Not long ago, I read a brilliant article about books that will help you understand the Caribbean and thought to myself, I am definitely stealing that idea because nothing is sacred and no one is original. So that’s how this piece on the must-read books about Mexican culture, the first in a projected five-part series of Mexico book related posts, came about.
Despite the fact that I read widely in both English and Spanish, I was at first a bit stumped at what to include in this rundown of the best Mexican literature from both natives and foreigners, in both English and Spanish – until I put metaphorical pen to metaphorical paper that is. That’s when the titles (some of which I’ve read and some of which I haven’t, this is basically a personal Must-Read list for me too) came flooding out. And let me tell you, it was tricky to narrow it down to so few in the end, especially given that Mexican literature is as rich and diverse as that of any other country, and factoring in the number of texts that have been written by non-Mexicans like Roberto Bolaño about the place as well.
From the big names like Octavio Paz and Carlos Fuentes, neither of whom I’ve got around to reading yet (I’m sorry, OK?!), to not-that-well-known-outside-of-Mexico writers like Yuri Herrera or Guadalupe Nettel, this is my personal guide to all the essential texts about Mexico, including essays, short stories, novels and even anthropological papers.
THE MUST-READ BOOKS ABOUT MEXICAN CULTURE
Before we get going, it’s worth pointing out that I am not paid for any of these titles, and if you click through to buy them I don’t receive any money – I honestly just think they’re really, really worthwhile texts.
The Mexico City Reader by Various
Honestly, if you’re looking to learn about Mexican culture, there’s no better way than by reading Mexican literature and there’s really no better place to start than with The Mexico City Reader. One of the best books on Mexican culture, this is a veritable bible of collected texts – my roommate literally treasures her copy so much that she refused to let me take it on the metro in case someone stole my bag, Mexico City Reader and all.
Although I haven’t personally read it (it’s sat on my desk right now, tempting me away from productivity), it’s a must-read starting point for anyone interested in the culture, history and people of the capital. According to those who have read it, otherwise known as better people than I, the story that will hit you hardest is ‘The Earthquake’ by Elena Poniatowska.
Tristessa by Jack Kerouac
Hands up who’s heard of famed Beat author Jack Kerouac! OK, hands up who knew he spent a chunk of time in Mexico, composed some of his finest works here and even wrote an entire novella about the place. Well, well, well. Very few people seem to know that Kerouac’s repertoire extends beyond the quite frankly overhyped – yes, I said it – On The Road.
The book I’m referring to is Tristessa, which while it certainly has ‘meh’ potential at times, it’s considerably shorter and less self-indulgent than On The Road. Based in the Roma neighbourhood, this text is about his experiences with a sex worker who he calls Tristessa (a.k.a. an Anglicisation of ‘sadness’ in Spanish) despite her real name being Esperanza (‘hope’). Kerouac was deep, man.
Instrucciones para vivir en México by Jorge Ibargüengoitia
No dicking around here, I love this book and I think it’s the one on the list I read most recently. In fact, I sold it so well to my non-book reading, videogame playing boyfriend that he even asked me to lend it him. Either I’m destined for a job in sales or it’s really worth a read.
Made up of a collection of the journalistic efforts of Jorge Ibargüengoitia that span the years 1969-1976, Instrucciones para vivir en México (Instructions for Living in Mexico) picks up on the quirks and rarities of Mexico City life and while some things may only be appreciated by those who live here, anyone can enjoy the penetrating wit and humour in the writing of Ibargüengoitia. Despite finding the sections on the Mexican Heroes a tad tedious, the rest was hilarious, dark, disturbing and witty all at once, with a knack for bringing the Mexican fondness for bureaucracy to the fore.
Como agua para chocolate by Laura Esquivel
Original, right? This is perhaps the best known Mexican novel in the world, due to the fact it was made into a film in 1992 and has been translated into several languages. Even so, Laura Esquivel‘s Como agua para chocolate is by far and away one of the best, if entirely surreal, books you can read if you want to truly get to the bottom of Mexico’s obsession with food and the role it plays in society.
Tita takes her obsession a little further than most, but read between the lines and I like to think it’s about her love affair with the Mexican cuisine, rather than Pedro. (OK, maybe not, but I have an English Literature degree which qualifies me to spin that idea into a 4000-word essay if need be. TRY ME.)
Pedro Páramo by Juan Rulfo
I’ve read like half of this Juan Rulfo book, mainly because trying to read something as dense and insanely confusing, albeit canonical, as Pedro Páramo on the Mexico City metro is perhaps the worst idea I’ve ever had. It is very difficult to get into, but I thought that about A Clockwork Orange at first too, and then ended up writing a university essay about it.
Set in small town Colima, it’s about the protagonist Juan’s search for his father, the eponymous Pedro Páramo. Wildly disorientating, it was actually one of the texts that influenced Gabriel García Márquez, so if you don’t like his work (like me) then maybe stay away.
La noche de Tlatelolco by Elena Poniatowska
It was really difficult to choose which Poniatowska text to include in this text, considering that the French-born first lady of Mexican literature is so accomplished and critically acclaimed, but I went with La noche de Tlatelolco because it’s the one I’ve (partially) read. (However, I also recommend her Nada, nadie. Las voces del temblor about the 1985 Mexico City earthquake.)
A collection of real life quotes and testimonies about the 1968 student massacre, it’s horrifying, brutal and also, from a more pragmatic perspective, a decent introduction into the colloquialisms and expressions common in Mexican Spanish. Unless you read it in English, obviously.
El Fulgor de la Noche by Marta Lamas
Marta Lamas is a seminal Mexican feminist, who has for years led the fight for legal abortion and better reproductive services in this highly conservative, Catholic country. She’s also an anthropologist who most recently published a text about sex workers on the streets of Mexico City, El Fulgor de la Noche, that I kind of stumbled into buying by accident.
I was waiting to meet someone in a bookstore when I idly started thumbing through the pages of this book and I couldn’t put it down. She discusses in an academic yet accessible way the state of sex work in Mexico City and argues why it should be decriminalised in a thoughtful manner, although the best parts are definitely the verbatim interviews with real life sex workers themselves.
Papeles falsos by Valeria Luiselli
I love the darling of contemporary Mexican literature Valeria Luiselli’s writing, although I sometimes take umbrage with her attitude towards modern day feminism. Even so, her first collection of essays, Papeles falsos, remains one of my favourite ever books. In it, she details her wanderings through Venice, Mexico City streets and New York, in a brief and easy to digest format, ruminating on various themes as she goes, from death to language. Plus, the English translation by Christina MacSweeney is excellent (and the version I’ve read).
Quesadillas by Juan Pablo Villalobos
Juan Pablo Villalobos came to my attention because 1) I was applying for an internship at the And Other Stories publishing house at the time, and they happened to have just released the English language version of this title and 2) he’s from Guadalajara and I have a weird obsession with anyone and anything from the place I once called home.
My personal quirks aside, Quesadillas basically takes a darkly comic, and sometimes scathing, satirical look at dysfunctional family life in Mexico, as well as the politics of class, one-upmanship and actual Mexican politics too. Villalobos’ first novel, Down the Rabbit Hole, is just as excellent.
Under The Volcano by Malcolm Lowry
Full disclosure, I have not read this book, but I’ve seen it recommended so many times (and there’s even a top English language bookstore in Condesa named after it) that I couldn’t evade a mention of Malcolm Lowry’s Under The Volcano. It covers everything from Mexican culture, music, mythology, and, of course, alcohol and is a sharp text that deals predominantly with redemption and damnation.
Calling these titles ‘honorary mentions’ by no means implies they’re better or worse than the texts I mentioned in more detail above. It just means that these are amongst the best Mexican novels and books that I haven’t yet read, whereas I’ve at least dabbled in eight of the ten aforementioned ones. Some are books by Mexican authors and some are simply books featuring Mexico City by foreign-born authors.
Other Mexican Authors You Should Be Reading
Here are some of the other best Mexican authors you should be reading too, just for good measure. I imagine this section will be regularly updated when someone in the comments inevitably lets me know I missed off the best author in Mexico, what were you even thinking?! But seriously, let me know who to add to this list!
Carmen Aristegui (a journalist with a knack for pissing off Mexico’s government, which is always a good sign if you ask me.)
Are there any other must-read books about Mexican culture that I missed off? Let me know below! And don’t forget to pin if you want to look like a literary intellectual.