“Queen of the South”: Above the Mendoza Line

 Review

 The Mendoza Line is an expression in baseball in the United States, deriving from the name of shortstop Mario Mendoza, whose mediocre batting average is taken to define the threshold of incompetent hitting.

Making comparisons is a totally subjective exercise; it’s tricky and often unfair. Apples and oranges, Coke and Pepsi, Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle, tamales and enchiladas, boxers or briefs, are just a few things we can compare, contrast and argue about. Now we can add to the list: La reina del sur and Queen of the south.

Full disclosure: I saw the original Telemundo broadcast of La reina del sur and all its subsequent re-airings. Also read the novel by Arturo Párez Reverte, danced and sang along to Los Cuates de Sinaloa’s rousing rendition of the opening theme song and, of course, fell truly, deeply, madly in love with the beautiful, talented Mexican superstar actress, Kate del Castillo as Teresa Mendoza. After I started watching La reina del sur yet again on Netflix last year, my wife asked me impatiently with a note of exasperation in her voice, “How many times are you going to watch that woman?”

Kate Del Castillo in Telemundo’s Reina del Sur

So, when I began binge watching season one of Queen of the South, I came to it with several ardently held pre-conceived ideas about how this story should look and be told.

At first, I had to suppress my “That’s not right. Teresa didn’t do that. Who’s this character? Why is this happening in Dallas?” reflexive responses and suspend disbelief, take a breath and let this newest iteration of the story unfold and take me on its own unique journey. Series creators M.A. Fortin and Joshua John Miller have kept the heart and soul of the original story, but there are some notable differences.

Location, Location, Location: In La reina del sur, Teresa Mendoza winds up in southern Spain near North Africa. It’s a picturesque setting that juxtaposes, blends and exudes the exotic sounds, colors, textures, and aromatic fragrances of Spanish and Arabic cultures. By contrast, Queen of the South is currently centered in Dallas, Texas. Nothing against Dallas, I live in San Antonio, but Dallas ain’t Morocco or southern Spain. Personally, I think San Antonio, with its dominant Latino presence, would have been a more suitable location. Gone is the international sensibility of La reina del sur. Queen of the South has a grittier, more urban, almost film noir look and feel to it and showcases a new character to the story who makes it all work.

Camilla Vargas: Mexico’s Veronica Falcón plays Camilla Vargas, the estranged wife and rival of Epifanio Vargas, drug kingpin of the Sinaloa Cartel. Señora Falcón’s sultry, sexy, cool demeanor and deep, smoky, husky voice is a throwback to classic, film noir femme fatales like Barbara Stanwyck, Veronica Lake and Lauren Bacall. Falcón’s Camilla Vargas oozes delicious evil. It’s a strong, riveting, scene-stealing performance. But true to La reina del sur, Queen of the South is still the story of one tough, morally-conflicted, resilient, compelling Mexican woman.

Teresa Mendoza:  Brazilian actress, Alice Braga, breathes new life into Teresa Mendoza. This Teresa, as portrayed by Braga, is a more action-oriented, physical character. She’s a wily money-changer on the streets of Culiacan, Mexico who’s romantically involved with a drug smuggler. Events get out of control and soon Teresa is chased, raped, beaten, enslaved and eventually finds herself being inexorably drawn deeper and deeper into drug dealing and worse.

As a soldier for Camilla Vargas, she proves her worth in various shoot-outs, car chases, while also committing murder and kidnapping. This Teresa Mendoza could easily become an action figure doll.

Braga is often seen being confronted by the specter of herself as the future Teresa Mendoza giving cautionary warnings on things yet to come. Braga’s Teresa is also haunted by her past. This is a morally ambiguous character. Braga does a very good job of expressing Mendoza’s struggle to keep her humanity as she sinks further into the world of violence and crime.

That’s what makes Teresa Mendoza such a fascinating character. She’s a strong, resolute woman, who through circumstances not of her making, finds herself constantly aspiring to salvage the better angels of her nature as she succumbs to the demons of greed and power.

Kate del Castillo and the original telenovela of La reina del sur set a high bar of excellence in character development, story-telling and production values. The USA series, Queen of the South, starring Alice Braga and Veronica Falcón with a fine supporting cast, is entertaining, addictive and easily rises above the Mendoza Line. I’m a loyal fan and glued to my big screen TV every Thursday night.

“How many times are you going to watch that woman?”

Para siempre, querida, para siempre.

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