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How A Show About Zombies Looks At Legacies Of Real Violence

Ruben Blades as Daniel Salazar and Patricia Reyes Spíndola as Griselda Salazar in <em>Fear the Walking Dead</em>.
Justina Mintz
Ruben Blades as Daniel Salazar and Patricia Reyes Spíndola as Griselda Salazar in Fear the Walking Dead.

Much has been written about Fear the Walking Dead's flaws. A companion show to AMC's hit The Walking Dead, it takes place at the very onset of the zombie apocalypse, but often moves far too slowly.

But there is one thing FTWD is doing very well: It has one of the most complex, intriguing Latin American characters on prime-time television.

Daniel Salazar, the Salvadoran barber, is played by Panamanian music legend Ruben Blades. And it became clear in the latest episode, "Cobalt," when he breaks down, that this unusual situation — the attack of flesh-eating monsters — is where television is having the conversation about the legacy of Latin American violence and the generational fractures it has produced among Latinos in the U.S.

To begin with, it's refreshing to see a Central American character who is not a maid, or a gang member, or a struggling immigrant. With people of Central American descent the fastest-growing Latino group in the U.S., you'd think we'd see more varied roles, but very often, we don't. Daniel Salazar, on the other hand, is a regular guy, a quiet barber with a stable family. Somewhere underneath that silence, there's a barely concealed authoritarianism, which surfaces as he tersely orders people at his shop what to do during riots. Show writers get extra points for flawless Spanish-language dialogue, something that tends to be pretty cringeworthy on American TV.

As Los Angeles falls to the epidemic and zombies start taking to the streets, the army takes over. The neighbors mostly follow instructions and stubbornly cling to hope that civil, democratic society can endure. Salazar has no such notions. He grew up in a Latin America convulsed by violence from head to toe, Tierra del Fuego to Tijuana.

"I've seen this before," he recalls. "People that go out in trucks and never come back." His fellow survivor, Madison, a schoolteacher and mother, reassures him, "That's not going to happen here." He stares at her, pitying her for a few seconds before telling her: "Go home."

It's one of the first times I've seen such a poignant snapshot of the Latin American immigrant community's scars on prime-time TV. And it's the first time I've seen an acknowledgement of the very real trauma the devastating Central American wars have had on so many people living in the U.S.

There is no room for Latin American pain on the English-language screen. After all, for the most part, Latinos have largely served as props for Hollywood, and you don't ask a prop what it's been through. When Latin American anxieties do make it on the air, they are often played for laughs — take Modern Family's incessant jokes about Colombian violence. Or, in the case of action movies or thrillers, landscapes of violence and corruption are generally inhabited by white Americans who find themselves in trouble in, say, cartel-run Mexico.

Network executives who are pulling their hair out trying to figure out the key to the Latin audience should know that when you deny a people's pain, you deny the strength it took to endure it. If Spanish-language networks have done one thing well, it's allowing a space for that hurt to live.

That angst has found an unusual home on Fear the Walking Dead. At one point, Salazar tells Madison an anecdote from his youth in El Salvador: The people in his town had gone missing. His father had inquired about them, and the military told him not to worry — they'd come back. And they did: "I was standing in the river fishing, just a boy, and I found them," Salazar tells her. "All of them. All at once. All around me. In the water. My father told me not to have hatred in my heart. He said that men do these things not because of evil, they do evil because of fear. And at that moment I realized my father is a fool for believing there's a difference."

Salazar's anecdote hit a nerve. My own father, a Latin American immigrant, once recounted a similar memory to me. It's one of the few mentions he's made of living through Argentina's endless cycles of violence. Neither of my parents speak much about whatever happened back there — growing up we could only sense the massiveness of their fear and trauma, like touching the edges of furniture in the dark. Sometimes there's a casual but chilling comment, like my mother telling me that one of her first memories is of military boots, belonging to soldiers who were breaking into her house.

If you are a first- or second-generation American, what I'm describing is nothing new. It's a rift between parents and children that goes beyond culture and language. I remember how, as a kid, when I'd tell my father I was afraid of the dark, he'd sit on my bed and say, "It's the real people you have to be scared of, not the imaginary monsters." It's a comically disproportionate response for childish bedtime fears, but it's those brutal answers so many of us grew up with, those reminders of a past we didn't entirely know about, that are as much a part of our identity as our food and music and dance.

Fear the Walking Dead and The Walking Dead both constantly play with that same idea my dad sort of consoled me with: that what are even scarier than zombies are the living and what they have to go through to stay alive.

In "Cobalt," Salazar kidnaps his daughter's boyfriend, a soldier, and begins torturing him for answers about the plans for the remaining citizens of Los Angeles. His daughter discovers what he's done and runs out of the house horrified.

"When she first asked me about the war," he explains to Madison, "and why we came to America, I told her, in detail, about ... the violence. What was done. How we suffered. I told her everything ... except which man was me. Do you think she will understand?" Salazar begins to cry. "That it was necessary then, to survive?" Salazar is not necessarily right in his belief that violence is essential, but in a few lines he has summarized generational rifts between many first- and second-generation Americans and their parents.

You expect Madison to chastise him, but she doesn't. There's no pretense that the blond suburban mom is morally superior to the immigrant barber. Here's what's important about discussing our historical wounds and our cultural fears: rather than divide us, they bring us closer to one another. Sometimes, they highlight the fact that we all have the capacity to be monsters.

After a moment of silence, Madison inquires about the man Salazar tortured. "Did he tell us what we needed to know?"

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Jasmine Garsd is an Argentine-American journalist living in New York. She is currently NPR's Criminal Justice correspondent and the host of The Last Cup. She started her career as the co-host of Alt.Latino, an NPR show about Latin music. Throughout her reporting career she's focused extensively on women's issues and immigrant communities in America. She's currently writing a book of stories about women she's met throughout her travels.

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