Are you dreaming of Mexico, but can’t visit at the moment? Whether you’re saving up for a trip or experiencing wanderlust, one of the best ways to explore Mexico is through books! This article will cover the best classic books about Mexico, books on Mexican history, and fiction books by Mexican authors. No matter what kind of reader you are, there should be something for everyone on this list. I’ve included links to Amazon for each of these books in paperback or Kindle format. Did I leave any important books on Mexico off of this list? Let me know in the comments!
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Table of Contents
Classic Books about Mexico
Pedro Páramo by Juan Rulfo
Juan Rulfo originally published Pedro Páramo in Mexico in 1955. Since then, many prominent Latin American authors, including Gabriel García Marquéz, have claimed this novel as one of their key influences. The story begins with Juan Preciado, who promises his mother to visit her hometown and meet his father, Pedro Páramo. Upon reaching Comala, Juan realizes that it’s a literal ghost town, where the living and dead mingle freely. Fans suggest reading this book more than once to catch its full significance.
The Death of Artemio Cruz by Carlos Fuentes
Carlos Fuentes, one of Mexico’s most celebrated authors, released The Death of Artemio Cruz in 1962. Subsequently, this novel became known as an important piece in the Latin American Boom literary movement. In the book, we meet former solider, Artemio Cruz, on his deathbed. The narrative shifts between past and present as he reflects on the major events in his life–namely, the Mexican Revolution. Although Cruz was an idealist as a young man, he eventually gave in to the allure of power and corruption. Therefore, one of the novel’s main themes becomes exploring how a revolution’s ideals become distorted over time.
Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry
In this book, Lowry tells Geoffrey Firmin’s tale, a former British consul living in Mexico and suffering from alcoholism. Most of Under the Volcano occurs on November 1st, 1938 (the Day of the Dead), which happens to be the last day of Firmin’s life. The title comes from the novel’s setting in Quauhnahuac, a Mexican town overshadowed by two volcanoes. We accompany Firmin as he spends the day with his estranged wife Yvonne, his half-brother Hugh, and his childhood friend Jacques. Although the story is tragic, it’s also considered one of the top 100 English-language novels of the 20th century.
The Underdogs by Mariano Azuela
The Underdogs was the first novel about the Mexican Revolution to be translated into English as a Mexican government project. In fact, much of the plot was influenced by Azuela’s personal experiences as a medical officer in Pancho Villa’s forces. In the book, we follow Demetrio Macías, a peasant who is dragged into the revolution after a misunderstanding with the local cacique. Eventually, he becomes the leader of a band of outcast rebels who begin to practice abuse and injustice. Unfortunately, the soldiers who were originally fighting for their ideals end up fighting for nothing more than the sake of fighting.
The Book of Lamentations by Rosario Castellanos
The Book of Lamentations tells the imagined tale of a rebellion in Chiapas in the 1930s. Although the rebellion in the novel is fictional, it’s based on real Mayan uprisings that occurred in the mid-1800s. We follow multiple characters and perspectives representing Chiapas locals, colonialists, and the establishment (church and government) as Castellanos explores the struggle for power. The Book of Lamentations is considered a masterpiece of contemporary Latin American fiction, while Castellanos is Mexico’s greatest twentieth-century female writer. Furthermore, she is remembered as a symbol of Latin American feminism and a champion of indigenous cultures.
The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene
The unnamed main character in The Power and the Glory is a “whiskey priest” on the run as Mexico has outlawed Catholicism. Although illegal, the priest still attempts to minister and perform mass when he can. Nonetheless, he finds himself constantly at odds with his faith. For example, he fathers an illegitimate child and struggles with alcoholism. Meanwhile, a police lieutenant who hates the Catholic church works to hunt down the priest. The themes that pop up in this novel include faith and Catholicism, hope, and abandonment. TIME magazine ranks this novel as one of the best English-language novels since 1923.
The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño
In Savage Detectives, we meet seventeen-year-old Juan Garcia Madero, an aspiring poet who wants to join a group called “The Visceral Realists.” Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima are the founders of this movement in Mexico City and are based on the author (Roberto Bolaño) and his close friend, Mario Santiago. The novel begins by sharing what life is like for these young poets in Mexico City as they explore their art and sexuality. However, after a surprising turn of events, we follow Madero, Belano, and Lima as they flee to the Sonoran Desert. The big question becomes: will they find the mythical poet Cesárea Tinajero?
Books on Mexican History
The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico by Miguel León-Portilla
When The Broken Spears was published in 1959, it became the first book to chronicle Mexico’s conquest from its Indigenous people’s perspective. Since the Spanish destroyed many Aztec texts, it’s rare to see a Nahuatl account of this historical event. For this reason, anyone who wants a deeper understanding of pre-Colombian/conquest history in Mexico should give this book a read. The Broken Spears begins with Cortes’ arrival to Mexico and details the destruction he leaves in his wake as the Indigenous people fight to keep their civilization.
Conquistador is a well-researched history book that reads more like a novel, thanks to its descriptive characterizations. The narrative is mostly from Hernán Cortés’ perspective, and we follow his military and political campaigns as he attempts to bring down the Aztecs’ powerful kingdom. Most importantly, it details his efforts to ally with the Aztecs’ oppressed neighbors. The history is fairly balanced–Levy portrays Cortés as both ruthless and intelligent, while Montezuma is passive and trapped due to his elevated position in Aztec society. This enthralling read covers an extremely pivotal time in history for anyone interested in pre-Colombian times and the Spanish Conquest.
The Labyrinth of Solitude by Octavio Paz
This book-length essay by Octavio Paz is one of his most famous works. Primarily, it explores the question: what does it mean to be Mexican? Paz argues that the country is a “labyrinth of solitude” as he performs a cultural analysis of Mexico’s history. He explains that modern Mexican culture is tied to both Spanish and Indigenous culture and that Mexicans frequently deny part of their identity. The Labyrinth of Solitude is a must-read for anyone seeking to explore Mexican history and literature.
Massacre in Mexico by Elena Poniatowska
This book is Elena Poniatowska’s account of what really happened during the 1968 student protests in Mexico City. Therefore, she includes interviews with eyewitnesses and informants, concluding that the government opened fire on unarmed civilians. This event occurred just days before the opening ceremony for the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. For twenty years, Massacre in Mexico was the only book covering the Tlatelolco massacre. Moreover, it directly contradicted the Mexican government’s version of events. Although it is a painful read, it’s important to remember the victims of this tragedy so that it never happens again.
The Mexico Reader: History, Culture, Politics by Gilbert M. Joseph
In The Mexico Reader, you can learn all about Mexico from documents written about it by its people. This compilation of written works, images, and maps helps provide a robust understanding of the country’s most important periods of history. For example, its sections cover Mexican identity, conquest and colonization, and time spent as a young republic, all the way to the present day. There are even pieces from other authors mentioned in this article, like Luis Alberto Urrea, Octavio Paz, Carlos Fuentes, and Juan Rulfo. This reader goes above and beyond the classic history book.
Fiction Books by Mexican Authors
Terra Nostra by Carlos Fuentes
One of Mexico’s greatest writers, Carlos Fuentes, shifts between the 16th and the 20th century in this historical fiction novel. The author explores an alternate history of Spain’s past, with King Phillip II as the main character. The plot begins and ends in Europe, mainly pivoting around El Escorial and its construction. Nonetheless, Fuentes spends a whole section reimagining Mexico’s conquest and origins. Terra Nostra won the Xavier Villaurrutia Award in 1976 and the Rómulo Gallegos Prize in 1977. If you enjoy it, make sure to check out some of Fuentes’ other popular works, such as The Old Gringo and The Years With Laura Díaz.
Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel
Like Water for Chocolate follows Tita de la Garza, a young girl who lives on a ranch near the Mexico border with her mother and sisters. Unfortunately, Tita’s family tradition is that the youngest daughter can never marry and instead must take care of her mother. Therefore, Tita is unable to be with the man she loves, Pedro. Since she only feels truly at home in the kitchen, each of the 12 sections of this book begins with a Mexican recipe that connects with a time in Tita’s life. This novel was adapted into the 1992 film Like Water for Chocolate.
The Hummingbird’s Daughter by Luis Alberto Urrea
In this heavily-researched historical novel, Urrea tells the mystical tale of sixteen-year-old Teresita. After waking from a strange dream, Teresita finds that she has died and arisen from the dead. Furthermore, she discovers that she now has strange healing powers. Thanks to this twist of fate, the poor come to adore her and call her “The Saint of Cabora” or “The Mexican Joan of Arc.” In the end, Teresita ends up not only inspiring the Mexican people but also sparking a revolution. Interestingly enough, Urrea based this story on his actual relative, Teresa Urrea, his father’s aunt.
Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Gods of Jade and Shadow set in Jazz-era Mexico, is equal parts fairytale and political/social commentary. Moreno-Garcia introduces the reader to Casiopea Tun, a young woman who is forced to work as the family maid for her wealthy grandfather and horrible cousin. Everything changes one day when Casiopea stumbles upon a wooden box in her grandfather’s room. Upon opening the box, she accidentally frees Hun-Kame, the Maya God of Death, who requests her help in taking back his throne. Whether she likes it or not, Casiopea will have to embark on a quest with Hun-Kame! This delightful novel successfully weaves together both Mayan mythology and the culture and vibe of Yucatán in the 1920s.
Down the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos
This short novella (only 74 pages) looks at life from the point of view of a drug lord’s seven-year-old son. While Tochtli originally seems precocious and like any other child, we soon learn that his situation is quite peculiar. Due to his father’s profession, he grows up surrounded by hitmen and prostitutes and servants willing to do whatever he asks. When Tochtil asks for a pygmy hippopotamus from Liberia for his personal zoo, his father agrees, accompanying the boy to fulfill his wish. Due to this book’s length, you could probably read it in a few hours!
Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros
In Caramelo, we meet Ceyala (known as Lala) on her family’s annual summer road trip from Chicago to Mexico City to visit her “Little Grandfather” and “Awful Grandmother”. In the second part, we learn more about Lala’s family history, starting with her grandmother’s parents, who were manufacturers of women’s shawls (rebozos). Finally, in the third part, Lala begins to mature, uncovering truths about her family along the way. In particular, this story is largely about family stories and how they change over time, especially to include “good lies”. The final question becomes: are family stories true? Even if they aren’t, should it matter?
Quesadillas by Juan Pablo Villalobos
Quesadillas is a satire on the political corruption in Mexico in the 1980s. The author specifically explores what it means to be middle class while following a large family living in a remote village. Our protagonist, young Orestes, narrates the story while providing commentary on society, politics, and economics. Furthermore, he expresses how it feels to be poor and powerless, often left to fight with his siblings over quesadillas at the dinner table. While this novel is both funny and poignant, it’s also quite sobering at the same time. Additionally, at only 180 pages, Quesadillas is a shorter read.
The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli
This novel-essay tells the story of Gustavo “Highway” Sánchez Sánchez and how he went from working at a juice factory to being a successful auctioneer. When a local priest asks Gustavo to hold an auction to raise funds for the church, Gustavo decides to auction off a very peculiar item: his teeth. During the auction, he claims that each of the teeth belongs to a different famous person. The Story of My Teeth follows an experimental structure, taking the reader on a loopy journey. By the end of it, no one knows the true story behind the teeth. The Story of My Teeth won the 2015 LA Times Book Prize in Fiction.