It's hard to pick a favorite character on Baz Luhrmann's new Netflix series, but I absolutely adore Mylene from The Get Down. Played by the amazing singer and actress Herizen Guardiola, I could listen to Mylene sing all day — she longs to be "the next Donna Summer" and she definitely has the potential to be a star. The only thing standing in the way is her ultra conservative parents, especially her pastor father who believes that disco is "the devil's music." However, there's one person in Mylene's life who wants her music career to thrive — her uncle, a local political boss who is not above shady business dealings. Although the series isn't based on a true story, it does reference real life figures — so is Francisco "Papa Fuerte" Cruz a real person?
The short answer is, no — Jimmy Smits' character is fictional. But, like many aspects of the series, the character is inspired by the history of the Bronx in the 1970s. In an interview with Indie Wire, Luhrmann described the process of creating The Get Down's characters — he emphasized that none of them were "arbitrarily made up" and many characters are mashups of a variety of real life figures. As for Francisco “Papa Fuerte” Cruz, Luhrmann told the outlet that his "character is definitely based on different people who were identified as ‘poverty pimps in the Bronx,’ at the time.”
Although he's not a politician, Papa Fuerte has a hand in everything that goes on in the community. When Zeke's English teacher stops by his home, she suggests that his aunt and uncle enroll him a program run by Francisco at the community center, explaining that it could help Zeke get into college. Papa Fuerte cashes in on a favor in order to help Mylene get a record deal, and later he secures an internship for Zeke at the World Trade Center.
He's also shown engaging in not-so-legal business dealings in an effort to channel some of New York City's money and infrastructure into the South Bronx. His reasons are clear — as the face of the community, he publicly denounces city hall's racist policies and the political corruption that abounds in the city. (Although he certainly benefits from exchanging favors with local businessmen and politicians.)
It's unclear exactly which historical figures inspired Papa Fuerte's character. However, it's extremely accurate that corruption abounded in the Bronx in the 1970s — according to The New York Times, some members of the city's police force played a role in the corruption. Additionally, in 1987, Margot Hornblower wrote an article for The Washington Post that described the level of political corruption in the Bronx (which had continued into the 1980s).
In her article, Hornblower noted that when President Carter visited the South Bronx in 1977, he vowed to "turn it around," but nothing changed. Later, President Reagan visited the community and then proceeded to cut federal housing programs nationwide, according to The Nation. Meanwhile, The Washington Post article reported that the New York City government was coming back from the brink of near-bankruptcy, but remained "mired in corruption." When they saw an economic boom in Manhattan, politicians focused all their efforts on that borough and did little to help Bronx residents secure affordable housing and education opportunities.
So, it's no surprise that people like Francisco Cruz felt they had to take things into their own hands to improve the lives of the people living in the Bronx. He may be a fictional character, but the struggle he and his community faced was all too real.
Images: Netflix (2)