C LIT 321 A Wi 22: Studies In Literature Of The Americas

C LIT 321 A Wi 22: Studies In Literature Of The Americas

C LIT 321A  / JSIS 480



5 credits

MW 12:30-2:20 by ZOOM (Please note that this class will be taught by Zoom, not in person)

Prof. Cynthia Steele



An exploration of the U.S.-Mexican ‘Drug War,’ through fiction and films from the period 2000-2021. How has the emergence of drug cartels as shadow corporations and governments, along with mushrooming levels of violence, affected civil society on both sides of the border? How do attempts to address these problems intersect with other human rights struggles? In what sense has drug violence targeted women, in particular? Why do media and popular culture in both countries continue to glamorize the cartels? We will read five short novels written by Mexican novelists Yuri Herrera, Elmer Mendoza and Juan Pablo Villalobos and a brief political history, along with three critical essays. Also, we will watch nine films, both fiction and documentary, on instant streaming. Students will write a short comparative essay, keep a reading and film viewing journal, give a group presentation, and participate actively in class discussions. All texts are in English (or English translation) and Spanish-language films are subtitled. Novels: Yuri Herrera, Kingdom Cons, Signs Preceding the End of the World, and The Transmigration of Bodies; Elmer Mendoza, Kiss the Detective; and Juan Pablo Villalobos, Down the Rabbit Hole. Films: Traffic, Sin dejar huella, No Country for Old Men, El Sicario Room 164, El velador, Cartel Land, Heli, Sicario, and Narcos: Mexico.

 Canvas Site:


 Zoom Link to Classroom:

Zoom Link to Personal Meeting Room:

Required Books, available from University Book Store:

  1. Carmen Boullosa and Mike Wallace, A Narco History: How the United States and Mexico Jointly Created the “Mexican Drug War. Free online access through UW Libraries. Or to purchase: OR Books, 2016. $10.84 or $8.69 kindle edition.


  1. Yuri Herrera, Three Novels: Yuri Herrera. Trans. Lisa Dillman. And Other Stories, 2021. $25.95. 288 pp.

“The Mexico we hear of in the news―the drug cartels, migration and senseless violence―is rich soil for Herrera’s moving stories of people who live in this reality but also live in the timeless realm of myth, epic and fairy tale, such as the singer Lobo in Kingdom Cons who loves the drug lord’s own daughter, Makina, who crosses borders to find her brother in Signs Preceding the End of the World, and the Redeemer, a hard-boiled hero looking to broker peace between feuding families during a pandemic in The Transmigration of Bodies.”

  1. Elmer Mendoza, Kiss the Detective. Mark Fried. Maclehose Press, 2021, 284 pp. 9781681442884. $16.17 or $5.99 kindle.

"Short of leads on the execution-style murder of a fortune-teller, Detective Lefty Mendieta turns to his contacts in the drug underworld. They oblige, but there is a quid pro quo: Help Samantha Valdés, head of the Pacific Cartel, slip through the net of Mexican army and federal police encircling the hospital where she is recovering after an attempt on her life. Grudgingly he agrees, but then gets caught on camera during the escape and becomes headline news.”

  1. Juan Pablo Villalobos. Down the Rabbit Hole / Fiesta en la madriguera. Trans. Rosalind Harvey. FSG Originals, 2012, 96 pp. 978-0374143350. $7.40 or $8.52 kindle.

“What Tochtli wants more than anything right now is a new pet for his private zoo: a pygmy hippopotamus from Liberia. But Tochtli is growing up in his drug baron father's luxury hideout, shared with hit men and dealers. Down the Rabbit Hole, a masterful and darkly-comic first novel, is the chronicle of a delirious journey to grant a child's wish. “

Films (on Instant Streaming):

  1. Traffic. 2000. Dir. Steven Soderbergh. Amazon Prime Video “A conservative judge is appointed by the President to spearhead America's escalating war against drugs, only to discover that his teenage daughter is a crack addict. Two DEA agents protect an informant. A jailed drug baron's wife attempts to carry on the family business.”

“Winner of the 2000 Academy Awards for Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actor (Benicio del Toro), Soderbergh's masterpiece is a multilayered crime drama set in the U.S. and Mexico where the drug war affects the lives of everyone from a high-profile government official (Michael Douglas) to the wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and son of a high-ranking drug trafficker. Oscar-winner Del Toro stars as Javier Rodriguez, a Mexican police officer who is trying to bring down the most dangerous members of a Tijuana cartel. Traffic is a realistic and hard-hitting portrait that shows just how many people can be involved in some way with the drug trade. While there is some hopefulness to the narrative in certain instances, director Soderbergh never softens the storylines. People die frequently and families are changed forever.”


  1. Sin dejar huella. 2000. Dir. María Novaro. Two mismatched young women travel across Mexico by car, one fleeing corrupt law enforcement and the other a Narco boyfriend. CANVAS


  1. No Country for Old Men. 2007. Dir. Joel and Ethan Coen. SWANK “In rural Texas, welder and hunter Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) discovers the remains of several drug runners who have all killed each other in an exchange gone violently wrong. Rather than report the discovery to the police, Moss decides to simply take the two million dollars present for himself. This puts the psychopathic killer, Anton Chigurh) (Javier Bardem), on his trail as he dispassionately murders nearly every rival, bystander and even employer in his pursuit of his quarry and the money.”


  1. El Sicario, Room 164. 2010. Dir. Gianfranco Rosi. 80 min. Director: Gianfranco Rosi. Brooklyn: Icarus Films Home Video, 2010, 84 min. Documentary. “The Ciudad Juarez hitman known as El Sicario tells of his experiences working for the Mexican drug cartels.” Alexander Street


  1. El Velador / The Night Watchman. 2011. (Mexico, Natalia Almada, 2011) ALEXANDER STREET. “A portrait of the daily life of the cemetery allows us to see the intersection between those who make a living there and those who rest there—innocent of guilty.”


  1. Heli. 2013. Dir. Amat Escalante. Mexico City: Gussi Films, 2013, 105 min. “Heli must try and protect his young family when his 12-year-old sister inadvertently involves them in the brutal drug world. He must battle against the drug cartel that have been angered as well as the corrupt police force.”



  1. Narco Cultura. 2013. Dir. Shaul Schwarz. NY: Docurama Films, 2014. 103 min.

 “The film is an explosive look at the drug cartels' pop culture influence on both sides of the border as seen through the eyes of an LA narcocorrido singer and a Juarez crime scene investigator.”

“As frightening as Sicario makes narco traffickers and drug kingpins seem, this documentary film, which was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, features the celebrity-outlaw side of these groups who are praised through the country’s music and pop culture. Director Shwarz tells the story from the perspective of two men: a musician who is connected to the cartels and writes traditional narcocorridos, polka-inspired songs that celebrate the drug dealers, and a Mexican crime scene investigator who some call a “bullet collector” since none of the work he ever does leads to the conviction of any cartel members. Narco Cultura is an intense look into how the drug war has taken over the realm of pop culture in both Mexico and the U.S. and what it means as a society to find entertainment value in things that glorify cartel violence. Schwarz asks tough questions and allows audiences come to their own conclusions by offering a very balanced documentary with fascinating facts.” Kiko Martínez



  1. 2015. Dir. Denis Villeneuve. 121 min. (IS) “An idealistic FBI agent is enlisted by a government task force to aid in the escalating war against drugs at the border area between the U.S. and Mexico.“ SWANK
  2. https://digitalcampus-swankmp-net.offcampus.lib.washington.edu/uwashington303229/play/A55FA9ED7D9D5EB3
  1. Narcos: Mexico. 2018. Netflix “The rise of the Guadalajara Cartel as an American DEA agent learns the danger of targeting narcos in Mexico.”


Journal Articles (on Canvas, under Files):

A1. Zavala, Oswaldo. “Imagining the U.S.-Mexico Drug War: The Critical Limits of Narconarratives.” Comparative Literature 66.3 (2014): 340-360.

A2. Biron, Rebecca E. “It’s a Living: Hit Men in the Mexican Narco War.”  PMLA 2012: 820-834.

A3. Koram, Kojo. “’Order Is the Best We Can Hope for: Sicario and the Sacrificial Violence of the Law.” Discourse 39.2 (Spring 2017): 230-252.

Distribution of Grades:

Reading and Viewing Journal, Part 1                      20

Reading and Viewing Journal, Part 2                      20

Group Presentation                                                   20

Essay                                                                           20

Class Participation                                                    20

Reading and Viewing Journal:

Please write at least one page, typed, double-spaced, on each of the assigned films and readings; see the complete list under “Assignments: Journal One” and “Assignments: Journal Two.” For each half of the journal, write a single Word document and begin each entry on a new page. Please number your entries and follow the order given on the list. You should submit each half of your journal as a single Word document, through Canvas; submit the first half by 11 pm on Friday, January 26, and the second half by 11 pm on Friday, March 2.

Analytical Essay: 

Write a 5-page, typed, double-spaced, analytical essay comparing and contrasting one aspect of two of the novels we have read, including a list of works consulted, and incorporating discussion of the films and readings studied in class. Please submit your essays through Canvas by 11 pm on Friday, March 9. Follow the guidelines of the MLA Handbook and of Linda Hutcheon and Nancy Kang’s “The English Critical Essay”:


Please utilize the services of the writing tutors at the Odegaard Writing and Research Center. You can make appointments with them online:


Group Presentation:

In collaboration with other students, you will prepare a presentation on a film. Your presentation should last about twenty minutes, with an additional five or ten minutes for questions and discussion. I will distribute a sign-up sheet in class.

Class Participation:

Your class participation grade will be based on the frequency and quality of your participation in class discussions. Obviously, a major part of this will involve regular class attendance and being prepared, by having read the assigned texts and vieWed the assigned films before class.

Academic Honesty:  You are responsible for understanding and observing the UW guidelines regarding academic honesty. All your written work will be submitted through Canvas, which utilizes VeriCite to detect and provide a detailed report on any instances of plagiarism. Please let me know if you have any questions about this.

Students with Disabilities: To request accommodations due to a disability, please contact Disabled Student Services, 448 Schmitz, (206) 543-8924 ((V/TTY). If you have a letter from Disabled Student Services indicating that you have a disability that requires academic accommodations, please present the letter to me so we can discuss such accommodations. 



Mon, Jan 3


Boullosa and Wallace, Introduction: “The Forty-Three”

Wed, Jan 5

Boullosa and Wallace, Ch. 1: 1910-1930s

Yuri Herrera, Kingdom Cons, pp 4-30

F1: Film: Traffic (US, 2000)

Mon, Jan 10

Yuri Herrera, Kingdom Cons, pp 31-65

Boullosa and Wallace, Ch. 2: 1940s-1950s

A1. Zavala essay

Wed, Jan 12

Yuri Herrera, Kingdom Cons, pp 66-86

Boullosa and Wallace, Ch. 3: 1960s-1970s

F2: Film: Sin dejar huella (Mexico, 2000)


Mon, Jan 17

Martin Luther King Day, no class

Wed, Jan 19

Yuri Herrera, Signs Preceding the End of the World, pp 89-119

Boullosa and Wallace, Ch. 4: 1980s

F3. Film: No Country for Old Men (US, 2007)


Mon, Jan 24

Yuri Herrera, Signs Preceding the End of the World, pp 120-154

Boullosa and Wallace, Ch. 5 & 6: 1988 and 1990s

Wed, Jan 26

Yuri Herrera, The Transmigration of Bodies, pp 157-195

F4. Film: El Sicario, Room 164 (US, 2010)

A2. Biron essay on El sicario

Friday, Jan. 26, 11 pm: Journal Part 1 due to Canvas


Mon, Jan 31

Yuri Herrera, The Transmigration of Bodies, pp 196-233

Boullosa and Wallace, Ch. 7: 2000-2006

Wed, Feb 2

Yuri Herrera, The Transmigration of Bodies, pp 234-272

Boullosa and Wallace, Ch. 8: 2006

F5: Film: El velador (Mexico, 2011)


Mon, Feb 6

Elmer Mendoza, Kiss the Detective, pp 1-40

Boullosa and Wallace, Ch. 9: 2006-2012

Presentation 1: Miss Bala (2009)

Wed, Feb 8

Elmer Mendoza, Kiss the Detective, pp 41-80

Boullosa and Wallace, Ch. 10, 2012

F6: Film: Heli (Mexico, 2013)


Mon, Feb 14

Elmer Mendoza, Kiss the Detective, pp 81-120

Boullosa and Wallace, Ch. 11, 2012

Presentation 2: Kingdom of Shadows

Wed, Feb 16

Elmer Mendoza, Kiss the Detective, pp 121-160

Boullosa and Wallace, Ch. 12: New Directions

F7. Film: Narco Cultura (US, 2013)


Mon, Feb 21

Presidents’ Day, no class

 Wed, Feb 23

Elmer Mendoza, Kiss the Detective, pp 160-200

F8. Film: Sicario (US, 2015)

Cartel Land

Presentation 3: Cartel Land


Mon, Feb 28

Elmer Mendoza, Kiss the Detective, pp 201-240

F9: Film: Narcos: Mexico (US, 2018)

 Wed, March 2

Elmer Mendoza, Kiss the Detective, pp 241-284

Presentation 4: The Day I Met El Chapo 

Friday, March 2, 11 pm: Journal Part 2 Due to Canvas

Mon, March 7

Villalobos, Down the Rabbit Hole, Ch. 1, pp 3-32

 Wed, March 9

Villalobos, Down the Rabbit Hole, Ch. 2 & 3, pp 33-70

Friday, March 11, 7 pm: Journal Part 2 due to Canvas


Course Summary:

Date Details Due