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.
Reading in Spanish is one of the best ways 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 in 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.
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.
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 2. 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 that 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.
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.
The lead character is an upper-middle class business owner from Acapulco who went to college in Mexico City, married a journalist, reads compulsively but doesn’t know anything about Mexico. Time an 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 sun forced her to ride the trains is absurd.
Another part that makes me thing that Jeanine Cummins has never been to Acapulco is the chapter on the 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 every one 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.
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.
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 replaces by college educated kids that did not witness the conflict first hand. The lead character, Filiberto Garcia, was just a kid when the conflict 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 1960 so I gave it a break.
El Traidor by Anabel Hernandez
I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I read these. 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 audio book to practice your Spanish with. It is not written at an advanced reading level
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.
Travel Books About Mexico
World Travel: An Irreverent Guide by Anthony Bourdain and Laurie Woolever
There are only two sections about Mexico in the late authors new book but they are worth taking a look at. Anthony Bourdain knew where to eat well and travel. Every recommendation that I have taken from his writings has been spot on and that included Mexico. It is nice to read his voice once again.
Have you seen the trailer for the new Bourdain movie?
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. The guy has a huge ego but that just makes the book more interesting.
Cookbooks About Mexico
My grandmother had an incredible cookbook collection. She didn’t get to travel much and cookbooks were her window 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 traditions. We love gifting cookbooks for birthdays and holidays and we have built up a nice collection. Much like my grandma, I like to travel reading beautiful books. These are some of my favorites.
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 quick. 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 thouroughly enjoyed traveling to the gastronomic experiences that he has recommended. There is a lot of living culture in these books.
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 overlooked food culture. If you want to learn about ranch style cuisine Zitacuaro is a good place to start.
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.