White-centric Blowback: On Jason Ruiz’s “Narcomedia”
By Michael SandlinFebruary 2, 2024
Narcomedia: Latinidad, Popular Culture, and America’s War on Drugs by Jason Ruiz
With Narcomedia, Ruiz builds on Márez’s exploratory text, offering a concentrated, rigorous look at Latinx representations in late-20th- and early-21st-century “narcomedia,” or “communication forms that emerge from drug trafficking.” His aim? “[T]o explore more specifically how popular culture has connected drugs with latinidad.” Accordingly, Ruiz begins in 1980s Miami, when the film Scarface (1983) and TV series Miami Vice (1984–89) both contributed to and reflected a perceptual shift of the city from an idyllic tropical paradise to an urban center in decline—and the new narcometropolis of the United States. The book then fast-forwards to the postmillennial war on drugs, homing in on narcomedia “prestige” TV darlings like Weeds (2005–12), Breaking Bad (2008–13), and Narcos (2015–17), and their recycled Latinx stereotypes. Finally, Ruiz conducts a two-part, multimedia analysis of the ever-evolving post-assassination image of Colombian coke kingpin Pablo Escobar.
Taken altogether, the book provides “a cultural history of drugs and media that seeks to understand how and why these narratives are constructed and a critical reading of narcomedia texts.” And Ruiz’s observations are incisive throughout. He is at his best, though, when directly addressing the “how” and “why” behind the production of problematic Latinx representations. In this regard, his chapters on Scarface and Miami Vice are exemplary. By contrast, the book’s analyses of more recent shows like Breaking Bad, Narcos, and Weeds focus more on critical readings than cultural context—thereby failing to evoke an overall sense of the late-2000s and early-2010s public attitudes, socioeconomic trends, and political events underlying the series’ monolithic depictions of latinidad and minority groups in general.
Ruiz’s insightful reading of Brian De Palma’s Scarface zeroes in on how the film became a cinematic touchstone of reductive, drug-riddled Latinx stereotypes. The spasmodic method-actor antics of Al Pacino strike a particularly uncomfortable chord, as does the film’s portrayal of Cuban immigrants and Colombians. In Scarface, Ruiz locates such tired stock Latinx tropes as the hot-tempered kingpin, the criminal refugee, and the “fiery” Latina. Not only does Ruiz construct an impressively multilayered cultural history of the movie, but his recounting of its production history also reveals what happens when a large immigrant community has no say whatsoever in how major Hollywood films portray them on-screen. (Notably, three of the biggest roles in the film consist of Italian Americans attempting to play Cuban Americans.)
As Ruiz tells it, when Miami City Commissioner Demetrio Pérez Jr. caught wind of Scarface’s production plans in the early 1980s, he assumed it would mean the perpetuation of more negative Cuban stereotypes on his doorstep. Ruiz’s detailed research highlights the fairly anodyne nature of Pérez’s subsequent requests to the film’s production team: mainly, he wanted Cuban Americans to profit from the film in some way (through the creation of employment opportunities for locals, for example). Creatively speaking, he asked that the film have an anticommunist message, and that protagonist Tony Montana (Pacino) be a pro-Castro infiltrator.
Not only did Scarface’s all-white production team, led by temperamental producer Martin Bregman, fight Pérez’s requests tooth and nail, but the resultant film also “reinforced national media characterizations of Cuban refugee criminality.” Make no mistake, Pérez had plenty of detractors, even among his own community. Yet Ruiz open-mindedly reframes Pérez’s activist efforts to prevent potential media misrepresentation by the white Hollywood establishment in a sympathetic light. As a result, readers may be left wondering: where does one draw the line between suppression of creative freedoms and fair, reasonably realistic portrayals of minority groups?
Ruiz dives similarly deeply into the Michael Mann–produced series Miami Vice. For Ruiz, Miami Vice picked up where Scarface left off. In fact, Mann’s neon-soaked cop series was an even more pivotal example of how “popular media […] reinforced dominant drug narratives even in the context of an apparently edgy mode of storytelling.” The show managed to be more than just a Hill Street Blues for the MTV generation—although every episode was indeed soundtracked by chart-topping hits and visually resembled a heavy-rotation music video—by advancing serious dramatic themes and ranking as one of the most racially diverse TV shows in history. Still, for all its innovative flair, Ruiz posits (as he does often in Narcomedia) that it is the white hero who authoritatively emerges from the multicultural fray in the end. The show’s minority characters figure as little more than sideliners and subordinates to Don Johnson’s standout alpha cop.
Considering the wave of anti-immigrant sentiment sweeping popular discourse in the United States in the mid-to-late 1980s, it is hardly surprising that Latinx characters in movies like Scarface and TV series like Miami Vice took an unfair representational hit. But, as Ruiz reminds us, such portrayals extend beyond the openly racist Reagan–Bush reign. How do we explain Latinx threat narratives written into a supposedly more tolerant Obama-era political climate?
Ruiz devotes a significant and compelling portion of his discussion to the “prestige” TV darling Breaking Bad. In his reading, the critically lauded AMC series relies heavily on white-centrism and Latinx threat narratives, despite its aspirations to capture a young, educated, and painfully hip audience. Breaking Bad exhibits obvious elements of the white male existential crisis films of the 1990s (American Beauty, Leaving Las Vegas, Fight Club). The series also embodies the kind of backward-thinking characterizations of Latinxs and other minority groups associated with conservative backlash films of the early 1970s (Walking Tall, Dirty Harry, Death Wish).
Breaking Bad thereby peddled a kind of retro-reactionary nostalgia: creating narratives that center individualist white male power while criminalizing or otherwise rendering expendable Latinx and Black characters. Above all, Ruiz contends that the humanity granted Breaking’s white protagonists, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) and Walter White (Bryan Cranston), is mostly denied their Latinx counterparts—who typically feature as either crazed homicidal psychos or robotic, Terminator-like killing machines. Notably, Ruiz does locate a fleeting ray of hope in the third-season emergence of Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito), the brainy, mild-mannered meth overlord who, like Walter, appears to have “complex emotional reasons to fight his enemies.” Yet even Gus, like most of the Latinx characters in the series, is eventually outfoxed and snuffed out by his white—Walter White, to be exact—adversaries.
Disappointingly absent from Ruiz’s otherwise comprehensive study of Latinx representation in Breaking Bad is an attempt to connect the show’s general disregard for its Latinx characters to contemporary American culture and politics. (Anti-immigrant and anti-Latinx hate crimes were on the rise back in 2008, for example.) Such an approach would have certainly been in line with his stated intention to “explore how popular culture has both reflected and shaped the policies and practices, however problematic, of the War on Drugs.” And as outwardly critical as Ruiz is of the lack of nuance in Breaking’s depictions of Latinx criminals, he seems to give a free pass to characterizations of law-abiding Latinxs that inhabit Breaking’s fantasy drug-war landscape. He rightly calls out the character of Hank the DEA officer (Dean Norris) for his ironic watercooler racism around fellow officers, especially his laid-back Mexican American partner Steve Gomez (Steven Michael Quezada). But a closer look reveals some surprisingly blatant mistreatment of the good-guy Latinx characters as well as the bad ones. In fact, you might interpret Hank as the “Dirty Harry” of Breaking Bad’s universe: always bending the rules and seeking out violent confrontation under the radar of conventional DEA tactics. Meanwhile, Hank’s mild-mannered Latino partner Gomez is relegated to the safe periphery, where he ostensibly performs the bare minimum of police work (contemptible stereotypes of the “lazy” Mexican come to mind). Ruiz makes no mention of this. He similarly overlooks a telling—and weirdly vindictive—scene set in the Texas desert, wherein a Latino DEA officer playfully chides Hank for losing his lunch after finding a decapitated head attached to a booby-trapped tortoise. Seconds later, the mocking officer gets his leg blown off by the undetected narcoterrorist bomb. How’s that for white-centric blowback?
Ruiz returns to surer footing in subsequent chapters concerning popular discourse on the US-Mexico borderlands and “border narratives.” Here, Ruiz’s critiques are set against the backdrop of Donald Trump’s racist, xenophobic 2016 “bad hombres” speech, a characteristically unhinged tirade that ultimately conflated border control with drug control. Again, Ruiz considers the influence of certain pivotal sociopolitical moments and their accompanying rhetoric on cultural production. His discussion begins with Broncho Billy and the Greaser (1914)—a proto-bandit movie produced during a 1910s spike in Mexican migration to the United States and whose titular character “set the template for hundreds of bad hombres who would follow over the subsequent century of Hollywood filmmaking.” Ruiz goes on to navigate the broader cultural history of the borderlands, scrutinizing films such as Steven Soderbergh’s 2000 blockbuster Traffic (made at a time when the perennially ineffective drug war was beginning to train its sights on the Mexican cartels). Eventually, Ruiz wends his way to a particularly instructive juxtaposition, comparing the critically lauded series Weeds, which “never explicitly critiques the racist structures it depicts,” with Soderbergh’s more panoramic critique of the drug trade in Traffic. He concludes that although Traffic depends on clichés in which whites figure as innocent victims of drug trafficking and minorities as predatory pushers, the film also “openly expresses the idea that American perceptions of drugs are clouded by racist assumptions and willful ignorance.”
As his coup de grâce, Ruiz devotes two full chapters to dissecting media representations of the larger-than-life deposed cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar. In gratifyingly clear prose, he whisks us through every subtle development of the infamous Colombian cartel boss’s decades-in-the-making image makeover: a positive rebranding from despised murderous drug lord to a South American Robin Hood and rags-to-riches man of the people. Escobar’s own complicated history aside, these chapters also serve, intentionally or not, to destabilize notions of what constitutes fair media representation of problematic Latinx individuals. Ruiz prompts readers to ponder the ambiguous moral divide between what readers might consider “positive” Latinx portrayals and romanticized versions of Escobar in TV series like Narcos and in wider popular culture. Suffice to say, Escobar’s posthumous rebranding doesn’t fit snugly into anyone’s “positive” or “negative” Latinx representational schemas. Even so, Ruiz’s bottom line is discernible enough: the global-scale glamorizing of Escobar is carried out by a mostly non-Latinx corporate media contingent. Their modus operandi is simply to heroize or, alternately, demonize Latinx figures in narcomedia texts according to the demands of the global marketplace—not according to any edicts of representational fairness or realism.
Narcomedia suggests that, even in the 2020s, many entertainment industry executives are still reluctant to test the marketplace with leading Latinx film and TV protagonists. The book does, however, note the beginning of hopeful work to reverse this long-standing dearth of substantial Latinx characters in narcomedia texts. For Ruiz, the way forward appears to be the visions of latinidad in TV series such as the Sons of Anarchy spin-off Mayans M.C. (2018–23), where Latinx characters are more centered—and humanized—than in series like Breaking Bad, Narcos, and Weeds.
Of course, the writer acknowledges that elevating Latinx presences to greater positions of prominence both behind the camera and in writing rooms does not always lead to “positive” representations of Latinx characters. Still, it is an important shift in industry power that should at least allow the Latinx community to reclaim some long-overdue measure of control over their own major media narratives. Narcomedia itself makes important inroads into paving the path ahead for Latinx representations in US-made film and TV. Ruiz’s book is a fine example of the scholarly vigilance and clarity of thought needed to hold the abidingly white-centric entertainment industry’s feet to the fire in their ongoing representations of Latinx people on-screen.
Michael Sandlin is a Houston-based writer and critic whose writing on film and books has appeared in The Village Voice, Bookforum, Film Quarterly, Cineaste, and many other print and online publications.
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