Should Anthony Bourdain be held culturally accountable?

"It's a country I feel particularly attached to and grateful for," says Bourdain. But some feel that he portrayed Mexico too harshly in a recent episode of 'Parts Unknown'. Is that fair?

Loreto, Baja California Sur, Mexico
A view from the Islands of Loreto looking across the Sea of Cortez. Words can’t begin to describe…

Interesting exchange in a little corner of the Internet over the past few days. It seems as though some people are not pleased with Anthony Bourdain’s perspective on Mexico. In the latest episode of his (fantastic) show Parts Unknown his crew visited several cities across the country – the story that emerged apparently had less to do with Mexican heritage and food than it did about body count and drugs.

I’ll quickly note right up front I have yet to watch the episode in question (you can watch previews and clips on CNN). I can’t and won’t comment on if I agree on the show’s slant until I’ve watched it later tonight. Gringo blogger W. Scott Koenig (“El Gringo”) complained, however, that the show did little to help the country’s image, and that it (to paraphrase loosely) used body count to essentially titillate, sensationalize. He describes the episode:

Body, body, body, Santa Muerte, body, body, tacos, body, body, interview with journalist in hiding, body, body, Mezcal, cocineras, body, clever literary reference, body, body…and, wait for the finale…body.

and:

There are states in Mexico that are safer than many US states (Yucatan, Baja California Sur, others), and Mexico overall is safer than many other countries (some a surprise).

It begs the question: Should Anthony Bourdain be culturally accountable?

Or, in other words, does his show carry a burden or obligation to represent a country or region or city in a specific light, if not always positive?

Bourdain, of course, is no wallflower. He is opinionated. Extremely. Hence, a large reason for his popularity. He’s also obviously well traveled. And, from what I gather, he and his crew are very well respected, and strike up friendships on a regular basis wherever they shoot. In his counter (and we can never be absolutely certain it was Anthony Bourdain himself, though the tone and words appear to be the real deal) in the comments of the “open letter”:

Americans spend billions of dollars on Mexican sourced drugs every year. My feeling is that they should see what they are paying for: dead Mexicans. If that’s uncomfortable or unattractive ? 

And as he also notes that this is his show, produced independently by his company. CNN is the customer. Points of view are his own.

It’s an interesting and thought-provoking exchange. Yes, we can debate Mexico and safety. But there’s also this idea, at least in the eyes of some, that Bourdain, as a writer, a chef, has some sort of obligation to portray what he encounters a certain way. It also reinforces the very heart of the show’s concept: that food and culture go hand in hand. You can’t separate the two. Isn’t it just a little naive to assume that there isn’t more to this country (good and bad) than just tacos and sunsets?

Loreto, Baja California Sur
In my humble estimation, downtown Loreto is one of the most charming places on earth.

Koenig’s article originally caught my attention on a social network we run for homeowners in Loreto Bay, a small resort located on the Sea of Cortez near the (beautiful) fishing town of Loreto. Someone shared the link on Facebook. She and a few others were upset.

I’ve been visiting Loreto since 2006, and have attempted to chronicle my adventures on Stark Insider over the years – the ups and downs of getting a casa built, making friendships with locals and other gringos alike, and exploring the landscape, the people and the culture. It’s been an amazing experience. It was a most fortuitous fluke on that day when we received a Loreto Bay marketing flyer in the mail, and, on a lark, decided to check it out. Since that time, we’ve discovered what we believe to be a beautiful place, with almost no violence, no danger. Of course, no area can be absolutely 100% safe 100% of the time. And, as is pointed out on the Gringo in Mexico site, the Baja peninsula is surely different from mainland Mexico in many regards. Here’s the scene from one of my favorite places to visit in Loreto, BCS – the weekly farmer’s market:

The other (admittedly self-serving) reason I was drawn into the discussion was because of the Parts Unknown show itself. I’m a huge fan of its look, its style, its production. It does that rare thing: entertain and inform.  And it’s a visual treat, if not hunger inducing. Bourdain’s poetic voiceovers and skilled narrative are icing on the cake. In researching how the show is made I came to know about Zach Zamboni (well there’s a name a Canadian can appreciate!), the shows Emmy-winning cinematographer and DP. Google his name and you’ll find some stellar presentations he’s made about the art of his craft – how far does the show veer into “art” versus a verbatim re-telling of the reality. All interesting concepts, especially in light of some of these recent criticisms.

It’s often said to never let the truth get in the way of a good story. Does that apply here? I don’t know. But if a show creates dialog, provokes response, that’s usually a good thing. Besides, isn’t it nice finally to flip on CNN and see something not related to ambulance chasing?

Bourdain says in an short article about Mexico that accompanies the episode, “It’s a country I feel particularly attached to and grateful for.”

[Get Over the Volcano: An Open Letter to Anthony Bourdain]

Follow Stark Insider on Twitter and Facebook. Join our 11,000 subscribers who read SI on tablets and smartphones on Google Newsstand. Prefer video? Watch us on Amazon Prime or subscribe to Stark Insider on YouTube, the largest arts & travel channel in San Francisco.