Thursday, July 25, 2019

1.3 Million Viewers Absorb U.S. Foreign Policy in Mexican Popular Culture

Kate Del Castillo's "Willing Suspension of Disbelief" 
     Artists, whether playwrights, novelists, screenwriters, painters, or performers, face a rough road when blending politics and entertainment in their work. I mean, they have to take a political side, right, conservative, liberal, or something in between, so they are bound to anger some of their readers or viewers?
     One of the most powerful works of art is Picasso’s “Guernica”, a cryptic, angry montage depicting the massacre of innocents by Franco’s forces during the Spanish civil war, and Picasso, who usually avoided politics in his work, caught hell from Spain and the world’s conservatives.
     Think about your favorite television or movie drama, even the Bruce Willis and Tom Cruise movies. The villains are often Latin America, Russia, China, and now, Middle East terrorists. America can’t be a villain because few U.S. viewers want to see our country’s brutal policies towards other, often weaker nations, exposed or criticized in a piece of art.
     In “Three Days of the Condor,” where the U.S. slaughters its own loyal agents for fear they will stumble upon the truth about our country’s villainous, political shenanigans, the scriptwriters put the blame on rogue CIA department heads and agents but not on our country, directly. Robert Redford's character is a bewildered whistleblower when the movie ends.
     To criticize our country’s democratic system takes the entertainment a little too far for many. Audiences can even deal with unscrupulous American presidents and others in powerful positions, but our country, as a system, as a democratic institution must remain a beacon on a hill, stainless and white.
     In his recent work, “The Border,” Don Winslow, an experienced writer in the political-entertainment genre, received harsh criticism for portraying Donald Trump, his son-in-law Jerod Kirshner, and their political regime, as drinking at the well of Russian oligarchs, drug cartels, and anyone else willing to exchange money for access.
     With Kirshner’s well known money problems and an albatross of indebtedness in New York real estate around his neck, the wonder boy’s thinly veiled role in Winslow’s narrative hit a little too close to home for some of his million-plus readers, especially those Trump supporters who only wanted to read: the U.S.--good; Mexico--bad.
     Winslow’s books usually top bestsellers’ lists for months. “The Border” dropped off in a matter of weeks, days, in some places. Many readers criticized Winslow’s liberal politics, saying it distracted from the story. Others were just outraged by his attack on the president and his son-in-law. I personally liked the book, though, I did think it suffered from too many cardboard characters and stiff plotlines. I can see where politics got in the way.
     It is a difficult chasm to bridge this attempt at political fiction as entertainment. Even though an audience knows its country and leaders are corrupt, few want it tossed in their faces. We prefer our politics nuanced, like Trump said about Charlottesville, “There are good people on both sides,” which also means, “there are bad people on both sides.”
     We know there is good and evil in our country’s past, just as there is good and evil in every country’s past. We just don’t want to admit it, and to those who do point it out, we say, “Go back from where you came.”
     We can handle the negative portrayal of good and bad political and, even, spiritual leaders. Afterall, they are human, and humans are fallible. We just don’t like saying our country, as a system, is bad, and most of all, we don’t want anyone else saying it, like a wife who tells her husband, “Don’t you dare talk about my family. Only I can talk about them.”
     Most of us Americans get our news and entertainment from the U.S. media-machine. And, though I hate to admit it, our president is correct. Our media are multi-billion-dollar corporations, in it, today, for the money, and yes, they tell us what they want us to know, see, and hear, and, of course, what makes the most money, even “fake news.”
     Most media heads are conservative, and probably, Republican, even those who run what many consider liberal media empires. Why cater to liberals? Well, because the liberal market is a big and marketable. Still, there are those powerful, influential Americans captains of industry who could care less about Democrat or Republican. They know it’s a scam, so they see themselves as above the fray. “Let the peasants fight it out, and we’ll reap the profits.”
     So, what of Americans who travel the world or get their news and entertainment from other sources? Do they see the U.S. in a different light? I would guess so.
     When I travel to Europe or Latin America, I notice that the U.S. barely merits a mention in the nightly news, even when ISIS was at its height of violence. I realized ISIS was more a U.S. news construct than a world news story, unless there was a bombing in a country outside the U.S.
     Recently, when I travelled to Peru, Donald Trump was a blip on the television screen. CNN in Espanol covered news pertaining mainly to Peru or Latin America. Venenzuela’s Maduro, and his ouster, was a daily report, mainly telling both sides of the story, and sometimes suggesting U.S. involvement, especially in fiery words from Mike Pompeo and Mike Pence, which, when shown on Latin American television, appear arrogant, out-of-touch, and belligerent.
     I also understood that Latin American audiences like to watch a lot of old, silly sitcoms, where Americans are the buffoons or over-the-top investigators. For an American, like me, watching from abroad, we look even more ridiculous on the screen, especially re-runs of such programs like the Dukes of Hazzard, Bay Watch, or Hawaii Five-O. I suppose it is the same in Russia, China, the Middle East, and other foreign countries. In their own programming, they are more likely to see themselves portrayed as heroes and Americans as villains. Which brings me to Telemundo’s monster hit series “La Reina del Sur.”
     The Spanish language (subtitles upon request) program is having fun as a shoot-‘em-up, over-the-top, narco-drama, delving into current political corruption, in both the U.S. and Mexico at the highest levels, including the presidencies of both countries. “La Reina” reaches 1.3 million viewers around the world. It is the highest rating series on Spanish-language television. Of course, the target audience is Spanish-speaking, Americans and Latin Americans.
     Telemundo, after a number of business manifestations, going from a small Puerto Rican television station in the 1990s to ownerships from Sony to Comcast and NBC, has been trying to reach an American Spanish-speaking population for many years. It seems to finally have succeeded, challenging Hallmark’s Univision for the number one spot.
     So, this morning, as the Muller hearings were beginning, I needed to watch the latest episode of “La Reina,” featuring the magnetic Kate del Castillo, who, in real life, with Sean Penn, was credited with bringing down El Chapo Guzman by exposing his hiding place in his hometown of Badiraguato, Sinaloa, of all places [gee big surprise there, great hiding place, down the road from Mom’s house] where they met him to discuss a movie project, so I got to thinking about how viewers might take the show’s plot: the U.S. government meddling in another country’s affairs, kind of like us badgering the Russians for meddling in our affairs by creating fake Facebook memes making Hillary look bad and Trump look good.
     The writers of “La Reina” hold back nothing. It’s overt. The American president (kind of a Wizard of Oz off stage), and I suppose his advisors, has ordered his CIA director, one enigmatic Eric Roberts, to have his Mexican FBI and CIA cohorts manipulate Mexico’s presidential elections by eliminating all opposition to their chosen candidate, a known cartel leader Epifanio Vargas.
     There is nothing about rogue agents or broken-down ex-spies walking the “foul” line. This order comes directly from the top, U.S. intelligence and law enforcement. But when don Epifanio Vargas isn’t acting as he should, the U.S. president orders Vargas’ assassination, and names Alejandro, his gay campaign manager and brother-in-law, who is also the American agent (of Mexican descent) pulling many of the strings, the new candidate for the presidency.
     So, what "La Reina's" screenwriters have given us in a television program where an American CIA agent will become Mexico’s next president.
     Tongue in cheek? No doubt. The acting: superb. The dialogue is a wonder, capturing Mexico’s sophistication as well as its colloquialisms. When Alejandro and his lover are caught in a private moment, Alejando’s cousin, who saw them, said something like, “Te vi hacienda tacos con a lengua.” I’m not sure it translates.
     Okay, I’m hooked. The actors don’t play parts. They are the parts, especially villains like El Zurdo Villa, the handsome, gritty, cartel boss and descendent of the famed Pancho Villa. To watch “La Reina”, one must give into, what Samuel Taylor Coleridge coined, the “willing suspension of disbelief.”
     The action not only revs up in every scene, characters pay a high price, and suspense always reaches a peak, everyone seems to escape impossible situation by impossible methods, MacGyver on crack.
     So, here I sit, along with 1.3 million, mostly Spanish-speaking viewers, watching the United States assassinate another country’s presidential candidates, steal their election, and place an American in the coveted position in Los Pinos, the Mexican White House. We are never told this is a mentally unstable president or these are rogue American agents. We must assume this is normal U.S. foreign policy, as if everyone in the world knows it except Americans, or want to admit it.
Los Tigres turn life into art 
     “La Reina del Sur” is based on the real-life exploits of Sandra Beltran, the true Reina del Pacifico, as portrayed by Spanish novelist Arturo Perez-Reverte in his book “La Reina del Sur,” which is a reference to the south of Spain, where she escaped, and not Mexico, where she lived. Reverte said he received his inspiration from a song by Los Tigres del Norte.
     So, how much is fiction and how much is real?  Does it matter?
     Just like Manuel Noriega, Joaquin El Chapo Guzman will disappear into the dungeons of the American penal system not because of his drug empire and violence but because, well, he knows too much. Noriega knew all about Reagan, Bush, and Clinton and how their policies towards drugs and Latin America caused a bigger problem. Guzman knows even more, the payoffs, from on-the-ground border patrol agents to legislators and presidents in both countries. They had to keep him quiet and away from the public, especially writers.
     Former head of Customs and Border Patrol, James Tomsheck once stated, “It is very clear…that DHS (Homeland Security) was attempting to hide corruption…so as not to create a political liability.” Some claim, as high as 30% of agents on the border have been bought by cartels, and their superiors and the U.S. don't want to know.
     We are talking about millions to billions of dollars a day crossing the border to satisfy Americans’ need for drugs. Some say, along with Saudi and Chinese money, illegal drugs are helping prop up the U.S. government and economy, including employment, healthcare, pension plans, real estate and Wall Street.
     With so much at stake, who wouldn’t turn a blind eye? Ah, and since Pablo Escobar’s murder and El Chapo’s capture, the flow of drugs crossing the border has increased. It’s no wonder “La Reina’s” gaining a large audience worldwide, and all of us are willing to suspend our belief for, at least, another episode.

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