In the Netflix series ‘Narcos,’ the subtleties of Spanish matter

Brazilian actor Wagner Moura as drug trafficker Pablo Escobar speaks perfect Spanish but without a ‘paisa’ accent in ‘Narcos.’
Brazilian actor Wagner Moura as drug trafficker Pablo Escobar speaks perfect Spanish but without a ‘paisa’ accent in ‘Narcos.’ AP

In Colombia, a regional accent has the power to brand. If the accent is paisa, from the province of Antioquia where Medellín is the capital, low-class origins might be assumed. And if on top of that the paisa is a narco (drug trafficker), there’s a big repertoire of Colombian jokes about how lobo (tacky) narcos can be.

Brazilian actor Wagner Moura’s Pablo Escobar in the Netflix series Narcos looks lobo all right, but he doesn’t sound like a normal paisa. He sounds weird. He could be a foreigner, but the Spanish dialogue is so authentic Medellín and his delivery is so good, he could be a paisa with a speech impediment.

In the online chatter about the series, someone pointed out that the scene where Escobar walks into the Colombian Parliament as a member, a true paisa accent would have underscored the pain of his being not just snubbed but actually kicked out of the governing house after barely taking a seat. In the series, the pain is delivered visually: His casual sports jacket and the afterthought of a tie contrast with the dark suits of the parliamentarians, most of them the oligarchs Escobar resents and against whom he rails in his populist campaigns for public office.

The series presents a mishmash of Latin American accents. Does it matter? Narcos’ peculiarity is that most of the dialogue is in subtitled Spanish. Leaving aside Netflix’s move to capture markets among Latinos in the United States and in Spanish-speaking countries, there’s the question of verisimilitude.

Before the days of identity politics, any Asian actor might play any Asian role without a backlash — never mind the non-Asians who played Charlie Chan, or even Mickey Rooney’s virtuoso yet toxic comic turn as a Japanese photographer in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. There were certain conventions: Germans in World War II movies spoke German-accented English among themselves. However, with globalization, such conventions have been vanishing, to the point where one heard Spanish without subtitles in the Miami-based series Dexter. Or even subtitled and badly pronounced Spanish as a goof in movies like the Bedazzled remake or Will Ferrell’s Casa de mi Padre.

But Narcos is no goof, nor is the Spanish in snippets. To those unfamiliar with Spanish-language accents, Moura’s very odd pronunciation might not register. But in our increasingly bilingual environment, many notice.

The series has actors who are either Colombian or who have made an effort to sound Colombian, as Benicio del Toro did with mixed success in Traffic. Others, like Mexican actress Ana de la Reguera, simply speak a nonregional Spanish. And then some don’t even try to shed their own accents, like Luis Guzman, sounding as always like his big ol’ Puerto Rican self.

In the midst of this inconsistency, Narcos not only has a primarily Spanish-language script but also one written in tune with the subtleties of Colombian (and particularly paisa) Spanish.

Examples include the use of the second-person familiar vos, common there and in other areas of Latin America; the peculiar use of the formal second person usted among intimates at the right moment; the rich deployment of obscenities that pepper Medellín street Spanish. There has never been an American TV series like this one, mostly in Spanish, and the most authentic Spanish at that.

In sharp contrast to all of this hispanidad, there’s the all-American narrator. Some have objected to the heavy use of voice-over narration and the hyper-American (some say bland) character doing the narrating. I disagree.

First, not everyone watching Narcos knows the history of the drug wars, so it’s useful to have someone playing sports commentator in this convoluted mayhem and doing so in shoot-from-the-hip American lingo. Secondly, not everyone is Latin American and can roll with the Colombians.

The narrator is gung-ho American in every way, including healthy ones, like his cynicism about American politicos and military. But he wants to kick butt when someone messes with Uncle Sam. Plus, when he pronounces Spanish words, it’s just awful. And that works well as a balance to the almost all-Spanish style of the series and therefore a prevailing Colombian wary-of-yanquis point of view.

Sure, it would’ve been preferable if Escobar and others all sounded like Colombians and the ones from Medellín like paisas. There’s a mysterious power in going to impossible lengths for verisimilitude, like silent-film director Erich Von Stroheim insisting that sinks in his sets have real working plumbing even if opening the faucets was not in the script. Fiction calls for suspension of disbelief, but the series boasts so much authenticity that the linguistic flaws are even more glaring.

In the end, Narcos ends up playing well to the push and pull of a hyphenated identity. A Latino viewer can understand resentment of the oligarchy that owns a country and sympathize with the desire for independence from foreign imperial arrogance, a trait shared by the criminals and the honest cops and politicians. It can also laugh at the very Colombian black humor of these cold-blooded killers (see the funny and chilling Medellin-based 2000 film Our Lady of the Assassins) in the same way other Americans laugh at the villainous humor in, say, Breaking Bad. But a Latino can also relate to the narrator’s impatience with Latin American corruption and his righteous rage when the U.S. is threatened.

For this hyphenated viewer, Narcos works, linguistic flaws and all.