam. The farms in Oaxaca will once again thrive and will no longer have to pay the exorbitant prices demanded by the foreign corporation for life-giving water. Ultimately, technology defeats technology. The unity of node workers led to the survival of Memo’s indigenous family and community.
Cravey, Palis, and Valdivia in their article “Imagining the future from the margins: Cyborg labor in Alex Rivera’s Sleep Dealer” point out that the three cyborg protagonists of the film are able to learn via their nodes to recognize and value their connections with a wider community: “The three central characters also gain insight about ways in which their own individual fates are ineluctably entwined with others and with humanity; and each struggles to act with more empathy. In this regard, each of the protagonists wrestles with a specific dilemma about the consequences of one’s actions in a world of globally-extensive, densely-intertwined, social interconnections” (872). Their nodes allow them to see connections in ways none of the cyborgs could have predicted, but they realize that humanity has always been connected, nodes or not.
It can be easy to dismiss the role of Luz as superfluous, as merely the love interest of Memo. But without Luz’s work as a TruNode cyborg reporter, Rudy and Memo would never have made their connection, and they never would have made the plan to destroy the dam, freeing the river for the citizens of Memo’s village in Oaxaca. As China Medel writes in “The Ghost in the Machine: The Biopolitics of Memory in Alex Rivera’s Sleep Dealer”:
TruNode’s simultaneous position as public forum and private marketplace for sharing memories reveals the ambivalences structuring the production of collective memory and shared images environments within neoliberalism. TruNode writer Luz becomes like the sex workers and domestics of the transnational economy whose affective labor generates social relationships. Yet her labor also enables the film’s narrative shift from a story of romantic love to the transnational love of solidarity. (116)
It is Luz, through her work as a sort of cybernetic interpreter, who helps Rudy and Memo come to understand one another. And it is Luz who performs the vital role of coyotec, the person who illegally transforms Memo into a cyborg. Notably, she does this for free. Luz is both Memo’s introduction to the world of the node workers and the point of contact between Memo and Rudy across national boundaries.
The climax—the redemption for Rudy, Memo, and Luz—occurs when the trio blows up the corporate dam. No one (that we see) was killed by this act, whereas the existence of the dam had already cost lives. Is it terrorism? Orihuela and Hageman write in “The Virtual Realities of US/Mexico Border Ecologies in Maquilapolis and Sleep Dealer”:
Blowing up the corporate dam is coded within the film itself as an act of eco-terrorism. Occasionally, shots linger over the graffiti-portraits of masked figures with the letters ‘‘EMLA’’ standing for the Mayan Army of Water Liberation, thereby using the backdrop of Tijuana to imply that Memo’s plan is a self-conscious act of eco-terror. Additionally, the television media in the film, consistent with current US media discourse, reports the dam-destruction as an act of ecoterrorism. As such, the film’s conclusion seems a deeply problematic prescription. But, as Rivera pointed out . . . the destruction of the dam brings some hard contradictions about ecology, borders, race, technology, and gender to the forefront. (183)
One such contradiction is in who is allowed to define the word “terrorist.” Why is Rudy a terrorist but not the transnational corporation denying water to the indigenous community that had relied on it for generations? In Orihuela and Hageman’s interview with Rivera, the director says: “Words like ‘terrorist’ and ‘freedom fighter’ or ‘revolutionary,’ ‘patriot’ are obviously used by one kind of player in history against another, depending which side of the struggle you are on. ‘Ecoterrorism’ is a word that could be used with as much moral authority against Monsanto as it could against Earth Liberation Front” (qtd. in Orihuela et al., 183). So who, precisely, are the villains here? The node workers blowing up the dam is coded as an act of heroism. Throughout the entire film, we only see two direct acts of violence against individuals: when Rudy kills Memo’s father, and when Memo is robbed in Tijuana. Most of the suffering is systemic and caused by faceless corporations. Instead of a specific enemy, the cyborg protagonists must fight systemic oppression.
In the final scene, Memo is planting corn in Tijuana, and Rudy is heading deeper into Mexico to hide from the authorities. We realize that Memo still has his nodes, and the entire film was composed of Memo’s memories on TruNode, most likely uploaded by Luz. The cyborgs are still resisting, literally putting down roots in the case of Memo, but are also making new connections. Memo vows to keep resisting by staying connected. The past, as Memo’s father would say, now has a future.
Cravey, Altha, et al. “Imagining the Future from the Margins: Cyborg Labor in Alex Rivera’s Sleep Dealer.” GeoJournal, vol. 80, no. 6, 2015, pp. 867-80. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10708-015-9652-4.
Donahue, Micah K. “Borderlands Gothic Science Fiction: Alienation as Intersection in Rivera’s Sleep Dealer and Lavín’s ‘Llegar a la orilla.’” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 45, no. 1, March 2018, pp. 48-68.
Haraway, Donna Jeanne. Cyborg Manifesto. Camas Books, 2018.
Medel, China. “The Ghost in the Machine: The Biopolitics of Memory in Alex Rivera’s Sleep Dealer.” Camera Obscura: Feminism, Culture, and Media Studies, vol. 33 no.1, May 2018, pp. 113-37.
Orihuela, Sharada Balachandran, and Andrew Carl Hageman. “The Virtual Realities of US/Mexico Border Ecologies in Maquilapolis and Sleep Dealer.” Environmental Communication vol. 5, no. 2, June 2011, pp. 166-86.
Rivera, Alex, director. Sleep Dealer: Maya Entertainment, 2008, DVD.
Dr. Karen Dollinger is a Spanish lecturer at the University of West Georgia. She has presented at the International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts and has taught courses on Latin American science fiction.