The images on the front and back covers of this special issue of American Quarterly, “Nation and Migration: Past and Future,” are from Alex Rivera’s The Sleep Dealer (2008), a near-future science fiction film set in Mexico that reflects on the political economy of migration through the eyes of a would-be migrant worker. We are grateful to Alex and to Maya Entertainment, his distributor, for permission to reproduce them. As the director explains, the film
basically uses the genre of science fiction to flash forward five minutes or five years to look at the politics between the United States (and Mexico) if they keep going the way they’re going today. I guess science fiction is always looking at political and economic realities shot into the future, but this is from a perspective we haven’t seen before: the U.S. from the outside . . . [I]n this future, the border is closed. Instead of physically coming to the United States, workers go to cities in Mexico and work in giant factories or sweatshops where they connect their bodies to high-speed, network-controlled robots that do their labor. So their pure labor crosses the border, but their bodies stay in Mexico. It’s kind of a sick and twisted spin on the American dream.1
The Sleep Dealer develops a scenario Rivera first presented in Why Cybraceros? (1997), a short film in which a fictional corporation promises to use new computer technology to solve the “immigration problem.” A satiric response to the “Internet utopianism” of the late 1990s, it incorporated footage from the 1959 agribusiness-made short called Why Braceros?, which attempted to dispel nativist opposition and promote the Bracero guest worker program by framing it as a temporary measure that would be unnecessary in the future, when agriculture would be largely automated.2 Such agribusiness self-representations have long been haunted by science fiction fantasies of replacing migrant workers with machines. Though largely based in contemporary concerns, The Sleep Dealer’s vision of the near future resonates with a longer history.
Ernesto Galarza’s important study Farm Workers and Agri-Business in California, 1947–1960 presents a history of mechanization and migrant farm labor that in some ways anticipates Rivera’s near-future dystopia. Published in 1977, Galarza’s work tells the story of how corporate agriculture effectively sought to discipline farmworkers and destroy their unions (including the local of the National Farm Workers Union that Galarza helped to organize after [End Page v] World War II in California’s San Joaquin Valley) by mechanizing production. During the late 1940s and early 1950s, according to Galarza, automatic machines “were taking over” in the orchards and fields, using electronic “brains” and “eyes” to plant, tend, harvest, and sort produce. Agribusiness machinery “became awesome, like the motorized cotton picker; graceful, like the spidery walnut pruner; delicate, like the electronic lemon sorter; or spectral, like the eighty-foot land leveler moving through clouds of its own dust.” Particularly striking for Galarza was the automated cotton harvester that, along with its “mechanical partners” the cotton “planter-cultivator” and “the scrapper that salvaged un-harvested bolls . . . could move in formation sweeping through hundreds of acres of cotton fluff like a rumbling herd of trunkless elephants” or “an assembly out of science fiction.”3
But while the dream of mechanization was “to eliminate people from production,” that goal could never be completely realized.4 Rather than totally eliminate migrant workers, mechanization enabled agribusiness to reduce its labor force but also to restructure and discipline the remaining workers. The introduction of new automatic sorters, for instance, served to deskill certain jobs. “As packing operations moved from town sheds to movable assemblies on wheels they were reclassified as field work with lower rates of pay.”5 At the same time women were substituted for men on the moving harvesting rigs and were paid less. More dramatically, mechanization in the fields was meshed with the Bracero Program. As part of an agreement between the United States and Mexico, between 1942 and 1964 the Bracero Program brought millions of Mexican contract workers to the United States. In Farm Workers and Agri-Business, Galarza noted...