Queen of the South: A Mexican Drug Cartel Telenovela in the Age of Trump

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On Monday, investigative nonprofit ProPublica published heartrending audio of immigrant children after they were separated from their parents at the US-Mexico border. The audio is difficult to listen to; at times, the children cry out for their parents or ask to phone a relative, but mostly, they just sob.

The footage comes on the heels of President Trump’s brutal “zero tolerance” approach to immigration. Under this policy, young children are routinely forced from their parents and held separately in detention centers (sometimes even in cages), while their parents are prosecuted for entering the country illegally—even if they’re seeking asylum or don’t have a criminal record. In a small victory for migrant families, Trump finally signed an executive order on Wednesday ending family separation at the border. While families will still be detained if they enter the country illegally, they will no longer be separated.

Trump’s made no secret of his distaste for immigrants from Central and South America, smearing all Mexicans as “rapists” and casually referring to nations like El Salvador as “shithole countries.” His hateful rhetoric threatens to overwhelm the mainstream with racist stereotypes of Latin Americans, and reveals just how devastating xenophobia can be to immigrants.

Queen of the South, USA’s adaptation of the Mexican novel La reina del sur, seems like it would perpetuate Trumpian stereotypes of Mexicans and Latin Americans at first glance. The show, which was first adapted as a Spanish-language telenovela for Telemundo, focuses on Teresa Mendoza (Alice Braga), a money changer from Culiacán, Mexico, who’s unwittingly drawn into a drug cartel. After working first as a mule for drug boss Camila Vargas (Veronica Falcon), she’s eventually able to cultivate her own drug business. The third season, premiering on USA tonight, will focus on Teresa’s efforts to outrun Camila and manage her business while a fugitive in Europe.

It’s easy to see why Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s novel would first be adapted into a telenovela. Lazily referred to as “Spanish soap operas” due to their predominance in Latin America, telenovelas are infamous for their dramatic, convoluted storylines, sweeping love affairs, and sordid violence. It’s guilty pleasure-TV at its finest, with all the plot twists you’d expect from a first-rate soap (Ugly Betty and Jane the Virgin are also based on Spanish-language telenovelas). But telenovelas are also important cultural touchstones for Latinx people across the continent—you’re just as likely to find one playing on a TV at a neighborhood deli as you are at a family gathering.

So where, then, does a show like Queen of the South fit in this Trumpian era of unfounded bigotry? With most, if not all, of the Mexican characters in the show working for drug cartels or gangs, it seems like it would add fuel to Trump’s misguided, racist tirades. And, to a certain extent, it does: Camila Vargas, the cartel queen and politician, is a textbook “spicy Latina” who seduces and murders men without abandon. Some of the men do indeed rape and kill. And yet, that’s hardly the point of the show. Both Teresa and Camila have proved themselves to be more than competent in the macho world of the drug trade, and both have created vast empires that yield enormous amounts of profit. “I run the largest drug cartel in the Western hemisphere. You could say I’m living proof the American dream is alive and well,” Teresa boasts in the pilot episode, as an iteration of her future self. Indeed, both women know too well that a little risk—i.e., exploiting American law enforcement and trafficking large quantities of cocaine across the border—can yield a lot of rewards. They’re Trump’s worst nightmare, essentially.

Queen of the South is obviously not a documentary, nor is it representative of the typical Mexican immigrant experience. This may all seem a little obvious, but with a president so intent on smearing any and all Latin American immigrants in the name of border control, it’s something that bears repeating: Queen of the South cannot and should not be read as a faithful representation of the Mexican people—rather, it’s a quintessential telenovela, dramatic to the point of camp at times.

That’s the thing, though: there is no one, all-encompassing representation of Mexicans or Latin American immigrants as a whole. Like every other race or ethnicity across the globe, we’re a diverse group that can’t be boiled down to a single stereotype. Of course there are the good and the bad among us—no one group of people is blameless. But to villainize Mexicans as “rapists” and El Salvador as a “shithole,” and to predicate brutal immigration policies on these stereotypes, is deplorable.

Queen of the South isn’t exactly revolutionary in its portrayals of Mexicans, but boy, is it fun to watch. So long as we recognize that Queen of the South is, in fact, a television show, then there’s no problem in sitting back and enjoying the breakneck, drama-filled ride.

Read more: www.thedailybeast.com

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