It is clear that the show is certainly a fictionalized crime drama that seeks to entertain rather than to educate. Yet watching it jarred me. Yes, as a student of the region, the premise of the show is laughable. A wholesale power outage on the border, without a total shut down until the problem was solved? Not likely. Simple, inter-departmental cooperation that spans the border? Not happening. Narcotunnels big enough to stand up in? Not between El Paso and Juárez. But that’s TV – a lot of incredible things happen in order to build a story and entertain the viewers. What disturbed me were the unnecessary racial misrepresentations in the casting of the show which casts narcos as people who look like commoners and El Pasoans as predominantly Anglos.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think that the actors are to blame, they have turned in fine performances. It's the casting decisions which result in the two principal problems that the show has: the portrayal of the drug barons and, which is far more egregious, the whitewashing of El Paso. Surprisingly the show, which uses some of the area’s history within its storyline, like the corruption that plagues the Mexican police and the history of the disappearing girls of Juárez, refuses to tap into the rich history of the area to develop the rest of its characters, on either side of the border.
Let’s first consider the two drug cartel boss characters, Fausto Galván, and Graciela Rivera, who are caricatures which feeds into the narrative that ordinary migrants are dangerous criminals. Notably, the drug lords are both dark-skinned individuals. While it is also hard to know whether this was conscious casting decision, in order to contrast them from the more sympathetic, lighter-skinned characters, it certainly seems that old trope was used. Yet, let me give the show writers the benefit of the doubt. Nonetheless, they have Fausto dress like a day laborer and Graciela dress in what might be described is some kind of ethnic way. The characters are undoubtedly made to look very ordinary, inasmuch as they could be confused for people such as migrant day workers who hope for work on street corners or women who clean houses in search of a better life.
Yet, in the context of drug lords, those representations couldn’t be further from the truth. I don’t know if they writers were trying to evoke the old-school personas of Vicente Carillo Fuentes and La Nacha, I somehow doubt it given the contemporary setting of the series, but the current narcos, many who are young intermediaries for their low-key bosses, use their wealth to buy and wear expensive clothing and rock blinged out weapons.
To the show’s credit, at least it can be said that the Mexican characters portrayed in the show are not all stereotypical. The Mexican characters are not all particularly evil compared to the Anglo characters. They are not made to be the butt of comedic gags or shown to be inferior intellectually. The show even tackles the social politics of homosexuality within the Hispanic community, presenting the strong and smart Adriana Mendez. While this is an improvement from the days of Sancho Panza, it should be noted that all but one (Kitty Conchas) of the Hispanic characters with speaking lines in the first season of the Bridge are Mexican born. It is a decision which totally whitewashes El Paso.
One critic seemed to be excited for the imposition of Scandinavian story on the US/Mexico divide saying that while there may not be much difference between Copenhagen, Denmark and Malmö, Sweden, “Ciudad Juárez and El Paso, on the other hand, are rich in cultural divides and social discord.” It is clear that that person knows about as much about El Paso and Juárez as the show’s writers.
Having lived in the area for less than half a year, it was obvious the connections between the two cities. People lamented the changes that had occurred as a result of the violence and the border fence. The El Paso-Ciudad Juárez metropolitan area used to be just that – a space with parts that flowed with one another. Long time El Paso residents, regardless of race, would tell me about how they used to go into Juárez all the time to catch a movie, go out to eat, or to go shopping. Many El Pasoans I met still had strong family ties in Juárez and would still venture over to visit their relatives. What is certain is that El Paso, which is 82 per cent Hispanic, a fact impossible to deduce from the show, still has a lot of cultural and social connections with Juárez, as it has always historically had. Instead, the show makes an artificial cultural divide between a city of Hispanics and a city of Anglos.
Every important character who is meant to live in El Paso is white. The autistic cop Sonya Cross, our protagonist, is portrayed by blonde-haired, blue-eyed German actress Diane Kruger. Her boss is white. They random guy she sleeps with is too. The featured reporter? White. The rich folks who are intrinsic to the main subplot? White. The creepy person of interest? He’s white. The main villain? Also white (maybe for a sense of parity?). All of the law enforcement characters who have speaking lines? You guessed it; they’re white too. That's just not El Paso.
The El Paso-based Hispanic characters all seem to play second fiddle to white counterparts in the show like the secretary at the police station who, in spite of being Hispanic, doesn’t speak or understand Spanish, and the farmhand, who speaks with a Mexican rather than a Chuco accent, is clearly at the orders of his white masters, and the Hispanic, Mexican born journalist who plays second fiddle to the white alpha male journalist for much of the series.
All in all, the portrayal of the people of El Paso is completely unconvincing. Over the five months that I was there, I was only ever in two situations where whites were either a majority presence or close to being one. The first was the gun show, in which there was a clear majority of white people. The second was the baseball games, where white people might have been between 40 and 50 percent of the fans, and that’s being generous.
I am baffled why they producers felt it necessary to completely whitewash El Paso. Did the writers think that the audience would not care about a show full of brown people? Is it too hard to distinguish between American and Mexican characters if they are of all similar skin tone? Did the writers think that a town full of brown people would confuse the viewer as to being un-American?
In the end, I do recognize that the show is fiction and, once I got over the nonsense that underpins the storyline, I was able to enjoy it. I can honestly say that I have enjoyed the performances delivered by Diane Kruger, Demián Bichir, and the rest of the cast.
That being said, the show had an opportunity to shine a light on a border community that is different from what most Americans know. Ironically, just as the Peabody Award Committee intimated, life on the border is a rich part of American life that doesn't get portrayed very often, if at all. Unfortunately for all of us, the producers blew it.