If there is an enemy in the War on Drugs, it is Latinx people. That is the lesson of forty years of cultural production in the United States, and the focus of Jason Ruiz’s new book, Narcomedia. From Scarface and Miami Vice to Narcos and Better Call Saul, and from social media to gritty memoirs, popular culture continually positions Latinos as an alien people who threaten the US body politic with drugs. Jason Ruiz explores the creation and endurance of this trope, its effects on Latin Americans and Latinx people, and its role in the cultural politics of the War on Drugs.
Your book uses the War on Drugs and other anti-drug campaigns of the past few decades as touchstones for discussing the popular imagination of Latinx and Latin American people, illegal drug trades, and “narcos” in the media. How do you see the same topics interacting with the larger cultural discussion of drugs in the US in 2023?
I truly believe that American attitudes about drugs are shifting, including in some positive ways. When I look at some of the older texts that I examine in the book, it must have been inconceivable to many in the 1980s and 1990s that marijuana would be legal to the extent that it is in the US or that some hallucinogens would be clinically available as treatments for various disorders and ailments. Where I think we still lag far behind is on the treatment front. It should not be so difficult to get into and pay for drug treatment, but we still haven’t figured it out. I also really think it’s interesting that in 2023 we are continuing to look back at the history of the War on Drugs—needless to say, I’ll be tuning into the Griselda Blanco series that will soon drop on Netflix.
You write extensively about the negative perceptions of Latinx people due to stereotyping in the media. What are some hallmarks of representational media that are less harmful and can, as you write in your introduction, “help a country process its past”?
I am torn because I am hesitant to categorize media texts as either “good” or “bad” and do not want to create a false dichotomy between “harmful” and “healing” texts. I hope that readers will decide for themselves whether the cultural artifacts I analyze do good or harm. I should be honest about the fact that I came to writing this book first as a fan of Breaking Bad and other TV and movies that I take to task in the book. It’s complicated. But, with that said, I am optimistic about the fact that Latinos and other people of color are starting to tell our own stories in movies and TV. As I suggest in the epilogue, I think that streaming television, especially, has incredible potential to provide a platform for Latinx creators to tell their own stories, which will undoubtedly help to revise some of the harmful stereotypes that pop culture has ingrained in us. Even a show like Mayans M.C., which is very much about drugs and crime, gives its Latinx characters a deeper humanity than we are used to seeing. That gives me some hope.
Which texts—movies, TV shows, or others—would you recommend as companions for your book? What are some must-watches for readers who want to be familiar with what you term as narcomedia?
I’d love to recommend all of Breaking Bad and Narcos as companions to the book. They’re both great television that will inspire readers to think about how we conceptualize the drug trade from cocaine in the 1990s to meth in the 2010s. I also hope that the first couple of chapters of Narcomedia might inspire readers to rewatch Scarface and some episodes of Miami Vice. The Vice episode “Glades” is a perfect encapsulation of many of the concepts with which I am working in the book, including my idea of white-centrism and white innocence in narrating the War on Drugs. But, in a perfect world, readers would seek out all of the media texts I analyze in the book!
Which moments—rewatches of old shows or movies, revisiting books and other written texts, or interviews you conducted—remain your favorites from the process of writing Narcomedia?
Oh, wow, so many. My research for this book took me to some rather unexpected places, from the writers’ room of Narcos to the home of the former mayor of Medellín, Federico Gutiérrez, whom I interviewed for several hours about his mission to reshape foreigners’ perceptions of his city. I also really did enjoy all of the rewatching, including some of the older stuff like the great telenovela El Patrón del Mal and Miami Vice, which was a lot of fun in terms of fashion and music despite some of the more problematic aspects of the show. Fun fact: My acknowledgments do mention the one TV series that my researchers and I found excruciating to watch.
What effect did living in Cali, Colombia, for a time have on the writing of this book?
Narcomedia would not be what it is without the gift that was my sabbatical year in 2019–2020. In many ways, Caleños are still living with the aftermath of the so-called Narco Era. The ruins of expropriated narco mansions are visible all over the city, and just about anyone you talk to who remembers the 1990s has stories about how narco violence affected them or their loved ones. Colombia is in an interesting moment right now, as outsiders are starting to see it as more than a dangerous narco state, and Cali, which has a less developed tourist infrastructure than Medellín or Cartagena, is a fascinating place to explore that. Despite the fact that I was there when the pandemic hit, I am deeply grateful that I had the opportunity to call Cali home for a year and learn from those around me.
Jason Ruiz is an associate professor in the Department of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of Americans in the Treasure House: Travel to Porfirian Mexico and the Cultural Politics of Empire.