It’s Fall again, and while New York City might still feel like Labor Day hasn’t happened, a new Fall staple has definitely sunk in: People asking me if I’ve seen “Narcos” yet.
Credit: Harry Potter / Universal
Yes, “Narcos” is a very popular and well-done show. It is, however, also a show that is difficult to watch as a person born in Colombia a few years before Pablo Escobar’s death.
The main problem with it is that while it is a good, necessary show – a show that is important for Colombians (particularly Colombian millennials) to watch and understand – it is, at the same time, a show aimed at a global audience that will never understand this how Colombians do.
Why “Narcos” Is Important
I was born in 1991. Two years before Pablo Escobar died (spoiler alert?) on a rooftop in Medellín. I lived in Colombia for most of my life, only moving to the United States in 2013. In the 21 years I lived in Colombia, my education on how to talk about Pablo Escobar was simple: Just say he was a bad man who did many bad things, but those things don’t happen anymore. Oh, and make sure this is what you tell Americans, tourists and anyone when you’re abroad.
This is the line of thought most of the people of my age and social status were raised with. Colombian millennials speak of Pablo like wizards in 1997 speak about Voldemort.
Of course, we heard the murmurs. The murmurs of “the dark days.” The days of Pablo, where politicians were murdered, planes were blown up, and rebels took the Palacio de Justicia. These are things that adults speak of under their breath. Things that happened, but to us, seem to have happened in another place. In another country. In another world. This is because we are told to forget about our past. To ignore the painful truth and focus on how well things are going nowadays.
Watching “Narcos” became a cathartic experience.
I was mad. I was mad at my parents and teachers for hiding the truth. History books don’t talk about it, and unless you take a college class in drug trade or recent Colombian history, you as a Colombian will not know what happened. It’s like we have taken a giant eraser and tried to sloppily fade everything that happened from 1977 to 1993.
Yet, “Narcos” feels authentic. In the opening five minutes, we’re shown an aerial shot of my hometown and my second favorite city in the world (NYC edges this one): Bogotá.
“Narcos” is shot in Colombia by a Colombian crew. Despite the early criticism of the show casting foreign Latinxs as Colombians, the show features some of the most talented Colombian actors in a generation, such as Juan Pablo Raba, Manolo Cardona, Cristina Umaña and Martina García. Even lesser known Colombian actors, like radio host-turned-actor Mauricio Cujar, are all great in their roles. The Colombians are by far the standout performers in the show. Bar, of course, Wagner Moura. Wagner Moura’s performance as Pablo Escobar is also electrifying. Yes, most Spanish speakers will cringe at his attempts of not only speaking Spanish, but speaking it with the infamous paisa accent of the Antioquia region in Colombia. The scenes between Moura and Raba as Pablo Escobar and his cousin Gustavo Gaviria are, by far, the best scenes in the show.
Credit: Narcos / Netflix
So Why Is “Narcos” Harmful?
As much good as the show does for Colombia’s film and TV industry, and as good as it is for my generation to understand our past, I understand why “Narcos” is harmful.
Picture this: You finally broke away from your abusive relationship, and it’s taken you literally 10 years to get over that person. Everyone gave you shit you when you were together. They thought you were a wreck, and you were. Now, you’re finally getting your groove back, you’ve found new hobbies, you’re way more positive, and everything overall is much better. Suddenly, one of your ex’s friends starts showing pictures of your ex and telling everyone what a “cool” person your ex was and everyone starts to remember what a mess you were. They assume you’re still in that sloppy phase even though you’ve made a ton of personal growth. You could tell them how much better you’re doing now, but they’d rather just hear about it from that person who won’t shut up about your evil ex. In this scenario, you’re Colombia, Pablo Escobar is your evil ex, and Netflix and “Narcos” is that friend who can’t shut up about Pablo. Leaving you feeling basically like this:
Colombia doing well is great for Colombia, but bad for Hollywood. It’s just not a great story. No one wants to hear about biodiversity or the Peace Process that will end the longest armed conflict in the Americas, because that doesn’t fit the narrative they are selling to the United States. A narrative of barbaric brown people and white saviors. A narrative where Latin America remains a barbaric and underdeveloped region. And more importantly, a narrative where drugs are our problem. Where the “demand” part of “supply and demand” doesn’t count.
“Narcos,” and most American TV dramas in general, can be summed up in one image from “Game of Thrones”:
Credit: Game of Thrones / HBO
Is that a white lady being heralded as a god by thousands of brown people? You betcha. This is basically “White Savior Syndrome.” In drug shows, particularly, white heroes tend to fend off the brown monsters that are the drug dealers. “Breaking Bad,” which has often been called the best show in the history of television TV is the number one offender.
“Narcos” attempts to appease Latinx viewers by giving us nuggets of “woke-ness.” There are scenes where they show the debauchery and hypocrisy of American drug consumers and scenes where they show the true stories of the CIA partnering up and funding murderers in Colombia in their fight against Pablo. A fight guided more by results than the desire of a peaceful Colombia. However, these scenes are treated like afterthoughts. To me, these scenes are vital, to the people who ask me about “Narcos,” they aren’t.
This is where “Narcos” becomes a double-edged sword. “Narcos” tells a story Colombians need to know, because we know what happened next. Because we need to face the past to improve our future. We read it in a completely different key than Americans do.
Americans will be more likely to ask me when was the last time there was a car bomb in Colombia than to ask how many Colombian lives are there in a gram of cocaine. A gram of cocaine that many of them will persue at a party where I live. “Narcos” is telling an important story, but the American audience is ignoring the important part and focusing on the Hollywood stuff. And who can blame them? The Hollywood stuff is fun. It’s such a compelling story.
Despite all this, I stand by my belief that “Narcos” is an important show for Colombia, and I will continue to watch it and encourage as many Colombians to watch it, too. I will also try to tell my American friends to read between the lines when they watch it. As hinted by the preview, the upcoming season 3 will deal with the Cali Cartel. Cali as in Santiago de Cali, not California. A period in our history that is perhaps less bloody than Pablo’s reign, but certainly more shameful. A period where the hypocrisy of America’s War on Drugs was seen the clearest. The reign of the Rodríguez Orejuela brothers is something that Colombians have to face.
With the Peace Process with FARC vote coming soon, Colombia is about to turn over a new leaf. It is important that when we start writing the new one, we are very aware of the mistakes of the past.