The sun over Miami, or, The threat of non-diegetic time

I was pumped when the third season of Dexter made a conscientious effort to incorporate a more substantial Cuban American dimension to the political economic landscape of present day Miami.  Former Oz castmates Angel Batista and Lt. María Laguerta just weren’t doing it for me.  Jimmy Smits wasn’t half bad as the Assistant D.A. with serious anger management issues —  because all Latinos are calientes, sabes? — but the real windfall of this post-Ricky Martin renaissance of Latin@ consciousness was Smits’s onscreen wife, played by sleeper hottie Valerie Cruz.

Headshot ca. ¿quién sabe?
Headshot ca. ¿quién sabe?

The appeal of Cruz’s character, it seemed to me, was precisely her sobriety, her nonchalant elision of Latina stereotypes.  She also had a certain hardbody MILF quality that never fails to please.  You can imagine my delight, then, when I finally got around to watching the first season of nip/tuck and discovered that Cruz was a regular cast member.  My curiosity was piqued, and I schlepped over to IMDB to see what other projects she’s currently spicing up: apparently she’s slated for a cameo on an upcoming episode of Dollhouse.  I was more troubled to learn, though, that Ms. Cruz is putatively just a hair older than myself.  (And hence eminently dateable, right?)

Dr. Grace Santiago, ca. 2003
Dr. Grace Santiago, ca. 2003

This screen capture is from an episode of of nip/tuck that aired in September 2003.  Presumably it was shot well before that, let’s say summer of 2003.  If Ms. Cruz is indeed 32 today, she would just have turned 27 when this scene was shot.  Now, I’ve never been good at guessing people’s ages, but I always thought one of the benefits of having mestiza blood was that pigmented skin tends to age better.  ¿Qué onda, nena?  Either your agent has grossly overestimated how much he can fiddle with your reported age, or you are in some serious need of a better sunblock and a twice-daily regimen of Créme De La Mer, the concentrated stuff.  Or maybe the good Dr. Troy could echarte la mano with a chemical peel or something?

(Don’t even get me started on Cruz’s butch turn in The Dresden files.)

I’m still working my way through the first season, but for anyone keeping score, nip/tuck may well edge out Dexter as TV’s Most Interesting Miami-based Serial Drama.  (Michael C. Hall will always be David Fisher for me, six pack or no.  Sorry, dude.)  Incidentally, my vote for the Absolute Worst Serial Drama On Television goes to yet another Miami-based production, Burn notice, a show so unredeemably bad it doesn’t merit further discussion.

– J.C. Freñán

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Mexico and the televisual war on drugs

This month’s triumphant return of Breaking bad — hands down the smartest, funniest, most poignant show on television at the moment — has me wondering whether we aren’t currently experiencing a sort of hangover from the media’s intoxication with all things Latin in the 90s. To wit: when the Botwins trade Agrestic for Ren Mar in the fourth season of Weeds, the previously unproblematic Mexican origin of Nancy’s product suddenly becomes an abiding concern. What troubles Nancy isn’t so much the product itself as the other kinds of commodities being smuggled into the States along with it: namely, underage Central American sex workers. Likewise, the successful production of crystal meth in Breaking bad is represented as being potentially dangerous, but ultimately a matter of how well one understands chemistry. The problem with meth, then, is not on the supply-side: the source of Walt White’s woes is the infrastructure involved in distributing an illegal drug in New Mexico.  Latino gangs, that is.

(A quick aside: for all its brilliance, The wire only really alluded to the port of Baltimore as a choice position within a larger, international system of contraband circulation during its second season.  The geographical — not to mention material — origin of West Baltimore’s drugs was left un-interrogated. Again, it was the confluence of human trafficking and drug trafficking that prompted the Baltimore PD’s scrutiny of the docks.)

So what Jenji Kohan and Vince Gilligan discover when they unveil their respective commodity-fetishes is not a system of social relations structured around the rational exploitation of productive forces, so much as a series of unproductive corpses. Behind these, a different kind of fetish: the well-worn stereotype of the Mexican bandido.  When Weeds begins asking itself where Nancy’s grass comes from, Guillermo transforms from wise-cracking machista to sociopath in under half a season.  Similarly, when Walt wants to start wholesaling his meth, he has to deal with Breaking bad‘s resident vato loco, Tuco.

Qué camisa, ¿no?
¿Memo Herdez el grande?

What’s so interesting about this stereotype, though, is that it’s not the exclusive prerogative of xenophobes north of the border. Here’s just one particularly uncanny quote from Ignacio Altamirano’s late 19th century novel El Zarco, which remains a classic of high school curricula in Mexico to this day: “The lowland bandits were cruel, above all. Horrible and superfluous though a cruelty might be, they would commit it, out of instinct, out of brutality, out of the sheer desire to augment the people’s terror and delight in it… [Their] character was extraordinary and exceptional, an explosion of vice, cruelty and infamy the likes of which had never before been seen in Mexico.”

This comparison, restricted though it may be to the level of homology, suggests that the figure of the narco/bandido poses something more than a strictly racial threat, something more than a threat to the national (b)order.  I suspect this threat, when coupled to the ego-reducing effects of illegal intoxicants, is rather that of irrationality, in both economic and psychological senses: that is, the unproductive (intoxicated or assassinated) body.

I’ll close these preliminary observations with a challenge: I think it’s time — high time, even — that American television unequivocally cross the US-Mexico border.  Rather than being transfixed by the grotesque figure of a Pablo Escobar (as in Vincent Chase’s dismally over-acted vision of “Medellín,”), rather than seeking morbid titillation in the flayed corpse of an American FBI agent (a la Weeds), I think the (liberal, educated, premium-cable watching) American public is ready for a more thoughtful analysis of the political economy that actually sustains international drug trafficking.  If you’re reading, HBO, TubaTV has a teleplay for you.

– J.C. Freñán