Mexico’s History, Past and Present, through Books

“History endures in Mexico. No one has died here, despite the killings and the executions. They are alive – Cuauhtémoc, Cortes, Maximilian, Don Porfirio, and all the conquerors and all the conquered. That is Mexico’s special quality. The whole past is a pulsing present. It has not gone by, it has stopped in its tracks.”

José Moreno Villa

By Carole Reedy

Despite the endless options for looking up information online, many of us still prefer to read books to gain a sense of history. In keeping with this issue’s theme, I offer here with brief descriptions books that over the years have helped me understand our dear Mexico today. Many have been mentioned in this column over the past seven years because of the authors’ keen insights and grasp of Mexico past and present.

I’ve tried to mix up this list a bit with books about the far past to the very-present. Some are novels and some non-fiction. Whatever the subject matter, style, or structure, all are compelling, important, and written by the finest authors of our time.

MEXICO: BIOGRAPHY OF POWER, A History of Modern Mexico 1810-1996, by Enrique Krauze

Enrique Krauze is a household name in Mexico, a man who is a literary and historical author of more than 20 books and 300 programs and documentaries about the history of his country. This 800-page tome is well worth purchasing to have in your library, not only to slowly absorb the stories of the power of the country’s leaders, but also to understand the church’s dominance during the 19th and 20th centuries. The individual biographies, along with the history told through each life, will give you pause for reflection into that time and how it shaped the Mexico in which we now live.

THE WIND THAT SWEPT MEXICO: THE HISTORY OF THE MEXICAN REVOLUTION OF 1910-1942, by Anita Brenner The Mexican Revolution is one of the most written-about events in Mexico. This rendition, penned in 1943, remains in print due to its spirited text, which is short and highly opinionated. Another reason for its success are the 184 photographs assembled by George Leighton (whose source is mainly photographs from newspapers) that cover the major events and people, rich and poor, who were part of this grand history of politics, corruption, and change. There is also a PBS video series of the book available on DVD from Amazon. One critic said, “It made me change my mind about who were the true Mexican heroes and who were the bandits.”

FIRST STOP IN THE NEW WORLD: MEXICO CITY, THE CAPITAL OF THE 21ST CENTURY by David Lida

Lida has been mentioned in this column many times over the past few years, but this guide to the unknown (even sleazy) side of Mexico is still a favorite. Lida has settled in a city even bigger than his native New York, and he takes to it like a fish to water. Each chapter reveals a unique section of the city that you probably haven’t encountered before.

THE MAN WHO LOVED DOGS, by Leonardo Padura

This popular novel (which I reviewed in last month’s column) includes the history not only of Mexico, but of the Spanish Civil War and the Russian Revolution, with tidbits of other movements and countries included as well. The ominous beginning finds Trotsky in exile in Siberia, and the story finishes in the equally mysterious Cuba. The novel itself follows the lives of both Trotsky and his assassin Ramon Mercader. It’s all-encompassing and thrillingly full of detail, wrapped in a brilliant structure.

THE LAST PRINCE OF THE MEXICAN EMPIRE, by C.M. Mayo

This is one of several books written about Mexico by Mayo, who is also a translator and editor of contemporary Mexican literature. In this epic novel we learn about the short, tragic reign of the Emperor Maximilian, a fascinating part of Mexico’s history. On your next visit to Mexico City, be sure to take an afternoon to visit Chapultepec Castle on Reforma Avenue, where the Emperor and Carlota lived, another place chock full of history. Mexico Connect, a popular website, says in its review of the book: “I have read a few sweeping historical novels that have remained inside of me forever. Tolstoy’s War and Peace is one of those. Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities is another, Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago is another, and now The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire is another.” Now there’s an achievement!

WHERE THE AIR IS CLEAR, by Carlos Fuentes

Upon the fairly recent death of Carlos Fuentes, Mexicans felt cheated, not only for the number of books he yet may have given us, but because he had not yet won The Nobel Prize for Literature, which everyone was certain he’d be awarded eventually. Fuentes had a diverse education and life as a diplomat before his writing career took off, and probably this contributed to his ability to discreetly relate our Mexico with the rest of the world. Where the Air is Clear is Fuentes’ first novel, written in 1958. It was a huge success at the time and continues to this day to be one of his most popular books. This novel is made up of vignettes from Mexico City that show the inequality and corruption of this grandest of cities. Although the story revolves around the life of one man, a revolutionary-turned-financier, it is as much about the city itself as it is the main character.

THE LABYRINTH OF SOLITUDE by Octavio Paz Paz did win the Nobel Prize for Literature. The Labyrinth of Solitude is probably his most famous and popular book. Any foreigner living in Mexico should read it for its insights into the Mexican character, for it will help you grasp the source of the Mexican jokes and lifestyles, as well as the habits and idiosyncrasies of your neighbors.

THE INTERIOR CIRCUIT: A MEXICO CITY CHRONICLE,

by Francisco Goldman

Recently Goldman has been writing essays about Mexico for The New Yorker and other publications, specifically about Mexico City with the myriad problems a population of more than 20 million presents daily. Interior Circuit is the account of Goldman’s attempt to conquer the streets and colonias of the megalopolis while learning to drive. Each day he sets out for a new location. While you’re on the adventure with him, you’ll get to know the intricacies of the city, including its nefarious politics. Definitely a compelling read.

PRAYERS FOR THE STOLEN, by Jennifer Clement

This is a heart-wrenching book, though not in a sentimental sense. Based on Clement’s research, it relates the story of the women in a small, abandoned town an hour outside of glitzy Acapulco on the hillsides of the state of Guerrero. It’s a town that leaves its women vulnerable because their men have gone north to work. It tells the tale of one woman and her daughter who struggle to live in poverty amongst the narcos. They are strong and determined, but the circumstances are grim and opportunities limited. Clement is a well-known author who is now the president of PEN International.

DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE: A NOVEL,

by Juan Pablo Villalobos

This quite unusual short first novel was long-listed for The Guardian’s First-Book Award. Its dark yet humorous story is told from the vantage point of a narco’s son. Nicholas Lezar in The Guardian writes: “If you’re going to have an imprisoned child narrate a novel, then not so much as a word should be out of place. There are no such slips in Juan Pablo Villalobos’ debut novella. We have here a control over the material which is so tight it is almost claustrophobic. This is a novel about failing to understand the bigger picture, and in its absence we can see it more clearly.”

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