Narco Dramas: How They Shape Latino Perceptions

A still image from the Netflix series "Narcos Mexico" depicting a woman and three men sitting inside a luxury home.

Throughout the history of storytelling, media representations of different cultures and communities have played a significant role in shaping public perception. Unsurprisingly, these depictions have a lasting impact.

For Latinos, this influence has often been one-sided, with popular media frequently portraying us within a narrow scope. The rise of narco dramas that often glorify drug cartels, as exemplified by shows like "Narcos," "Breaking Bad," "El Chapo," and "Queen of the South," has raised significant concerns about the way Latinos are represented in popular culture.

A still image from the Netflix series "Narcos Mexico" depicting six armed men standing beside a truck inside a garage.IMDB

This narrative, centered on the lives of drug traffickers and drug cartels, aka 'narcos,' tends to emphasize violence, crime, and lawlessness, painting a picture far removed from the diverse, vibrant, and multi-faceted reality of Latino communities. So, how has this trend impacted the image of Latinos?

The Rise of Narco Culture in Media

Since the release of "Narcos" on Netflix in 2015, the world has seen a rise in drug cartel dramas. These series, while dramatic and engaging, often focus on the most dangerous elements of Latino societies, presenting a skewed perception of Latin America as a haven for crime and corruption. Such depictions have a tangible impact on public perception, reinforcing harmful stereotypes and feeding into prejudices against Latinos.

The portrayal of Latino characters, specifically males, in these series, predominantly centers around the 'macho' narco, exhibiting hyper-masculinity and often engaging in violent, criminal behavior. This representation reinforces the stereotype of the violent, dangerous Latino man, contributing to a distorted view that alienates and stigmatizes Latino communities.

A still image from the Netflix series "Narcos" depicting five men standing in front of Pablo Escobar, played by Wagner Moura.


This skewed representation in popular media has contributed to the shaping of the Latino image in the global psyche, often leading to harmful consequences. For example, research has shown that such portrayals can influence policies, such as immigration laws, where Latino immigrants are more likely to be seen as a threat. Who can forget when former Rep. Steve King (R) argued during his opposition to the DREAM Act and referring to undocumented immigrants, "For everyone who's a valedictorian, there's another 100 out there that weigh 130 pounds, and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they're hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.".

The Role of Latina Women in Narco Dramas

Interestingly, narco dramas also present an intriguing portrayal of Latina women. Shows like "La Reina del Sur" and "Queen of the South" depict Latina women as powerful figures within the narco world. They are shown as strong, intelligent, and fiercely independent, often rising to leadership positions in a male-dominated world.

While this portrayal, in some ways, challenges traditional gender roles and norms, it also raises concerns. These shows, while empowering, are still set within a crime-ridden, violent context. Hence, they continue to contribute to the overall image of Latinos as tied to the underworld, which can overshadow the positive representation of strong, capable Latina women.

A still image from the Netflix series "Queen of the South" depicting three women in dresses

Additionally, the representation of Latina women as sensual femme fatales plays into another harmful stereotype. While these characters are often portrayed as empowered, their sexualization can limit their representation to their physical attributes and appeal, thereby reducing the complexity of their characters.

Toward a More Balanced Representation

In the face of these controversies, it is clear that a more balanced portrayal of Latinos in popular media is necessary. Latinos are doctors, teachers, entrepreneurs, artists, scientists, and so much more. These narratives deserve to be told and celebrated. Shows like "The Lincoln Lawyer," "On My Block," and "Gentefied," among others, have made strides in showcasing the multi-dimensional nature of Latino lives, highlighting the richness of their culture, struggles, and triumphs.

American Latinos are more than the roles that have been scripted by white studio executives and showrunners. It’s not the first time, or the last time, that the harm these stereotypes cause will be called out, but what is clear, is that the calls to tell authentic and accurate Latino stories continues to get louder.

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