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C LIT 321 A: Studies in Literature of the Americas

Meeting Time: 
MW 12:30pm - 2:20pm
SAV 132
Joint Sections: 
JSIS 480 A
Photo of Cynthia Steele
Cynthia Steele

Syllabus Description:

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 ten films, both fiction and documentaries, 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, No Country for Old Men, Miss Bala, El Sicario Room 164, Narco Cultura, Heli, Sicario, Narcos: Mexico, Without a Trace, and Portraits of a Search.

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.,contains,a%20narco%20history&sortby=rank

  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.

Odegaard PQ7298.23.E538 P7813 2016

" 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. Amazon Prime Video
  2. No Country for Old Men. SWANK (until 6/20/22)
  3. Miss Bala. $4 Amazon Prime
  4. 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."

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

  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.”

  1. Sicario. 2015. Dir. Denis Villeneuve. 121 min. (IS) SWANK through 12/31/21

Rent $4 Amazon Prime

“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. “

  1. Narcos: Mexico, Season One, Netflix The emergence of the Sinaloa Cartel during the 1980s.
  2. Sin dejar huella. CANVAS Two mismatched young women travel across Mexico by car, fleeing corrupt law enforcement and their narco boyfriends.
  3. Retratos de una búsqueda / Portraits of a Search. 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."

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 1-35

F1: Traffic

Mon, Jan 10

Yuri Herrera, Kingdom Cons, pp 36-70

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

F2: No Country for Old Men

A1. Zavala essay

Wed, Jan 12

Yuri Herrera, Kingdom Cons, pp

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


Mon, Jan 17

Martin Luther King Day, no class

Wed, Jan 19

Yuri Herrera, Signs Preceding the End of the World, pp 71-115

Boullosa and Wallace, Ch. 4: 1980s

F3. Film: Miss Bala


Mon, Jan 24

Yuri Herrera, Signs Preceding the End of the World, pp 116-150

Boullosa and Wallace, Ch. 5: 1988

Wed, Jan 26

Yuri Herrera, The Transmigration of Bodies, pp 150-185

Boullosa and Wallace, Ch. 6, 1990s

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


Mon, Jan 31

Yuri Herrera, The Transmigration of Bodies, pp 186-220

Boullosa and Wallace, Ch. 7: 2000-2006

5: El Sicario Room 164

A2. Biron essay on El sicario

Wed, Feb 2

Yuri Herrera, The Transmigration of Bodies, pp 221-288

Boullosa and Wallace, Ch. 8: 2006


Mon, Feb 6

Elmer Mendoza, Kiss the Detective, pp 1-40

F7: Narcocultura

Boullosa and Wallace, Ch. 9: 2006-2012

 Wed, Feb 8

Elmer Mendoza, Kiss the Detective, pp 41-80

Boullosa and Wallace, Ch. 10, 2012


Mon, Feb 14

Elmer Mendoza, Kiss the Detective, pp 81-120

F8. Film: Sicario

A3. Koram essay on Sicario

Boullosa and Wallace, Ch. 11, 2012

Wed, Feb 16

Elmer Mendoza, Kiss the Detective, pp 121-160

Boullosa and Wallace, Ch. 12: New Directions


Mon, Feb 21

Presidents’ Day, no class

 Wed, Feb 23

Elmer Mendoza, Kiss the Detective, pp 160-200

F8. Heli


Mon, Feb 28

Elmer Mendoza, Kiss the Detective, pp 201-240

F9: Narcos: Mexico

Wed, March 2

Elmer Mendoza, Kiss the Detective, pp 241-284

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

Mon, March 7

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

F10: Retratos de una búsqueda

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

 Sunday, March 13, 7 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: 
October 12, 2021 - 10:22pm