May 5, 2014
Dear Mr. Bourdain,
My name is W. Scott Koenig. I am a San Diego-based blogger at www.AGringoInMexico.com, a small site I started about two years ago to report on the fantastic experiences, people, food, culture and trips my wife Ursula – and now 6-year old son Wolfie – have had in Mexico during our many visits south of the border. In 2013, my blog started gaining a bit of momentum, and I soon found myself writing and shooting on assignment for Baja.com – reporting on food, art and culture in Tijuana and other Baja California municipalities. My new “pase tiempo” (past time), has afforded me the opportunity to travel to even more amazing destinations, and I’ve had the distinct pleasure of meeting and interviewing many passionate Mexican people who are more than happy to give me an interview, their time, a meal, a drink, even a handmade regalo in exchange for the modest coverage they will receive on my blog (which currently attracts 2,000 – 3,000 views/month). The generosity of the Mexican people never ceases to astound me, and this is one of the main reasons my family and I return to Mexico so often.
Mr. Bourdain, you have been an ongoing inspiration for me (and countless other travel bloggers and writers) since the days of “No Reservations”. I’ve always enjoyed your style, tastes, banter, wit, edge, grit and the obvious interest and passion you have for your topics. I’ve read all of your nonfiction (and the Jiro graphic novel) and would rank you among one of the top contemporary American writers in any genre. Your reporting has always been fair, insightful, funny, scary, dramatic…in short, real. And real is hard to find sometimes here in the hyper-commercialized USA as you know from traveling to some of the planet’s more humbling and humbled destinations.
So when we settled down to watch your Parts Unknown in Mexico last night, both my wife and I were anxious to see where you’d been, what you ate, who you met, what you experienced…anticipating a sensual take on a sensual place from a sensualist and artisté. We were in Oaxaca for two weeks over the holidays (during your filming), and that life-changing trip is still very much with us…making our anticipation even more palatable.
But what we got instead could be summed up thusly (thanks Ursula):
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.
Last night’s Parts Unknown seemed to present a very unbalanced and sensationalist view of Mexico. Is there violence in parts of the country? Yes. There is violence everywhere and the concentration of it in Mexico is due in part to the disruption of the cartels by policies put in place by Vincente Fox and Felipe Calderon (as the courageous, tragic Anabel Hernandez pointed out during your interview). Not to mention their urgency to satiate our appetites here with the goods they deliver. But cartel violence is on the decline overall throughout the country, and the violence was never as widespread as your show last night would lead one to believe.
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). I won’t go into the numbers here…a report was released last year that demonstrated the relative safety of Mexico compared to US cities and other countries, and addressed the issue of negative media bias. This report is independent, but based it’s presentation on information as varied as USA Today, the FBI, the US State Department and the UN World Health Organization.
A more comprehensive report was released recently by the Justice in Mexico Project at USD detailing the decline of drug violence in Mexico (peaking in 2011), how Mexico stacks up against other Latin American countries in regard to drug-related violence, the inequality of press coverage given to drug-related violence in Mexico when compared with other Latin American countries, and the distribution of drug-related violence across different regions of Mexico (demonstrating that it is not prevalent in many areas of the country).
To pick out drug violence in parts of, yet label the entire country as “violent”, is akin to focusing on the homicide rate in Chicago and calling the whole of the US violent (not that it isn’t, as also mentioned on your show). It seemed to me to be off-balance, skewed reporting. By the edict of…whom? CNN? Your advertisers? I noticed that the Bahamas Tourism Board had a nice, fat spot during the show last night. Pretty opportune as your reporting on Mexico was enough to scare any tourist away from the country and into the confines of a fat, “safe” all-inclusive in a more innocuous, less controversial destination. This couldn’t have been your production idea Mr. Bourdain. After all, you made an impassioned plea just yesterday for Mexican empathy on Tumblr. And we know your allegiance to former staff, current friends and figures around Mexico. What did they think of last night’s show?
I’m not arguing that the violence should not have been addressed, but did it need to consume nearly two-thirds of the airing (as far as we could tell) from the opening sequence to the end summarization? You were in some amazing places (Mexico City, Oaxaca, Cuernavaca) and didn’t even scratch the surface of those culturally-wealthy destinations. So much history and culture, so many beautiful cathedrals to visit, so much music and art to explore. And more great food to eat as well…if I recall, that’s how you got your start. You could have spent an entire episode focused on any one of these aspects and it would have provided a rich viewing experience and excellent ratings.
If I had never been to Mexico, Mr. Bourdain, I would certainly not want to after watching last night’s show. However, I will continue to visit often…I have two trips to Baja planned this month and can’t wait. I will take my wife and son down to Baja and other parts of Mexico unaffected by drug violence with “No Reservations”. I hope I’m not out of my depth with this open letter and I would never assume that anyone else, especially my Mexican friends and acquaintances, would share my viewpoint. I’m just a Gringo who loves Mexico and is sad to see it tarnished in the US media so harshly and so often.
Thank you for all you do and your consideration,
W. Scott Koenig (El Gringo)