Drug Lords, Cowboys, and Desperadoes explores the significant role that narratives of historical archetypes of the US-Mexico frontier play in contemporary political violence and their lasting cultural reverberations. Three core chapters contend with narratives of social bandits in the Mexican countryside, including drug dealers, desperadoes, and cowboys. It examines these characters with an original lens centered on affect theory that connects these figures to the present day; the text charts the interplay between affect, narrative, and violence while engaging media that range from corridos to film and legends, and to legal documents. Storytelling, legend, and myth shape the chapters’ contents, which are influenced by affect, history, and materiality, and Rafael Acosta Morales delves into their interpretational framework over time. Such are the themes that emerge in the book, as well as national identity, institutional racism, and capitalism.
Acosta Morales outlines his analysis in the introduction, borrowing from affect theorists such as Lauren Berlant and Sara Ahmed. This framework is predicated on the ways that these narratives can be enjoyed and have become, over time, a model for behavior. Affect, then, works as the element that links the narratives (myths) to the political actions (reality) that they influence. They help one make sense of an otherwise incomprehensible and, often, violent reality; the way that these narratives are consumed and culturally processed produce feelings that influence one’s ethical decision-making capacities. The author calls these structures of feelings “affective assemblages,” which legitimize the way feelings influence choices. Acosta Morales sets out to analyze the figures in the three chapters to “contribute to the understanding of this gap between content and effect, specifically in relation to narratives of political violence” (8–9). Affective assemblages produced by stories, the author posits, may subvert the original aim of the narratives’ purpose. This framework allows Acosta Morales to contrast the fictional representations of cultural figures in order to dissect the way that fiction and politics intersect historically to the present day.
The first chapter deals with the drug lord or smuggler who is caught in the crux of overcapitalization and greed, which he uses to justify his social banditry through “a discourse of social justice, expediency, or allegiance to traditional social constructions” (30). In this way, the social bandit is a revolt against the region’s crisis of consumption. The chapter begins with an analysis of Luis G. Inclán’s novel Astucia (2011), in which a smuggler, due to a want of resources, becomes a hero of justice in Michoacán. Real historical figures are fictionalized, and the theft that occurs in the text is considered just. To correlate the nineteenth- and twenty-first- century drug lords, the author analyzes Yuri Herrera’s Trabajos del reino (2010) to elucidate how the drug cartel legitimizes the way that marginalized people build social structure. National consumption and avarice instigate them to organize with violence and seek power. The chapter is far-reaching in scope, and—in addition to considering affective assemblages in the texts—in its discussion of capitalism, the author brings in Keysnesian macroeconomics, mathematical equations, and dense historical references that at times seem superfluous to the argument at hand.
The second chapter, “Cowboys: Weaponized Trauma,” employs Lacanian psychoanalysis alongside affective theories to delve into the interrelationship between cowboys’ response to the trauma ostensibly caused by Native Americans. Through an analysis of several texts and films, trauma is used to justify the cowboys’ violence and motives for revenge; the author focuses on the political uses of cowboy narratives, their overarching role in the imaginary of the West, and how they have ultimately been used to condone war and state-sanctioned violence. The chapter also identifies ways in which the affective assemblage mobilized by trauma gave way to rewrite history and exploit minority populations.
The final chapter, “Desperadoes: Illegal Representativity,” is centered on the desperado as a victim who has become an outlaw due to institutionalized oppression and violence by a seemingly universal white-American culture. This chapter highlights that the law and “objective” justice mask biases and abuse, in this case against minorities such as Mexican Americans. Desperadoes are compelled to act outside the law because they are not included within the structure of the law: they are oppressed by it. The author analyzes corridos such as the ballad of Gregorio Cortez and discusses the history and eventual suppression of print culture in Mexico, and how that precipitated the rise of oral histories. These desperadoes demonstrate the tensions they navigate between their honor, racial biases, and the law. Social bandits work as a release valve for issues that stem from structural violence and oppression, and they find their solutions through violence. They become “rhetorical constructions to help solve structural problems” (26).
Acosta Morales often closes the segments of each chapter with a one-line poetic summary that reads like a quip at the end of an argument. The argumentative approach tangles and weaves around a central idea in a similar way that a poem is constructed, and the closing lines stick with the reader long after closing the text. There is a kind of haunting of the implications within the lines, just as “the study of affective assemblages allows us to understand how and why it is that the stories we love haunt us much more than the stories we believe in” (27). While the meandering, wide-reaching theoretical discussions of various media are captivating and informative, some arguments could certainly be developed in greater detail, thus avoiding some redundancies in the text. And yet, the book’s rumination on the representation of history and political violence in order to understand more deeply the myths that purvey national identity is timely and significant, and the framework used is novel and effective. This study is an important contribution to the field of Latin American and American studies, and would be ideal for those interested in the Mexico-US border region, law, folklore, history, and music.