Hollywood may shine a spotlight on Southwest Detroit, but will it get it right?

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Keegan-Michael Key and the cover of the novel “August Snow.” (Photo compilation by BridgeDetroit. Keegan-Michael Key photo from Twitter)

My Latino community in Southwest Detroit could soon be thrust into primetime television, possibly for the first time. 

That would be a game-changer. In terms of media exposure, Southwest Detroit and the city’s Latino community has never been the center of attention. Often, it has felt as if my neighborhood is a critically acclaimed independent film  — the people that know it love it, but most haven’t even heard of it.

Here’s the reason for the potential upgrade:  Comedian/actor Keegan-Michael Key has agreed to executive produce and star in an ABC television drama called “August Snow.” 

WATCH: BridgeDetroit interview with author Stephen Mack Jones

Key, raised in Detroit, wants to portray Snow, the main character in a series of crime novels written by Detroit-area author Stephen Mack Jones. I’m a fan of the books and of Key. 


Snow is an ex-Detroit cop and military veteran. In the books, Snow loses his job on the police force after standing up to a crooked mayor and corrupt police officials. Snow eventually wins a multi-million dollar lawsuit. After traveling abroad, he returns to a Detroit that is both gentrifying and decaying. For all Detroiters, parts of that storyline are familiar. 

 There’s plenty of Detroit-area scenery in Jones’ two books, “August Snow” and “Lives Laid Away.” A third novel, “Dead of Winter,” debuts in May. 

Here’s the extra pay-off. Snow is of Black and Mexican-American descent. He was born and raised on the city’s southwest side. He still lives in the Mexicantown part of the neighborhood. I’m Mexican-American and was born and raised in Southwest. 

Most people from the metro area know Southwest is the heart of the Latino community. The Mexican and Mexican-American community have ties to the neighborhood going back more than 100 years. But beyond the local area, many are clueless about that history. 

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Over the years, I’ve answered a lot of annoying questions — including from many Latinos. Questions like, “Did you just get there a few years ago?” “Can you get any ‘real’ Mexican food?” 

A national television show could change all of this quickly. That’s why I hope Key and others behind the show get enough details right about the neighborhood. 

To be clear, I don’t know much about Hollywood. But, I think we all know it’s such an unpredictable industry that even a deal to make a TV show may not actually result in a TV show. COVID-19 also makes it unclear when filming could begin. And it’s too soon to tell whether any of it will be shot in Detroit. To read more about the deal, read this industry piece

For now, I’d like to offer a few pointers to Hollywood. 

Some authentic southwest Detroit details 

Botanas

This botana is a Southwest Detroit original. (Courtesy photo by Armando’s Mexican Restaurant and Catering)

Southwest Detroit restaurants invented the dish called botanas. Essentially, they are nachos extraordinaire. 

I once interviewed restauranter Armando Galan, who claimed he was the dish’s creator. He was inspired by the Detroit coney dog and Canadian poutine. The lesson he learned from those two foods was to pile on layers of tasty ingredients to an already popular dish. In the case of a botana, it’s corn chips smothered in Muenster cheese, a blend of chorizo sausage and refried pinto beans, avocados, tomatoes, jalapeños and onions. All of that puts botanas at a different level of yumminess than ordinary nachos.

It was Southwest Detroit restaurants that first called this dish the botana  — the word means appetizer. Hundreds of botanas are sold every week in Southwest Detroit Mexican restaurants. 

Iron fences

A distinct character of Southwest Detroit neighborhoods are the many homes with iron fences and gates. They can be fairly simple or ornate. They are most often black, though are sometimes white. The home could be a humble bungalow; the street could have dilapidated, abandoned homes and graffiti. 

But with those fences, the homeowner, often a Latino immigrant, has declared his or her place a castle. For them, they are a symbol of hard-won stability. I’ve known families who saved for years to buy them.  

The influence is very Latino  — iron gates and fences are common in Latin America. A major designer of the fences is Diseños Ornamental Iron, which has been in the neighborhood for 45 years. It was started by a Colombian immigrant and now run by his Mexican immigrant stepdaughter, Nieves Longardo. 

Sixto Rodriguez has ties to the Southwest Detroit and Cass Corridor neighborhoods.

Rodriguez  

Many Southwest Detroiters can tell you which famous musicians grew up there. That includes Jack White of the legendary White Stripes. The horrorcore rappers Insane Clown Posse have ties to Southwest and neighboring River Rouge.   

It’s the life of Sixto Diaz Rodriguez that may be most relevant to Snow, given the character’s Mexican-American heritage. The Chicano singer-songwriter, known by his stage name of  Rodriguez, made two albums in the late ’70s that flopped commercially at the time. He toiled in manual labor jobs in the Cass Corridor for decades. In the late 1990s, Rodriguez discovered he had a huge following in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. 

In the late aughts, his two albums were reissued in the U.S., garnering him critical acclaim and a new audience. In 2013, the documentary about his life “Searching for Sugarman” won an Oscar.  

Southwest Detroit is more than Mexicantown

Snow says he’s from the Mexicantown part of Southwest Detroit. That’s smart. The two terms are not interchangeable, and it’s a mistake others often make. 

There are lots of definitions of what constitutes Southwest Detroit  — the most generous description includes Corktown to Delray to the east Dearborn border. 

Where the Mexicantown part of Southwest starts and ends is also fluid. Some think of it as the Bagley Avenue commercial district that’s home to Xochimilco and Los Galanes restaurants, La Gloria Bakery, Taqueria Lupitas, and other retail. Others use it to refer to a larger area that includes West Vernor and Michigan Avenue. Others don’t like the term Mexicantown at all, considering it too touristy. 

In any event, what I hope the TV show captures is the diversity that Snow would have grown up in and how it shapes his world view. Snow would have grown up alongside families of Polish, Greek, Irish, Lebanese, Filipino, French Canadian, Maltese, Hungarian, Puerto Rican, Vietnamese and Appalachian Southern descent, to name a few. The food of his childhood, like mine, would have been fabulous. 

A Black Latino ex-cop from Detroit could be a groundbreaking character 

This is my true hope. August Snow is an amazing character to explore our divided city and country.   

A Black Mexican-American from Snow’s generation would have faced discrimination from both communities. Those tensions continue to play out in communities across the nation. 

Because of Southwest’s ethnic diversity, along with his military and police background, it would mean some of his childhood friends and former colleagues now embrace the conspiratorial, racist politics of today. These themes are explored in Jones’ books. 

The people behind the TV show seem smart enough to know this is the great potential of this character. The TV crew also sounds smart enough to hire Black and Latino writers and actors for the show. 

In the books, August Snow always draws strength from his heritage and his rich Southwest upbringing  — no matter how many others misunderstand it. 

That makes him a real Southwest Detroiter. 

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