42 Best Books About Mexico For Travelers & History Buffs
Are you looking for some great books about Mexico?
What coincidence, so am I. I am a avid reader studying for the naturalization exam and I’m always looking for great new books about Mexico. I love history and historical fiction but more recently I’ve gotten into novels, mystical realism, and alternative narrative styles.
Mexico is a complicated place. Anybody who has taken the Mexico City metro at rush hour can attest to the sheer size and complex diversity of this wonderful country. There are 68 officially recognized indigenous languages, a mestizo majority, and a thriving immigrant community.
There is a lot of living history and reading a book about Mexico will make your travels or residency more meaningful. These books about Mexico have been carefully curated to help you better understand some aspect of Mexican history or culture.
Best Books About Mexico: An Overview
I wish I would have spent more time in the library because I really struggled with how to organize this list as it has grown. This is a very personal list because it is what I read in my stream of consciousness. I only write about books that I read, and many times one book would lead me to the next.
For many years, I only read non-fiction. More recently, I have been interested in the shared culture of Mexican literature.
I want to read books about Mexico that a typical Mexican high school student reads. I’m reading more children’s books to my little kids, in both English and Spanish.
My grandmother and my mother helped me build a collection of awesome cookbooks. Of course, I am continueing that collection to include regional Mexican cookbooks.
Travel guides have been a part of my life since high school. I used to buy travel guides to places I know I wasn’t going to be visiting anytime soon just because I wanted to learn about trekking the Nepal Himalaya or surfing in Indonesia.
Anthony Bourdain was a tragic yet inspirational character that captivated my imagination much like Hemingway did way back in the day.
There is a diverse group of literary genres on this list and I am sure that you will find at least one great recommendation.
Where to find quality literature about Mexico?
I live in Guadalajara which was the UNESCO World Capital of the Book from 2022-2023. We have the largest book fair in Latin America and a lot of independent publishing houses.
If you can, buy your books directly from the author. Getting my cookbooks signed by Nico Mejía, Maru Toledo, and Javier Plascencia after listening to them talk about researching their books was awesome.
We are very fortunate to live in an age of social media where we can interact with our favorite authors and attend their events. Ask them where they sell their books. You might just find a cool restaurant in Tepic or Ameca selling those books.
A note about Audible.com
I have subscribed to audible.com for many years now. I used to drive a lot for work and a good audiobook makes a long drive much more enjoyable. I quickly realized that I can better digest long, complex books in audio format than I can in print format.
Audible has given me access to many pieces of literature that I don’t think I would have finished if they were only available in print. Today, I read and listen to more audiobooks than at any other point in my life. I love being able to talk about classic literature and history with interesting people. Audible will help you read more and make you a more interesting person. You should check it out.
When you sign up for Audible Premium, you get one audible credit per month plus more free content than you could ever listen to. The audio edition of the newspapers alone is worth the cost of membership. Plus, members get discounts if they want to buy additional credits.
Paul’s Top 5 Favorite Books About Mexico
This is a very personal list of books about Mexico. When I started writing my blog I also started reading more. These are books that I have really enjoyed reading and talking to people about.
It was a tough call to pick just five, but these are my favorite books about Mexico that I have read thus far. But here it goes.
1. Mexico: 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 know more about President Miguel Alemán. 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.
Every time I read a new book I am so excited to have read this book first. I’m halfway through Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna and having a general idea of the presidents of Mexico helped me catch a subtle reference that I had suspected early on and later confirmed.
2. 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 Mesa College and UC 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, history, 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 cliché 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.
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.
3. Mexico: A Novel by James Michener
This book is not for everyone. Bullfighting is a polemic topic and no matter how good this book is, it is not going to please the masses. I think I enjoyed it so much because I have spent just enough time around bullfighters without really understanding where they come from or what they do.
I recognized a lot of names that Michener mentions as the grandfathers and great-grandfathers of bullfighters that are prominent today. In 2010 my roommate’s boyfriend was gored in the ring at Guadalajara’s Nuevo Progreso Plaza. He was kicked out of the hospital for smoking cigarettes in his room and spent two weeks recovering at our house. His bullfighting capes were thrown over a chair in the dining room.
James Michener does an incredible job telling a story. It reminds me a lot of Law & Order where they take their stories right out of the headlines but give them a twist. There is no chance that all of these things happened in one old mining town but I found myself Googling the circumstances of the events to find out where they originally took place.
Michener uses flashbacks to tell the stories of the post-WWII industrial period, the Cristero wars, the Mexican Revolution, the Porfiriato, the second French Intervention, Independence, Spanish colonialism, and the pre-Colombian era. The main character is supposedly half Mexican and Half US citizen but as the story evolves his identity and perspective shifts.
I really enjoyed this book. I slowed down towards the end because I just didn’t want to finish it. There are so many characters that remind me of people I have crossed paths with in Mexico.
4. La Noche Boca Arriba by Julio Cortázar
Spectacular, spectacular, spectacular! I don’t want to say anything else about this short story because I don’t want to ruin anything. If you buy one book on this list make it this one.
Cortázar is one of the preeminent voices of the Latin American boom and this text is one of the reasons why he is so revered in Argentina and across the globe. I read this in college for the first time and have gone back to it at different points in my Spanish language education. Every time I read it I get more out of it. You will love this book.
5. 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 friend’s mom. The backdrop is the 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.
Non-Fiction Books About Mexican History
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 history books about Mexico will give you a better understanding of the country’s past so you can understand the present.
6. Fire & Blood: A History of Mexico by T.R. Fehrenbach
An absolutely exhausting read or listen. The audiobook is 34 hours but it tries to tell the story of pre-history to the 1990s. There are some really interesting sections of this book but you may be left wondering why the author would purport to know how people felt. There were a number of times that I wanted to know what he read while researching a particular section.
Mexico has seen a lot of conflicts. The author did a really good job identifying conflicts and dramatizing them into a three-act set. He introduces the setting, explains the conflict, and explains the resolution. Some of the generalizations may be a bit of a stretch or an oversimplification of more complex issues. The book is written for people who are not from Mexico and do not know much about the country.
The section about the Mexican-American War in the early 19th century is definitely written from the perspective of a Texan who believes that the conflict was inevitable and therefore just.
The way he covers the native populations evolves from pre-Hispanic times to the 20th century. It reminds me of a Mexican saying, “Indio muerto y Indio vivo” highlighting the difference between reverence to the great native cultures of the past while denigrating the Indians in the community. The first couple of chapters about the apex of Aztec politics and civilization are enthralling. I am not sure I agree with his perspective about the Indian problem of the 19th century.
While the book is directed at the novice Mexico enthusiast, it would behoove the reader to have some background knowledge about Mexico in order to question some of the assertations.
7. 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.
8. Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo by Hayden Herrera
There are a lot of books written about Frida Kahlo but the 1983 work by Hayden Herrera is the gold standard and has stood the test of time. It is the official story that was used to guide the movie and most of the contemporary thinking about the artist.
Is the book cliché? Yes, but so is Frida. She is much more popular in the United States than she is in Mexico, especially within the Chicano community.
But the book is still interesting. Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera were in the eye of the hurricane of world events in the 20th century.
One of my favorite parts of this book is the technical analysis of Frida’s evolution of style. She was just a child when she got together with Diego. Her own style of painting was greatly influenced by Diego, her mentor. There are examples where she is trying to paint like him but later realizes that her strengths were very different from his.
This is a book that is better for the hardcore fans rather than the casual observers.
9. 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 first 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’ works, this book is worth a read.
10. 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.
11. The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico by Miguel Leon-Portilla
I wasn’t really sure what to expect when I started this book but I came away with a much more human view of the original people of Mexico. I didn’t realize how much was written in Nahuatl in the 16th century about the conquest of Mexico.
The Broken Spears is an essential companion to the works of Bernal Diaz Del Castillo. Make sure to read the prologue to understand where these texts came from.
I might have been expecting more historical fiction or speculation and was pleasantly surprised to learn how much had been recorded in Nahuatl during and directly after the conflict.
12. 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.
13. 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 motherland.
After listening to the Buddy Levy story about the conquest of Mexico, I was left thinking, “How did Cortes get away with it all?” Not from a military standpoint but from a political standpoint. He was a mutineer who’s stunt of founding a city, cutting out the governer of Cuba, and reporting directly back to Spain should have been punished. But King Charles was fighting his mother, Juana The Mad, for the thrown and needed money. The gold Cortes send could not have come at a better time.
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 in Mexico. The whole idea of imposing another Hapsburg monarchy 300 years later is mind-boggling.
14. The Last Emperor of Mexico by Edward Shawcross
Edward Shawcross has written a few articles on the best books about Mexico and that is how I came across this work. While I was vaguely aware of the story of Maximilian and Carlota, I had no clue who the two people were.
There is a lot more to the story than the 5 de mayo Facebook posts summarize.
Ferdinand Maximilian Josef Maria von Habsburg-Lothringen was a tragic character. The liberal younger brother in an arch-conservative family of Habsburg royalty, he grew up in the shadow of his older, jealous brother.
His older brother became the Emperor of Austria and sent the personable younger brother to the far reaches of the empire because he was afraid of the next in line. Maximilian took the Imperial Austrian Navy from a laughing stock to a respectable branch of the military by circumnavigating the globe
With the eruption of the US Civil War, Napoleon III was convinced to take over Mexico by conservative factions of the Mexican government in exile in France.
Maximilian was nothing but a puppet. He was too liberal for the Mexican conservatives who wanted a strong man like his brother. He learned to speak Náhuatl and published laws in the language of the indigenous people.
Unable to defeat Benito Juarez, the US Civil War finally ended in 1865. The US loaned Mexico $30 million dollars and Mexican guerillas slowly turned the tide in a war of attrition.
Maximilian I of Mexico was captured and executed.
This was an awesome story. Maximilian was an interesting and tragic character that is still misunderstood today.
15. 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.
16. The Bear and the Porcupine: The U.S. and Mexico by Jeffrey Davidow
I was gifted a copy of this book by Ambassador Davidow in 2008 while volunteering at the Institute of the Americas. This was shortly before I first moved to Mexico for grad school and the Ambassador was highly influential in my decision to go to Mexico. In my time at the Institute of the Americas, I had the opportunity to meet and listen to presentations by Ernesto Zedillo, Josefina Vásquez Mota, and Beatriz Paredes Rangel, among many others.
The relationship between the United States and Mexico is complex and multifaceted. There are political issues, trade issues, and cultural issues. Few people understand that relationship, as well as Ambassador Davidow, does. He was a career diplomat and served as the ambassador to Mexico under both democratic and republican leadership, something that is unimaginable today.
This book will help you get your head around the complexities of one of the world’s most important binational relationships. It is just as relevant today as it was in 2006, and many modern journalists make references to the prickly relationship of the bear and the porcupine.
17. El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency by Ioan Grillo
It takes a lot of courage to be a journalist in Mexico who writes about organized crime. When you start putting the names of powerful people into print, whether that be criminals or politicians, you will always have to look over your shoulder.
Scrolling through the comments section on just about any article related to Mexico you will find the armchair analysis of self-professed experts who have never actually been to Mexico or read this book.
Ioan has a unique perspective and had access to key witnesses of the financial workings of the various criminal organizations. Rather than trying to use the Al Pacino in Scarface model to analyze the situation, it would be better to use the multinational corporate model to better understand what really motivates the violence that makes the international headlines.
If you want to comment on the violence in Mexico, read this book first.
18. El Traidor by Anabel Hernandez
Anabel Hernandez is a brave reporter. She has documented the nexus between government officials and organized crime over the course of decades. Some of the people she implicates are still involved in the government.
The collaboration between crime and government is the scariest thing I can imagine. Still, about halfway through, the story gets boring. It’s like every other story about organized crime that you have seen on Netflix or even something you heard about Colombia. The same story repeats itself over and over again, and it gets tiring.
This is a great audiobook to practice your Spanish with. It is not written at an advanced reading level.
Mexican Fiction Books By Mexican Authors
Most of these books were originally published in Spanish. For those of you residing in Mexico, reading in Spanish is one of the best ways to improve your vocabulary.
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 read one chapter in English, then I read that same chapter a second time in Spanish.
Keeping a notebook of vocabulary words that you look up will help you retain those words.
19. Pedro Páramo by Juan Rulfo
Juan Rulfo’s classic novel Pedro Páramo is one of the most important texts in Latin American literature. It can be thought of as the highly referenced introduction to the mystical realism genre. Gabriel Garcia Marquez borrowed heavily from Pedro Páramo for his epic novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude.
At only 124 pages, the novel is short but a difficult read. I really struggled to get through it. I started reading it in Spanish and decided to also buy the English language translation as well as the audiobook. You know what, it was worth it. Juan Rulfo is like a poet. Each paragraph is sculpted to create a vivid image in the readers’ minds. People say that Rulfo’s experience as a photographer helped shape his writing style and his travels shaped his subject matter.
No matter how much time you decide to put into Pedro Páramo, that effort will be rewarded. This is the type of book that will leave you thinking for weeks to come. You may even choose to pick it up a second time and read it again.
20. 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 into 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 gives 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.
Aura is a great story and an easy place to fall in love with the world that Carlos Fuentes paints. After Aura, have a look at The Old Gringo, The Death of Artemio Cruz, and The Years with Laura Diaz.
21. The Murmur of Bees by Sofía Segovia
This is your classic Mexican novela with a minor twist on the protagonist and antagonist. For 70 years the Partido Revolucionario Institutional (PRI) political party ruled Mexican politics. After the fall of a one-party system in 2000, there was the ability to analyze the shortcomings of the revolution that the PRI had institutionalized. In this story, the revolution is the villain who kills indiscriminately and threatens to appropriate land under the guise of Plutarco Elías Calles (founder of the PNR predecessor of the PRI and supreme chief of Mexico for some years) agricultural reforms, that conveniently excluded his own agricultural holdings.
The first thing that comes to mind while writing this review is the narrative style. There are two narrators that alternate telling the story to shed light on a peculiar protagonist and the region as a whole. The book takes place in the northern Mexican state of Nuevo Leon, partly in the ranching town of Linares and partly in the crescent industrial hub of Monterrey. The characters often travel to the United States and neighboring Tamaulipas State.
There are a lot of elements of Downton Abby as the Spanish flu and later the war (the Mexican Revolution) alters a wealthy family’s plans. The story is less magical realism than it is fantastic. The protagonist is strange to his wealthy godparents because of his relationship with nature but there are no flying carpets like in 100 Years of Solitude.
The story spans almost a hundred years as we watch the development of the countryside and what is to become one of Mexico’s most important industrial cities. This is a romanticized history but it is thought-provoking nonetheless. While I understand there were plenty of atrocities by the hacienda owners, these landed elites are good people and it is the revolution that creates conflict.
22. The Underdogs by Mariano Azuela
I included this in the fiction section even though it was inspired by true events. Mariano Azuela was a doctor who enlisted in the revolutionary forces after Francisco Madero was killed. Much of the book is inspired by his own personal experiences in the conflict.
This is going to sounds kind of weird but this book reminded me a lot of the 1978 movie National Lampoon’s Animal House. I think this is a common theme in war novels but the absolute absurdity of the whole event. A roving band of drunks wreaking havock everywhere they went.
Many of the ideological young recruits are quickly jaded by the mundain task of staying alive.
Enrique Krauze talks about this a lot in his book but the Mexican Revolution was not an ideological struggle. It was a fight between strong men. The soilders fought for their general not an idea.
This is an easy read in either English or in Spanish. I recommend reading Krauze first to get a better context.
23. Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
I mentioned in the introduction that writing a blog has convinced me to read more. Not only to read more but different styles of literature that I may not have picked up in my youth. Thrillers and horror have never been by genre but Silvia Moreno-Garcia is winning me over. I may even pick up some Stephen King after this one.
I loved the pretense of this book. The setting is an off-the-beaten-path traveler’s dream come true. Not far from Mexico City in the rural section of Hidalgo State. Moreno-Garcia mixes a lot of historical truths to set the stage. Not many people think of Hidalgo State when silver mines are mentioned. Let alone the English investment in reworking the flooded mines or a streak of yellow fever that devastated the new arrivals.
The characters are interesting and the setting will have you Googleing the true history of the area. However, the delivery could have been better. The climax never really climaxes and once you see the monster it kind of goes downhill. I feel like the suspense could have been played out better and moved a little further to the end of the book and resolved in a more unique way. It didn’t do the characters justice.
24. El Complot Mongol by Rafael Bernal
I am a sucker for an old detective story. The characters in Bernal’s classic noir mystery are as interesting as the setting. Mexico is going through major changes 40 years after the revolution. The revolution had been institutionalized and war veterans were replaced by college-educated kids that did not witness the conflict firsthand.
The lead character, Filiberto Garcia, was just a kid when the Revolution put a gun in his hand. As an adult, he works for the secret police as a consultant and sometime assassin.
The story sums up as a cold war spy flick with plenty of red herrings and double-crosses. The most interesting part is the tour of Mexico City’s Chinatown in the 1960s. It’s about as interesting as a Raymond Chandler novel but the setting is Mexico City rather than LA.
El Complot Mongol is an easy read if you are an intermediate Spanish speaker. The Chinese accents are a little tiresome but it was written in the 1960s so I gave it a break.
25. Mexico City Noir by Paco Ignacio Taibo II
Paco Ignacio Taibo is a polemic character. He was born in Spain but immigrated to Mexico at a young age and is a naturalized citizen. In 2018, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador appointed him the head of the Fondo de Cultura Económica. He has written extensively about Mexican history, has shows on Netflix, and hosts an annual noir literary festival.
Mexico City Noir is an anthology of 12 short stories that take place in, you guessed it, Mexico City. It is important to understand just how big Mexico City is and that the realities in Polanco and Iztapalapa are vastly different. The stories are dark and show corners of the city that most tourist hope they never see.
I don’t think this is the best book to start learning about Mexico City but if you have been there once or twice and already know a bit of the history, you will love these stories. Several of them could be considered historical fiction or neopolicial thrillers.
Books Set In Mexico By Foreign Authors
There has been some really bad literature out there by foreign authors trying to explain Mexico to other foreigners. I don’t think that I am exempt from that statement but I am reading a lot to try and learn more. The cool part is that my views evolve as I learn more.
26. The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver
I had a lot of feelings about this book. I started off thinking that I knew it all already and that the author was overly explaining Mexico to the uninitiated traveler. After a little while, I really started to enjoy the vivid descriptions that one might attribute to a photographer like Juan Rulfo. However, after I while I realized that this is not a true story but a fictionalization of historic characters. The way the author takes a character from on era and uses her to move the story in a different era makes me wonder how much of these historic events are fictional.
The Lacuna is about communism in and around the time of World War II. It just so happens that Mexico and the United States had a lot of communist and anti-communist activity going on during this period.
I think it is very hard to write dialogue for historical figures. It is really hard to get into someone’s head and use the words that they would have used. I particularly had a hard time with the conversations between Frida Kahlo and the main character. This is a work of fiction and those conversations are fiction. I finished that section of the book confused about how much I should believe.
One of my favorite parts of the book is the main character’s mother. She is based on a novel by José Emilio Pacheco called The Battles in the Desert which takes place in the 1940s and 1950s during the presidency of Miguel Aleman. Kingsolver has taken a character from a different era, a product of the post-world war 2 economic boom famous for corrupt crony capitalism, and used her in a depression-era setting.
I know I am being a little overly critical but it feels forced. I know that Kingsolver borrowed this character because she references it. An event that takes place in the novel in 1939 is set on a road named for Miguel Aleman (President 1946-1952) that wasn’t completed until 1950. The road leads directly from the Colonia Roma, the setting of Battles in the Desert, to the airfield that would become the International Airport. There is no way Kingsolver would make that mistake so specifically with that character. She was giving us a clue that our suspicions were correct.
First, read The Battles in the Desert and tell me I’m wrong. Then you should read The Lacuna.
27. 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 worldview. It lacks the first-hand experience of someone who knows Acapulco, or the Mexican experience for that matter.
The lead character is an upper-middle-class business owner from Acapulco who went to college in Mexico City, married a journalist, and reads compulsively but doesn’t know anything about Mexico. Time and again she makes the worst possible decision to avoid the cartel choosing to travel by the means that organized crime controls. Mexico has services for the victims of violent crime and the idea that an identification for her son forced her to ride the trains is absurd.
Another part that makes me think that Jeanine Cummins has never been to Acapulco is the chapter on Escape From Acapulco. The thought that a criminal organization is going to drag trees across the Freeway from Mexico City to Acapulco and search every vehicle leaving the city is logistically impossible. The author has zero concept of the volume of traffic heading down a very busy road. Stopping traffic is one thing but searching the thousands of vehicles traveling that route for one hour, let alone days or weeks, is not comprehensible.
After so many stupid decisions you end up loathing the main characters. And the ending is stupid. Like, you cross the border and everything is magically fixed and everyone lives happily ever after. She touches on the deportation issue but somehow neglects to apply the same reason to the main characters as she does to peripheral characters.
It would be well worth your time to read Luis Alberto Urrea’s The Devil’s Highway instead.
28. Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry
This is another book that I didn’t particularly care for but it left me thinking about it for weeks. More than a book about Mexico, it is a book about alcoholism. This is not a story about fun drinking. It is a story about a man drinking himself to death, much like the author did ten years after publishing this book.
An alcoholic only thinks about where to get the next drink. This includes a strychnine concoction that was used back in the day to help alcoholics dry out. The story is heartbreaking.
There are a lot of interesting historical avenues to appreciate the story. World War II has broken out in Europe but the United States has not entered the conflict. A former British consul thinks of himself as a spy in wartime.
Ernest Hemmingway wrote The Sun Also Rises in 1926 with some astute observations about expats. I can’t help but see the cliché expat in Mexico getting drunk and not fitting in.
Director John Huston made the story into a movie in 1984.
29. 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.
Back in the day, John Huston was a sort of Hollywood ambassador to Mexico. He know everybody and could get the president on the phone in order to get the local cops in line so they could film a movie.
Huston is a master storyteller but he is also a beloved figure of the Puerto Vallarta community. If you will be spending any time at all in Puerto Vallarta, get this book.
30. Tijuana Straits by Kem Nunn
I can’t believe I was 40 years old before reading my first Kem Nunn novel. I just saw the title of the book and thought that anything about Tijuana was going to be interesting for the list.
So Kem Nunn is the father of the “Surf Noir” genre of writing and that is exactly what Tijuana Straights falls into. The characters are hard-boiled and really interesting. He did a lot of research about Tijuana and the intersection of the United States and Mexico.
The book was written in 2004 which was a major turning point in US/Mexico border history. Things changed a lot in the post-9/11 era but he went back way further to talk about the development of the Zona Rio Mall and the Centro Cultural Tijuana which displaces a lot of marginalized people.
I really enjoyed this book but I understand it is not for everyone. I had a lot of nostalgia about growing up surfing areas nearby. I can’t wait to read some more of his work.
Travel Literature About Mexico
31. On The Plain Of Snakes by Paul Theroux
This one is probably going to be moved into the section on my top 5 favorite books about Mexico. I didn’t recognize the name Paul Theroux when I first saw this book recommended. It is such an enjoyable experience to know nothing about a book beforehand and read it with zero preconceived notions about what it will be about.
This old man takes a road trip through Mexico. I am in a number of Facebook groups where people do this all the time except this old man had access to a lot of well-known intellectuals along the way. He js an incredibly well-read foreigners who has never really lived in Mexico and doesn’t speak Spanish very well so tells stories of everyday people he met at breakfast. Sometimes those people are very interesting.
More than anything, Paul Theroux is a reader. I got more recommendations for books about Mexico from this one book than I have found anywhere. I had to start the book over and keep a pen close by to jot down the books that he read to write each section.
In the first section about the border I remembered many of the sensational events that made international headlines but I didn’t study the events as deeply as he did or talk with the researchers studying conflict on the border.
My first hint that this Paul Theroux guy was kind of a big deal was the section on teaching a writing class in Mexico City. I recognized some of the names of his students and realized the students were accomplished writers on their own and this old man was not teaching an introductory level class.
Towards the end, I realized that this old man is the godfather of travel literature and had written The Mosquito Coast which had been turned into a movie (1986) starring Harrison Ford (My Dad and I loved that movie).
I feel like I was his travel partner. I was exhausted by the time I finished listening to this book. Do I agree with everything that he said about Mexico? No, of course not. I live here full time and he is a traveler. But he is a reader and friends with some of the best writers of our day. There is a lot to take from his books. I may even read some of his other travel stories.
32. In Search of Capitan Zero: A Surfer’s Road Trip Beyond the End of the Road by Allan Weisbecker
This came out in 2002 just after I came back from a semester in Costa Rica. It sent my wanderlust into hyperdrive. I didn’t get into any of the trouble that Weisebecker did, but I secretly wanted to.
The author has been around the block and knows what’s up. It’s always good to read those guys so you know who’s who and what’s what in the underground world of traveling surfers. Weisbecher’s ego is legendary but that just makes the book more interesting.
33. Bad Karma: The True Story of a Mexico Trip from Hell by Paul Wilson
Paul Wilson is not a professional author but that makes the story a little closer to home. I imagined I was being told this story by a neighbor of mine in a Pacific Beach apartment complex much like the Imperial Beach apartment complex the author describes in his book.
The narrative style includes a bunch of commentaries by the author about what he was thinking but didn’t actually say to his travel partners.
The characters aren’t likable but they are real. San Diego had and still has plenty of shady characters running from the law thinking that they can hide out in Mexico without repercussions.
It’s an easy read that you can plow through in a couple of sittings. If you enjoy road trips and surf trips through Mexico you will enjoy this book. If you are looking for expert accounts of driving through Mexico you will be disappointed.
Best Books About Mexico for Kids
This is a new section of the article for me. I have two little kids and we read every night. I usually read to them in English because that is my stronger language. However, reading out loud in Spanish has really helped my Spanish. I have considered myself fluent in Spanish for many years but trying to do the voices in a children’s book is a good way to get even better.
These are some of our favorite books about Mexico for children.
34. Dear Primo: A Letter to My Cousin
My mom got his book for my oldest son because he has a cousin in the United States. We may not live on a farm like they do in the book but the idea is the same.
The book is beautifully illustrated and works to keep the families in touch. My mom also bought an English copy of the book for my nephew who just got his passport. We are expecting them to visit us in Puerto Vallarta next year.
After reading this book, my nephew loves to tell people about his family in Mexico.
Cookbooks About Mexican Cuisine
My grandmother had an incredible cookbook collection. She didn’t get to travel much and cookbooks were her window to the world.
When she got set up on the internet, she spent her days printing out collections of recipes that she wanted to have around.
My mom and I have continued the tradition. We love gifting cookbooks for birthdays and holidays and we have built up a nice collection. Much like my grandma, I like to see the world through beautiful books. These are some of my favorites.
35. Colima: Una Gran Travesía Gastronómica & Costas de Colima: Cocina de Mar, Corazon de Tierra by Nico Mejía
These books might be a little hard to find. Chef Nico Mejía prints up a few copies from time to time but they sell out quickly.
I got a chance to hear him give a presentation at the Guadalajara Book Fair (FIL) showing pictures of his travels. The book is equal parts travel guide and cookbook. I have thoroughly enjoyed traveling to the gastronomic experiences that he has recommended. There is a lot of living culture in these books.
Make sure to follow Nico Mejia on Instagram if you are interested in his books. You may be able to find copies at his restaurants as well.
36. Antes de que el Tiempo nos Alcance by Maru Toledo
Manur Toledo is a cookbook author and cultural anthropologist looking to document the oral traditions of the cooks from small towns in Jalisco. She has spent a great deal of time traveling different corners of the state to meet people and learn what they cook, and why.
In the introduction Maru Toledo mentions her friend John Pint who has documented the geography of Jalisco. It is a very diverse place with tropical forests, beaches, arid deserts, maple forests, and a whole lot more. The agriculture changes enormously from place to place, and so does the food.
I like the stories that she tells along with the recipes. Pancho Villa once passes through this area and ate their birria. Or, this type of enchiladas was typical on a hacienda that grew sugarcane.
One of the most important sections of the book deals with moles. Jalisco has a long history of making moles, not just Oaxaca.
Maru Toledo has a ranch outside of Ahualulco de Mercado, Jalisco where she hosts events talking about traditional foods. They grow many of the ingredients they serve on the ranch. It is a great experience and she sells some of her cookbooks there.
37. Treasures of the Mexican Table by Pati Jinich
We love Pati Jinich around here. My mom introduced me to her program on television and I have become a pretty big fan. Before she was a television celebrity chef, she was a journalist, blogger, and political analyst. She has an understanding of Mexican culture that is rarely seen on the north side of the border.
38. The Soul of Baja by Javier Plascencia
Javier Plascencia is my favorite chef. I grew up in San Diego and loved everything related to Baja California. I met him when I first started exploring the Tijuana restaurant scene and instantly fell in love with his vision.
This cookbook about Mexico is just as much a love letter to the Baja Peninsula as it is a cookbook. There are some great recipes in there but there is even more nostalgia.
39. The Essential Cuisines of Mexico by Diana Kennedy
I’m not sure Diana Kennedy is someone that I would want to hang out with (1) (2) but you have to respect the work she has done documenting recipes from rural parts of Mexico for a very long time.
When I start researching a new type of food, I usually start with the Diana Kennedy books and move on from there looking for other variations to try. Her books are pretty much the authority in English on regional Mexican recipes from the second half of the 20th century.
On a side note, my in-laws are from the town of Zitacuaro, Michoacan, and sold Diana Kennedy the piece of land she used to build her estate. It is a beautiful part of Mexico with an overlooked food culture. If you want to learn about ranch-style cuisine Zitacuaro is a good place to start.
40. Seven Days In The Valley: Baja California’s Wine Country Cuisine by William Scott Koenig
Scott Koenig is one of the go-to guys when it comes to food in the Baja California region. He writes a great blog called a Gringo in Mexico highlighting great food on both sides of the border. The intro was written by Nicholas Gilman who has been writing about Mexico City for over a decade and influenced me to start writing. These are very talented individuals who get to the heart of the blossoming Mexican wine country. This book would make a great Christmas or birthday present.
41. La Tacopedia: La Enciclopedia del Taco by Juan Carlos Mena
As the title would suggest, this is an encyclopedia dedicated to the taco. There is a lot more to the taco trade than one might believe at first. For example, there are a lot of different kinds of lamb. Young, old, gender, and race all change the flavor of your tacos de barbacoa. They also have some excellent recommendations for tacos. Most of the taco stands are in Mexico City but when you are in the area, you will eat better than a king.
42. Los Sabores de Nayarit by Alondra Maldonado Rodriguera
I spend a good deal of time in Nayarit and wanted to know more about the cuisine. Most people talk about Sinaloa-style seafood but my favorite seafood restaurant Nayarit-style.
Chef Alondra Maldonado is as much a tour guide as she is an author. This book, and her social media, will introduce you to places you didn’t know exist. The seafood in Nayarit is excellent and I highly recommend you traveling there to eat with the people that contribute recipes to this book.
Final Thoughts On The Best Books About Mexico
I love this article. I love going back and thinking about great books that I have read. As I mentioned in the beginning, I didn’t become a big reader until later in life. Today, I share many of these books with my family. Both my Mom and Mother-in-law are avid readers and read books with me. I really like being a part of the community that reads
As I am getting ready to take the naturalization exam, I feel better about my understanding of my adopted home because I read. Reading makes travel more interesting. I couldn’t imagine traveling to Mexico City and being oblivious to the history of Tenochtitlán. Seeing the dancers in the Zócalo, evoking centuries of tradition, helps make Mexico one of the best travel destinations in the world.
Read a book. You will thank me later.