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.


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]

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  • W. Scott Koenig

    Great perspective on this issue, Clinton, and you’re asking the same question that has been running through my mind since Sunday night. Love Loreto, BTW, and not a bad place to base yourself. I’ve been down twice and have always enjoyed the friendliness of the local community as well as the seafood.

    • Thanks. Yes I only wish we could spend more time in Loreto. Hopefully in the coming years. It seems to unlock our creative selves when we’re there – must be that Sea breeze. Or quite possibly the incredible tacos pescados at Taco el Rey. BTW your open letter gave me reason to visit your site for first time, glad to have found it!

  • People who watch Parts Unknown know that part of the story is Anthony Bourdain’s take on the place he’s in. It would be disingenuous for him to look over an issue that many people associate with a country. He’s not a PR person. In his show about Sicily he talked about the rampant paying off of the mafia by business owners (not to mention the frustration he showed about the staged fishing expedition), in his episode on Jerusalem he talked about the constant struggle between Israel and Palestine. I think his show is a very very welcome change to interesting and informative television. He seems like a naturally curious person, and trying to water that down in an attempt to make him seem unbiased and not present an unflattering view-point takes away a lot of the character of the show. I say let him be himself, because trying to limit him to produce something everyone is happy about will only lead to more mediocre television.

  • Stanley A.

    The blogger who complains that Bourdain focused more on the dead
    than on the culture of the people fails to accept the unfortunate reality of
    the country. It is , how he depicts Bourdain’s story as, body, body,
    body, tacos, dead, etc. The show is not a food show, it is show that
    displays what embodies the places he visits and in this case he was spot
    on. I think Mexicans should be proud that despite the crime and the harsh
    living conditions, the culture of food and family persists. In that
    sense, Bourdain deserves kudos. It would have been a disservice to us the
    viewers had he omitted the disgusting truth of what the status quo now is. And
    he didn’t and for that, deserves praise as well.

  • Elsie H Martinez

    I try not to watch Anthony Bourdain parts unknown for cultural input of countries but accidentally saw a search on this when i was combing the web for eric ripert’s food show. What a humongous injustice to Mexico’s tourism (food & culture) as i lost all interest of Mexico’s culture after watching this episode. Yes, Bourdain is a breath of fresh air but clearly needs to be accountable to confusing reports like this one. This should have never been done in this context but rather be in shows lke Vice – the highly sensationalized, very partial, media frenzy reporting driven by profits. It gets the eyeballs, clicks, but does major damage on countries international image ( those they manage to profit from). We are a global community but media reports are highly profit driven, and slanted. Poverty, crime sells ( as long as it is not about news of powerful money holders around the world). Mexico is huge and to be represented by Mexico’s troubled cities as a whole is an injustice to Mexican culure and economy. Horrible reporting & truly sad to see good hard working Mexicans be overshadowed by several of Mexico’s social problems universal around the world including the US.

  • Let’s keep in mind that a large portion of this episode was more so about Mexico City, and the sad reality is that there is a lot of crime due to the cartels. As a first generation Mexican American and daughter of two Mexican immigrants, this episode is accurate in terms of what’s currently going on in Mexico. The segment on Oaxaca and Cuernavaca where also accurate. I like that Bourdain doesn’t sugar coat things…he says it like he see’s it. He’s a true journalist. To be honest, I’m not sure what the “issue” is…clearly he likes the country.

    • Well said. I think the show and AB are welcome relief in a world (esp. in the US) full of derivative, non-critical television.

  • Guest

    Their portrayal of Mexico made me sick, just as the way they depicted Detroit. The show fabricated,depicted Mexico and told half truths. Not to mention the insultive comments such as regarding (implications of)animal advocates. Their focus was crime which is in every country. Journalism needs to evolve from the 50s at least there are critical thinkers who can recognize these factors. It was more judgement and opinion call regarding comments made regarding religion such as “saint muerte” not fact.
    Reminds me of why i do not watch much tv.