Does art imitate life or does life imitate art? Every time a questionable video game, song, or film gets released the media launches an attack filling the airwaves with contentious debates. Usually a level-headed, well-read individual who runs an organization with a totally ambiguous and meaningless name like “Americans for a Better and Safer Life” will go off on a tirade about how hip hop is the bane of society or how graphic video games make children more aggressive.
The documentary Narco Cultura explores the interaction between the musical genre of narcocorridos, popular in both the United States and Mexico, and the violent drug trafficking culture that it draws inspiration from. The Israeli-born director, Shaul Schwarz, walks a fine line between simply documenting a subculture and being critical of the genre it depicts. Inevitably, through editing and choice of subjects his movie weighs in on the debate: do narcorridos glorify and incite the violent and gruesome behaviors they depict?
First we meet Richi Soto, a soft-spoken crime scene investigator in Ciudad Juarez, one of the cities hardest hit by the war on drugs. Then we are introduced to Edgar Quintero a Los Angeles-raised Mexican-American who dreams of hitting it big singing the narcocorridos that he writes. The action switches back-and-forth between the U.S. and Mexico. Bloody, lifeless bodies pile up in the Juarez forensic lab where Richi works — then the action cuts to a fancy recording studio. Back in Los Angeles, far away from the violence Edgar croons into a microphone, “With an AK 47 but no bullet-proof vest, I cruised in my white truck, with my rifle I hit one.” The purposeful juxtaposition leaves the audience with no choice, of course you compare the two. After watching a mother scream in agony, demanding an end to the drug violence that took her son’s life, to then see Edgar up on stage leading a large, dancing crowd in a chorus of, “We’re bloodthirsty, crazy, and we like to kill,” narcocorrido singers look absurd and even heartless.
It’s no surprise that critics have reacted strongly to the film and its subjects. John Anderson in a review for Indiewire titled, “’Narco Cultura’ Depicts a Mexican Culture that Glorifies Murder, Decapitation and Crime” goes on to say:
“It’s hard to say what’s more disturbing about Shaul Schwarz’s excellent ‘Narco Cultura.’ Is it the dead children, wailing mothers and bloody water running through the gutters of Juarez? Or the roomful of clueless idiots at Hollywood’s House of Blues, singing along to a Movimiento Alterado chestbeater (“we’re bloodthirsty, crazy and we like to kill…”) about cutting people’s heads off?”
I take issue with this critic’s reception of the film. The fans of narcocorridos are not rich, they are immigrants and workers. Most narcos are people who grew up struggling but sold drugs to make money (but yes, they are now loaded.) When it comes to communities of color or communities that are fighting to survive, the culture that comes out of these working-class communities — usually music — is almost always criticized and denigrated. The clearest example is the constant chatter about gangster rap and the effect its depiction of violence will have on its young, impressionable enthusiasts. Such is the crux of my problem with Narco Cultura or more precisely with the reaction it incites in audiences.
I do not disagree with the fact that the narcocorrido genre glorifies violence, but glorifying violence is not the same thing as advocating for or justifying violence. More importantly, a critique of the purveyors or consumers of narcocorridos misses the point. Instead of looking down at fans for enjoying these songs, the more important question is why are increasing numbers of Mexicans (both at home and abroad) drawn to narco culture? Despite being banned from Mexican radio, devotees find a way to get a hold of the music either by downloading or buying bootleg CDs. In the U.S., narcocorrido albums sell big at Walmart and music venues are easily filled to capacity.
About an hour into the documentary Sandra Rodriguez, a journalist at the Mexican newspaper El Diario, illuminates the phenomenon, “The kids want to look like narcos, what I think, is because they represent an idea of success and power and impunity…” These few sentences sum up what is missing from the film’s discussion of narcocorridos and narco-related violence in Mexico. A narcocorrido fan’s response to the music is an expression of disempowered people looking for an escape.
In the documentary, even Richi — the real-life CSI cop who collects corpses on a daily basis — is seen dancing to narcocorridos at a family party. Is he a “clueless idiot” or just an average Joe enjoying a catchy song? In season two of Breaking Bad an episode featured a sample of “Negro y Azul,” a narcocorrido by Los Cuates de Sinaloa. Is Vince Gilligan, creator of Breaking Bad (and co-writer of the lyrics for “Negro y Azul”) a clueless idiot or is he just jumping on a cultural bandwagon?
Somehow it’s ok when educated, sensible (read white/American) people listen to this music but the fear is that when lower class Mexicans listen they will seek to emulate it. A lot of the criticism launched at narco culture is couched in classism. Rather than discount the fans as stupid or ignorant let’s discuss what got us here in the first place — the ill-launched drug war and U.S. consumption of illegal drugs. It seems to me that the bureaucrats that created our failing drug policies are the clueless, heartless idiots.