Cybraceros: The Promise and Perils of Border Hacking

Arms without bodies. Work without the worker. Help from aliens. But without the “aliens” among us. All very sci-fi, yet at the same time all very close to home. Alex Rivera’s 5-minute satire, Why Cybraceros? (1997), incorporates actual footage from the promotional film it parodies. Produced in the 1950s by the California Grower’s Council, the original film promises viewers that the Bracero Program will resolve “man’s age-old burden of manual labor.” The temporary migration of braceros, men who toil with their arms and hands, will provide the tough, dirty, unpleasant farm labor that the increasingly sophisticated American workforce has apparently outgrown. Rivera’s film sarcastically takes the idea of temporary stoop labor one step further.

From the comfort of their own homes, Mexican workers will now be able to use high-speed internet connections and simple commands to allow only their labor to cross the border. This represents an ideal situation for both Mexican workers and U.S. farmers, as the narrator summarizes in two lines: “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.”

Cybraceros and the technologies they use allow for “border hacking,” or using computational technologies to circumvent restrictions imposed by national borders. In this futuristic hack, governments can code away with (read: do away with) “illegal” immigration. The cybracero poses no threat of becoming a citizen. Computational infrastructures are used to connect workers in the name of state surveillance and governance.

This conundrum of connectedness is something that inspired Rivera to create his subsequent full-length sci-fi film, Sleep Dealer. While conducting documentary work in villages in southern Mexico (Puebla and Oaxaca), he noticed there were sophisticated cell phone towers that provided robust systems of communication, but no pavement on roads or municipal water systems. People were thus “connected” not only materially to the outside world but to the very ideology that the future and hope for belonging to this future were “out there somewhere,” as Rivera explained it to me. In Sleep Dealer, then, the main character Memo becomes a “node worker” who uses implants, or “nodes,” from an infomaquila in Tijuana to control robots that perform “simple but delicate” farming tasks in the United States. He becomes the border hacker that Why Cybraceros? envisioned.

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We find subtle clues to Rivera’s inspirations from the worlds of hacking in one of the opening scenes of the film, when we see Memo in a small shack tinkering with electronic gadgets. For a brief moment the camera focuses on a voltage-measuring device placed on top of a book titled Hackear para principiantes (Hacking for Beginners). The author is R. Dominguez, a reference to the famed artist and activist Ricardo Domínguez, who founded the Electronic Disturbance Theatre and developed several border hacking projects such as the Zapatista Floodnet and Transborder Immigrant Tool.

The fact that Memo is hacking from a shack also reveals the importance of considering geopolitics when recounting histories and cultures of hacking. From a U.S.-centered lens, the DIY cultural ethos frequently associated with hacking has its origins in post-WWII narratives that encouraged parents to allow young men—and only men—to tinker with technical components in shacks or garages as a means to promote engineering and scientific education, and thereby national prosperity. Men treated shacks or garages as separate spaces within the normative suburban home life where women and children would not interrupt them and where they could connect with other men to exercise a kind of hands-on cyber-brawn.

This is a distant, foreign world from Memo’s shack. We soon discover that he is hiding from domestic distractions: his dad, a farmer, interrupts, urging him to come work their milpa (cultivated field). The task has proven increasingly arduous; Memo describes his village of Santa Ana del Río in Oaxaca as una trampa: seca, sola, desconectada (a trap: dry, alone, disconnected). This isn’t coincidental. We learn that from his shack, Memo has been hacking into drone communications transmitted by the multinational corporation that has been effectively eliminating water from Santa Ana.

Memo eventually connects with a U.S.-born Mexican-American drone pilot who works for the corporation. The pilot uses and then gets rid of his cyborg extensions to destroy the dam he once protected in Santa Ana. Water returns to the village and the multinational corporation receives a devastating blow. Indeed, the very technologies that cybraceros use to support nation-states and big agricultural business can work against them if they wind up in the hands of hackers who work in solidarity to reverse relations of power by repurposing systems for equitable ends.

Turning systems on themselves is what calls many of us to hacking. But what calls us to border hacking? As one Mexican node worker gets connected at the infomaquila in Tijuana, “city of the future,” he says, Aveces tú controlas a la máquina, y aveces la maquina te controla a tí (“Sometimes you control the machine, and sometimes the machine controls you”). Human/machine. Worker/citizen. U.S./Mexico. Border hacking offers the possibility to observe the games being played on both sides of these tenuously constructed yet fiercely imposed borders.

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