Thoughts on The Bridge and the Borderlands

On July 10, FX premiered its new crime drama, The Bridge, which takes place in the Juarez/El Paso region. Three of our bloggers offer their thoughts on the inaugural episode.  What were your thoughts on the premier?

Tim Bowman

Juárez is a city that many Americans seem to have a real problem with.  In some respects this problem is well earned. Some Americans are probably unaware that the drug cartels were already a major problem even before the uptick in violence that occurred after Felipe Calderón’s election in 2006.  Others have undoubtedly missed the brutal rash of femicides committed against young factory workers since the 1990s. Finally, the Juárez with which many concerned American liberals are familiar is that of a big city and its maquiladoras, which at this point need no introduction.

Part of this image problem comes from the English-language literature on the city. Theresa Rodriguez’s heartbreaking Daughters of Juárez outlines the rapes and murders of hundreds of young girls in the city. These crimes are made worse by the fact that these crimes have largely gone unpunished since they began. Similarly, Scott Comar’s fascinating memoir, Border Junkies, details the life of a heroin junky on the streets of Juárez and El Paso at the turn of the twenty-first century.

FX’s The Bridge, a gripping new television show about murder and crime fighting in El Paso and Juárez, makes this image problem worse by putting it on the small screen for millions of viewers. In the pilot episode, which premiered this past Wednesday, we actually saw very little of the “other side” of the bridge. What we did seen in Juárez was an Anglo man—either a practitioner of coyotaje or a serial murder—stuff an attractive young woman into the trunk of a car and lock her in his trailer on the other side of the border. Perhaps worse, we also learned of two women murdered, one somewhere in Juárez, and another in the El Paso area, whose bodies were later reassembled in a gruesome human puzzle and placed straddling the borderline itself.

As good TV, The Bridge doesn’t disappoint. The characters are interesting, and the plot line is full of drama, thrills, and intrigue. But, I’m still left wondering if the show will do anything to display the human side of Juárez, where dignity, goodness, and humanity prevail. That Juárez perhaps wouldn’t make for exciting TV, but it undoubtedly exists. Comar does show elements of human goodness and charity in his book, but even in his case the seedier side of the city prevails (as one might expect, given the subject matter).

I recently taught a U.S.-Mexico borderlands history class. One of my students was from Juárez, and another had done extensive missionary work in the city.  Both students thought the American media coverage of the city was absurd. In fact, the student from Juárez remarked that he’s never felt unsafe in the city at all.  The image of Juárez as the murder and rape capital of the world, he might say, doesn’t paint a big or accurate enough picture of what the city is truly like. In his view, there isn’t as much for people to fear.  The point is that there’s another Juárez, where families live and work and children go to school, that we here in the United States hear next to nothing about.  Although I don’t think I’ll be finding this more humane side of the city in The Bridge, I’ll still be tuning in next week.

Kris Klein Hernandez

This past Wednesday, FX debuted its new crime thriller The Bridge, the American version of Danish/Swedish Broen: Bron. While this original series dealt with a crime that happened on the border of two Scandinavian countries, FX’s The Bridge focuses on the U.S.-Mexico border, specifically the El Paso – Ciudad Juárez metropolitan area. While Denmark and Sweden feature a more homogeneous demographic as well as languages that are more closely related to one another, El Paso and Ciudad Juárez are home to distinct languages, different class politics and multiple levels of racial and ethnic tensions.

As an El Pasoan native, I was excited to see how the series would depict El Paso. The Bridge almost succeeds in capturing El Paso’s beautiful landscapes through pan-outs and aerial shots. Anglo detective Sonya Cross, reminiscent of Homeland’s female detective Carrie Mathison, played by Claire Danes, encounters social complications working with everyone she meets – especially Chihuahua detective Marco Ruiz. Sonya’s inability to work and trust others adds more intrigue and disillusionment to the atmosphere of The Bridge. The producers (and/or the writers) however, fall victim to some amount of racial and ethnic stereotyping in their depiction of El Paso police detectives and Chihuahuan investigators. For example, almost all of the employees working at El Paso “Homocide” department are Anglo American, which is not the case at the police department today, and the lieutenant (Sonya Cross’ supervisor) carries a strong “southern” accent, comparable to those found in places like Shreveport, Louisiana or Birmingham, Alabama. El Pasoans sport multiple accents and greater cultural and racial diversity than one might expect from watching The Bridge. Hopefully future episodes will draw more from that diversity. Finally, the persistence of the word “gringo,” while used throughout El Paso, is constantly recycled and used too starkly as a cultural marker between ethnic Mexican Americans and Mexican nationals.

The Bridge reminds us that many of the Juárez femicides were not documented in newspapers or received the same amount of coverage as El Paso-based crimes have received. The Bridge provides an intriguing story that headlines the problematics of nationality, race and violence. It forces the inevitable question: are danger and violence epiphenomenal of nationality, race and class?

Jared Tamez

The borderlands are places of paradox, being places where sharp contrasts as well as hybridity co-exist. Having been born in a borderland region (the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas) and having studied for the past few years at UT-El Paso, I was excited to see whether The Bridge would capture (or even attempt to, in the first place) some of those tensions. As Tim and Kris before have noted, the show has a good production value, and makes for good TV. The body placed on the bridge, half white, half brown, serves as a fitting metaphor for one part of the borderlands story—that of sharp divides, conflict, and fractured identities. The rest of the episode follows this theme as El Paso is presented as something of a Gringolandia vis a vis Juarez. When the EP Police department office staffer is greeted by Marco Ruiz in Spanish, she interjects that she does not speak Spanish. Not speaking Spanish in the borderlands, even from Mexican-Americans, is not unusual, but what I did think unusual was the reason she gave for not speaking—“Born and raised in El Paso.” As if geography had this predetermined. As if we should be surprised that people just spontaneously and casually speak to each other in Spanish on “this side” of the bridge. In El Paso, we see intrepid police folk and Sonya Cross and her lieutenant in an almost tender father-daughter dynamic. In Juarez we see Marco coming out to a lavish cartel party, complete with large, exotic cats in cages to ask his lieutenant’s permission to follow the case. His boss and fellow revelers find him almost freakish in his desire to do good police work and send him on his way, ostensibly to keep up appearances. Marco is forced to reify all the worst rumors when Cross tells him that “they say” all Juarez police are corrupt. “Not all of us,” he responds.

I understand that these stark differences are likely a function of the desire to ease a U.S. audience, largely unfamiliar with borderlands dynamics, into the story and provide for character development, etc., though I wish the presentation had been a bit more nuanced. Still, with the foundation laid, and having articulated some of the contours for division in these borderlands, my hope is that, moving forward, the show will be able to more effectively integrate another part of the borderlands story—that of continuities, shared identities, and connection.

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Categories: Book and Journal Reviews | 3 Comments

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3 thoughts on “Thoughts on The Bridge and the Borderlands

  1. James Starling

    The 1982 film “The Border,” with Jack Nicholson and Harvey Keitel, has a very similar portrayal of El Paso and Juárez. El Paso appears as a decidedly prosperous and Anglo city with a cowboy culture and western twang. Juárez is, by contrast, the ultimate foil to El Paso; a dangerous maze of shantytowns and desperate migrants.

    Going back further, Orson Welles’ “A Touch of Evil” from 1958 offers a similar theme to “The Bridge;” the sole honest Mexican cop in a corrupt bordertown. (Charlton Heston played the Mexican cop…in an age when Marlon Brando played Emiliano Zapata). As with “The Bridge,” this character solves a cross-border crime and navigates two countries in his personal and professional life.

  2. Heather

    Tim, since 1993 the violence in Juárez has not a problem of image, it has been real. As you stated, since that year hundreds of women in Juárez have been brutally raped and murdered. These women were not imagined, they were real. Between 2008 and 2012, as the war between two drug cartels raged, there were an estimated 10,000 homicides in the city. Men, women, children, infants–all real. I’ve lived in El Paso for twenty years. Co-workers of mine at the community college, colleagues at UTEP, neighbors, and classmates of my daughter have all lost family in the violence. Before 1993, most of us lamented Juárez’s image problem. Not since. While the numbers of deaths have fallen, mass graves are still being uncovered. As historians, we can play a key role in the documentation, analysis and remembering of this tragedy.

  3. Watched The Bridge. Unlike some folks in this side of the border I have a particular connection. I was like the protagonist, when I worked in the DPS Crime Lab, I was asked by the Juarez PD and medical examiner to look at at hair collected from a dead 13 year-old female victim. I was even offered a trip to the medical examiner’s office…my boss intervened…perhaps it was for the best. At the time, Juarez had even asked famed Profiler Robert Ressler to come and give a clue. That was back in 1998, fifteen years later, the deaths have continued and I don’t know if they come across the river to ask for help because of the Juarez gov’t insistence that they have caught the person doing the crimes. I will never forget my involvement in this case. I will watch the show…I just don’t think that with deaths like the one that happened detectives would be talking about personal situations, I understand that is a way for the audience to know personal things about the characters, but I kind of get annoyed at it knowing the culture of the El Paso PD. i hope this show does well by the women and the detectives who really do care about what is happening in their own back yard.

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