Narcos, Netflix, and Notoriety

Narcos has always had a difficult needle to thread. In dedicating so much screen time to Pablo Escobar and the likes, Netflix has been accused of glorifying some of the world’s most notorious terrorists. The writers of Narcos have always been sensitive to this slight and made a concerted effort to include the bad and the ugly when it came to Escobar. His bombing of Avianca Flight 203 and the DAS building are both given prominent attention in the series, and his penchant for violence completely undercuts his occasional acts of charity. 

If I had to give Narcos: Columbia a grade, I would probably give it a B+. Escobar was definitely an interesting aspect of the show, but he was never the sole reason to watch the show. I personally considered the conflict between the CIA and the DEA to be one of the most compelling aspects of the show and had that storyline been fleshed out a bit better, Narcos: Columbia could have earned a place in the pantheon of great TV shows.

While Narcos: Columbia almost makes the cut, Narcos: Mexico falls well short of the mark. The first season of Narcos: Mexico was decent, but the second season was a muddled mess. On paper, there is a lot to like about Narcos: Mexico. It has a great cast–Michael Pena and Diego Luna are the main draws for Season One–and the subject matter is undeniably interesting. Unfortunately, there just isn’t much to latch on to with the show. The voice-over narration is frustratingly dry, not to mention overdone, and the characters aren’t all that compelling. With the exception of Kiki, we aren’t given much reason to root for the characters. If anything, we are given reasons to not like them.

Walt Breslin is a good example of this. He comes into the show relatively late, and I think the show creators assumed viewers would find him sympathetic because he purports to be on the side of law and order. He does enter the story with some degree of goodwill because of his connection to Kiki, but it’s immediately squandered on a brutal torture sequence. For reasons I can’t understand, the show creators assumed we would find Breslin’s character more interesting once we watched him lop fingers off a restrained prisoner. In all fairness, the man is a member of Mexico’s DFS–the functional equivalent of the SAVAK if we are to believe the show–but that doesn’t make the sequence any easier to watch. The victim ends up succumbing to his injuries, but not before volunteering the information Breslin needs.

I always find it odd when law and order shows endorse torture as an interrogation technique, and Narcos: Mexico has enough torture to make Jack Bauer blush. Again and again, the bad guys spill the beans because of the miraculous effects of torture, though the good guys never admit anything under duress of course. Somebody who watches Narcos: Mexico could be forgiven for thinking the problem with the criminal justice system is there too much emphasis on getting warrants and too much emphasis on respecting due process.

Torture issues aside, Narcos: Mexico doesn’t seem much interested in the established facts. For the most part, the show is more interested in creating a story inspired by history more than it is based on history. This isn’t a deal breaker per se, Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad includes plenty of storylines that are extremely out of place for the era and it’s still a good read, but it does create some interesting production issues for Narcos: Mexico. During a flashback sequence, Salinas accidentally kills a maid during a historical reenactment gone wrong. Rather than concerning himself with the well-being of his former playmate, the youthful Salinas frets his family will be upset about the bloodstains on their very expensive rug. The depiction is anything but flattering of Mexico’s future president, and I have my doubts Salinas was involved in any such incident. I have no doubts, however, that Salinas was involved in the efforts to rig the 1988 vote. PRI officials have already admitted as much, President Madrid for example, and it’s only logical to assume that Salinas was involved in the vote-rigging efforts that culminated in him being elected. Narcos: Mexico isn’t willing to suggest as much, however, and bleeps out his name in reference to the 1988 election. The attempt at censorship is as baffling as it is illogical. After all, it’s pretty easy to Google who won the 1988 election. Moreover, Narcos: Mexico suggests he was involved in all kinds of disreputable skullduggery so it seems odd for the show to pull its punches when it comes to the skullduggery we know he was involved in. 

Narcos: Mexico could have been a very interesting show. It could have explored Shakespear’s dictum that absolute power corrupts absolutely or Machiavelli’s dictum that the ends justify the means. Instead, we ended up with a show that revels in violence and stints on interesting characters.

Food and history

Earlier this year, I had the good fortune to visit Mexico to do some research related to my historical series, the Tenochtitlan Trilogy, and some close friends from high school were kind enough to join me. As someone who very much appreciates a good meal, I usually make a point to research the local eateries anytime I travel somewhere new but I was much less diligent about doing so on this trip. In some respects, it felt unnecessary considering so many friends who had already told me exactly where I should eat while in Mexico. One friend, Mariana, was even kind enough to provide a nine page itinerary on what to do and where to eat while visiting Mexico City. The suggestions were great and Mexico City was a blast. However, it was not the only city we spent time in during our trip. After about a week in Mexico City, we set off for Veracruz.

Getting to Veracruz was no problem but navigating the food scene was much more difficult. None of us had researched the Veracruz food scene in great depth and most of the restaurant suggestions we had been given were specific to CDMX. We had a great time while in Veracruz, though it might be wrong for to speak on behalf of my friend who suffered some epic food poisoning while there, but the restaurants seemed a little lacking compared to the ones we visited in Mexico City. That changed once we found the Moctezuma restaurant.

The Moctezuma restaurant was not a restaurant any of us had heard of prior to visiting Veracruz. Truth be told, we almost walked past the restaurant. However, owing to the name and the restaurant’s eye-catching mural, we decided to check the place out despite knowing very little about it. I’m glad we did as the Moctezuma restaurant treated us to a dining experience that we will remember fondly for many years to come.

While I am definitely not a professional food critic or a world-class chef, I’m also no stranger to good food. I grew up in a household that put a premium on home cooking and my mother’s culinary skills made her a neighborhood legend. Moreover, spending time in cities like Beijing, Accra, San Francisco, New York, and Washington, DC has only deepened my respect for good food. The food we had at Moctezuma restaurant wasn’t merely good though it was great. Just thinking about our meal is enough to make my mouth water and I will be sure to visit the restaurant next time I am in Veracruz.

The chefs at Moctezuma restaurant should be commended for their intimate knowledge of gastronomy but I think they should also be commended for their skills as “food authors.” Traditionally, authors have been storytellers who employ the written word to relate some sort of narrative but Moctezuma restaurant provides a powerful example of how this is not always the case. A meal can tell a story just as much as a Shakespearean sonnet can, sometimes more so, and the food at Moctezuma restaurant tells a fascinating story deeply rooted in Mexican history.

When the Spanish invaded Mexico in 1519, they brought with them beasts of labor, deadly diseases, and cultural traditions dating back centuries. The Spaniards had every intention of establishing themselves as the dominant power in Mesoamerica and they were very successful in many regards. These days, there are a lot more Christ worshippers in Mexico than there are Huitzilopochtli worshippers. Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to think the Spanish succeeded in remaking Mexico in their image and their imperial ambitions were often thwarted by Amerindians who actively fought attempts at cultural erasure. This resistance manifested itself in many different forms and evidence of it can be found in almost every dish at Moctezuma restaurant.

Staples of Spanish cuisine like beef and pork are served with Mesoamerican staples like chapulites and corn in combinations that showcase an impressive creativity. No one dish can be considered wholly European or Amerindian and the menu speaks to a blending of many unique cultures, a concept that continues to be relevant in modern Mexico. Whether a foodie or a history buff, Moctezuma restaurant has something to offer for everyone and I would highly recommend this restaurant to anyone visiting the Veracruz area.

Review of The Young Jaguar, Book 1 in the Pre-Aztec Trilogy

Truth be told, I cannot remember how I first discovered Zoe Saadia’s work. While she was at one point a traditionally published author, I don’t think I have ever come across her work in a brick and mortar store. Perhaps I found her accidentally or perhaps I found her through Bookbub. No matter the case, I consider myself a big fan and will be sure to read more of her work in the future. Just recently, I finished her pre-Aztec trilogy, which has me reflecting on the first entry in that installment, The Young Jaguar.

To be completely honest, I was not that keen on the book cover and might have passed it up had I seen it in a bookstore. If I had, it would have been a big mistake. The Young Jaguar was one of my favorite reads of 2018 and a great example of historical fiction that educates as it entertains. I have studied Mesoamerican history pretty intensively–I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the Spanish-Mexica war and I have traveled to numerous pre-Hispanic sites in Mexicobut I knew next to nothing about the Tepanecs prior to reading The Young Jaguar.

In all fairness, not that much has been written about the Tepanecs in English. A long time ago, they were one of the most powerful polities in all of Mesoamerica but they were eventually supplanted in power by the Mexica, who established a much more powerful and much longer lasting military confederacy. During the time period that The Young Jaguar is set in, the Tepanecs are at the height of their power and the Mexica are eeking out a miserable existence along the shores of Lake Xochimilco. Most of the Tepanec elite can not be bothered to spare a thought for the weak Mexica people but the antagonist of the novel, Revered Uncle, is practically obsessed with them. He fears the Mexica will one day displace the Tepanecs but he cannot approve any military campaigns against the Mexica since he is a mere advisor. Few agree with his dark predictions but the death of Acolnahuacatl offers a unique opportunity to install a new ruler sympathetic to his own world viewif Revered Uncle is willing to force aside the legitimate heir.

Initially, the protagonist of the novel, Atolli, is inclined to offer his support to Revered Uncle. At this point, he does not understand Revered Uncle’s ultimate goal but he knows he is very fond of Revered Uncle’s daughter. It soon becomes clear, however, that supporting Revered Uncle will put Atolli in direct conflict with his father. His father cares little for politics but has a strong sense of duty that compels him to support the legitimate heir, a man who’d rather make war against distant peoples than confront the threat posed by the Mexica. A Mesoamerican version of Ned Stark, Tecpatl is willing to put his own life at risk to make sure the legitimate heir takes the throne. His foreign-born wife, Sakuna, feels a similar sense of duty, but devotes herself to protecting her family, even if it means making a deal with Revered Uncle that would force her to betray Tecpatl’s trust.

While the complex dynamic of the characters creates for some interesting twists and turns, the great strength of The Young Jaguar is Saadia’s ability to make the reader understand the motivations of the various characters. There may be no better example of this than Revered Uncle. A thuggish schemer, Revered Uncle a penchant for violence matched only by his knowledge of his domestic politics. He is not exactly a sympathetic character but he is definitely a character who understands the threat posed by the Mexica. He genuinely cares about the well-being of the Tepanec nation and like Tecpatl, the heroic War Chief who opposes him at every turn, cares little for material wealth or formal titles. He is as cunning as Tecpatl is naive and he helps makes The Young Jaguar a fascinating read. I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in Mesoamerican history or to anyone who enjoys fast-paced narratives with complex characters.

This book is available on Amazon in the Kindle store and through Kindle select.