Roosevelt Avenue in Corona, Queens is known for its money-sending “chops,” gold and silver vendors, ethnic markets, and great Argentine, Colombian, Ecuadorian, Mexican, and Peruvian restaurants, all conveniently tucked under the 7 trains. The doorway I sought led up a stairwell that advertised the store’s music offerings: cumbia, bachata, grupera, salsa, and the standards of rock and pop. Among the music CDs, one can find hip-hop clothing and narco B movies. The bleary-eyed attendant grew suspicious when I asked for all his narco films with female protagonists. I bought my first narco-chick action flick, Rosario Tijeras, a couple of days after its Latin American release from a street vendor two blocks from this store. I felt sure that the number of female protagonist B-films had grown with the release of La colombiana and Miss Bala. These films are for the foreign and elite movie going public; the B-movies are for everyone else.
Long before more accomplished filmmakers entered the narco market, narco B-movies documented Mexico’s role in the drug trade since the 1970s. These low-budget action films have fairly simple story lines, and often the same actors appear regardless of production company. The narratives depict the realities of the drug trade in Northern Mexico and along the U.S.-Mexico border. Many of the screenwriters base the films on narco-corridos, ballads about the drug trade, while others create stories from the news headlines. In the narco Bs, drug traffickers are social bandits who struggle against each other, corrupt police officers, and government officials. Until recently, women have played marginal roles as lovers, mothers, or daughters.The sensational arrest of Sandra Ávila Beltrán in 2007 garnered tremendous interest in the press as well as in popular culture. Dubbed La reina del Pacífico after the title of Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s best-selling novel La reina del sur (The Queens of the South, recently a telenovela) the press followed her shocking personal tales of cocaine trafficking and sexual conquest, a true narco queen: Ávila is the niece of Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo and Juan José Quintero Payán, two of Mexico’s most prominent drug traffickers. Her beauty and numerous conquests seemed more fiction than reality. She married several high-ranking police officers while maintaining prominent drug traffickers as lovers. Her stranger than fiction life has spawned a new line of narco films such as La Reyna del Pacífico, released by Baja Films, and Cayo la reyna del Pacífico, by JS Films. In the former, La reyna battles between two cartels. In the latter, la reyna seduces a young man who wishes to improve his life by seeking economic opportunity in the big city.
While using Ávila as a muse, the reyna films reinterpret the golden age of Mexican cinema. A common storyline depicts a young man or woman who leaves the countryside for the city only to fall prey to its vices. Nowadays, however, the countryside offers plenty of vices to corrupt innocent men and women. Another frequent storyline focuses on revenge, such as when a man witnesses the rape and murder of his wife and daughters and seeks his revenge. A twist now exists in which a woman (or girl) witnesses the murder of her family such as in La colombiana.
Whether the narcofilms are drawn from narcocorridos or not, all give a visual recognition to the musical genre. The reyna films and Las dos michoacanas feature multiple performances by different bandas. In fact, the musical groups are featured prominently on the DVD cases and advertisements on Facebook and Twitter. Another film based on a corrido, La salvadorena, includes a performance by actor Julio Yúdice who plays La Tenchi in drag on Duro Blandido, a Salvadoran comedy that pokes fun at Salvadoran society. Yúdice reinterprets La Tenchi for the film, except here he is a hair-dresser.
These films offer a glimpse of home. Historically, men migrated north seeking work in the northern states of Mexico or the United States, but now young and more mature women make the journey alone. Like the men, they too may have encountered or fled drug violence. Thus, the films speak to both men and women. The use of musical groups and television stars from home evoke a sense of closeness particularly for displaced men and women living and working in the United States or Northern Mexico. For those who do not have cable television or a computer to watch Youtube episodes of la Tenchi or their favorite band’s latest video, they can rent or purchase a DVD at a local store for less than $5.00 and receive a CD from a local or hometown band with the purchase. That low cost still leaves plenty of money for food and drinks.
These films offer a glimpse of the changing roles of women. In Las dos michoacanas, Soledad Castañeda plays the leader of a crew of enforcers while Los Originales de San Juan provide parts of the musical score. In 4 damas en 300 (part of a series of movies), four women who drive a Chrysler 300 seek revenge against the mafiosos who killed their father. In both films, the women are sexy, smart, and heavily armed.
The B movies and more polished narco-films such as Amar a Morir, Miss Bala, and El infierno document the allure and the violence of the drug trade with its music, cars, guns, clothes, and narco-mansions. More significantly, the B films have tackled the diverse roles of women in the trade: wife, mother, and lover but also mule, partner, assassin, lieutenant, and boss.