As the Latinx community in America continues to suffer from discrimination and racism, the original title of a fall 2021 history course by Associate Professor Yanna Yannakakis’ sparked intense backlash among Emory’s Latinx community.
The HIST 360 class, originally named “Mexico: Aztecs to Narcos,” covers Mexican history from the Aztec Empire to today’s s0-called narco-state. This original title reinforced harmful stereotypes of modern Mexico, reducing it to a narrative of drug trafficking and violence while ignoring its rich culture.
In mid-July, Julieta Ponce (24C), a native of Mexico, demanded on Instagram that the title change and created a petition. “I was shocked to see the word ‘narcos’ used next to the Aztec people,” Ponce told the Wheel. “To me, it’s as if to say that this ancient civilization evolved to become drug lords.”
Following a Zoom meeting between Yannakakis and Ponce, the class has been renamed “History of Mexico,” but this debacle should never have happened in the first place.
Yannakakis said in an interview with the Wheel “I didn’t have the U.S. context in mind when naming the course,” as she aimed to avoid glorifying the U.S.’s point of view when discussing Mexican history. However, the content of the class still must subvert these harmful stereotypes instead of indirectly entrenching blatant hostility toward Mexican people.
Aztecs are an indigenous community who once inhabited what is now northern Mexico, but as of 2010, less than 7% of Mexicans 5 years of age or older speak an indigenous language. Despite Mexico’s depiction in many American-made films, it is not an outdated, lawless and uncivilized society. Rather, Mexico remains rich in traditions and values regardless of the endless negative assumptions about its community.
With such a vast Latinx community at Emory and in the U.S., a class on the history of Mexico must reflect the country’s culture and values holistically. It is necessary to emphasize how Americans have facilitated instability in the region through the war on drugs and their booming drug market. Despite the negative connotation of “Narcos” in the course’s original title, the U.S. remains the leading consumer of illicit drugs from Mexico, which has exacerbated drug-related violence and political instability for years. Such facts should be presented during the course when discussing “narco-states,” not simply touched upon in a misleading title. The former teaches history as it really happened; the latter minimizes an entire country as a drug-plagued, dangerous and corrupt narco-state.
Mexico’s history is complicated. To that end, Yannakakis’ class is analyzing its current fragile government and influence of cartels while acknowledging the centuries of colonialism and violence it has endured — this potentially including the current influence of Americans in the war on drugs. Considering Yannakakis’ thorough background in Mexican history, this course is an enriching experience for its students by approaching its subject through a more culturally sensitive lens. “I would love to have everyone take the class and have as many Latinx students as possible,” Yannakakis said.
Changing the class name was a commendable step toward dismantling negative stereotypes. To build a healthier and more conscious community, we must be informed about the origin of these harmful stereotypes surrounding the Latinx community and the actual truth of American colonialism. Hopefully, the students enrolled in the class, along with the rest of the University, will embark on a journey to better understand Mexico — not as a set of xenophobia-inflected stereotypes, but as the vibrant, multifaceted society it has always been.
Sara Perez (24C) is from Managua, Nicaragua.