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C LIT 321 A: Studies In Literature Of The Americas

The Narconovela

Meeting Time: 
MW 11:30am - 1:20pm
MEB 245
Joint Sections: 
JSIS 480 A
Photo of Cynthia Steele
Cynthia Steele

Syllabus Description:



C LIT 321A / JSIS 480A


5 credits

MW 11:30-1:20

MEB 245

Prof. Cynthia Steele

Padelford C-502 Phone 543-7542

Office Hours: TTh 3:30-4:30 Orrin’s Place, Paccar Hall


An overview of the U.S.-Mexican ‘Drug War,’ through novels and both fiction and documentary films produced between 2009 and 2016. Among the issues we will discuss are the history of the drug trade in the U.S. and Mexico, the role of the drug market in the neoliberal economy, the effects of violence on both citizens and readers, and the reasons for continued idealization of drug trafficking in popular culture. 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 and Spanish-language films are subtitled.

Required Books, available from University Book Store:

  1. Peter Watt and Roberto Zepeda, Drug War Mexico: Politics, Neoliberalism and Violence in the New Narcoeconomy. London: Zed Books, 2012, 272 pp. 978-1848138865 $24.72 or $17.49 kindle; or Online Access through UW Library]
  2. Don Winslow, The Cartel. NY: Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 2015, 616 pp. 0525436510. $9.99. or $9.99 kindle
  3. Elmer Mendoza, The Acid Test. Trans. Mark Fried. Maclehose Press, 2016 (2011), 284 pp. 9781681442884. $15.87 or $9.99 kindle.
  4. Juan Pablo Villalobos. Down the Rabbit Hole. Trans. Rosalind Harvey. FSG Originals, 2012, 96 pp. 978-0374143350. $7.40 or $8.52 kindle.
  5. Yuri Herrera, The Transmigration of Bodies. Trans. Lisa Dillman. And Other Stories, 2016 (2013), 112 pp. ISBN 978-1908276728. $9.65 or $7.99 kindle.

Films (on Instant Streaming):

  1. Señorita Extraviada / Missing Young Woman, dir. Lourdes Portillo. PBS, 2001, 103 min.

“SENORITA EXTRAVIADA, MISSING YOUNG WOMAN tells the haunting story of the more than 350 kidnapped, raped and murdered young women of Juárez, Mexico. Visually poetic, yet unflinching in its gaze, this compelling investigation unravels the layers of complicity that have allowed for the brutal murders of women living along the Mexico-U.S. border. In the midst of Juárez’s international mystique and high profile job market, there exists a murky history of grossly underreported human rights abuses and violence against women. The climate of violence and impunity continues to grow, and the murders of women continue to this day. Relying on what Portillo comes to see as the most reliable of sources – the testimonies of the families of the victims –SEÑORITA EXTRAVIADA, MISSING YOUNG WOMAN documents a two-year search for the truth in the underbelly of the new global economy. An Independent Television Service (ITVS) Production. “


Senorita Extraviada

  1. El Sicario, Room 164. 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. [B]ased on the article The Sicario written by Charles Bowden and published in Harper's Magazine." DVD FRIP 183

  1. Retratos de una búsqueda / Portraits of a Search. Dir. Alicia Calderón. NY: Women Make Movies, 2015, 74 min.

"More than 20,000 people disappeared in Mexico during the horrifically violent war on drugs waged by former President Calderon. With each missing person, a family is left behind in a desperate search to get answers from a government that is suspiciously ambivalent. Putting a human face on the most harrowing of statistics, director Alicia Calderon courageously captures the stories of three mothers - Natividad, Guadalupe, and Margarita - as they search for their children who have gone missing. One mother constantly retraces the last steps of her son, combing empty fields for his body; another travels all the way to Washington, DC, to plead for US intervention; and the last simply tries to forget the emptiness and raise her now-motherless grandson. In one of the most powerful documentaries about the human casualties of the Mexican narco-wars, these women's stories are among the many that stand for truth and justice for the 26,000 missing people in Mexico today. With their lives now completely devoted to seeking out the truth, they pursue any avenue possible, in the face of an indifferent government which considers their loved ones to be "collateral casualties" of the drug war." DVD WMM 114

  1. Heli. 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.” DVD BOT-4206

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

“To a growing number of Mexicans and Latinos in the Americas, narco-traffickers have become icons, glorified by musicians who praise their fame and success. In this new constituency, they represent a pathway out of the ghetto, nurturing a new American dream fueled by money, drugs, and violence. 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.” DVD CINED 032,

  1. Sicario. 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. “ DVD LION 228

Journal Articles:

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

A2. Pepper, Andrew. “Policing the Globe: State Sovereignty and the International in the Post-9/11 Crime Novel.” Modern Fiction Studies 57.3 (Fall 2011): 401-424.

A3. Biron, Rebecca E. “It’s a Living: Hit Men in the Mexican Narco War.” PMLA 2012: 820-834.

A4. Bunker, Robert J. and José de Arimatéia da Cruz. “Cinematic Representations of the Mexican Narco War.” Small Wars and Insurgencies 26.4 (22 May 2017): 702-716.

A5. Fonseca Luján, Roberto Carlos. “Derecho y justicia en la literature sobre el narcotráfico en México: una lectura de dos novelas de Elmer Mendoza.” Iurus Dictio 18 (2016): 109-117. (SPANISH, optional)

A6. Vanegas, O.K. “Cabeza vestida de noche: imaginario del mal y decapitación en Fiesta en la madriguera de Juan Pablo Villalobos.” La Palabra 28 (enero-junio de 1916): 91-103. (SPANISH, optional)

A7. 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 and the resources that they provide. You can make appointments with them online:

On Sundays through Thursdays from 7:00 pm to 11:00 pm, you can also use the CLUE drop-in writing center in MGH 141.

Group Presentation:

In collaboration with two other students, you will prepare a presentation on one aspect of the works that we are studying. Your presentation should last about fifteen minutes, with an additional five minutes for questions and discussion.

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.



Wed, Jan 3



Mon, Jan 8

Winslow, The Cartel, Part One, pp 1-109

Watt & Zepeda, Introduction & Ch. 1: “Drug Trafficking in Mexico: History and Background,” pp 1-34 (up to 1970s)

Wed, Jan 10

Winslow, The Cartel, Part Two, pp 113-234

Watt & Zepeda, Ch. 2: “Cold War Expansion of the Trade and the Repression of Dissent,” pp 35-61 (1970s)

F1. Film: Señorita Extraviada

A1. Zavala essay


Mon, Jan 15

Martin Luther King Day

Wed, Jan 17

Winslow, The Cartel, Part Three, pp 237-407

Watt & Zepeda, Ch. 3: “The Political Economy of ‘The War on Drugs,’” pp 62-96 (1980s)

A2. Pepper essay


Mon, Jan 22

Winslow, The Cartel, Part Four, pp 411-515

Watt & Zepeda, Ch. 4: “Getting Rich Quick—and Those Who Didn’t,” pp 97-140 (1990s)

F2. Film: El Sicario Rm 164

A3. Biron essay

Wed, Jan 24

Winslow, The Cartel, Part Five, pp 519-616

Watt & Zepeda, Ch. 5: “El Cambio—The Change,” pp 141-178 (2000s)

Watt & Zepeda, Ch. 6: “War Is Peace,” pp 179-228 (2007-2010)

A4. Bunker essay

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


Mon, Jan 29

Mendoza, The Acid Test, Ch 1-10, pp 1-74

F3. Film: Portraits of a Search

Wed, Jan 31

Mendoza, The Acid Test, Ch 11-19, pp 75-137

A5. Fonseca essay on Mendoza (SPANISH, optional)


Mon, Feb 5

Mendoza, The Acid Test, Ch 20-31, pp 138-212

F4. Film: Heli

Wed, Feb 7

Mendoza, The Acid Test, Ch 32-44, pp 213-284


Mon, Feb 12

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

F5. Film: Narcocultura

Wed, Feb 14

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

A6. Vanegas essay on Villalobos (SPANISH, optional)


Mon, Feb 19

Presidents' Day

Wed, Feb 21

Herrera, The Transmigration of Bodies, Ch 1-3, pp 1-63

Watt & Zepeda, Ch. 7: “Another Century of Drug War?” pp 229-235 (the future)


Mon, Feb 26

Herrera, The Transmigration of Bodies, Ch 4-5, pp 67-101

Wed, Feb 28

F6. Film: Sicario

A7. Koram essay on Sicario

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


Mon, March 5


Wed, March 7



Friday, March 9, 11 pm: Essay Due to Canvas


Catalog Description: 
Emphasizes connections between twentieth century literature of the United States and Canada and current literature of Latin America. Emphasizes that, despite obvious differences, much is shared in terms of culture and national sensibility across the two continents.
Department Requirements Met: 
Literature Core
GE Requirements Met: 
Visual, Literary, and Performing Arts (VLPA)
Last updated: 
January 10, 2018 - 9:24pm