LiteratureMexico

10+ Must Read Books About Mexican Culture

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.

books about mexican culture

© University of Wisconsin Press / Mexico City | © Kasper Christensen/Flickr

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.

books about mexican culture

© Penguin

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.

books about mexican culture

© Editorial Planeta

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.)

books about mexican culture

© Suma de Letras

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.

books about mexican culture

© Catedra

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.

books about mexican culture

© Era

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.

books about mexican culture

© Oceano

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).

books about mexican culture

© Editorial Sexto Piso

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.

books about mexican culture

© And Other Stories

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.

books about mexican culture

© Reynal & Hitchcock


Honorary Mentions

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.

Hotel DF by Guillermo Fadanelli

Mexican Postcards by Carlos Monsiváis

The Death of Artemio Cruz by Carlos Fuentes

El laberinto de la soledad by Octavio Paz

Mornings in Mexico by D.H. Lawrence

The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño


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!

Yuri Herrera

Guadalupe Nettel

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.

37 comments

  1. Kelly 21 April, 2017 at 11:38 Reply

    Great List. I had no idea Kerouac spent time in Mexico. And frankly, I have been negelecting my reading lately. I need to get back into it and this list inspires me to do so since I love learning about ofher cultures. Also love that you tore your boyfriend away from the videogames. Lol. Love it!!

    • Lauren 21 April, 2017 at 11:43 Reply

      VERY difficult to get him away from games, trust me! If you\’re going to start with one of the top ten on the list, then the Mexico City Reader is ideal for a general overview. Otherwise, I love Luiselli\’s work and they\’re widely available in English.

  2. Cristina G 21 April, 2017 at 20:25 Reply

    Definitely saving this one because books and Mexico are also 2 of my favorite things!
    You should read Pedro Paramo. I know it is hard in the beginning but the story is so…special, fascinating so worth reading. It\’s one of the best books I\’ve ever read. Just one thing though, the story takes place in a small town called Comala in Jalisco. There\’s also a Comala in the state of Colima but that\’s not the one from the story. 🙂

    • Lauren 21 April, 2017 at 20:31 Reply

      Hello! Thank you 🙂 I\’m midway through Pedro, and I think I just need to read it at home and not on the metro to get into it properly haha. I\’m pretty certain that the novel is set in the Comala in Colima though, because there isn\’t a Comala in Jalisco :/ Are you maybe thinking of Chapala?

  3. Cristina G 21 April, 2017 at 20:53 Reply

    Yes! Read it at home, not on the metro haha.
    Okay I\’m totally confused now. I hear different stories all the time. According to my boyfriend, who\’s done his Master\’s in Mexico on Latin American literature, it\’s in Jalisco. But at first I also thought it was in Colima! But he told me he\’d been there and nobody knows about Pedro Paramo, not even in the tourist office (!) so he figured it must be in Jalisco (as the writer is from there as well and apparently there must be a Comala there) and, well, I believe him as he\’s the expert among us hahaha. Anyway, he can be wrong though and maybe those people in Comala are not well educated (because seriously, if you\’re living in the town in which one of Mexico\’s best novels takes place, you should know about it, right?).

    • Lauren 21 April, 2017 at 20:56 Reply

      Hahahaha, I mean fair enough, but I lived in Jalisco and never heard of a Comala. I think ALL of the internet seems to attribute it to Colima too 🙂 It wouldn\’t surprise me that no one knew about it tbh, I\’ve been to a few places where you hear \’oh, such and such happened here\’ and no one has a clue lol.

  4. Cristina G 21 April, 2017 at 21:00 Reply

    I\’ll have to tell my boyfriend then because he wants to go there but you cannot go to a place if you don\’t know where it is…lol.
    It\’s a shame, they should know about it!

    • Lauren 21 April, 2017 at 21:03 Reply

      Haha! If it does exist though, please let me know, cos I\’d like to visit too 🙂 (In fact, I have Comala on my bucket list just for the sake of Pedro Paramo!)

  5. Charmaine 22 April, 2017 at 03:55 Reply

    It\’s always great to have some historical and cultural background before going traveling! These books will be a great idea to understand the significance of it!

  6. The Wayfarer 22 April, 2017 at 16:18 Reply

    Oh, you have to read Bolaño though. He is like the most Mexican non-Mexican. Also his books are just very good. I would start with The Savage Detectives then do 2666, if you can stomach it. (There\’s a lot of dead women in it.)

    • Lauren 22 April, 2017 at 16:47 Reply

      I really want to read him! He\’s one of those that\’s been kicking about on my To Read list since I was in high school pretty much. I have SO much to read though – need to work less and read more :\'(

        • Lauren 23 April, 2017 at 07:05 Reply

          Ah great tip! I\’m gunna add that on 🙂 weirdly I haven\’t read a book about the Mexican cartels, only about South American ones and the Italian mafia lol

  7. Steph 23 April, 2017 at 14:11 Reply

    Oh I love a good reading list! Although my Amazon wish list is now too unwieldy to be of any actual use, I need some kind of database to keep track.

    The concept of the Mexico City Reader is great, it doesn\’t seem as though it\’s part of a series which is a shame.

    • Lauren 23 April, 2017 at 14:20 Reply

      The Mexico City Reader is definitely one that\’s great to dip into! I\’m going to steal my roommates as soon as she lets it out of her sight haha. Yep, my Amazon list has falled by the wayside cos it was so long, but I have book lists everywhere – my diary, my phone… you name it!

    • Lauren 23 April, 2017 at 14:25 Reply

      Hmm, I really do love Luiselli\’s work although I probably don\’t fully understand it. If I had to give a favourite out of the ten main ones, it would be El Fulgor de la Noche. It\’s probably not to everyone\’s taste, but I find it fascinationg! And I love Marta Lamas. But then, Ibarguengoitia\’s is also great!

  8. MeganCheckers 26 April, 2017 at 20:55 Reply

    Thank you for writing this! The book Instrucciones para vivir en mexico sounds really interesting, plus it\’d be good for me to keep reading in Spanish or I\’ll forget all of it. I\’ve already bookmarked this for later!

    • Lauren 26 April, 2017 at 21:04 Reply

      Thank you so much! I\’m glad you found it interesting 🙂 I definitely recommend the Instrucciones book. Do you know Mexican or peninsula Spanish? There are plenty Mexican-isms in that text that might trip you up if you\’re not familiar with it, but other than that, you\’ll be fine! 🙂

        • Lauren 26 April, 2017 at 21:11 Reply

          Hmm, I\’m sure there are plenty of bits and bobs that have crossed the border to LA but I think Peruvian Spanish is another kettle of fish. Either way, still a fantastic read that will only add to your vocabulary 🙂

  9. Danielle 27 April, 2017 at 03:46 Reply

    Interesting post! I\’m an avid reader and can\’t say I\’ve ever even thought to read anything like this. I might have to give them a go 🙂

    • Lauren 27 April, 2017 at 10:43 Reply

      Awesome! Check out the rest of my articles on the place too if you\’re looking for some inspo and feel free to hit me up if you want to get a drink 🙂

  10. Ian Sta Maria 27 April, 2017 at 13:43 Reply

    Great information! Haven\’t been to Mexico yet, but would love to read these books and go to Mexico! 🙂

  11. Girl Sam 27 April, 2017 at 19:30 Reply

    Awesome list and I adore the idea behind the post. Even if you saw the idea elsewhere initially you have made it your own and provided a fantastic and unique list which I am sure will help many. I think I will take your advice and start with The Mexico City Reader.

    Thanks for sharing!

  12. BONNITA ALUOCH 27 April, 2017 at 22:39 Reply

    This I love! Nothing is sacred and no one is original. I have definitely learned a thing or two about mexico. I have always tried to be \”original\” but your explanation has worked for me! Nice post. I really would like to research about books that would make one understand Kenya better!

    • Lauren 27 April, 2017 at 23:00 Reply

      Ooh that would be fascinating (the Kenya idea) but unfortunately I have never been haha. Let me know if you find anything though 🙂

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