A couple of months ago I was walking home and saw an ad for a new TV show at a bus stop: white powder formed an outline of South America, a breeze just beginning to scatter the dust. Narcos, a new drama which chronicles drug kingpin Pablo Escobar’s violent rise and years in power, was now available on Netflix and apparently Colombia was a target audience.
I’ve made no secret of the misconceptions I had of Colombia before we moved to Bogotá—misconceptions that are still common because each time I tell someone from the U.S. that I live in Colombia, it isn’t long until a reference or question about the C word tumbles out. Generally, this is quickly followed by some expression of concern for my safety. Colombia has moved beyond its notoriety for drugs and violence. When will the rest of us?
A Colombian friend recently posted this Ted Talk on her FaceBook page to illustrate her frustration with the common questions and stereotypes she faced as she spent a few months traveling South America. In the presentation, writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie explains her theory of the single story and how dangerous it can be. She gives the example of her childhood: she grew up in a middle-class home with a professor as a father. However, once her college roommate heard she grew up in Nigeria, Chimamanda was put in a box—all her roommate knew of Africa was AIDS, poverty, and genocidal civil wars. When we know only one thing about a person or place, it’s judged before it’s truly known. This is the root of my problem with shows like Narcos.
Shortly after the show’s release, I heard from two different girlfriends, both of whom said they would never have come to Bogotá had they first watched this violent portrayal of Colombia. It doesn’t matter that the series takes place in the 70s and 80s and that Colombia is now a radically different place—if that’s the representation you’re consistently seeing, that is what will form the basis of your opinions.
I’ve read praise for the series, that they did an excellent job adhering to the facts as much as possible and only dramatizing events when necessary to keep the plot moving. In the opening credits, they tell us exactly that. This, however, is my problem: entertainment that’s based on a true story has a funny way of creeping in and making us feel like we’re also being educated. We eat up the “true events” and brush over the “based on.” Accepting what’s seen on screen as gospel with little follow-up to see if these facts are actual facts (or to see if a portrayal is well rounded or to gain wider context) is a dangerous acceptance of a single story.
Unfortunately, when the show ends, most people’s interaction with Colombia’s narrative will also end. Escobar’s death means the finale of a dramatic plot line, and most likely those who’ve been taking in this one piece of Colombia’s story will never go past the final scenes to learn that the Bogotá and Medellin portrayed in the series are the furthest thing from these cities today. Most Americans don’t (and won’t) know that Medellin rebuilt itself into one of the most innovative cities in the world or learn that Colombia has become a world leader in security advisement.
I have to concede that watching an unflinching portrayal of this period gave me a new understanding of why people who lived in Colombia during the 80s and 90s still carry the burdens of their past—if I lived with this type of fear, knew someone who was murdered or kidnapped, or saw my young son forced to become a gun-toting accessory of Escobar, I would have a hard time changing ideas about safety. However, when you compare how outsiders perceive Colombia with its portrayal in popular media, it’s hard to deny the correlation. What we consume as entertainment—especially that potent blend of fictionalized fact—forms our perceptions and opinions. Shows like Narcos, which offer the same overworked slice of Colombian history, only perpetuate the same tired stereotypes.
You’ll never get to the new chapter if you’re continually reading the same story.
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A bit more: scroll to the bottom of this post for a YouTube link to a few ridiculous Hollywood representations of Colombia. When talking about the lagging acceptance of change by some Colombians regarding impressions of safety, I’ve referenced this article, which features a sociologist’s discussion of their study of the way events and memory can impact our perceptions of events happening today.