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Burning The Bridge

As Season 1 of the FX series winds down, an author who lived in Ciudad Juárez takes issue with the show's portrayal of the border

My colleague Luis rarely goes two weeks without visiting the Kentucky Club. If he’s been away from Ciudad Juárez on assignment, reporting a story in Texas or down in some dusty Chihuahua outpost, he’ll always return to cigarettes and beer at the most famous bar in his Mexican hometown. The Kentucky Club is where Marilyn Monroe toasted her divorce from the playwright Arthur Miller. Steve McQueen and Jack Kerouac drank here. Clark Gable drank here, too, when he served out World War II at Fort Bliss, in nearby El Paso. The margarita was supposedly invented at the Kentucky Club, though I don’t believe it. Tonight I opt for a cerveza Indio en un vaso Cubano, which I carry over to a table with Luis and a few of our friends.

A Javier Solis bolero animates the jukebox. Fumes from our cigarettes float over to the oak bar, winding under red-and-green plastic streamers before passing the No Fumar sign everyone ignores. It’s a Wednesday night, but the bar is pretty crowded, much more so than when I lived in Juárez a couple years ago, at the height of cartel violence. I was following the city’s soccer team back then, an experience I chronicled in the book This Love Is Not for Cowards. Looking through the glass front door out to Avenida Juárez, I see a few dozen bicycles waiting for their owners — a Critical Mass El Paso splinter group — to finish their margaritas. The icy cocktail is a reason why the Kentucky Club remains popular with visitors. Another reason: The bar is located only steps from the Santa Fe Bridge to downtown El Paso, making it easy for gringos to duck in for a shot of Mexico and then stumble back to the safety of the United States.

It’s kind of a cliché for an American journalist like me to even come here. It’s definitely a cliché to write about Juárez from a seat at one of the bar’s wobbly wood tables. Barely in Mexico, the Kentucky Club offers the Juárez experience without requiring one to navigate the city’s messy complexities. Which is why it seems an appropriate place to park myself tonight, since I’ve been drawn back to the border by the TV show The Bridge, which FX announced Tuesday will be renewed for a second season.

The series debuted in July to strong reviews. Grantland’s Andy Greenwald applauded the show’s ambition and performances. “Compelling and thought-provoking,” concluded The Daily Beast. Entertainment Weekly placed The Bridge atop its “Hot List.” The show is a franchised remake of the Scandinavian series Bron/Broen. Initially, the American version was to be set on a tollway between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario. The showrunners, Meredith Stiehm and Elwood Reid, successfully argued for a Southwestern relocation, placing the bisected corpses that set off the plot on one of the four bridges connecting El Paso and Juárez.

It was a smart decision. Juárez and El Paso are fascinating cities, both underobserved. Mexicans tend to regard Juárez as an “other,” a place geographically removed from the rest of their country. El Paso and its issues are physically isolated, too, from the rest of Texas and New Mexico. The twin desert towns, with a combined population of more than 2 million, are left to hug each other. Family and work and money and culture flow in both directions across the Rio Grande. Setting the show on la frontera opens up the topics of immigration, trafficking, and the disastrous American war on drugs, among other things, all of which the showrunners say they’re jazzed to tackle.

I was already onboard; I’d check out any show set here. I started to get truly pumped for The Bridge, though, when I read that its creators were inspired by the HBO series The Wire. “Our model in our minds is the way The Wire became about so many things in the city,” Stiehm said prior to the airing of the pilot. “It wasn’t just a cop show.” That’s a lofty goal, and according to reviews of the first few episodes, The Bridge seemed capable of reaching it. “Could The Bridge Do for Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, what The Wire Did for Baltimore?” asked the critic at Slate.com.

So why did an El Paso journalist I know turn off The Bridge halfway through the pilot? Why, during the airing of that pilot, did a friend wonder if I was hitting my head against a table in disgust? (Indeed, that’s what I was doing.) Because The Bridge gets the border so wrong it’s painful. For those of us who know la frontera well, the show can be hard to watch.

It’s not the little things, the shortcuts many shows take when setting a story. It didn’t really faze me that almost all the characters based in El Paso are white and speak only English. (In reality, El Paso is more than 80 percent Mexican, and Spanish is spoken almost everywhere.) I had no real problem, either, when it was revealed in the first episode that an El Paso judge who was killed, chopped in half, and dumped on the Cordova Bridge had apparently (and incongruously) been a right-wing opponent of immigration. Her politics are unlikely to be found in real-life Sun City. Texas is deep red, but El Paso is blue.

I mean, yes, these errors disappointed me. You can’t duplicate The Wire by not sweating the small stuff. Wire creator David Simon has been described as an “authenticity freak.” Nailing the details of everyday Baltimore gave his show credibility. The characters Bodie and Omar and Avon lived in a reality informed by Simon’s career as a Baltimore newspaper reporter. He covered the police beat for 13 years, he wrote two nonfiction classics about the city, and he worked on two Baltimore-based shows before launching his masterpiece.

The Wire gave off an authentic vibe that The Bridge made clear, right off the bat, it wouldn’t match. The Bridge won’t even come close. The Wire was filmed in Baltimore, with local actors. The Bridge is largely filmed in Van Nuys, California. One of The Wire‘s lead writers labored for years as a Baltimore homicide detective. You can’t equal that kind of inside knowledge by skimming a few books about the border. The Bridge is to The Wire as Sharknado is to Jaws.

But so what? Comparing your high-minded crime drama to The Wire has become all but obligatory for showrunners promoting a new project. It’s not a surprise that barely any of these shows live up to the standard set by perhaps the best TV series ever made. The Bridge is still a well-acted murder mystery with sharp plot twists that, as a drama, merits the praise critics have given it. So its architects don’t understand the border — big deal. Another cable show, Burn Notice, wasn’t an accurate portrayal of life in Miami, where I currently live. Dexter, also set in a Miami I don’t recognize, didn’t leave me pounding my head on tables.

There’s something more insidious about The Bridge, I think. The show claims to address real border issues. The crime and corruption in the real Juárez give the show its cultural heat. When The Bridge bends reality for the sake of the narrative, it’s doing something that just about all TV dramas do. But The Bridge presents itself as something more than that — something true to life. Instead, by getting border issues so wrong, the show feels like it’s exploiting Juárez, the same city it supposedly portrays with great care and accuracy. And this city may be my favorite place on earth.

Right from the opening of the pilot, the Mexican border town has been cast as hell, a sinister place where no sane person, especially a woman, would ever set foot. A city so randomly violent that a haggler trying to save money at a downtown market is shot dead, on impulse.1 The show’s first image of Juárez reveals a seedy downtown crawling with sex workers and leering johns. To the writers’ sensibilities, Juárez is a Gomorrah where a corrupt police chief plays poker at a party stocked with liquor, cigars, and, inexplicably, caged tigers. “Damn, the accuracy of this show is kinda scary,” cracked someone on an El Paso Times liveblog when the poker scene first aired. “Caged tigers at parties!” I was especially saddened, not a half-hour into the pilot, when it was revealed that the many problems plaguing Juárez were going to be reduced to the hoary cliché of young girls plucked off the streets and murdered by serial killers.

This is what Hollywood does with Juárez, as those who were unfortunate enough to have watched Jennifer Lopez in Bordertown already know. Just about every film and documentary about the city focuses solely on missing and dead girls. I’ve read Juarez-based pulp novels that climax in cocaine-fueled gang bangs hosted by evil and powerful men — the kind of guys, basically, who bring live tigers to their Wednesday-night poker game. Even stories about Juárez published in credible newspapers and magazines overflow with conjecture that never would be allowed in their pages when covering, say, Washington, D.C.2 More than mischaracterizing the demographics of El Paso or overplaying the cartoon villainy of crooked cops, more than any other detail, the portrayal of female homicide in The Bridge is the showrunners’ most exasperating decision.

Juárez is a murder capital. No doubt about it. Two years ago it was known as the most violent city in the world. But here’s the deal: Almost everybody who is murdered in Juárez is male. A man or a boy. By far. The numbers of women and girls killed in Juárez, as a percentage of the total murder victims, have long been lower than in other large cities. I don’t only mean Mexican cities, but also American cities like Cleveland, where we know at least one man plucked girls off the street, chained them up, and sexually tortured them for a decade. Cleveland is also where police recently charged a sex offender with the murders of three more women found dumped in an overgrown field, in a garage, and in a basement. Cuyahoga County, or Greater Cleveland, has about the same population as Juárez. In 2006, a year when the murder of women was pretty much the Juárez civic brand — that was the year Borderland came out — there were far more total murders in Juárez than in Greater Cleveland, 253 to 146. Yet more women were killed in the Ohio county, 27, than were killed in Juárez, 20.

People on the border know this. Two El Paso anthropologists, writing in the Harvard University journal ReVista, insist that it’s wrong to “demonize” their Mexican sister city as “the unique, women-killing stain on the international map.”3 Osvaldo Rodríguez Borunda, publisher of El Diario de Juárez newspaper — anything but a Chamber of Commerce mouthpiece — has referred to the claim that girls are especially vulnerable in Juárez as a “myth,” a “black legend,” and a “great lie.” Also dropping the word “myth”? Ian Brownlee, the city’s U.S. consul general:

“I live in Juárez and I find that one of the interesting ongoing myths about the place is that huge numbers of women have been murdered there because of their gender,” Brownlee responded to the Slate.com review of The Bridge. “It’s a violent place to be sure, with a homicide rate to embarrass even the most jaded politician, but 90 percent of the victims are male. In fact, the proportion of female homicide victims even during the worst year (2010) was half that of the United States — about 10 percent in Juárez as opposed to about 20 percent in the United States. Way, way too many people get killed in Juárez, but women are not special, except by their comparative rarity.”

Did you catch that? Brownlee, our man in Juárez, notes how remarkably few women are killed in the city. Fewer still of these female victims in Juárez are girls or teenagers, the dead bodies spotlighted in The Bridge. Focusing only on dead girls is like focusing on only murdered left-handers, or baseball fans. You can do it, and the victims deserve justice, but it’s a bit odd to single out only one group when more than 97 percent of all murders in Juarez go unsolved. Impunity is the problem, and it’s universal in the city. Somebody is murdering left-handers in Juárez, torturing them, and dumping their mutilated bodies in the desert, and the authorities care so little about left-handers that they refuse to find the killers.

The writers of The Bridge, parked out in California, don’t know Juárez well enough to realize this. The show’s pilot opens with one upper and one lower torso dumped on the Cordova Bridge. One of the torsos, female, belongs to the conservative judge from El Paso. The other torso, as the cliché demands, is half of a pretty young girl from Juárez. According to a message relayed by the shadowy killer, the Juárez victim, Cristina Fuentes, “died 14 months ago. Nobody investigated. Nobody cared. Just another dead girl.”

But now that the El Paso police are involved, somebody finally cares. Specifically a beautiful, blonde detective with Asperger’s syndrome named Sonya Cross. (She’s played by Diane Kruger.) Her cohort from the Chihuahua State Police, Marco Ruiz (Demián Bichir) has to explain to her why Fuentes’s disappearance wasn’t looked into. She was “only one of 250 girls who disappeared last year. They go missing from buses, factories, always 15 to 20 years old. Dark hair, beautiful.”

“So you have a serial killer?” asks Cross.

“Nobody knows,” Ruiz responds. “There’s just too many. The chiefs, they really don’t want us to investigate. Easier that way.”

Not mentioned: More men and boys disappear every year in Juárez than do women and girls. And, crucially, if this really were Juárez, on the day Fuentes’s body was discovered the remains of as many as nine men and boys might have been found, too. And nobody would have investigated the deaths of those male victims, either. Gender has nothing to do with this police failure. To ignore this context is to grotesquely misrepresent what’s happening in the city.

Which is what The Bridge does, over and over.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Ruiz barks when Detective Cross says she wants to enter Juárez to interview the dead girl’s parents. “What are you going to do, pull up your hoodie, tuck back your hair? I’m not taking you to Juárez. Forget about it.” Essentially, he’s telling her, a woman who sets foot in the city is liable to be killed on the spot. That implication is advanced in the fourth episode, when a journalist played by Matthew Lillard asks Ruiz if his wife lives with him in Juárez. She does. “I bet she looooves that,” Lillard says, snorting, as if all women in Juárez await a gruesome death.

Want to know what women in Juárez are doing right now? CrossFit. They’re picking up their dogs at the vet. They’re commuting to work, or back from work, or they’re home eating dinner with their children. Juárez is a pretty big city. A lot of people in Juárez are doing a lot of different things, just like the residents of cities around the world. And this despite the government being so corrupt and ineffective that murder and most other crimes are functionally legal. If Juárez really were hell, everybody in the city would be dead by now.

It’s not hell. It’s actually pretty great, but with real and endemic problems that sometimes seem impossible to solve. These problems, in their complexity, could fuel an ambitious television drama. The Bridge is not that show. Bichir, the actor who plays Detective Marco Ruiz, admits as much. He grew up in Mexico City. He tries to get The Bridge to reflect real life in his country, he says, but the producers reject much of his input. In an interview that aired before the show premiered, he seemed to apologize for the entire project.

“You will probably see another ugly side of Juárez just because it is the way it works,” Bichir said in a story posted to the website of El Paso TV station KFOX. “And that’s not necessarily accurate. It works for the story we’re telling, but that is that … Some of the ugly parts that you see, isn’t Mexico. That’s not Ciudad Juárez. I have a lot of family and friends in Ciudad Juárez. I’ve done business in Ciudad Juárez for many years with theater and as a tourist. It’s a beautiful city and a fantastic place, but the story we’re telling, you will see a different side of it. So hopefully people can understand this is fiction.”

It is fiction. For sure. Elwood Reid, one of The Bridge‘s showrunners, told the El Paso Times he didn’t know much about Juárez when he took on the show. “I spent a little time in Mexico,” he said, “but in weird areas, like down in Baja.” After production began, he finally toured the city he is portraying onscreen. It reminded him of Cleveland. “It’s heavy-duty working class,” he told the newspaper. “People work there. That was the feeling I got in Juárez … You know you read the stories and you think, ‘Oh, heads are rolling in the streets.’ I didn’t feel that way at all … I didn’t feel in danger at all. Everybody I met was incredibly friendly and nice. And the town had a real working-class feel.”

Now that sounds like the Juárez I know. It’s a city without pretense. Almost everyone in this town landed here for work. And every morning they get up and get at it. It would be nice if Reid’s newfound insight worked into the narratives he and his colleagues are scripting. Except his partner, Meredith Stiehm, has already revealed how unlikely that is to happen.

“I don’t know if you know about the girls of Juárez, it’s a genocide, really,” Stiehm told journalist Alan Sepinwall before the pilot aired.4 “These girls have been missing and being found dead for years, decades. And something we say in the room a lot is: What drugs are to Baltimore, the girls are to Juárez. It’s a chronic, horrible crime and situation that we want to take on. And to us, that’s really what our second season is going to be about but we’re going to start it now, The Girls of Juárez.”

Fantastic. I can’t wait. The complicated truth about Juárez can’t derail a sexy narrative like that, not when the writers know next to nothing about the city in the first place. It’s one thing that they’ve set their fictional story in a real place. It’s quite another for Stiehm to claim that her fiction reflects a truth (it doesn’t) or that the show is more than just a popcorn thriller (it isn’t).

Here at the Kentucky Club, we’re well into another round of drinks when Luis announces a thirst for chuchos (shots of tequila infused with chuchupaste root). They don’t sell them here, but we know they’re served down the street at Club 15, another old-school dive. We’re settling the tab when I realize we’re missing another episode of The Bridge. I’ll catch up online in a day or two, I guess. Probably. My hate-watching is losing steam. The border touches the show employs are proving mostly generic. A sign in Spanish to indicate Mexico. A cowboy hat to indicate Texas. The few authentic details — like an El Paso Times website that looks just like the paper’s real site — can feel jarring, a reminder of just how unreal The Bridge is.5

As we step out onto Avenida Juárez, the air is hot and still. A young man and woman from Critical Mass El Paso flirt while leaning on their bicycles. A vendor offers us tiny boxes of Chiclets. We walk down to our tequila shots, passing the Felix Bar, where prostitutes wait for customers. I hesitate to include this detail, as it’s the kind of thing some people glom on to, blocking out the gum vendor and the recreational cyclists. There are prostitutes! In Juárez! What can I say? There are prostitutes here. Some people here launder drug money. Others steal cars and still others extort small businesses. I know a guy who can get me some cocaine, if you can believe that. It’s a lot like Miami in that way.

Juárez has stupendous problems. These problems are systemic and entrenched. Murder is one of Juárez’s problems. The murder of girls is one of these problems, too, as domestic violence and sex trafficking are problems around the world. But none of these ugly truths alone define the city, nor do they live in a vacuum removed from the city’s many joys. Except, it seems, in a writers’ room in Southern California. The people behind The Bridge have reduced Juárez, and all of Mexico, to an “other.” The city in the show isn’t a real place. Not like, say, Cleveland. And the people who live here, those Mexicans, they’re not quite as human as the rest of us.

I didn’t think it could be done to a town with a reputation as bad as Juárez’s, but the writers of The Bridge have delivered a cheap shot. They’ve revealed themselves as out-of-touch Americans, the latest to marginalize Mexico for personal gain. Their show is offensive and perplexing. Authenticity is the stated aim. The model, supposedly, is The Wire. Yet they don’t care to get the city right? Obviously they don’t spend time here. But why not? Are they scared? ¿No tienen huevos, amigos? Certainly, none of The Bridge‘s writers are here with Luis and me as we slam our first round of chuchos. We’re still only a few blocks from the border, and yet we’re in a place — literally and figuratively — where we know the show will never go.

Robert Andrew Powell (@robertandrewp) is a contributing editor at Howler magazine. His third book, Running Away: A Memoir, will be published in April.

Filed Under: FX, Movies, Thor, TV

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Robert Andrew Powell is a contributing editor at Howler magazine and the author of This Love is Not for Cowards: Salvation and Soccer in Ciudad Juárez and Running Away: A Memoir.

Archive @ robertandrewp

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