Image: Sofia Jaimes Barreto
I was wasting time the other day on Twitter when a headline caught my attention: “Did Not Know It Was Possible for a Show to Be This Stupid.” Clickbait aside, what drew me in was the picture, John Krasinski as Jack Ryan, the protagonist of Amazon’s eponymous show inspired by Tom Clancy’s thrillers, entering now its second season set in a nuclear-threatening Venezuela.
Let me go at it again: Jack Ryan is fighting a Venezuela that threatens the world with nuclear weapons. It’s preposterous, absolutely outside the realm of possibility, and it looks like a hell of a nice time, you bet I’ll be watching. And I won’t be alone.
Because no one here, in Venezuela, takes that premise seriously. I mean, sure, chavista figureheads shout the predictable speech on how this is the way the Empire prepares the planet for their invasion, but normal folks on the street like you or me see this the same way you’d see another action movie, with the added bonus that this one is set in our backyard. It’s as realistic as a fairy tale, and another window for you to peek in and get away from this exhausting reality.
Back in the day, Venezuela was nonexistent in popular fiction. Now we have more of a presence, but save for some notorious examples, like Pixar’s Up, it’s all antagonistic.
But after going deeper into the article (the author basically says that the Maduro administration is more of a threat to itself than it can possibly be against the rest of the planet, which is a fair assessment), I realized that, holy crap, we’re in fashion. We’re the designated bad guys now.
You remember in the 90s, when every drug dealer on TV was Colombian? Well, now every guerrilla-terrorist prick in modern fiction has ties to this country of ours, and its “revolution.” Back in the day, Venezuela was nonexistent in popular fiction —I think Jaws 3 happens in Venezuela, and James Bond visits us at the start of Goldfinger (the book, not the movie)—now we have more of a presence, but save for some notorious examples, like Pixar’s Up, it’s all antagonistic.
The first time I noticed it wasn’t even with movies. I was in college and all my friends were all excited because a new video game was coming out, “and it’s set in Venezuela,” as a fantasy version of the country, not an accurate recreation of our streets. The game, Mercenaries 2, was archetypical in what would be this new wave of our popularity: A strongman builds connections with mercenaries to throw a coup and get control of the nation. He then betrays the aforementioned gunmen, gets really popular with the people and now rules a once great nation turned full-blown banana republic. Players go in, explosions ensue.
The game itself is nothing to write home about, and chavismo reacted the same way they’re reacting now. In 2013, another videogame had Venezuela as a guest-star, this time from a digital powerhouse: Call of Duty: Ghosts has the U.S. break down and threatened by the rise of the third world. The good old boys must defeat the evil Federation, and one of the Federation’s leaders is a certain Diego Almagro (that’s really his name), ruling from that lawless land that is Caracas. If you take this basic plot, change the main characters for Rambo and my compatriots for Iranian terrorists, you have an 80’s action movie. Same archetype.
Other portrayals are more sophisticated in their approach. Showtime’s Homeland had its main character, Brody, hurt and taken to the infamous Tower of David, also in 2013. For context, the Tower of David is our version of the Kowloon Walled City, a place built with huge architectonic ambitions that fell short and was now inhabited by all sorts of squatters. Unlike the examples from Mercenaries and CoD, this looked more like us and it took to the forefront one of the major symbols of our social decay. The Tower, decommissioned by chavismo in 2014 (perhaps because of the attention it was getting in the media), stood back then as a monument to anarchy, one of the places in Caracas that you wanted to avoid, and the depiction from Homeland is accurate. It was interesting to see our reality on a major American show but, watching it, you had to squint a bit. It was like a neighbor airing your dirty laundry. It was all true, and truth hurts.
There’s a Chuck Norris movie, Invasion U.S.A., where a nice peaceful American town is invaded by evil Russians. When you’re consuming this, you don’t think much about it, but when it’s about your people, you wonder what type of influence this can have, particularly when there’s so many of us trying to gain a foothold in foreign lands. I doubt the guys at Immigration in Spain or in Arizona are going to give you an attitude if you show up with all your papers okay, but your potential landlord? I once met a guy in Jacksonville who asked me where I was from. When I said “Caracas,” he asked “Where is that?”
I had never met anyone so utterly ignorant about Venezuela, and as much as it hurts our little patriotic ego, that’s the unequivocal reality: There are people out there who have never heard about us and their contact with our culture comes only from the media.
As a Venezuelan, this exposition is what’s for dinner, this is how modern media works and there’s no point in getting worked up about it.
Venezuela is featured in True Detective’s second season—I imagine the set they used is called “Whatever City, Latin America” —, and House of Card’s Doug Samper travelled to Caracas and Puerto La Cruz to find a hacker with valuable intel for Frank Underwood, because if Venezuelans aren’t the villains themselves, then the land is portrayed as this lawless spot on Earth where people go to when they don’t want to be found.
Maybe the most accurate depiction of modern Venezuela comes from that time when Leslie Knope (portrayed by the delightful Amy Poehler) receives a delegation from the fictional Boraqua, Venezuela, for a little cultural exchange, on the second season of NBC’s Parks and Recreation. If you had any experience with 2009’s Venezuelan bureaucrats, this thing might as well be a documentary: The Venezuelan delegates, led by the Executive Vice-Director of the Parks Department’s Deputy, are raging, insufferable douches. Spoiled by too much power and money, they treat the rest of the world as second-class, hand out huge tips in cash, and are generally confused about the workings of democracy. When a photo opportunity comes later in the episode, the Execute Vice-Director of so-and-so asks Leslie to shout “Viva Chávez” in exchange for the funds to build a new park. The true star of the episode is SNL’s veteran Fred Armisen, who makes a perfect portrayal of chavista contempt against… anyone who’s not them.
But my favorite fictional Venezuelan out there is Sofia Mantega, better known as Wind Dancer and Renascence, in Marvel’s comic book New Mutants. A born and raised caraqueña, she had to move to the US with her dad after her mom is killed in a demonstration. The girl must now learn English on the run, struggle with a parent she doesn’t know and, after losing her powers (a metaphor for losing everything you hold dear), she must find a job to make ends meet, a Green Card and a new surrogate family in her fellow mutants. The Venezuelan experience to a T, Sofía is one of us and an honest drawing of what we’ve become.
The spotlight is on us more than it has ever been, and it isn’t always in the best of lights. As a Venezuelan, this exposition is what’s for dinner, this is how modern media works and there’s no point in getting worked up about it. Just as it happened to our Colombian brothers (who arguably broke out of the stereotype as their nation’s condition improved), we’re bound to rebuild our reputation by using the same trait that makes Sofía strong, resilience. In the meantime, we’ll sit back and enjoy the show. Because there’s not much we can do about it anyway.
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