Kate del Castillo: the Reigning Queen of the Telenovela

Photograph Source: Ventaneando – CC BY 3.0

“La Reina del Sur might be the best (sexy, violent) mass market anti-imperialist work of art made in the 21st century.”

If you’re eager to improve your Spanish, or learn the language for the first time—with obscenities and colloquialism—you might listen carefully to the dialogue in La Reina del Sur, (The Queen of the South), a telenovela on Netflix inspired by the epic novel of the same name by Spanish author, Arturo Pérez-Reverte. The novel and the telenovela resemble one another. Many of the same characters appear in both, but in the telenovela their personalities deepen and expand. After a while, they hardly resemble the fictional characters that inspired them.

Eight authors wrote the telenovela, which had a $10 million budget. Eight individuals are listed as the executive producers; six men and one woman directed. Clearly, the telenovela was a collaborative effort. The novel had one creator: Pérez-Reverte, though he has said that he was inspired by the corridos that honor outlaws and criminals. He also must have based his story on real people and events and has to hide their identities.

La Reina del Sur might be the only (sexy, violent) mass market anti-imperialist work of art made in the 21st century. I have not watched all the episodes—there are 195—but I have binge watched enough of them—more than 50— to be hooked on the series. The “bad” guys and gals, including Teresa Mendoza, played by Kate del Castillo, are the good guys and good gals, while the so called good guys and gals, including Epifanio Vargas, the president of Mexico, plus several nasty DEA agents and a despicable US senator, are evil incarnate.

The word “telenovela” combines tele (for “television”) and novela (for “novel”), probably the most popular form of soap opera in Latin America. The Queen of the South takes the telenovela out of the bedroom and the kitchen and inserts it in mean streets and in the corrupt corridors of power. It reinvents the format.

There are enough guns and bullets, ambushes and assassinations in the series to satisfy moviegoers who crave action heroes, violence and bloodshed. And there is also a hefty political subtext that weaves together drugs, smuggling and contemporary political and economic intrigue to satisfy viewers who want drama that appeals to both the intellect and the heart. Movie critic Pauline Kael would say that it’s both a work of art and a commercial product. I agree.

La Reina del Sur is not the first Netflix show to feature a woman in the starring role as a drug queen pin. That distinction belongs to Hache, in which Europe is the setting, and Adriana Ugarte plays Helena, who claws her way to the top of the criminal pyramid.

In La Reina del Sur, Kate del Castillo plays Teresa Mendoza, a Mexican beauty with brains who gathers around her a band of brothers, both Latinos and Russians, who belong to two generations and who escape from the clutches of their enemies in almost every episode. Capture and freedom parallel one another. Teresa and her entourage liberate women destined for sexual slavery, free incarcerated political prisoners and kill their enemies.

Teresa has a daughter who joins the outlaws and follows in the footsteps of her mother. There’s lots of mother/ daughter hugging and kissing.

The telenovela takes place in Mexico, Peru, Colombia, England and the US, not in the Mediterranean, the principle setting for Pérez-Reverte’s novel, which leaves a lot to the imagination. La Reina del Sur is truly continental in scope, and might be described as a paean to the peasants and workers of Latin America as well as its capital cities with skyscrapers and slums, and both persecuted and rebellious.

Kate del Castillo made a name for herself a decade or so ago when she met Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera, aka El Chapo, once the head of the Sinaloa Cartel, which smuggled illegal drugs into the US. He is now behind bars at a maximum security prison in Colorado serving a life sentence and probably won’t be able to escape.

In an essay posted on Twitter, del Castillo urged El Chapo to “deal with good things” and “traffic in love.” She and Sean Penn met El Chapo when he was in prison in Mexico. Penn published an interview with El Chapo published in Rolling Stone. For years, del Castillo was under surveillance by the Mexican National Intelligence Centre and investigated for money laundering.

In 2016 she was subpoenaed to testify before the public prosecutor at the Mexican Consulate in LA. She has not been indicted, but is apparently still under investigation. Del Castillo seems to have had an ongoing romance with drug kingpins and smugglers and a desire to show that the big bosses in Mexico, the US and throughout Latin America are the real criminals.

She has used her star power and her notoriety to market her tequila brand, Honor del Castillo.Unlike Teresa Mendoza, the fictional character she plays on screen, she has managed to stay out of jail and to make herself a celebrity across Latin America where she is the Queen of the Telenovela. In La Reina del Sur she’s sometimes over the top, but she’s usually engaging, especially when she lets fatal bullets fly. Who said women can’t be as trigger happy as men, at least on big and little screens?


Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.