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The Best Books to Read Before You Go to Mexico

by Justine Harrington

posted on January 06, 2020

Photo Courtesy: iStock/FabrikaCr

The story of Mexico isn’t simple or straightforward or easily labeled, even if certain news media and certain heartless tangerine demagogues try to convince us otherwise. The story of Mexico isn’t just about borderlands, tight-knit family networks, or deep-rooted traditions, either, though it’s certainly about some of those things, sometimes. The story of Mexico is as diverse and layered and complex as every other nation’s story on earth.

This is why, when it comes to preparing for a trip to Mexico, guidebooks just don’t cut it. To truly deepen your understanding of land and language, of culture and history, the role of local literature—novels, memoirs, plays, poetry— is invaluable.

So, swap out your dry guidebook for some vibrant literary works by Mexican or Mexican-American authors. Aside from conversing with locals, this is one of the best ways to glimpse the breadth of this magnificent country, to glean how people actually live and breathe and think. Here are some suggestions to get you started.

The Tree is Older Than You Are: A Bilingual Gathering of Poems & Stories From Mexico by Naomi Shihab Nye. Suitable for both older kids and adults alike, The Tree is Older Than You Are offers a dazzling introduction into the world of Mexican storytelling. It’s a bilingual anthology of poetry, folklore, and stories from 64 prominent authors, including Octavio Paz, Alberta Blanco, Rosario Castellanos, and more.

(Photo Courtesy: Coffee House Press)

The Story of My Teeth and Tell Me How it Ends by Valeria Luiselli. Valeria Luiselli is one of Mexico’s buzziest literary stars, and you can’t go wrong with any of her work. But The Story of My Teeth is a fantastically surreal experimental novel about identity, art, and yes, dentistry that begs to be devoured on a sun-dappled patch of grass in Chapultepec Park. And her nonfiction book, 2017’s harrowing Tell Me How It Ends, is structured around the 40 questions Luiselli translated for Central American migrant children facing deportation, during her time spent volunteering as a court interpreter—it’s a fervent, and much-needed, call to empathy.

Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera. In Signs Preceding the End of the World, a young Mexican woman named Makina leaves her village in search of her brother, who lives in the U.S., while carrying two secret messages: one from her mother, and one from a local criminal gang. Routinely referred to as one of Mexico’s best contemporary novelists, Yuri Herrera will seduce and enthrall you with his manic, rich, lyrical prose.

(Photo Courtesy: Vintage)

Caramelo and The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. You’ve likely heard of (and hopefully read) Cisneros’s internationally acclaimed novel The House on Mango Street, but in case you haven’t, get your hands on a copy pronto. Both that, and her 2002 novel Carmelo, are standout works about the construction of Mexican-American identity and the meaning of home.

The Gringo Champion by Aura Xilonen. This award-winning 2015 debut novel by Aura Xilonen tells the exuberant tale of a young teenage street-fighter, Liborio, who crosses into the U.S. from Mexico in search of a better life; both the language and the story are astonishing.

The Years With Laura Diaz by Carlos Fuentes. One of the most celebrated writers in the Spanish-speaking world, Carlos Fuentes is the author of some of Mexico’s most influential literary works, including Aura, The Death of Artemio Cruz, and The Old Gringo. While it’s not his best known book, The Years With Laura Diaz offers insight into a century’s worth of Mexican politics, culture, and life, all through the eyes of his unforgettable protagonist, Laura Diaz.

Massacre in Mexico by Elena Poniatowska. To know Elena Poniatowska’s work is to know Mexico. The French-born Mexican writer (who was the first woman to receive Mexico’s National Journalism Prize, in 1979) has authored more than 50 books, and her focus is almost always on the most marginalized of Mexicans. La noche de Tlatelolco (translated as Massacre in Mexico), about the bloody repression of the 1968 student protests in Mexico City, is massive, heartbreaking, and wholly iconic.

(Photo Courtesy: University of Texas Press)

Recollections of Things to Come by Elena Garro. Elena Garro is one of Mexico’s most important literary figures, although her work is often overshadowed by that of her husband, Octavio Paz. Despite being denied entry into many of Latin America’s machismo-soaked literary circles, Garro was still able to achieve a level of importance nearly unheard of for women. Carlos Fuentes called Recollections of Things to Come one of the most important Mexican novels of the 20th century.

The Body Where I Was Born by Guadalupe Nettel. Previously cited as a Granta “Best Untranslated Writer”, Guadalupe Nettel is one of Mexico’s most exciting contemporary voices. The Body Where I Was Born is her first translated work; it’s a fierce, evocative autobiographical novel about a girl born with an abnormality in her eye who recounts her bizarre upbringing to her psychoanalyst.

(Photo Courtesy: Grove Press)

The Interior Circuit: A Mexico City Chronicle by Francisco Goldman. Francisco Goldman’s 2014 love letter to Mexico City is such a keenly observed account of the city—its dramatic skies, bewitching streets, and dark political underbelly—that readers will find themselves instantly transported.

Anything by Luis Alberto Urrea. Dubbed the “literary conscience of the border”, Luis Alberto Urrea is an acclaimed author of 14 books that encompass several genres and are often inspired by his cross-cultural upbringing (Urrea was born in Tijuana, to an Anglo mother and a Mexican father). Regardless of form, Urrea’s work often reminds us that, rather than making us feel puffed up and special, borders should make us feel curious and cut off from our human family.

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