Beyond the Border: Best Books to Truly Understand Mexico

San Cristobal, Mexico/Photo © Aleksandar Todorovic/Shutterstock

As our neighbor to the south and an important ally and trading partner, Mexico is a common source of headlines and news stories here in the United States. Given its proximity to our southern border and the relative ease of travel between the U.S. and Mexico, Mexican culture has long had a strong place in the United States, particularly in the southwest of the country. Unfortunately, following the election of Donald Trump, tensions between the U.S. and Mexico have steadily risen. This is due in part to disputes over immigration policy and President Trump’s well-publicized campaign promise to build a wall along the border and force Mexico to pay for it, and in part due to the Trump Administration’s confusing stances on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

With coming down on illegal immigration, from Mexico in particular, a central tenet of both the Trump campaign and the Trump presidency, it’s no surprise that relations with Mexico continue to be a hot-button issue. It is important now more than ever to recognize that illegal immigration is a multifaceted and complex problem without a simple solution. And given that Hispanics (typically defined in the U.S. as individuals of Spanish, Mexican, and South or Central American descent) represent the largest ethnic minority population in the U.S., their influence on not only American culture but also all facets of public life should not be understated. Mexico is home to a complex history and a vibrant culture with a rich literary tapestry that can offer key insights into all components of Mexican culture. These ten books about Mexico, the Mexican experience, and by Mexican authors offer a sampling of the breadth of that literature and will hopefully provide a better understanding of our neighbors to the south.

  • The cover of the book Lucky Boy

    Lucky Boy

    Particularly timely, Lucky Boy is a devastatingly powerful look into the very human toll of illegal immigration. The story revolves around Ignacio, a child born to a to an illegal immigrant from Mexico named Soli. Ignacio is placed into the care of a woman named Kavya after Soli is placed in immigrant detention. Loved by two mothers and caught between two worlds, Ignacio’s story feels all-too-relevant in our current political climate.

  • The cover of the book The Labyrinth of Solitude and Other Writings

    The Labyrinth of Solitude and Other Writings

    This collection from celebrated author Octavio Paz, winner of the 1990 Nobel Prize for Literature, is a profound examination of the complexities of Mexican culture. The collection contains what may be Paz’s most famous work – The Labyrinth of Solitude. Labyrinth is an essential analysis of modern Mexico and the nation’s quest for an identity.

  • The cover of the book Border Child

    Border Child

    A Novel

    In this novel delving into the complexities of the immigration issue, Border Child centers on a young Mexican couple and their search for their lost daughter. Separated from their infant as they crossed the border into the United States some four years earlier, Hector and Lila now find themselves in a position to locate the child they thought they’d lost. Border Child is a searing examination of the human impact of current immigration policies.

  • The cover of the book The Plain in Flames

    The Plain in Flames

    Juan Rulfo is generally considered one of the most influential writers in twentieth-century Mexican literature despite his relatively scant output. With The Plain in Flames, Rulfo has crafted a collection of short stories chronicling life in the Mexican countryside during the rapid industrialization that followed the Mexican Revolution. Rulfo paints a deeply humanistic portrait of one of the most tumultuous and important times in Mexican history.

  • The cover of the book Like Water for Chocolate

    Like Water for Chocolate

    A Novel in Monthly Installments with Recipes, Romances, and Home Remedies

    Magical Realism is a key factor in Mexican fiction. It imagines otherwise realistic situations touched by magic both subtle and not. This bestseller from Mexico City-born author Laura Esquivel chronicles the culinary talents and bittersweet romance of Tita, the youngest daughter of a wealthy rancher destined to remain single and care for her aging mother even as she is forced to watch the man she loves marry her sister.

  • The cover of the book The Book of Lamentations

    The Book of Lamentations

    Poet and author Rosario Castellanos is one of the most important voices to come out of twentieth-century Mexican literature and The Book of Lamentations is among her best work. In this sweeping and epic novel, Castellanos draws on real historical events to craft a fictional Mayan uprising in the highlands of Mexico in the 1930s. It is a complex and often painful read offering a devastating view into the class system and political turmoil that defined much of Mexico’s history.

  • The cover of the book Natural Histories

    Natural Histories

    Guadalupe Nettel is one of the most original and celebrated voices in contemporary Mexican fiction. Through the series of five short stories in her collection Natural Histories, Nettel uses the relationships between humans and their pets to examine the human condition in ways that are spellbinding, unsettling, and wholly original.

  • The cover of the book The House on Mango Street

    The House on Mango Street

    The immigrant experience has had a strong effect on and holds a prominent place in contemporary Mexican literature. Born in Chicago to Mexican parents, Sandra Cisneros’s writings explore the formation of her Chicana identity and the push and pull of straddling two cultures as an immigrant. The House on Mango Street is arguably her best-known work and tells the story of young Latina girl coming of age in Chicago.

  • The cover of the book Among Strange Victims

    Among Strange Victims

    In Among Strange Victims, Daniel Saldana Paris crafts a tale that is one part Kafkaesque and one part surreal comedy. Centering on Rodrigo, an underachieving twenty-something in a tepid marriage, the novel chronicles Rodrigo’s misadventures – an obsession with chicken in a vacant lot, friendship with a hustling Spanish academic, and forays into hypnosis, to name a few.

  • The cover of the book The Death of Artemio Cruz

    The Death of Artemio Cruz

    The late Carlos Fuentes is among the most celebrated and influential authors in Mexican literature and The Death of Artemio Cruz is, arguably, his seminal work. Originally published in 1962, the novel is a sweeping chronicle of the life of a fictional Mexican newspaper magnate. Beginning on the deathbed of Artemio Cruz, the story unfolds in a series of flashbacks recalling Cruz’s time as a soldier in the Mexican Revolution, his climb to wealth as a newspaper man, and the pivotal moments in between. Through Cruz, Fuentes creates an insightful and haunting examination of post-Revolution Mexican culture.