In Search of the Mexican Identity: Must-Reads

By Carole Reedy

Reading opens a doorway into the character of the culture and history of a country. But something more: We want to understand why people act the way they do, what’s going on in their minds, what provides the impetus for their actions. Here are a few books recommended by both Mexicans and foreigners living in Mexico. Ideally, you’ll read in Spanish the ones written originally in Spanish, but these books also have been beautifully translated into English.

The Labyrinth of Solitude (including the essay “Post Data”) by Octavio Paz

To unravel layers of the Mexican identity, start with this book. Find the edition published after 1975 (the first edition was published in 1950), because it includes an essay titled “Post Data,” about the 1968 massacre of hundreds of students by the Mexican government. The entire collection offers a look into the Mexican character, formed over the years in light of the pre-Columbian and Spanish cultures. Paz, 1990 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, considered himself first a poet, but he’s remembered for his role as an essayist and diplomat. He is beloved in Mexico, known as “the quintessential surveyor, a Dante’s Virgil, a Renaissance Man.”

First stop in the New World, Mexico City: The Capital of the Twenty First Century by David Lida

David Lida loves Mexico City, the place he’s called home for the past 20 years. In each chapter of this book, Lida confronts the various paradoxes of this megalopolis through the eyes of the chilangos (citizens of Mexico City) to provide striking insight not found in guide books. Open this book and peruse the streets and neighborhoods of the city to discover what it means to be a chilango.

Also, don’t miss Lida’s text and picture book, Mexico D.F. Then and Now, a street-level panorama of the development and changes in the biggest city in the Western Hemisphere. It makes a great gift, too.

Sliced Iguana by Isabella Tree

Scanning the table of contents, you might think, “Nothing new here: Mexico City, San Miguel de Allende, Juchitán, Chiapas, Pátzcuaro, and Huichol Country.” But you’d be wrong. For these chapters about well-known places are rich in littleknown stories and facts. Most impressive is the writing style of Tree. “She has a fine sense of the poetic, the metaphoric, and the ironic, but it never impedes the flow of the prose” (review in Mexico City News).

On Mexican Time by Tony Cohan

Armed with the desire for a new, different life, Tony Cohan and his wife sold their Los Angeles home and started over in the charming 16th century hill town of San Miguel de Allende. This is a story of discovery, not just of Mexico but of themselves. Anyone who has built a house in Mexico will chuckle and sigh in sympathy. Where the Air Is Clear by Carlos Fuentes Fuentes’ popular first novel, a portrayal of upper class Mexico City through the eyes of a variety of characters in a contemporary setting, is filled with Mexican myth and spirit, stories of corruption and inequality, the rural historical past haunting them. This list is a mere crumb to nibble as you begin your reading into the Mexican mind and way of life.

Other suggestions include Pedro Páramo by Juan Ruflo, Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lawry, Distant Neighbors by Alan Riding, The Children of Sanchez by Oscar Lewis…and many more to be discussed in further columns. ¡DISFRUTA!

Comments, questions and suggestions are appreciated.