17 Alex Rivera

Sarah Ann Wells

Alex Rivera, the son of a Peruvian immigrant, has made films since 1995. His work ranges from shorts to feature-length documentary and fiction films, and moves beyond cinema in the traditional sense to include other screen media — webpages, memes, satirical trailers and music videos for activist campaigns (Schreiber; Aldama 380). He was one of the founders of the Latinx filmmaking distribution collective, SubCine, and his films have screened in top venues, including the Sundance and Berlin film festivals, Getty Museum and the Bilbao Guggenheim; in 2021, he was named a MacArthur “Genius” Fellow. He has also been artist-in-residence at various universities and at the National Day Laborer’s Organization (NDLON). His work is identified by three interwoven elements: first, a focus on immigrants and their labor; second, a multi-platform approach to screen media and solidarity, including engaging with diverse communities (activists, students, intellectuals, film critics); and third, an interest in satire or parody. Together, these elements constitute a project of “hacking” or remixing — or, as Rivera and several critics have put forth, a rasquache Latinx aesthetics (Decena, Rivera, and Gray; Castillo; Lozano). Rasquache describes how people irreverently produce art from daily life — for example, with cars or buildings—giving cheap or discarded materials new, creative uses.

Rivera often cites and distorts U.S. media coverage and popular culture to highlight its anti-immigrant premises. He also frequently deploys what are called “operational images” (logistical images not intended for viewing) against themselves, to criticize practices of surveillance.

In this context, Rivera draws on models from “hactivists,” especially Ricardo Domínguez, a conceptual artist, programmer, and activists focused on the U.S.-Mexico border (Castillo 9-10). Similarly, Rivera frequently plays with or “hacks” genres, as in his spoof on industrial films, the web-based short “Why Cybraceros?” (1997). Anticipating his feature-length film Sleep Dealer (2008), Why Cybraceros? updates a promotional film by the Council of California Growers, Why Braceros? (1959) for the age of the internet. Instituted in 1942, the Bracero program was designed to fill a shortage of labor in the United States when many young men were fighting in the Second World War by hiring Mexican guestworkers temporarily. The same year, he released two other satirical shorts about the border, “Animaquiladora” (“the animation sweatshop”), which features vignettes spoofing negative portrayals of Latinx people, and a mock-trailer, “Día de la independencia” (1997), which parodies the alien invasion genre and its underlying xenophobia, as in the blockbuster Independence Day (Roland Emmerich, 1996).

Rivera’s first film, based in an undergraduate thesis, was the creative documentary Papapapá (1995). The title is a play on the similarly spelled words in Spanish for “potato” (papa) and “Dad” (papá): Rivera’s father is an immigrant from Peru, where the potato is a central crop. Highly experimental, Papapapá can be characterized as both an essay film (exploring the intersection of personal and political issues) and a “mockumentary” poking fun at traditional ethnographic documentary; it combines home video footage, talking head interviews, 16 mm experimental images, stop-motion animation, snippets of fake/satirical gameshows, audio recordings from the state department, and more (Carroll).

Rivera’s father went in search of better opportunities in the U.S., only to be disillusioned by the discrimination he faced here. Papa Rivera now remains connected to his fellow Latinx community only through the television screen, where he is filmed endlessly consuming telenovelas (Latin American soap operas). (Worth noting is that the film was made in a pre-Internet era.) The titular father has become a “couch potato” — a visual and verbal pun that works especially well for Spanish-English bilinguals like Rivera. The film interweaves the story of his father with the longer trajectory of the potato. An early product of globalization, potatoes originated in the Andes as a staple food central to the way of life of the Incas; subsequently, they were exported to Europe and later became a quintessentially “American” food — the potato chip.

Papapapá anticipates most of the major themes and strategies that will characterize Rivera’s future filmography. In 2003, Rivera released several short documentaries exploring different facets of immigration in a less experimental and less personal vein. All were commissioned by PBS’s Point of View (POV) documentary series and appeared both on television and various websites.

Three very short films comprise the Borders Trilogy. While different in style, viewed together they explore who or what gets to travel under global capitalism and current US policy. In Love on the Line, families and partners separated reunite on the border for moments of communion, to eat, talk, and kiss. Meanwhile, Container City continues Papapapá’s interest in global commodities by focusing on a shipping container facility in New Jersey, showing how objects are allowed to traffic more freely than human beings. The most disturbing of the three shorts is A Visible Border, which consists of a single, initially unclear, sequence of a black-and-white photographic negative. As the camera lens zooms out, we learn that the image was taken from real surveillance technology captured at the Mexico/Guatemala border; we begin to recognize these shapes as the ghostly outlines of bodies who are attempting to become part of the informal (“underground”) U.S. economy. Rivera employs governmental surveillance technologies to reveal instead the violence experienced by workers attempting to immigrate.

A separate documentary released the same year, The Sixth Section (2003) tells the story of Grupo Unión, a solidarity network of Mexican immigrants. Rivera explores how this group of mostly undocumented men based in Newburgh, New York sustain links with their hometown of Boquerón (Puebla, Mexico). Their energy and conviction have enormous ramifications for the people of their hometown, including reshaping infrastructures — water treatment facilities, an ambulance, and a community center for sports. Demonstrating, like “Love on the Line,” how attachments transcend entrenched borders, the film underscores the growing autonomy of the group. Newburgh has become a flourishing, if partially hidden, “sixth section” — or additional jurisdiction of their hometown in Mexico. Towards the end of the film, we learn that this group is one of over 1,000 challenging ideas of “homeland,” “immigrant,” and “national economy.”

Migrant labor and virtual networks of solidarity are also key themes in Sleep Dealer (2008), Rivera’s most well-known film (co-written with David Riker). It is also his first, and thus far only, feature-length fiction film, and his only one exclusively in Spanish. Filmed mostly in Mexico with a transnational cast, it received the Alfred P. Sloan award for Best Film on Technology and Science at the Sundance Film Festival in 2008. Sleep Dealer is set in a world where water has become the new oil, rigidly controlled by corporations and security forces based in the US, and farming communities in Mexico are being devastated. The physical border between the two nations is now impenetrable. Memo, a young man from the Oaxaca region, is forced to migrate to the border town of Tijuana to work in the infomaquiladoras, factories that exploit migrant labor through computerized technology and interfaces called nodes.

(The film plays on the phenomenon known as the maquiladoras—transnational factories often built along border regions to evade national tax laws and reduce tariffs and labor costs [Lyse Rivera].) On the way to Tijuana, Memo meets Luz, a blogger-journalist interested in capturing his story. Meanwhile, Rudy, the Chicanx drone pilot who has assassinated Memo’s father after mistaking him for an “aqua terrorist” (modeled on real-life social movements in Latin America) is searching for Memo and lands on his story through Luz’s virtual platform. The film charts Memo’s experience of debilitating work in the sleep dealers, his relationship with Luz, and the eventual confluence of Rudy, Memo, and Luz, who conspire together to strike back against water privatization.

Sleep Dealer tackles not only with the depiction of migrants but also the problem of visibility within science fiction [SF] itself. By imagining a Latin American “unskilled” worker in the role of SF protagonist, and by making Tijuana the center of the action, Rivera reworks the genre (Wells). Traditionally, SF requires large budgets to execute its characteristic special effects; facing low-budgets, filmmakers must devise creative solutions, including initial experiments with short films (Frelik) — as Rivera did with Why Cybraceros? Rivera and his crew also employed real Apache helicopter communication (available through public domain) to imagine the drones. In the decade or more since Sleep Dealer was released, the surveillance of the US-Mexico border has increased, making the film each year less an SF and more a documentary of our world — with its drones and militarized video games, man-made droughts, call centers located in India, a rigid border wall and workers who never “unplug.” After Sleep Dealer, Rivera continued to explore the relationship between humans, technology, and labor in his short, Robot Walks Into a Bar, (2014), which aired on PBS’ Futurestates series. Featuring an all-Latinx cast, Rivera approaches issues of automation and workplace obsolescence with an empathy for both the titular robot and the workers he displaces.

With his most recent feature film, the experimental documentary The Infiltrators (2019), — co-directed and co-authored with his partner, Latinx documentary filmmaker Cristina Ibarra — Rivera once again pursues his interest in practices of “disruption.” Like Sleep Dealer, this film examines groups who come together to reroute systems of control and oppression and create alternative communities. The Infiltrators won an Audience Award and the NEXT Innovator Prize at the Sundance Festival. It has been described as “docufiction” (Flores Ruiz), “docu-thriller” (Bugbee), and a “reverse heist” (Schindel). The film follows young DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) activists in the National Immigrant Youth Alliance (NIYA, an organization no longer active) from 2012 to 2016, in their plan to infiltrate a detention center to help detained immigrants by providing them with legal information and, at the same time, draw public attention to their cases. The activists chose a “model” detention facility, the Broward Transitional Center (Florida), run by a private corporation, which held immigrants not charged with crimes — counter to the claims of the then-Obama administration that only criminals were being deported.

While they originally conceived Infiltrators as a more traditional documentary (Schindel), the filmmakers lacked access to what took place within the detention center, sites notoriously opaque to filmmakers and the general public (Rossipal). Thus, they turned to reenactment — filming in a former mental institution and drawing on the activists’ memories through workshops (Flores Ruiz; Schindel) — to explain the infiltration strategies and to make them gripping and suspenseful. The filmmakers used contrasting strategies (lighting, framing, pacing, and camera work) to produce two parallel ways of presenting the present. The result is a new mode of documentary filmmaking that opposes what Rivera deems the “extractive” model: “producing narratives out of a process where filmmakers drop in and capture material and walk away” (Flores Ruiz). At one point in the film, one of the activist-infiltrators states in voiceover, “In every family I’ve been able to see my own family.” The Infiltrators suggests that together these activists are also developing a new, diverse family —inside and beyond the detention center, with the filmmakers themselves joining them.

Sarah Ann Wells is Associate Professor of Literary Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She is the author of Media Laboratories: Late Modernist Authorship in South America (Northwestern University Press, 2017) and co-editor of Simultaneous Worlds: Global Science Fiction Cinema (University of Minnesota Press, 2015).  Her research and teaching focus on literature and cinema of the Americas, and on the relationship between artistic and political movements.


Works Cited

Aldama, Frederick Luis. “Towards a Transfrontera-LattinX aesthetic: An interview with filmmaker Alex Rivera.” Latino Studies 15.3 (September 2017): 373-380.

Bugbee, Teo. “‘The Infiltrators’ Review: Immigrant Activists Slip Into Detention.” New York Times. April 30, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/30/movies/the-infiltrators-review.html. Accessed 15 May 2021.

 Carroll, Amy Sara. “From Papapapá to Sleep Dealer: Alex Rivera’s Undocumentary Poetics.” Social Identities 19.3-4 (2013): 485-500.

 Castillo, Debra Ann. “Rasquache aesthetics in Alex Rivera’s “Why Cybraceros?”.” Nordlit 31 (2014): 7-23.

Decena, Carlos Ulises, Alex Rivera, and Margaret Gray. “Putting Transnationalism to Work. An Interview with Filmmaker Alex Rivera.” Social Text 88 (2006): 131-38. Print.

Flores Ruiz, Diana. “Interview With Cristina Ibarra And Alex Rivera.” Film Quarterly, 2019, https://filmquarterly.org/2019/09/10/by-radical-means-necessary-interview-with-cristina-ibarra-and-alex-rivera/. Accessed 15 May 2021.

Frelik, Pawel. “Famous for Fifteen Minutes: Permutations of Science Fiction Short Films.” Simultaneous Worlds: Global Science Fiction Cinema, edited by Jennifer L. Feeley and Sarah Ann Wells, Minnesota UP, 2015, 47-61.

Lozano, Jennifer M. “Digital Rasquachismo: Alex Rivera’s Multimedia Storytelling, Humor, and Transborder Latinx Futurity,” edited by Frederick Luis Aldama, Latinx Ciné in the Twenty-First Century. Arizona UP, 2019, 267-279.

Rossipal, Christian. “The Black Box of Detention: Migration, Documentary, and the Logistics of the Moving Image.” The Global South 13.2 (2019): 104-129.

Schindel, D. (2020). “The Undocumented Activists Who Turned Themselves In to Infiltrate ICE.” Retrieved 15 May 2021. https://hyperallergic.com/592417/the-infiltrators-pbs-documentary-interview/

Schreiber, Rebecca M. “The Undocumented Everyday: Migrant Rights and Visual Strategies in the work of Alex Rivera.” Journal of American Studies 50.2 (2016): 305.

Wells, Sarah Ann. “The Scar and the Node: Border Science Fiction and the Mise-en-Scène of Globalized Labor.” The Global South 8.1 (Spring 2014): 69-90.


Latinx Media: An Open-Access Textbook Copyright © by Sarah Ann Wells. All Rights Reserved.

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