Latinx World-Making, Queer Futurities, and Spaces of Change in Lilliam Rivera’s Dealing in Dreams / Shelley Streeby

Lilliam Rivera, Dealing in Dreams, Simon & Schuster, 2019

The following is part of a cluster on the Futurities of Latinx Speculative Fictions. To read the editor’s introduction to the series, click here.

Lilliam Rivera’s Dealing in Dreams is a tour-de-force of Latinx world-making. Set in a post-apocalyptic world after “drillings” and the incessant “need to take from the earth” provoked the Big Shake of 2060, which radically changed everything, the story is narrated by 16-year-old Nalah, also known as Chief Rocka, the leader of the girl gang Las Mal Criadas.1 Made up of her right hand Truck, the girl-child Nena, Smiley, and Shi, Chief Rocka’s crew is a compelling alternate family struggling to control space, move between spaces, and join spaces of change in a harsh, hot, dystopian world riven by dramatic inequalities of class and status. The Mega City Towers, “the only complex to survive the Big Shake with minimal damage” (53), is at the apex of the spatial hierarchy, ruled by Déesse, who lives on the top floor with her son and daughter; the rest of the complex is inhabited by her army and other elites responsible for this world’s infrastructure, such as solar engineers, urban farmers who create food pellets, and scientists who “maintain the sueños to ease people’s daily pain” (10)–the drug economy upon which this world depends. Insisting that those beyond city borders are “degenerates” (7) who “have no sense of community, only violence” (20) and who have chosen “anarchy” over “order,” Déesse rules by instilling fear and promising to keep “the borders tight and everyone in Mega City safe within” (20). At the start, Nalah’s goal is to become part of the chosen few by proving herself to Déesse and moving into the Mega Towers, but she learns to see the world differently. In what follows, I suggest that Rivera’s radical Latinx world-making and imagining of Latinx futurities and spaces of change are shaped by converging, connected inter-American histories of colonialism, border control, medical experimentation, anti-colonial resistance, and queer kinship.

Lilliam Rivera

I use the term world-making to highlight queer, ethnic studies, and social movement genealogies of speculative fiction’s central project of imagining other worlds in understanding what’s at stake in Dealing in Dreams. In Imagining the Future of Climate Change: World-Making through Science Fiction and Activism (2018), I build on the work of Alexis Lothian to define world-making in distinction to the more common science fiction term world-building. World-making, as Lothian explains, has long been an important term for queer theorists and writers such as Samuel Delany and José Esteban Muñoz, who imagine queer practices as transformative portals to futurity and potentiality. She contrasts queer world-making with the term world-building, which refers to the creation of plausible worlds, even as she recognizes that some science fiction worlds break with the present to imagine radical political change.2 World-building is often associated with colonialism, empire, and capitalism though it also may be used to critically interrogate such hierarchies. I chose world-making over world-building to center the transformative dimensions of the worlds and futures imagined by Indigenous people and people of color in confronting settler colonialism, environmental racism, and climate change. I also suggest that Latinx speculative fiction has much to contribute and connect it to recent Ethnic Studies speculative theory, such as Curtis Marez’s analysis of what he names “moments of materialist futurity, which ask who can expect a future, who cannot, and why.”3 Marez connects farm worker speculative futurisms to Afrofuturism, Chicanafuturism, and Jayna Brown’s and Lothian’s interest in “critical forms of ‘speculation’ that refuse logics of ‘profit and power’ in order to ‘play, to invent, and to engage in the practice of imagining.’”4 Cathryn Merla-Watson and Ben Olguín also use the word “speculative” to capture the “creative and resilient ways in which Latin@ cultural producers since at least the 1970s have continued to repurpose and blend genres of sci-fi and fantasy to defamiliarize the ways in which the past continues to haunt the present and future.”5  Here, I use the term world-making to underline how Rivera’s use of the speculative emerges from histories of radical, inter-American speculation in which people of color extrapolate from the present to imagine not only dystopian futurities but also spaces of change in response to haunting histories of colonialism, border policing, and capitalist structures and values that produce and idealize heteronormativity, binary gender, individual wealth acquisition, and social mobility of the privileged few at the expense of everyone else.

Lilliam Rivera, Dealing in Dreams, Simon & Schuster, 2019

In a Lightspeed interview, Rivera observes that although her first novel was set in the present day Bronx, she grew up reading “speculative fiction (Ray Bradbury, Octavia Butler, Gabriel García Márquez) and Latinx folktales,” she writes speculative short stories, and she wanted her second novel to be “near future.”6 She first shared parts of the novel at The Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation (VONA), a multi-genre workshop founded by and for writers of color, where she worked with speculative fiction writer Tananarive Due and met Nalo Hopkinson and China Miéville. She also attended the 2015 Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Workshop at UCSD, which I direct, and where I first read a remarkable draft of the opening chapter of the novel. Rivera was part of a class that included social movement activist, speculative fiction writer, and Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements (2015) co-editor adrienne maree brown, and she credits Clarion instructors Karen Joy Fowler, Saladin Ahmed, and Christopher Barzak with helping her “expand the world” she wanted to create and giving her “the courage to do so.” Rivera’s world-making is also shaped by her Los Angeles home of the last several years, her family’s history in the Bronx, where her parents moved from Puerto Rico at a young age and where she grew up “in poverty and love,” and the spectacular, sadistically hierarchical politics of the Trump presidency. She suggests that “as a Latinx, borders have always played a part” in her history, “especially if you consider Puerto Rico’s history as a colonized island.” The drug economy in Dealing in Dreams was partly inspired by a New Yorker article, “The Family That Built an Empire of Pain” by Patrick Radden Keefe, on the Sackler family and OxyContin, which “also revealed how women in Puerto Rico were the first to use the drug in a study conducted by Purdue.” The “line is a throwaway sentence in the article but it wasn’t for me,” Rivera says, adding that she has long been aware of “how drugs have been used to subdue people of color.” The engineered food pellets in Rivera’s world allow her to explore the “idea of being dependent on a government to provide food, a somewhat similar situation that occurs in Puerto Rico with the current island’s dependence on the US, although there has always been a strong movement on the island to independent farming.” And although she finished a draft of the novel before Trump took office, the novel is prescient in its vision of current border control politics and media spectacles of extreme inequalities of wealth and power, often spatialized through architecture such as Trump’s Towers and the border wall. Later, when Rivera was rewriting the novel at a time when “the Women’s March was happening, and Donald Trump had visitors come up to Trump Towers as he was setting up his cabinet,” Rivera remembers, “I was fascinated by who gets to go up the elevator,” and “all these things were colliding while I was rewriting this novel.”

Clarion group

Although Nalah’s initial goal is to go up the elevator and join the privileged few, Rivera ultimately emphasizes that enclaves that depend on social control, violence, and border policing will not save us and will only produce more severe inequalities, violence, and suffering. The Mega Towers are an enclave with a school and a health center, which are nowhere evident in the rest of Mega City. Déesse also controls knowledge production and history through the Codigo Archives, a service that provides access to the parts of the past that she has not erased. While Déesse and the elite are at the spatial hierarchy’s apex, those at the bottom are the toilers, who live underground. During the day, the toilers make sueño tabs in the factories. At night, they are subject to a curfew enforced by girl gangs such as Las Mal Criadas.  This is also a gender-flipped world, where men occupy a lower status and are “only for service” (134) because they ruined the world. In Mega City they are now mostly factory and pleasure workers in Boydegas where Papi Chulos such as Nalah’s favorite, Books, draws hot baths and more. Non-elite girls compete for power and social mobility in training camps where they learn to fight by age six or seven and, if they are not selected for crews, they work in factories or feed soldiers. The girl gangs occupy a tenuous in between space: those in the crews are “above” the toilers” (44) but below the Tower elite, who enjoy a relatively luxurious life. In addition to enforcing curfews, the crews fight each other to entertain “the masses,” like the “large sporting events” of the past that catered to men” (54). Along with drugs and violent entertainment spectacles, fear of the world outside city walls keeps the non-elite in line. Rumors circulate that “once a person crosses the border, they’re as good as dead” (18). At the outset, Nalah has never gone outside the city and is fully invested in the “army’s mission is to protect our borders…to make sure everyone is safe” (81) from what she imagines as the “unbridled violence” on the other side (84). Once Déesse challenges her to go undercover, leave Mega City, and cross the border to bring back information on the rebel movement the Ashé Ryders, however, Nalah is forced to “finally see” (302).

If moving beyond city walls reveals the falsity of the myth of degeneracy and brute violence propagated by Déesse to fortify her role as a strong leader, it also exposes “uncomfortable” (135) truths about the flipped gender binary enforced in Mega City, including the “long history of people” (242) like the character Graciela, which Déesse tries to erase from historical memory. Rivera’s Latinx world-making thereby “centers the lived experiences of queer, non-binary, gender non-conforming/creative and/or trans* individuals,” as Rigoberto Marquéz suggests the term Latinx must do if it is to be more than an empty placeholder promising a false inclusiveness.7 Graciela was born in Mega City, became a drug addict and eventually left because residents were “forced to abide by rigid rules on what it means to be a man and a woman,” with women defined by violence and men by service, and “no room for fluidity” and “differences” (146). After many years away, Graciela goes undercover as Miguel to avoid detection while on a secret mission to guide Nalah to Cemi Territory at the behest of her long-lost sister Zentrica, who has joined the Ashé Ryders. Once there, Miguel transforms into Graciela, whose “beauty is breathtaking,” who elicits strong emotions with her powerful song, and who is loved by the community because “she dared to be free” (221). Rejecting Mega City’s three options of being a “girl, a papi, or a toiler” (221), Graciela’s “duality” and her revolutionary music are cherished by the Ashé Ryders. This illuminating experience helps Nalah understand Books’s earlier insistence that “No one will be free until everyone is” (103) and why he wants to “dismantle the city” and its flipped but still rigid gender/sex hierarchies. In these ways, Rivera’s Latinx world-making pays “specific attention or homage to transgender and non-conforming individuals, communities, or political struggles,” as Isabel Millán suggests is crucial when invoking Latinx, lest it turn into an umbrella term that actually erases histories of “gender-non-conforming individuals born or residing within the United States of Latin American descent.”8

Graciela is at the heart of the revolutionary utopian community created by the Ashé Ryders, which is striving to “make life better for everyone, not just for a few” (243). Their vision of a “just world for everyone” also includes culture and the arts, which are rejected as a luxury in Mega City. The Ashé Ryders do not eat meat or engineered food pellets; instead, they grow their own food, so they don’t “need to depend on anyone” (207). Although Déesse calls Zentrica the Ashé Ryders’ leader, everyone is equal, including the men. While Mega City girls are taught to fight, Ashé Ryders kids are taught to read and appreciate books, dance, music, and painting. Music is also important to the Rumberos, a religious group in Mega City allied with the Ashé Ryders, for whom singing and dancing are part of their spiritual practice, and with whom Graciela finds sanctuary for a while. The Rumberos, who are connected to Rivera’s vision of the possibility of revolutionary change at the end of the novel, have a “network of sympathizers” (310) among the toilers in Mega City; they “build community” (112) in movable tents by the water, where they take in addicts and gender non-conforming people such as Graciela. Beyond the borders of Mega City and away from the Ashé Ryders’ community, Las Mal Criadas also encounter queer families, such as two young men who live together with no ties to a gang and who “grow stuff and trade with the Ashé” (252) to survive. Shi and Smiley, who have become lovers, are “enchanted” (252) by this queer autonomous space which does not reproduce violence and gender and sexual conformity. At the end, they decide to join the queer couple and “explore other possibilities for what a home can be.” Throughout Dealing in Dreams, queer, non-binary, gender non-conforming/creative and/or trans* people are thus central to Rivera’s Latinx world-making and the spaces of change and futurities she imagines.

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  1. Lilliam Rivera, Dealing in Dreams (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2019), 82. Hereafter citations appear parenthetically in the essay.
  2. Alexis Lothian, Old Futures: Speculative Fiction and Queer Possibility (New York: NYU Press, 2018).
  3. Curtis Marez, Farm Worker Futurism: Speculative Technologies of Resistance (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), 11.
  4. Ibid., 9.
  5. Altermundos: Latin@ Speculative Literature, Film, and Popular Culture, edited by Cathryn Merla-Watson and Ben Olguín (Los Angeles: UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center Press, 2017), 4.
  6. Christian Coleman, “Interview: Lilliam Rivera,” Lightspeed February 2019 (Issue 105), http://www.lightspeedmagazine.com/nonfiction/interview-lilliam-rivera/. All other quotations are from this interview.
  7. Rigoberto Marquéz, “What’s in the ‘x’ of Latinx?” Medium July 9, 2018, https://medium.com/center-for-comparative-studies-in-race-and/whats-in-the-x-of-latinx-9266ed40766a. See also Rodríguez, R. T. “X marks the spot,” Cultural Dynamics 29:3 (2017), 202–213.
  8. Isabel Millán, “Latinx,” Keywords for Comics Studies, ed. Ramzi Fawaz, Shelley Streeby, and Deborah Whaley. New York: NYU Press, Forthcoming.