The U.S.-Mexico border has long imposed itself on the imagination of mainstream American politics and culture, dividing people into us vs. them, insiders vs. outsiders, and immigrants vs. natives. But the Emmy-winning actor Michael Chiklis hopes that his new TV show “Coyote,” which premiered on CBS All Access on Jan. 7, will challenge viewers to re-imagine themselves on both sides of the border.
“You know the old adage ‘walk a mile in another man’s shoes?’ Well, for him to have to walk 100 miles in another man’s shoes seemed a very compelling bit of storytelling to me,” Chiklis told NBC News, referring to his character, Ben Clemens. “I think it’s fascinating to have a 50-something-year-old white guy from America have all of his choices taken from him.”
Chiklis plays a former U.S. border patrol agent who, after a 32-year career, finds himself on the Mexican side of the border, helping a drug trafficker’s pregnant girlfriend (played by Salvadoran actress Emy Mena) cross into the United States for asylum and protection.
Fans will remember Chiklis from acclaimed police dramas like “The Shield” — starring as dirty cop Vic Mackey, and “The Commish,” playing small town police commissioner Tony Scali. But the actor says that “Coyote” is not really about following or breaking the law, but the mitigating circumstances that drive the characters on both sides of the border.
“It’s about the people and the places and the things that he encounters in the odyssey that he goes through,” Chiklis said. “And as we get deeper into that dive, it’s about the conversation between Mexico and the United States and about the collision of cultures. And this is universal, all through the world we see this happening.”
The actor was inspired to take on a U.S.-Mexico border story after seeing the TV series “Fauda” (meaning “Chaos”) about the Israeli-Palestinian border. “Coyote” aims to take the highly politicized border and strip it down to the humanity of the situation, says Chiklis, in order to engage viewers in more nuanced conversations about immigration and other complex issues.
“You are for something or you are against it. You are pro-gun or you are anti-gun. You are pro-law enforcement or you are anti-law enforcement. And that’s ridiculous, in my opinion. Two things can be true at once,” he said. “You can be pro-law enforcement, very pro-law enforcement in fact, but also recognize that there’s systemic racism and there’re things that need to be done to rectify that problem.”
A boundary seen through a racial lens
Off camera, the U.S.-Mexico border is both a geographical and cultural reference for many that not only shapes their identity but also affects them psychologically.
“It’s not just a physical space of the borderland between the U.S. and Mexico,” said Frederick Aldama, a Ohio State professor and Latino culture scholar. “It’s something that we carry around with us and our families. We are acutely aware of how suddenly it can impose itself on our lives, and the surveillance and fear that comes with it.”
Borders cuts one population from another, says Aldama. And in mainstream American culture, the U.S.-Mexico border imposes itself as the racialization of immigrants.
“The U.S.-Mexico border transforms brown immigrants into a threat for a white U.S. north,” Aldama told NBC News. “So when we see images on TV or film that create a hallucination about brown invading hoards, it is disturbing.”
Aldama said that mainstream culture and politics have created polarizing images of good immigrants vs. bad immigrants, and desirable people vs. undesirable people. And in order to nuance the conversation about the border, he stresses that these stories must embrace the perspectives of those who are being excluded.
“We need to tell border stories through a brown optic,” he said. “We need to show what it means to be invisible in a world where we cannot participate. And to do that we have to be the protagonists of our own stories.”
Unpacking the border, through the personal
The Colombian actor Juan Pablo Raba plays El Cartin, a drug trafficker in “Coyote.” But he said that he rejects many roles like this one because they are poorly written or represent a cliché that he is not comfortable with.
This character, however, revealed something much more complex for him.
“I like the idea that we get to show this guy, who at least for now we’re going to consider a bad guy. But he does not act like one,” he told NBC News. “And these are the bad guys that we have to fear. The ones that we don’t see coming.”
Raba says that while geographic and cultural borders may appear to be permanent, stories have the power to move those invisible lines by revealing the humanity that lives on either side of them.
“This is a story about a different group of human beings and they all have their own vision about this imaginary line,” said Raba, “and they act in a different way depending on what part of the line they are born in.”
By understanding those differences, viewers can unpack the big ideas and politics that sometimes add tension to border issues and instead focus on the personal connections that nurture unity.
Raba compares those person-to-person connections in “Coyote” with the love story of Romeo and Juliet, specifically at the moment when the characters realize that in spite of opposing families (or countries) they have much more in common than what they thought.
“We start with this huge idea of a border, of law enforcement, about immigration politics, then we just focus it on just two or three persons,” said Raba. “I think it’s easier to understand that way.”