The Narcos Effect

The problem with Hollywood’s obsession over Latino drug lords

Juan Pablo Gutierrez/Netflix

The second season of Netflix’s Narcos begins with the voiceover of an American in a vague regional accent (maybe southern?) saying, “Okay, here we go again.” With that, we’re back into the mostly true account of the hunt for Colombian drug king Pablo Escobar, played by Wagner Moura. The hunt is led by that maybe-southern voice, DEA agent Steve Murphy, who is portrayed by all-American model Boyd Holbrook.

Murphy is one of the few white people in the show, and yet he’s still the one guiding us through the cocaine-streaked and bloody battle for Colombia’s soul—at least, that’s how Murphy describes the hunt for Escobar. Twenty episodes in, Murphy has guided us into battle, berated Colombians for not speaking English, and posed for pictures with Escobar’s bleeding corpse. Narcos, for all its effort, is about a white man’s journey through one of the deadliest portions of Colombian history.

The show—like all the other shows about drug lords before it—is in the pursuit of telling Latinx stories, or so they say. But a larger examination of television and movies shows that over and over again, the Latinx stories being greenlighted, funded, written, and shot are about the drug trade. It’s easy to forget that when you don’t spend every season scouring cast lists and production names for someone who looks like you. Even in an age where Gina Rodriguez wins a Golden Globe for the titular role in Jane The Virgin, a show that includes varied and multifaceted Latinx characters, white creators are still obsessed with telling drug king’s stories.

Here we go again, indeed.

Narcos follows a long tradition of Latinx actors and actresses being cast as drug lords, users, mules, sicarios, lieutenants, and every other role required to have a moderately functional drug empire. Just to give you an idea: There’s Mr. Robot, Weeds, Breaking Bad, Sicario, Escobar: Paradise Lost, Blow, Bad Boyz II, Queen of the South, The Infiltrator, Suicide Squad, White Girl, Traffic, Savages, every iteration of the Law & Order franchise, Veronica Mars, Jennifer Lopez’s yet-to-be-named TV movie about the “Cocaine Godmother” of Colombia, and Univision’s own El Chapo. Seriously, how obsessed are people with Escobar and how many drug lords has Benicio del Toro played? (These examples don’t include all the non-Latinx actors who have played Latinx characters with drug ties such as Al Pacino and Lou Diamond Phillips. That’s a whole other list.)

Shows like workplace-comedy Superstore and characters like Parks and Recreation’s April Ludgate-Dwyer (a boricua who insists on being addressed by the formal usted) are anomalies, not the rule. Mitú, a Latinx media company focused on the experiences of Latinx youth, summed up this problem with a series of tweets in August about their desires for Latinx-centered shows and movies.

Narcos would be a better show if all the white people’s main narratives were cut. And even once that happens, do we really need to further glorify Pablo Escobar? If you do need that brown drug dealer fix, USA has produced an American adaptation of La Reina del Sur (our version is rather unoriginally called Queen Of The South). All the white characters are idiotic, and women hold all the power and sit at the top of the cartels. I mean, at least it’s a bit different.

But we deserve more than even that. It was Jane the Virgin that reminded me shows about Latinx can be more. Jane The Virgin is about white drug dealers, not black and brown drug dealers. And that’s entirely the point. Jane The Virgin, the Americanized telenovela about a girl who is accidentally artificially inseminated, is the one of the most quietly political shows on television at the moment, especially for a show that ostensibly isn’t about politics. The CW show gives rounded portraits of Latinx families, religion, immigration, and politics. Narcos, for all its desire to provide commentary on international drug trade, stays relatively silent on the politics of the drug trade. Moura, who plays Escobar, has said all drugs should be legal.

Latinx people deserve to be seen as fully realized people, to see ourselves reflected back on the screen. Latinx are the one of the fastest growing minority group and soon we won’t be in the minority. I refuse to continue praising popular culture for barely passing the quality inspection for diverse storylines. For example, on Quantico, the only Latina character, despite consistently being ranked in the top of her training class at the FBI, was dealing with an abusive ex and constantly portrayed as hot-headed. Or is it spicy?

At this point, it’s just lazy, both intellectually and culturally. It’s boring. And we are rewarding boring. Jonathan Jakubowicz, Venezuelan-born filmmaker and director of Hands of Stone, a biopic of Panamanian boxer Roberto Durán, said it best: “We will never have a proven Latino movie star unless we cast Latino actors as Latino leads.”

Yes, more Latinx people should be populating writers’ rooms. More Latinx should be directing feature films (we’re good at it, ya’ll). More Latinx actors should be in indie and mainstream films and network and cable television. But short of a complete coup in Hollywood, there’s going to be a whole lot of white people in charge for the time being. (Narcos was just renewed for two more seasons.) It’s up to them to start giving these creative minds break and allow them to flourish.

And yet the sad truth is all the white creators aren’t magically going to be replaced with brown people. So how about this? White people are no longer allowed to make media about Latinx people for the foreseeable future. Sorry, I didn’t want to have to make the rules, but you’ve pushed me to the breaking point. Until morale improves, I’m revoking your privileges. Please send scripts to me for approval. They’ll be discussed at the next meeting.