The final season of USA Network’s drama “Queen of the South” dropped this week, and to see the conclusion of drug queenpin Teresa Mendoza’s (Alice Braga) story is bittersweet. Teresa’s presence in the narco landscape was unique — from a media perspective, women in this world are often relegated to mules, victims, and sex workers, or a combination of all three. Teresa was never a victim, but instead used the drug world to call out its horrors, leading the audience to question her altruism in a world that does inherently hurt others.
When the show first premiered the emphasis on it being about and for Latinos was amped up, from music videos with Latino rappers being aired on USA and even having Argentinean soccer announcer Andres Cantor recapping the previous seasons in anticipation of the World Cup in 2018.
“Queen of the South” tried its hardest to try to reclaim the narco world away from emphasizing that all Latinos are involved and are thus evil. When the series started, Teresa Mendoza’s introduction into the world is through her boyfriend; one of several instances in the series where men were often the first to let women down and proverbially throw them under the bus for their own aims. Braga showed a woman who was a survivor, intelligent, and understood her privilege as a woman. Teresa often used that to help other women, like a case of human trafficking she witnesses.
The first three seasons saw Teresa sparring against fellow narco queen, Camila Vargas (Veronica Falcon) and this is where “Queen of the South” truly set itself apart. In these shows about the drug trade it was rare to get one woman with substance, but the show gave us two compelling women characters who were at the top of their game. They were the ones dominating and their sparring wasn’t petty, but grounded in real issues of this business they were both involved in.
Similar to Teresa, Camila also struggled with issues that have defined women for generations. She struggled to have a successful business and a family life. Where women are told they can’t have it all, but should try like hell to do it, Camila was showing the fruits of that labor.
But the show’s final season wasn’t just sad because it was the end of her story. It was also a reminder of how “Queen of the South” was forced to fight for its place on television. This last season benefited the most from USA Network’s advertising strategy of being plastered on all NBCUniversal channels — but for some reason it is not streaming on NBC’s streamer service, Peacock. And despite having a titan like Braga in the cast, it has not been campaigned seriously for Emmy consideration.
There’s an even grander sense of loss when you factor in that, outside of ABC’s “Station 19” which is more of an ensemble series, there is no other series airing on a major cable network with a Latina in a solo dramatic, primetime role. It’s also worth remembering that Rita Moreno remains the only Latina nominated for a Primetime Emmy for a Drama, way back in 1979.
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 in an interview earlier this year. “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.
Watching Teresa escape the drug life and be happy with the makeshift family she created is definitely a happily ever after that the character deserved, having lost so many loved ones over the course of the show. But it also illustrated that we can show Latinos in serious situations that can end joyfully.
Watching the finale, I was reminded of what showrunner Benjamin Lobato said when the final season started. Lobato was frank about being a Chicano writer telling a story like this, and he chalks much of that to a lack of representation across the board. “We felt the pressure from our own community,” he said. “When I got into this business there were no Chicanos. There wasn’t anybody to look up to. Even the fact that we’re here, having this conversation, is like a miracle.”
He explained that they carry the weight and responsibility of telling a story like this, especially as one of the few primetime network dramas anchored by a Latina. “If the only shows on-air are crime shows about our culture that’s not good,” Rodriguez said. “And it puts too much pressure on the creators and writers of the show.” And, sadly, it doesn’t look like anything is going to fill the void quick enough.