Books About Native Mexican Cultural History

By Carole Reedy

An integral part of the travel adventure is anticipating your journey, which often includes studying the local culture before even stepping onto the tarmac. Not only do we want a glimpse into the physical world we’re entering, we want to know something of how it got that way.  

Many of us experience and learn through fiction, especially historical fiction, which can make learning more palatable. So…you’re going to Mexico. Along with your trusty travel guide, pick up a copy of Michener’s classic Mexico (offering an overview of the country’s history and geography in Michener’s classic grand style), Gary Jennings’ Aztec (and maybe even the sequels Aztec Autumn and Aztec Blood), and a copy of Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate, to get a taste of that most integral element of travel: food.

A recent novel of Esquivel’s, titled Malinche, examines the relationship between an Indian woman and the conqueror Cortes. None of these is great literature, but you’re already getting a feel for your destination.

In that spirit, here’s a brief list, supplemented with commentary, of some highly readable non-fiction literature that provides introspection into the human nature of the residents of Mexico through their colorful, exotic history. The first two are written in Spanish, with excellent English translations available. English speakers conversant in Spanish will manage them with ease. Do give it a try.

THE TRUE HISTORY OF THE CONQUEST OF NEW SPAIN (La historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España) by Bernal Diaz de Castillo. A very long and detailed but readable account of the arrival of the Spanish to the shores of Veracruz in 1519 and their journey to Tenochtitlan, the present-day Mexico City. This tale is told from the perspective of personal experience.

THE LABYRINTH OF SOLITUDE (El laberinto de la soledad) by Nobel Prize winner Octavio Paz. One of our most beloved poets and essayists has written seven essays that attempt to explain the Mexican mind to outsiders by exploring the plight of the Indian cultures in relation to the Spanish invaders.


Edited by Gilbert M. Joseph and Timothy J. Henderson. This is a good place to either start or complete your reading preparation for Mexican travel. Eight hundred pages containing 100 essays make up this popular anthology, filled with a diverse selection of texts on Mexican history and culture, from meetings between Pancho Villa and Zapata to Montezuma and Cortes. Different points of view on a topic are presented, offering the reader not only solid information, but also the chance to pause and reflect.

THE CLOUD PEOPLE: DIVERGENT EVOLUTION by Ken Flannery and Joyce Marcus. This is a heavy read, but well worth it as it’s a thorough treatment of the evidence and a major resource on Oaxacan prehistory.

MEXICO: FROM THE OLMECS TO THE AZTECS by Michael C. Coe. This companion to Coe’s best selling THE MAYAS is recognized as one of the most readable and authentic introductions to the ancients. This seventh edition is full of new findings, including the solution to the origin of maize farming. It’s organized chronologically and is archeologically oriented to the sites of the Aztecs, Olmecs, Toltecs, and Zapotecs. It’s been described as an essential book to read while planning a visit to the various archeological sites in Mexico.

ZAPOTEC WEAVERS by Andra Fischgrund Staton. Before visiting the unique town of Teotitlán de Valle, outside Oaxaca City, be sure to read this well written, deeply cultural treatment of the Zapotec rug weavers. It analyzes the social aspects of the family while offering an explanation of the weavers’ methods, including basic information about construction, design, and the dyes used. There are outstanding photographs and a “where to buy” section.

ZAPOTEC WOMEN: GENDER, CLASS, ETHNICITY IN GLOBALIZED OAXACA by Lynn Stephen. This new second edition has more than 70 fresh pages of narrative, photos, and tables. It’s regarded as a classic in the field as a complete analysis of these strong women.

THE MAYA WORLD by Demetrio Sodi Morales, A GUIDE TO MEXICAN ARCHAEOLOGY by Román Piña Chan, and OAXACA, THE ARCHAELOGICAL RECORD by Marcus Winter are all published by Minutiae Mexicana in a series called Indian People of Mexico. These are small books are written in English and available for less than five dollars each on Amazon.

A must-visit for those who become enchanted with the various Indian cultures of Mexico is a trip (or two or three) to the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, located in the lovely Chapultepec Park. Here each culture is given a section of its own. It’s impossible to see everything in a single day, so block out sufficient time in your schedule for at least two visits. The Oaxacan portion at the back is especially interesting, and don’t miss the second floor with its native dress and adornments. An outdoor restaurant on the lower level offers a welcome respite between cultures!

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