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Mexican Studies

In February 2019, Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos announced that Netflix Mexico would produce fifty television shows and films over the following two years, making it the platform’s international territory with the most targeted productions. The promotional video following the announcement features Sarandos driving around Mexico City, picking up six of the stars of Netflix Mexico original series, and engaging in a kind of carpool karaoke to one of Luis Miguel’s songs. By putting together these six actors, the video intends to showcase the diversity of content that the streaming service offers to Mexican audiences: reality TV, thriller, comedy, musical. Implicitly (and perhaps unwittingly), the promo also illustrates a key similarity among all these stars: they are all white.

In the spring of 2020, the whiteness of Netflix Mexico’s programming has returned as a topic of conversation. On social media, this renewed discussion has been bolstered by the trend of calling out “cosas de whitexicans,” i.e. media and cultural fads that foreground white (usually affluent) Mexicans. For instance, a widely popular tweet featuring the all-white cast pictures of La Casa de las Flores (2018-2020), Control Z (2020), Made in Mexico (2018), and Monarca (2019) points out that this is “what Mexicans look like according to Netflix.”

More notably, Netflix talent impacted by racism in production and reception contexts have unequivocally made their concerns heard. In a recent New York Times op-ed, the star of Roma Yalitza Paricio writes of the racist backlash on social media that she suffered following her Oscar nomination. (She does not mention the brownface sketch mocking her on national television or the actresses who allegedly conspired to prevent her from a nomination to the Mexican film awards). Amidst the summer 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, Tenoch Huerta (of Narcos: Mexico) tweeted “When you’re done supporting the much-needed anti-racism movement in the United States, can we talk about racism in Mexico? Or is that still taboo?” Long outspoken on the rampant racism in Mexico’s screen industries, Huerta repeatedly receives pushback whenever he brings up these issues on social media. Paradoxically, his association with Netflix has allowed him greater recognition to address issues of racial disparity even as the platform emerges as a prime example of these issues.

In my In Focus article for the Journal of Cinema and Media Studies, I argue that Netflix Mexico is a middle class platform in terms of access, content, and imagined audience. Stratified access to high-speed internet and prohibitive hardware costs means that only the middle- and upper-middle-class can afford to engage with the platform. Critics engagement with Netflix content tends to treat it as part of the “quality television” discourse, in contradistinction to the lesser-valued content on national broadcast networks. Netflix itself has played into these different class connotations in the past, such as when the platform sought to distance itself from Televisa’s streaming platform Blim by making fun of telenovelas. Understanding the platform’s class dynamics helps us make sense of its original programming decisions within the country.

Understanding Netflix Mexico as a white middle class platform has further implications for understanding its cultural work around the world. As scholars and fans have pointed out, white affluent protagonists have long been a staple of Mexican television giants Televisa and TV Azteca. Netflix Mexico, however, aims to interpellate an international, multilingual audience with its content. La Casa de las Flores may be a retread of the “new Mexican telenovela” of the 1990s, but the soundtrack and casting choices betray its aspirations to appeal to audiences in Zurich and Seoul alike. Notice also in the Sarandos promo video that, despite the titles in Spanish, all the actors speak fluent English.

The whiteness of Netflix Mexico’s original content represents the projection of intra-national racial hierarchies onto a transnational arena. The international territory with the most targeted Netflix original content proves to be only the latest site of struggle for actors and creatives of color seeking more diverse labor opportunities and for audiences seeking representations beyond the white and affluent global norm.

[The original post of which this is an expansion appeared on In Media Res‘ week on “Global Netflix.”]

La+revolucion+Poster_web-2This spring I had the opportunity to program a film screening at UC Santa Barbara’s Pollock Theater and chose La Revolución de los Alcatraces (2013), an award-winning documentary by Mexican filmmaker Luciana Kaplan.

La Revolución tells the story of Eufrosina Cruz Mendoza, a native of Santa María Quiegolani, a small indigenous community in southern Oaxaca, Mexico. Eufrosina ran for town mayor in 2007, but her election was invalidated because of a “usos y costumbres” ruling — a legal stature that allows indigenous communities to set their local traditions as law — that dictated women were not allowed to be elected to office. The film follows her subsequent personal crusade not only to overturn such a ruling but also to expand the opportunities for women across Oaxaca’s indigenous communities. By questioning the hypocrisies of a political system that allows indigenous rights only when it is convenient for national parties, Eufrosina soon becomes an icon of gender and indigenous rights in her state, albeit at continuous personal expense.

This film portrays Eufrosina’s personal journey and activist awakening and ends with when she accepts a position in the state legislature as a member of the PAN, the conservative party. Since then, her roles have expanded, as she is now the President of the Committee for Indigenous Affairs in the Mexican Congress. In September 2014, she was part of the delegation that accompanied President Peña Nieto to the UN’s Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. She used that opportunity to convince the President to support her bill, nicknamed Ley Eufrosina, which modified the “usos y costumbres” stature so it could not be used to discriminate based on gender or race. The bill was approved by Congress a month later.

Screening La Revolución was important for a variety of reasons. It was part of an undergraduate Mexican Film and Television seminar at UC Santa Barbara whose emphasis was on productions beyond the globally recognized Mexican auteurs. Bringing Luciana Kaplan to the class and to the Pollock to present her film showcased the diversity of voices in Mexican screen media. Kaplan was a particularly illuminating person since she is also the coordinator of the Documentary Program at the Centro de Capacitación Cinematográfica (CCC), one of Mexico’s main cinema schools. Her talks provided insights into filmmaking, teaching, and funding practices in the country — including the fact that most documentary filmmakers in Mexico are women.

The event was also important because of how the film speaks to the current political climate in the United States, particularly the involvement of minorities in politics and the 2016 presidential election. In my post-screening interview with Kaplan, we spent some time discussing the title change from Spanish to English, from “The Revolution of the Calla Lilies” to “Eufrosina’s Revolution,” as symptomatic of the tension between the individual pursuing political change and the revolutionary sentiment of a community. This also led us to think about the limits of identity politics. It was inevitable to draw parallels between this story and the presidential hopefuls calling for a political revolution or for the symbolic importance of a woman in a leadership position. And, finally, about the role of artists and academics in interrogating these ideals.

Watch the entire post-screening interview below.