The world of Netflix’s Narcos: Mexico isn’t exactly one where you expect to find a lot of women. The cursory knowledge most viewers have of the drug cartel business is largely filled with characters like Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán and Pablo Escobar. And while, yes, those characters are part of the world of Narcos — both in the original series and its spinoff in Mexico — this world isn’t as strictly male as it appears. Enter Teresa Ruiz’s Isabella Batista, loosely based on the real Guadalajara Cartel’s “Queen of the Pacific,” Sandra Ávila Beltrán.
In season 1 of Narcos: Mexico, Isabella was a breath of fresh air as the first female character with a real stake in the cartel business. In the three preceding seasons on the prequel series Narcos, women were only ever seen in the domestic sphere. The show was criticised for its lack of female perspective, says creator and showrunner Eric Newman. “For a lot of women who watched the show, there was always this sense of, if you're looking for well drawn, well-rounded women, Narcos is not your show. That bothered me a little bit.” He says he knew his series had to do better and avoid being “myopic” and “closed off” to perspectives other than his own.
“If we have improved in our depiction of women, it is largely because we welcomed in these voices that we could not approximate on our own. There are men who can write women, and clearly, there are lots of women who can write women. But to actually have our actors, our director, a number of our writers or producers, reflect a genuine female point of view was invaluable.”
One of the major actors in that equation? Ruiz. After season 1, in which her character Isabella was largely chewed up and spat out by the cartel game, season 2 is an opportunity for her to break out. Narcos: Mexico season 2 (on Netflix Feb. 13) opens with Isabella trying to start her own cocaine operation, collecting whatever scraps she can to build her own burgeoning empire. Eventually, she teams up with a new character, Enedina (Mayra Hermosillo) — a member of the powerful Tijuana cartel, which her family runs — and the two hatch a new business plan.
This is Narcos, so that set-up obviously gets messy from there, but for Ruiz, the real story is what this team-up says about women and their multifaceted relationship with power.
Refinery29: How are you feeling about people finally seeing Isabella’s season 2 arc?
Teresa Ruiz: “I don’t know. What do you think of it? Tell me.”
It’s complicated. I think this is a very male heavy show, so it’s exciting to see Isabella break out on her own and team up with another woman. But I know this world has hurt a lot of people. It’s complicated.
“I think there’s a difference between those two women and why they do what they do. And that is very clear in the last scene, in the line where I say, ‘I didn’t do this for money.’ I feel like a lot of people that are identifying with Isabella specifically identify because of that struggle, not because of what she does, or because she wants power. She wants money, but as a woman living in a society that is designed for men to thrive, you understand, it’s a matter of survival. As we as women aren’t our own bosses, or we don’t have space to work where we feel completely safe and appreciated, then we are at the whim of men. A lot of what motivates to get power goes beyond power — it’s more about safety [and] about, especially women of colour, not getting undermined and under appreciated.
If you’re not financially and socially independent, you’re going to be sexually harassed and you’re going to be taken advantage of. You’re going to be abused mentally and physically, like we saw with Isabella in the first season. I think what you feel is because of that struggle, because of the principle she’s rooting for. If not for that, she would do what the other woman does, which is to take the money. But you even see this dynamic between these two women. One of them is protected by a family, a last name, and a business she didn’t start. The other one is alone and starting on her own. Their motives are different. Their struggles are different kinds of struggles.”
She’s an interesting foil to Diego Luna’s lead character Felix Gallardo in that way, even though she doesn’t really share scenes with him — it’s interesting to see her motivations juxtaposed against his, which are all about ego.
“Yeah, his ambition. I mean, it’s not that Isabella’s ambition isn’t going to become toxic at some point, but just talking about the root of why women search for power, especially women of colour. It’s because we need safety and we need an opportunity. We need to feel like we’re not going to be harassed and we’re not going to be abused.”
This season was also a bit easier to watch in that regard. It’s hard to watch anyone being taken advantage of, especially a woman, as a female audience member.
“Especially when that person can’t do anything about it. It gives you all this anger, right? Just because there’s so many things, the setting or society or whatever the different constraints are in a given moment — there’s this sense of feeling trapped and I think Isabella really speaks to that. When she does get out of it, it’s very exciting for her, even though this world is not something you want to root for.”
So, your character is inspired by a real person, Sandra Ávila Beltrán. But since they have different names and different details, your character could splinter off. Is she?
“She’s becoming her own character, especially because of the way Narcos works, where they give you one episode and from there begin to write in as they see it. It’s an evolving show.”
Is that a bit freeing? Sandra is a force.
“Well, she’s always going to be based on Sandra. But yeah, it’s surprising to see where each episode goes. A lot of times they give me a script I was not expecting, so that’s exciting. There are a lot of things I wish we could include more because it has to do with the history of Mexico and the way she participated in that history. It’s difficult to be a woman in any kind of thriving place. One of the things I was most impressed about when I was doing research on her was the way people would talk about her. It was like, all those things she did, journalists would write that there’s no way a woman would have done them. There’s no way men or these cartel leaders would have let her grow that much. There was a lot of negating of what she did. Whereas with the male leaders of the cartels, there were exaggerations of what they did. They made it bigger, more grandiose. That was interesting to me. It doesn’t matter if you’re doing good or bad. There’s this doubt.”
We’re talking about a world in which men are running it at the top, and on Narcos, technically, a lot of the leadership is male. Did the writers and showrunner take your perspective into account when creating Isabella’s story?
“My collaboration is more with the directors and the actors. Once we get the script, there’s a certain amount of collaboration. This season we had a female director — the first time Narcos has had a female director, Marcella Said from Chile. With Marcella, we got together at a hotel room and we talked about what it is we wanted to say about women and what we thought was missing in the dynamics they were writing and how we could include that. But again, in this industry or any industry, it is a struggle for women to have their voices heard. I really did feel like Isabella in the second season, just trying to cut through and trying to say something and fighting for my principals.”
No matter how supportive a male writer is, at the end of the day, he’s never been a woman, so he doesn’t necessarily know the things that you do.
“Yeah, to have the female director was really important. And Jesse Moore, who’s a female producer on set with us all the time, was wanting to team up with us. It’s so important to have female creators around you as an artist, because they allow you to be in a more vulnerable place.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.