Living in a border state like California, you experience an inevitable amount of cultural bleedthrough. It’s not just that we have a large immigrant population, or that businesses with signs in Spanish and services aimed at Mexican and other Latin American communities exist. Nor is it just that our English is spattered with Spanish terms, or that we eat a lot of burritos. There’s a certain friability and bleed between our two cultures; always separate, but they also nod at each other as they cross, and that feeling is particularly strong in Southern California, where of course the border is much closer.
This isn’t to say that I know a lot about Mexico and Latin America. I don’t. I know what some aspects of the Latin American community look like in California, and that’s an important distinction. Pop culture, however, seems eager to provide us with the missing information to help us fill the gaps, the data that will help us feel as though we’ve been ‘there’ and know what it’s like. There are some very specific depictions of Latin America, and Mexico in particular, that dominate US pop culture, and they colour the way people think about Latin American culture and what life is like for people in Mexico.
I was really struck by this watching The Bridge this summer. It’s a good show, and I liked a lot of aspects of it, but the way it handled Juarez was deeply disturbing. In this vision of Mexico, Juarez is a filthy place, streets filled with garbage, murders taking place in broad daylight, hundreds of missing girls, housing consisting of way too many people crowded into cramped, hot, miserable apartments, sets so oppressive that you can practically smell them. Mexico in this pop culture depiction is a socially and culturally void place where everyone’s life is reduced to a struggle for survival in a brutal world.
Is Juarez struggling with the deaths and disappearances of hundreds of women, in an epidemic that has been going on for years? Yes, that’s a documented fact, and an issue that’s been widely discussed. Does Juarez contain violence and exploitation, particularly because it’s close to the border and people come from the United States to take advantage of the lower cost of living in Mexico and the different laws? Of course it does, and this is a bone of contention between the US and Mexico, with Mexican officials growing tired of having their nation treated like a funpark by tourists from the US.
But is that all there is to Mexico? Of course not. Mexico is a huge, diverse country and the land has thousands of years of cultural history. That never seems to show up in pop culture, though, unless it involves white people solving Mayan secrets and plunging around in the forest after mystical artefacts. The people of Mexico never show up either, and when they do, there’s rarely any distinction between the different ethnic and cultural groups of Mexico, a country with a complex, rich indigenous population as well as populations of people descended from slaves, Spanish settlers, and other communities.
We rarely see Mexican art and culture, the lush reality of Mexico. Instead. Mexico is a dirty, harsh, miserable place filled with people living on a shoestring; Mexico is brightly-coloured taco stands, falling-down hovels, bloody streets. At least, according to pop culture. If the existence of any Mexican location other than Mexico City, Juarez, or Tijuana is noted, it’s usually in passing, or to make a point about how impoverished and desperate Mexican villages are, how miserable the lives of their residents.
The pop culture depiction of Mexico is, of course, grossly inaccurate. It definitely captures part of the experience in some regions of Mexico, and some of the social problems in a very large and diverse country, but it doesn’t capture the other aspects of Mexico, and the complexities of Mexican life. It doesn’t admit that Mexico is filled with art, culture, history. That Mexico hosts important international events and attracts people from around the world to its universities and cultural programmes. Mexico is not some kind of void where journalists are murdered, girls disappear, college boys buy prescription drugs over the counter, and garbage crews are continually on strike, and it does the nation a grave injustice to depict it this way.
More than that, though, this pop culture depiction rarely explores the why of life in border towns. If it’s going to depict this facet of Mexican life, it should at least do so honestly, exploring the role of exploitation driven by the US in things like the flourishing of the maquiladoras and the conditions in low-income neighbourhoods of Mexican cities near the border. It should talk about how it is that exploitative and horrific conditions persist, and who is behind this; it’s the US demand that feeds the persistence of crime on the border, for example, not some trait intrinsic to Mexico and its people.
It’s not like all Mexicans live in hovels on dirt streets with crumbling roofs, accepting bribes and selling drugs on the streets. Those who are forced to ensure poor living conditions aren’t doing so because they love the idea, or because they’re Mexican and that’s how it is. They’re in that position because of the way the United States treats Mexico and its people, because this country has created immense pressures across the border that tear at Mexico’s seams.
The depiction of Mexico in pop culture is deeply wrong, but more than that, it’s racist and colonialist, reinforcing certain ideas about Mexico and what it means to be Mexican. Until more Mexican-produced creative projects are taken seriously in the US, this huge knowledge gap is going to continue; and white people in the US will continue to remain complacent about the abuse of Mexico at the hands of the US government and US-based companies.