Kung Fu, Drug Cartels & Border Tensions in ‘Seis Manos’

Powerhouse Animation Studio uses dark humor in the first season of this politically-infused, culturally layered Netflix anime

If you haven’t seen Seis Manos yet, you need to get your shit together and support this 2019 original, which features the voices of Danny Trejo, Jonny Cruz, and Angelica Vale. Here’s a rundown of the dope, unorthodox plot: it takes place in the 1970s and follows a trio of kung fu fighting Mexicanos who — with the help of a Black DEA agent and Mexican policewoman— battle to defend San Simon, a fictional border town. They’re up against a hyper-savage cartel takeover, using only their six fists (“seis manos”) to combat the flying bullets. If it sounds wildly unbelievable, that’s because it is. Artistically imperfect and intentionally hyperbolic, the animated show utilizes Richard Rodriguez-style dark humor and violent absurdity to bring attention to real problems and issues plaguing the centuries-long relationship between the U.S. and Mexico. Though not overtly intellectual, the show is quite political, with characters who are able to make viewers laugh, cringe, and reflect on the distance between our neighboring countries. In honor of the killer seis manos that are dished out by the show’s heroes, here are six quotes that exemplify how Seis Manos masterfully captures the bizarre and fractured relations shared between Mexico and “America.” And be on the lookout for Season Two, scheduled for September 2021.

1. “How do you say police in Mexican?”

In Episode 1, Brister — an Black DEA Agent from Houston — arrives to the pueblo of San Smon on assignment from the U.S. government. He doesn’t speak Spanish, and the show capitalizes on his “American” ignorance to underscore just how uninformed many U.S. citizens tend to be about Latin America. Of course, “Mexican” isn’t a language; Spanish and a variety of indigenous tongues are what Mexicans speak. But plenty of U.S. citizens have simplified Latin America as a one-dimensional place beneath the Rio Grande border — i.e. Mexico is Spanish, Spanish is Mexico. As this quote reveals, Mexico is a singular country, not the sole representation of the Spanish language or Latinx identity. This quote hints at a major blindspot in U.S. consciousness: Mexican is a nationality, but there is no such thing as speaking “Mexican.”

2. “How can I be gringo? I’m darker than licorice at midnight.”

This might be my favorite line. In Episode 2, Brister is again the butt of the joke, frustrated at how the Mexicans view and treat him like a “gringo” — i.e. an American who is stereotypically white and ignorant of worldly customs — despite his Blackness. Brister’s character is particularly interesting since he has a Shaft-like smoothness and the rugged toughness of a Vietnam war vet, though this doesn’t protect him from harsh Mexican scrutiny and teasing. That’s because being “gringo” isn’t merely a skin tone. It’s a mindset. It’s how you carry yourself (perhaps with a certain arrogance or obliviousness) in a country that is defined by poverty and systemic disorganization. According to my mom — a Mexicana who lives in an outskirt pueblo of Oaxaca and has no electricity — I’m still a gringo (which is why I’m writing this article in English). It’s a reminder that there are levels to being gringo, and Brister’s utter lack of cultural awareness puts him high on the chart despite being African “American.”

3. “Mexico is also America.”

My friend recently got into a debate with a Texan tourist in Mexico City about this: Mexico is part of North America. Hell, Panama and Nicaragua are continentally North American (located in the Central American region). And Brazil — one of the southernmost countries in the world — is also part of America. South America. “Americans” (aka U.S. citizens) have an embarrassing tendency to think anything south of “America” is somewhere else. Geography is not a strong suit for many “Americans,” so this joke pokes fun at just how inaccurate our worldly sensibilities are. I wouldn’t be shocked if the average U.S. citizen believes that Mexico borders Peru if they had to identify it on a blank map — even though they’re an entire continent apart. When Officer Garcia — the badass Mexican female cop — calls out Brister’s lack of geographical understanding in Episode 4, my soul claps in solidarity.

4. “If there’s something dark happening here, you can bet the U.S. already knows about it.”

Brister once again provides a gem in Episode 5, when — while trying to figure out what the enemy narcos are up to —he acknowledges that the U.S. government is likely involved. This is a reference and shot at the U.S.’s imperialistic efforts — particularly throughout the 60s and 70s — in which they were covertly involved with the military overthrows of leaders throughout Latin America, including Nicaragua, El Salvador, Chile, and Argentina. This is not a “conspiracy theory” — U.S. officials have admitted to financing or supplying the political dismantling of various Latin American countries in order to have stronger influences there, most of which resulted in the further social unraveling and economic hardships that those nations have endured for decades since. I’m not saying the U.S. is the only villain in world history; I’m saying the U.S. has undoubtedly siphoned greed, espionage, and monetary incentives in order to manipulate other political systems in the Americas to tilt towards their will, creating systems of inequity and instability in which drug cartels have been able to thrive as a result in later decades.

5. “El Norte… Why don’t they ever invade when you want them to invade?”

Officer Garcia is as critical and cynical as she is historically informed. Similar to the quote above, this Episode 7 line refers to how often the U.S. has gotten involved in (aka forcefully invaded) other countries — but how it is typically for the wrong reasons. Rarely intervening to help a nation in actual despair (for example, providing proper aid and assistance to Mexican law enforcement to help fight against the illegal weapon and drug trafficking that is significantly shaped by U.S. policies and the demand of U.S. customers), the U.S. only gets involved if we have something to gain (i.e. Operation Condor). As a U.S. citizen, I’d like to see the U.S. provide more assistance to countries like Chile or Colombia, where U.S. intervention has led to dictatorships and/or drug-related wars that have ravaged those communities for over a quarter-century. It’s a complicated issue, but one that this cartoon consistently and bravely alludes to.

6. “Every statement ever written… is secretly a question.”

The kung fu master, Sifu, provides wisdom and tranquility to an otherwise bloody and chaotic storyline in Seis Manos, and though not directly commenting on U.S.-Mexico relations, this quote is essential in that it sums up the point of the show for me. It’s a reminder that we shouldn’t simply criticize or over-glorify the mistakes and triumphs in our histories. Rather, we must address and solve the problems that exist in our world —and which extend beyond our individual control —by speaking out and make a “statement,” which can ultimately lead to questioning the root causes and generating potential solutions. I can’t say that the show provides any realistic resolutions (unless three kung fu fighting kids can actually train themselves to combat drug cartels and global corruption), but it encourages a critical re-examination between two neighboring countries that have been stained by bloodshed since 1846 — after the U.S. invaded Mexico and took what is now California, Texas, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, and parts of Colorado. At its core, Seis Manos highlights the glaring miscommunications that have existed between our two countries and pushes viewers to question — and hopefully rewrite — the chaos of the mess we’ve created, by taking accountability and allowing forces of good (and historically accurate humor) to prevail.

Bay Area writer, blogger, teacher. Books: Piñata Theory (2020); This Is Not a Frank Ocean Cover Album (2019). Twitter + IG: @alan_chazaro

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