The best part of blogging is reading. I read more today than at any other time in my life and I am reading more types of literature. For many years, I only read non-fiction. More recently, I have been interested in the shared culture of literature. I want to read books about Mexico that a typical Mexican high school student reads. I read cookbooks full of recipes that I am never going to make because they tell me about places that I want to visit.
I read in Spanish now. There is no better way to improve your vocabulary in a second language than by reading in that language. For difficult texts like 100 Years of Solitude or Pedro Páramo, I will read the book in English first to get an idea of what is going on. I will read one chapter in English, then one chapter in Spanish, and keep a notebook of vocabulary words that I look up.
Non-Fiction English Language Books About Mexico
I had spent a lot more time reading The Economist than I have reading novels until I started the pandemic of 2020. Having studied economics and finance in college, those were the topics that I most wanted to stay on top of. It is important to know about the institutions that exist and their histories. The oil industry in Mexico for example is a part of the national identity and is still an important part of the central government’s annual budget. These books about Mexico will give you a better understanding of the countries history so you can understand the present.
Biography of Power by Enrique Krauze
I chose to list this book first because it has become something of a reference for me. As you are reading José Emilio Pacheco you will want to read more about President Miguel Aleman. As you are reading Nellie Campobello you will want to know more about Pancho Villa. This book will help you catch a lot of the references that other authors drop in their texts.
The Fabulous Life Of Diego Rivera by Bertram Wolfe
An honest look at the life of one of Mexico’s most polemic personalities. Diego Rivera had a critical yet optimistic vision of the world. His personal experiences and politics colored buildings far and near. Whether you agree with his politics or not (there is an interesting note by Bertram, a one-time communist, on Diego’s brand of communism) you have to admit that Diego Rivera lived a Fabulous life.
Frida in America: The Creative Awakening of a Great Artist
I originally bought this book because I wanted to know more about Diego Rivera’s time in San Francisco. I finished the book in love with Frida Kahlo’s artistic journey. While much of the book is about the couple’s time in the United States, there are a number of flashbacks to put their first trip in context. Frida Kahlo was 23 years old and a relative unknown in the art world when she originally traveled to the United States with her famous husband. She used the experience to promote her own art and over the years has eclipsed her husband’s fame. If you enjoy either of the artists’ work, this book is worth a read.
My Art, My Life: An Autobiography by Diego Rivera
I’m not 100% sure this should be in the non-fiction of the fiction section. What I am sure about is that Diego Rivera can tell a wild tale. The man was a storyteller and he would weave fiction and fact to make his point. He was involved in many of the greatest stories of the day. He had a spectacular vantage point to understand what happened to the world in the 20th century.
Conquistador by Buddy Levy
It is hard to believe that these are true stories. Based in large part on the first hand accounts of Bernal Diaz del Castillo, Conquistador accounts for Cortes’ mutiny from governor of Cuba to establishing a settlement in Veracruz, and taking the Valley of Mexico by storm.
Most of us have heard bits and pieces of this story. You have to hear the whole thing. Recalling the naval battles on the Texcoco Lake, at 9,000 feet above sea level, between Aztec canoes and Spanish galleons is a highlight.
I particularly enjoyed listening to this audiobook after visiting Mexico City. Many of the municipalities of Mexico City are villages that have existed since pre-hispanic times.
Spain: The Centre of the World 1519-1682 by Robert Goodwin
The reason that Spain was the center of the world in 1519 was because of the wealth that was being expropriated by the Spanish conquistadors and shipped back to the mother land. It is important to know what was going on in Europe during the 16th and 17 centuries to understand how Spain treated the colonies. It was interesting to have a little background on the Hapsburg Dynasty while reading about the 19th century French intervention into Mexico. The whole idea of imposing another Hapsburg monarchy 300 years later is mind boggling.
El Norte by Carrie Gibson
You can think of El Norte as a collection of short stories that celebrate the shared history of Spanish America. In an era of increased border walls, Carrie Gibson wants to remind us how much shared culture there is on both sides of the border.
I listened to this audiobook while driving from Guadalajara to San Diego through Baja California. I was especially interested in the history of the Spanish missions in what is today the United States. California mission history starts at San Diego while El Norte talks of Cortes’ voyages to Baja California and the early Jesuit missions in Baja Sur.
If you happen to be traveling through Baja California I highly recommend listening to this audiobook.
An Open Book by John Huston
Not entirely a book about Mexico but the prolific filmmaker spent a good deal of time here and is kind of responsible for Puerto Vallarta becoming what it is today. The stories about his time in Mexico City in the post-revolutionary era are crazy. John Huston is a master storyteller.
Fiction Books About Mexico
About the time the pandemic of 2020 broke out we all started looking for new hobbies that didn’t require leaving the house. I started taking a literature class from my wife’s second cousin. She is one of the most well-read people that I know and was really excited to share some of her knowledge about classic Mexican writers.
Aura by Carlos Fuentes
Carlos Fuentes is one of Latin America’s most treasured authors and not just Mexico’s. He grew up the son of a Mexican diplomat who traveled the world studying at elite institutions. He himself ended up as a Mexican ambassador and the head of cultural relations. Fuentes shot to stardom with the publication of his first novel, Where the Air Is Clear which helped to usher in the Latin American boom in literature. He was considered a leading figure in this reorientation along with Julio Cortázar and Gabriel García Márquez.
Aura is bar far the most easily accessible work by Carlos Fuentes. It reads more like a short story that can be finished in one sitting and is commonly included in the bibliography of most introduction to Latin American literature courses. If you have any interest in visiting Mexico City’s historic downtown, I highly recommend reading Aura before you go.
The story follows a young man who responds to a help wanted advertisement in the newspaper that he feels was written just for him. An elderly lady wants to edit her late husband’s notes in to a memoir and needs someone who can speak French. The description of the old house and the old part of town that is built on top of the former Aztec capital is eloquent to say the least. The narrative style employs the second person perspective which give the reader the feeling of involvement in the story. You ride the bus, you look for the change in your pocket, and drink a coffee.
The Hummingbird’s Daughter by Luis Alberto Urrea
Luis Alberto Urrea is a Mexican American author with strong family ties to the characters in The Hummingbird’s Daughter. He was born in Tijuana and grew up in San Diego, attending the University of California at San Diego. His mother is from the United States and his father was from Sinaloa. Growing up on both sides of the border gives him a unique perspective to explain Mexico to an English-speaking reader. Most of his work is non-fiction, historical or poetry.
The entire time I was reading the Hummingbird’s Daughter I was thinking about a Quintin Tarantino interview where he talks about the storyline in Pulp Fiction. Pulp Fiction tells the story of characters that we have seen before but from a different perspective. The Mexican Revolution, hacienda owners and witch doctors are cliche stories but Urrea focuses on a very unique character in the era prior to the revolution and the conflicts that will bring about a bloody, protracted conflict. There is a homage to Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo in the first chapter that lets you know that Urrea has read and knows his Mexican literary history.
Teresa Urrea is the main character in the book. In real life, she was the author’s father’s aunt so the story is about his family. The little girl is the bastard daughter of the hacienda owner who is abandoned by her mother, mistreated by her aunt, taken under the wing of a traditional medicine woman, and eventually recognized as the daughter of the owner. At a young age, Teresa is recognized as a healer and given an education in traditional medicine. The descriptions of life on a wealthy ranch in Sinaloa and later in Sonora are so well researched it is no wonder it took him 20 years to write.
If you are interested in Mexican history and the family stories of Mexican people, you need to read this book. The characters are interesting and well developed. The book starts out like something we have read before and quickly takes a turn into uncharted territory.
American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins
I thought this book was garbage. The only reason that I bought it was because of all the controversy that stemmed from Oprah Winfrey’s decision to promote it in her book club. It was written by a lady who read a lot of newspaper articles to inform her world view. It lacks the first-hand experience of someone who knows Acapulco, or the Mexican experience for that matter.
It would be well worth your time to read Luis Alberto Urrea’s The Devil’s Highway instead.
The Battles in the Desert by José Emilio Pacheco
If you are an intermediate Spanish speaker I highly recommend attempting to read the Battles in the Desert in the original Spanish. José Emilio Pacheco is known as a poet and his novels have a beautiful cadence to them because of it. There is an English translation but it is worth the effort to try it in Spanish. It is not a difficult read.
Everyone that I know absolutely loves the Colonia Roma in Mexico City and this book will make you love it even more. There are music videos by Café Tacuba, movies, and all sorts of references in popular culture to the book, it is somewhat of a cultural icon.
The story is about a young boy who develops a crush on his friends mom. The backdrop is crony capitalism of President Miguel Aleman and a period of rapid development. The neighborhood is changing, values are changing, and old family prejudices are on display.
I highly recommend reading the chapter on Miguel Aleman in Enrique Krauze’s Biography of Power to better understand the setting of Mexico in the 1940s.
Books About Mexico in Spanish
If you are an intermediate Spanish learner than there is no better way to improve your vocabulary than by reading in Spanish. There are some of my favorite books.