Postmortem: Did 'True Detective' Do Justice to Latino California?
In its shift to the different psychosphere of California, the show’s second season perpetuated Latino stereotypes instead of giving us a deeper and truer examination of the Golden State
Following the season finalé of HBO’s True Detective, I can’t help but reflect on how this second season — set in southern and central California rather than the Louisiana bayous — used and treated its Latino/Latina characters.
In an episode halfway through the season ("Other Lives"), after a big shoot-out that marked a turning point in the labyrinthine murder mystery, Detective Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell) looks around an overcrowded housing complex filled with undocumented Latino immigrants and their children — kids digging in patches of dirt, women patting tortilla dough outside — and mutters to himself “Jesus Christ” with a look of disgust and disbelief as he walks away.
What Velcoro is pondering at that moment is ambiguous. We've already seen him concerned for, and then angered by, a group of Latino kids who refuse to stop playing around an industrial toxic waste site. Is he fatigued by the numbers and poverty of the immigrants he sees in the dilapidated apartment complex in which he has been appointed rent collector by mobster Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughan)? “¿Inmigración, entiende?” Or is he well aware of a larger system in which Vinci — the fictional industrial city in which the show is set — profits heavily off of immigrant laborers?
Throughout season 2, Latinos and Latinas are portrayed as violent drug dealers, low-wage laborers such as bartenders and maids, fearful undocumented immigrants, or characters defined primarily through sex (i.e., prostitutes, gay lovers, or pregnant girlfriends). Yes, the show is set in an economically depressed community where these characters would possibly exist in reality, but the fact that Latino characters (particularly those of Mexican origin) remain tied to centuries-old stereotypes of the Mexican drunk, sexual deviant, and cheap laborer is harmful considering contemporary political discourse — most recently, that of Donald Trump — that vilifies Mexicans and other groups of Latinos (e.g., unauthorized or unaccompanied Central American migrants) as dangerous criminals.
How does True Detective stack up with the real Latino California, and what did the series miss the opportunity to address? In 2014, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, Latinos officially became the largest ethnic group in California, with approximately 14.99 million Latinos living in the state, compared to 14.92 million white residents. It’s the third US state not to have a white majority (New Mexico and Hawai’i are the others); more Latinos live in Los Angeles County than any other US county.
Pizzolatto showed he was aware of these demographics through his casting, but didn’t provide much nuance to Latino lives beyond familiar tropes. The character of Emily (Adria Arjona) is introduced in her underwear, desperate for sex from her reluctant partner Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch). The Mexican drug dealers who complicate Semyon’s plans are ruthless but flat criminal types.
While Detective Ani Bezzerides’ (Rachel McAdams) missing girl Vera (central California native Miranda Rae Mayo) talks back with some force to defend her decision to be a sex worker, in the end she's reduced to a problem for police due to her refusal to cooperate and testify. Miguel (Gabriel Luna), Paul’s former colleague and lover, delivers an “if only you had been true to yourself” line before Paul uses him as a human shield.
The rare breath of fresh — or rather, stale barroom — air comes from bartender Felicia (Yara Martinez), who sweetly tries to tempt Velcoro with an escape to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. The town sounds romantic if only for its distance, but he turns it (and her) down with a loathing for his life and the mentality that "it’s too late"/
What would have greatly improved True Detective’s depiction of the “scorched landscape” between San Francisco and Los Angeles would be more reference to the world of agricultural California that is inextricably tied to the industrial. The city of Vinci is based on an actual place in LA County, the notoriously corrupt town of Vernon, which for many years operated as the political machine of two families who controlled the local government and electrical utility company. Only 114 residents live in Vernon, while approximately 50,000 commute in to work there, and the combination of suburban flight and heavy industry make the place environmentally unsafe for both workers and families.
The show’s brief nod to environmental racism is apt, but it could have been backed up just by zooming out a few miles to the fields beyond the factories. Grower-employers have historically been highly dependent on Latino farmworkers — including US-born Mexican Americans, Mexican guestworkers (braceros), undocumented Mexicans, and other Latin American migrants — for more than a century. Pesticides pollute the bodies of farmworkers, leading to significantly shorter life expectancies than other Americans (lifespan is 49 years compared with a national average of 79), and elevated susceptibility to asthma, birth defects, chronic respiratory illnesses, and multiple types of cancer.
Compounding this harm is the recent, ongoing drought that has left many communities without enough drinking water. For all its aerial shots of arterial highways, hippie communes by the Pacific Ocean, and orgy mansions near Monterey, True Detective would have done well to remind viewers that this stretch of California is Steinbeck country, Grapes of Wrath territory, where the exploitation and deprivation of those who harvest a vast amount of the nation’s food has historically collided with the wealth and abundance of a few very powerful employers.
In response to critiques of the show’s first season, writer Nic Pizzolatto gave us more complex female characters for Season 2 (though their fates in the finalé were still problematic). Yet in the shift to a completely different setting and “psychosphere”, he missed an opportunity to pay tribute to a rich and interesting California landscape infused with centuries of Latino presence. Although the show captures the '90s-and-beyond climate of hostility to this population, its Latino characters could have been more deep and diverse in their quotidian struggles, and not just poised to evade, complicate, or thwart justice. It wasn’t just the killer of Ben Casper, but the true depth of the Latino West that — as Leonard Cohen growls in the show’s theme song — stayed well disguised.
Lori Flores is assistant professor of history at Stony Brook University. Her book Grounds for Dreaming: Mexican Americans, Mexican Immigrants, and the California Farmworker Movement will soon be available from Yale University Press.