The message is clear in the opening moments of the “Mayans M.C.” pilot episode as Ezekiel “EZ” Reyes and his low-rider Harley flatten a crow — the symbol of rival motorcycle club Sons of Anarchy — on a dusty road along the U.S.-Mexico border.
“Sons of Anarchy,” the hit FX series about a white, Northern California biker gang that ended four years ago, is roadkill in the rear-view mirror of this biker saga. This year belongs to their adversaries, the Mayans, the formidable Latino bike club that played a peripheral but deadly role during “Anarchy’s” seven-season run.
The “brown” bike club, which like all gangs of color in “Sons” was referred to in race-related pejoratives by the white bikers (and vice versa when it came to those other gangs addressing the Sons), now have their own show, which says as much about the changing demographics of scripted television as it does about the social climate that drove the Sons off the road to make way for the Mayans.
“Sons of Anarchy” debuted in 2008, the same year as “Breaking Bad,” the recession and the election of the nation’s first black president. Both shows dramatized the frustrations of a sidelined white working class in characters like Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam) and Walter White (Bryan Cranston). Both were family men who felt the pressure to provide by any means necessary, be it meth or mayhem, chemistry or brute force. They successfully found a way around the system, tasted power but wound up destroying their own empires and families.
A decade later, the crumbling class infrastructure that gave rise to such antiheroes has contributed to ugly extremes in the real world, from a rise in white nationalism to politicians regularly stoking fears of immigrants and brown folks for votes. Last week, Florida’s Ron DeSantis warned voters not to “monkey this up” by electing his black opponent in the governor’s race while the murder of Iowa college student Mollie Tibbits by an undocumented worker has become such an anti-immigrant rallying cry that her father has had to repeatedly ask that Mollie’s death not be used in “advancing views she believed were profoundly racist.”
“Mayans M.C.’s” co-creator Kurt Sutter, the mastermind behind “Sons,” says his new series is not a reaction to today’s political and cultural firestorm. It’s meant to entertain. But what better underdog to take on this decade’s war on the underclass than guys with names like Miguel, Che and Angel, i.e. the targets of such hate, and all within the safe confines of scripted TV? And like the “Sons,” they’re hardly choirboys.
In the series, which premieres Tuesday, a Virgin of Guadalupe statue that’s draped in a bullet belt presides over the charter’s clubhouse. “Los Asesinos de Dios” (“God’s Assassins”) is the motto carved into the club’s meeting table. Contraband is smuggled across international borders and state lines tucked inside the ruffled skirts of quinceañera gowns.
“I don’t write political shows, nor is this a political show,” said Sutter of “Mayans M.C.,” which he co-created with indie filmmaker Elgin James. “But it’s an authentic show, so it deals with the current climate. There’s attention on ‘Mayans’ because it’s at the border and the border wall, but who could have predicted the political moment that we’re in right now? You can’t plan on any pop culture or political climate being on the table when you finally arrive. Things happen when they happen, so like literally every day when [we were making the show], something else would happen. It was like ‘Wow, this is … weird.’”
The majority of characters in “Mayans M.C,” are new to the biker saga, but “Sons” fans will recognize Marcus Alvarez (Emilio Rivera), who’s now referred to as the “godfather” in the 10-episode series. He founded the Oakland Mayans, which spawned new chapters like the one here that represents the fictional U.S.-Mexico border town of Santo Padre.
EZ (JD Pardo) is a prospect, or probationary member in training, for those who aren’t up on their bike-club vernacular, brought into the Mayans fresh out of prison by his brother, Angel (Clayton Cardenas). Their father, Felipe (Edward James Olmos), warns against their alliance with the outlaw bike gang. The Mayans, among other things, work for a Mexican drug cartel. Though presidente Obispo “Bishop” Losa (Michael Irby) tries to run a seamless criminal operation, U.S. law enforcement, Mexican rebel factions and family obligation makes the charter’s job more complicated — and brutal. There’s no easing into their world: expect guns, blood, gore and more gore.
Protagonist EZ, unlike “Anarchy’s” prince of bikers Jax, starts from the lowest ranks of the club and must work his way up. Pardo admits it’s not easy following “Sons of Anarchy,” a series that set a high bar, garnered loyal fans and featured the swoon-inducing good looks of Hunnam.
“There is pressure,” Pardo says. “But this isn’t ‘Sons.’ It’s a different story. Still, when I booked it I can’t tell you how many times people sent me those little videos of Charlie Hunnam’s butt, and Jax having sex on the show. They’re like, ‘Prepare yourself!’ I was like, ‘Oh my God, what did I get myself in to?’”
The cast of “Mayans M.C.” is almost exclusively Latino and Hispanic, with only a handful of return characters and cameos from “Sons.” Executive producer Noberto Barba directs here, and Sutter teamed up withJames – ex-gang member and former convict — to ensure authenticity.
“Growing up, I was surrounded by violence, first as a victim and then as an aggressor,” says James. “I never really wanted to tell stories about violence because I don’t want to glorify it in any way. I was trying to push that down, but it was like, wow, these are the stories we actually need to tell to put a human face on that cycle of violence and incarceration. The real cause of violence and the cause of why you’d join a street gang or an outlaw motorcycle club.”
“Mayans M.C.” moves between Southern California and Mexico through dark underground tunnels and border crossings jammed with traffic.
The culture clash between the two regions is at the root of some of the hour-long episodes’ most compelling — and humorous — moments.
When Mayan member Creeper (Joseph Raymond Lucero) is shot during a heist on the Cali side of the border, he’s whisked underground to a doctor in Tijuana, who speaks to him in Spanish.
“What’s he saying?” says a confused and panicked Creeper. “Tell him I’m an L.A. Mexican!”
The club’s other bilingual members translate for the doctor. “He says he wants a sex change,” they joke.
FX like many networks, cable and streaming platforms, has pushed toward a more diverse lineup of shows and performers. This year’s Emmy contenders – “Atlanta,” “Handmaid’s Tale,” “This Is Us,” “Insecure” – are proof that the industry’s efforts are making the small screen a more dynamic, entertaining and interesting place. But there’s a long way to go, and series such as “Mayans M.C.” are still outliers.
A 2016 Annenberg report found Latinos are among the least represented groups with speaking roles in TV and film though they comprise nearly 18% of the country’s population. Only 5.8% of the more than 11,000 speaking characters surveyed in the study were Hispanic or Latino.
That doesn’t mean the macho, sexist and racist world of these border bikers is all of a sudden a font of obligatory PC messaging. It’s not. Like its predecessor, “Mayans M.C.” has something offensive for everyone. It’s just this time around, it’s delivered from a different perspective — and often in Spanglish.
When: 10 p.m. Tuesday
Rating: TV-MA-LV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17 with advisories for coarse language and violence)