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‘Queen of the South’: Alice Braga on the Pressures of Being a Latina Lead in Primetime

Playing drug queenpin Teresa Mendoza in "Queen of the South" is Braga's first foray into television.

Alice Braga

“Queen of the South”

USA Network

To watch Teresa Mendoza (Alice Braga) over five seasons of USA Network’s “Queen of the South” is to examine femininity both within the narco culture and within the Latino community. The show has looked at human trafficking, sex work, and rape within the confines of the cocaine business, but also cast an eye towards the culture of misogyny that often boxes women in to be nothing more than compliant, happy wives. Teresa, as Braga herself describes her, is a survivor: A naïve girl transformed into the boss she was always meant to be.

Braga has created fantastic characters, from her role as Angelica in the 2002 feature “City of God” to her most recent work in HBO’s “We Are Who We Are.” But “Queen of the South” was not only Braga’s first foray into television, it was also her first time leading a television series. Unlike a feature, where the actor only commits for a few months, the show dominated six years of her life. “Lending my way to Teresa’s life and Teresa’s way of being, I’ve never experienced this in my life with any other character,” Braga told IndieWire.

Reading the source novel by Arturo Perez-Reverte six or seven years before she was invited to work on the series, Braga was struck by seeing a woman given the opportunity to be in a position often presented as male-dominated. She knew Teresa wasn’t a character that would immediately be likable, considering her job, but it was an opportunity for Braga as an actor to find a way to showcase the character’s humanity. “I always thought there was a very interesting way to portray this character from the human point of view,” she said. “I always try not to make her a likable character, but a human character. We’re entitled to make mistakes, we’re entitled to flaws as human beings.”

Though the series has diverted heavily from Perez-Reverte’s novels over the five seasons, Braga continued to hold them up as a source of inspiration for how she’d portray the character. “I think because I loved the character so much I just wanted to be an advocate for [her],” Braga said. She would often consider how Teresa would react if she was put in any given situation, not necessarily with regards to being a drug dealer, but being a CEO and woman.

Of course, it’s impossible not to look at the fact that Braga has been the anchor of one of the few, if not only, primetime network dramas with a Latina as the lead. “It’s insane to me,” she said. She’s certainly grateful that the series has been on as long as it has, and that she’s part of a cadre of Latinas making strides in entertainment. “There’s one thing about ‘Queen of the South’ — I’m really thankful for all the fans,” she said. That being said, like the creators of the show, Braga, too, hopes that Latino representation can move away from cartel stories.

Alice Braga

“Queen of the South”

Patti Perret/USA Network

“It is a show about a cartel which is always the representation that we get for Latinos,” she said. “We’re so diverse. We have so much to talk about, and to show to the world, that I think we need to keep fighting and open more opportunities, in front of the camera and behind the camera.” She explained that the only way to make true and proper change is by having those with the abilities to make decisions — namely, the executives — more diverse as well.

Outside of that, Braga is proud that the series has been able to spotlight the strength of Latinas, especially due to current events. In the first three seasons the series contrasted Teresa’s story with that of rival queenpin Camila Vargas (Veronica Falcon) and her issues with her daughter. Later seasons have dealt with Teresa’s own desire to have a family. “A lot of people crossing the border nowadays, in the U.S. because of the violence in Central America, a lot of moms are also coming,” Braga said. The slight tweak from a male to a female protagonist, for Braga, was a unique opportunity to discuss the numerous issues outside the drug world that impact women daily.

This last season, as well as Season 4, moved Teresa out of Mexico and into the racism and misogyny of New Orleans. Written before the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests, Braga said she was happy to see the series confront these issues head-on. “We’re talking about racism. We’re talking about a system that’s broken,” she said. The series’ main antagonist, Jude Cecil Layfette (David Andrews), creates animosity with Teresa because of how she’s perceived as a Latina from Mexico. “He wants money, but also because she’s Latina, because she’s a foreigner,” Braga said.

Braga never envisioned the series lasting as long as it did, but because of that Teresa Mendoza has changed her, as both an actress and a woman. “It’s bittersweet because I know I’m going to miss her,” she said. And while it’s only been two weeks since shooting wrapped, Braga said she hasn’t fully processed leaving the series behind: “It was beautiful to finish the journey because I think everything has an end, and it was beautiful to be able to complete this circle.”

“Queen of the South” airs on USA Network. 

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