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An Excerpt from “Drug Lords, Cowboys, and Desperadoes” by Rafael Acosta Morales

Drug Lords, Cowboys, and Desperadoes examines the relationship between affect, narrative, and violence surrounding three historical archetypes—social bandits (often associated with the drug trade), cowboys, and desperadoes—and how these narratives create affective loops that recreate violent structures in the Mexican American frontier. Acosta Morales analyzes narrative in literary, cinematic, and musical form, examining works by Américo Paredes, Luis G. Inclán, Clint Eastwood, Rolando Hinojosa, Yuri Herrera, and Cormac McCarthy. The book focuses on how narratives of Mexican social banditry become incorporated into the social order that bandits rose against and how representations of violence in the U.S. weaponize narratives of trauma in order to justify and expand the violence that cowboys commit. Finally, it explains the usage of universality under the law as a means of criminalizing minorities by reading the stories of Mexican American men who were turned into desperadoes by the criminal law system.

From the Introduction: Affective Assemblages: People and the Stories We Love

Drug Lords, Cowboys, and Desperadoes is a study of the relationship between affect, narrative, and violence on the Mexican-American frontier. I specifically choose frontier instead of border, as I do not mean to focus on a single line drawn in a map but on a territory conceived of as the ends of civilization and not quite incorporated into the nation-state. Drug Lords, Cowboys, and Desperadoes studies three transhistorical narratives of violence and their underlying affective structures: narratives on social bandits in the Mexican countryside, including drug dealers; narratives on desperadoes in the territories ceded by Mexico to the United States under the Guadalupe Hidalgo treaty; and narratives on cowboys, who waged war on Native Americans throughout the shifting U.S. frontier. These characters are relevant, because the stories that are told about them have had lasting traditions, affecting their target population and sometimes beyond. These archetypes have produced narratives that have continued to operate within a structure, even while unitary icons might have become outdated and forgotten, These structures are, generally, transhistorical and prove very resilient to obsolescence, while being flexible enough to be applied to historical narratives in much the same way as to fiction. In order to better explain these structures’ persistence and flexibility, Drug Lords, Cowboys, and Desperadoes brings to bear the role of enjoyment and affect in popular narratives that package political violence for entertainment, and, in doing so, it also explains how these influential stories have become a model for behavior because they produce certain types of affect for people who consume them.

Narratives about social bandits, desperadoes, and cowboys have already received considerable critical attention, ranging from Richard Slotkin’s structural analysis of the mythical figure of the cowboy to Paul Vanderwood’s historical study of “asocial” bandits during Porfirio Díaz’s dictatorship in Mexico or Américo Paredes’s retelling of Walter Prescott Webb’s The Texas Rangers. In more recent times, scholars such as Steven Shaviro and Daniel Davis Wood have studied the cowboy genre from the dystopia that was brought forward by Cormac McCarthy in Blood Meridian. Scholars like Juan Pablo Dabove have delved into how banditry represented a countermovement to the dispossession of Latin Americans during the modernizing movements in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. And scholars like Raúl Coronado have developed the subject of how Mexican Americans became excluded from supposedly universal access to a democratic system by the construction of a system that precluded their equal participation in politics. Generally speaking, then, the study of the narratives surrounding these archetypal figures has focused on either establishing a set of facts surrounding their actions and the historical environment in which they lived or studying the influence of their actions and/or stories on the creation of a national identity, or spirit. 

To further develop the discussion, my book turns to affect in order to frame the play between narratives and political actions. Affect allows us to think of psychological drives in virtual terms—i.e., in potential terms. The notion of virtuality helps us to better understand the assemblage enabling the material existence of violence, because it recognizes the reality of structures that, even though they haven’t been actualized. This is like recognizing the reality of a dream that influences people to act, thus producing real effects, even if the dream is not material. At the same time, the concept provides a flexible structure to describe how the stories’s material existence influences narratives. By looking at narratives of social bandits, desperadoes, and cowboys as virtual structures for the flow of affect, we can draw a clearer connection between myth and reality: We can better understand how we use narratives to make sense of facts and how myths become performative.

This affect-based approach offers to existing scholarship a more complex account of bandits, cowboys, and desperadoes as social phenomena. A brief reexamination of Vanderwood’s classic study of social bandits from an affect-based perspective provides a good example of what this renewed perspective may yield. In his book Disorder and Progress, Vanderwood argues against E. J. Hobsbawm’s idea of banditry as a socially conscious rebellion of premodern inspiration. Breaking with Hobsbawms’s conception of the bandit as a Robin Hood type of figure, Vanderwood studies the bandits who actually existed in Mexico during the Porfiriato (1876–1910). His conclusion is that there were no such Robin Hoods, and that those who took up banditry did so in order to better inscribe themselves into the oppressive dynamics of the regime. According to Vanderwood, these men became Rurales (Porfirio Díaz’s personal army, who kept his order and killed those who opposed him) or otherwise attached themselves to local landlords and political bosses. While an important step in elucidating the historical reference of social bandits, Vanderwood’s conclusion overlooks the importance of the sorts of discourses producing the uprisings that brought the Díaz regime down, and lumps together all agents of “disorder” as bandits. For Vanderwood, “bandits” include highway thieves, the participants in the Tomóchic uprising, the workers who tried to unionize during the Cananea strike, and those involved in the Mexican Revolution. Yet, regardless of the actual behavior of those bandits who joined the Rurales, it is evident that the discourse of economic redistribution inherent to social banditry had an effect on later political developments, both positive and negative. Vanderwood’s approach fails to grasp this dimension of the phenomenon. In other words, the virtual (i.e., affective, potential) elements of social banditry produced an unaddressed structural problem for Vanderwood’s research, inasmuch as his approach is not able to apprehend immaterial but existing elements of his area of study. 

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