Thursday, May 23, 2024

Mexico’s classic novels: Must-read books to add to your reading list

Looking to update your reading list? It’s the second month of 2024 (already) and many of us included “read more books” in our resolutions this new year. Reading the books is one thing, but knowing which books to read is a whole other problem. 

Here is our list of must-read Mexican classics that everyone should have on their shelves. While you were in high school, reading The Great Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Color Purple, Little Women, or Moby Dick, this is what Mexican students were reading. 

Whether you live in Mexico, are interested in Mexican culture, or simply want to add to your general knowledge, these books will give you a taste of Mexico’s greatest authors. If you’re looking for a more challenging read instead, why not browse through our list of Mexican authors that will take you out of your comfort zone? 

Pedro Páramo by Juan Rulfo

One of the best-known Mexican books, Pedro Páramo is considered by many to be one of the first works of Latin American magical realism. It was published in 1955 and is one of only two novels ever written by the father of Mexican literature, Juan Rulfo.

After his mother’s death, Juan Preciado decides to visit the ghost town of Comala and find his father, Pedro Páramo. The novel tells two stories: Juan’s journey to meet his father to denounce his and his mother’s abandonment, and Pedro’s own story of power and corruption during the Revolution. 

Why you need to read this: More than just a Mexican cultural staple, Pedro Páramo is a love poem to magical realism, mystique, and adventure. The book is like having a very vivid and complex dream that you’ll remember for years to come. 

There are over 30 translations of this work, however the amount of “Mexicanisms” it contains warrants a reading in Spanish (eventually!). 

Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel

In the 1980s, people thought magical realism had come to an end, but boy were they wrong. Laura Esquivel published Like Water for Chocolate in 1989, and it went on to become one of the most important works of Latin American literature ever created. 

This beautiful novel tells the story of Tita, the last daughter of the De la Garza family. Being the youngest and following family tradition, she’s destined to take care of her mother right until the day of her death, sacrificing love or a family of her own. 

Mirroring Tita’s devotion to cooking, every chapter of this novel starts with a recipe. Esquivel plays around with traditional dishes, flavors, feelings, and ingredients to envelop the story of a traditional family told through the eyes of a hopeless romantic culinarian who ends up falling in love. 

Why you should read this: If cooking is your love language, or you frequently think about the halfway point between food and love – this book is for you. 

The Memories of the Future by Elena Garro

The Memories of the Future is set in the fictitious town of Ixtepec during post-revolutionary Mexico. What makes this such a wonderful piece of work is its unconventional narrator: the town of Ixtepec itself. 

The town lives in a melancholy state of fear, experiencing both the trial and tribulations of military ruler Francisco Rosas, who has taken control of the town’s government and the life of the Moncada siblings. 

The Memories of the Future has been described novel that feels like a poem. 

Why you should read this: Elena Garro is sometimes known as “Octavio Paz’s wife,” a title that does her no justice. If feminism plays an important role in your media consumption, you need to read Garro’s work. 

Aura by Carlos Fuentes

The book tells the story of Felipe Montero, a young historian hired by Doña Consuelo to organize and write down her late husband’s memoirs. Felipe, who worked as a professor with a very low salary, will be paid a handsome sum by the old lady – under the condition that he lives in her house until the work is completed.

Set in Mexico City in 1962, this gothic-inspired novel is less than 100 pages long and considered one of Fuentes’s best works. 

Why you should read this: Aura is written completely in the second person point of view, making you, the reader, an intrinsic and exciting part of the story.

Confabulario and Other Inventions by Juan José Arreola

Arreola was one of the most prolific authors of his generation. He was deeply connected to Mexico and its cultural influences. He published Confabulario, his second work, in 1952. It consists of a collection and short stories that touch on the love, solitude, and frustration of modern humanity, told with a comedic, ordinary and sometimes absurdist touch.

Why you should read this: It’s considered a 20th-century Mexican literary masterpiece. If you like short stories that achieve more than some full-length books do, in less than 5 pages, Confabulario is for you. 

Balún Canán by Rosario Castellanos

Balún Canán was Rosario Castellanos’s first novel, published in 1957. It’s considered one of the pillars of the native “Indigenist” literature movement within Mexico – and an early example of Mexican feminist writing.

Castellano set her novel in Chiapas, where she was born and raised. It narrates the decline of Chiapan landowners, especially the Argüello family, triggered by agrarian reform laws during the Lázaro Cárdenas presidency of the 1930s. The story discusses the clash between white settlers and indigenous communities and the injustices that resulted. 

Why you should read this: If you want to learn more about racial and social issues in Mexico that are sometimes ignored in the modern era, this book is essential reading. Making it yet more intriguing, some consider this novel to be partly autobiographical, as Castellanos herself experienced some of what she narrates in her book.

The Labyrinth of Solitude by Octavio Paz

The Labyrinth of Solitude is a collection of 9 essays published in 1950. In it, Nobel Prize winner Paz sought to grasp and define the essence of the Mexican people – individually and collectively. He ponders through different historical events (going back as far as the Aztecs) that gifted, according to him, a certain quality of pessimism, alongside other characteristics, to Mexican society. 

Why you should read this: Paz provides an invaluable insight into the history, morals, and ideals that give Mexicans their identity. Although understanding the full essence of a foreign culture is quite impossible, reading this book will definitely leave you better than when you started, no matter your own identity or background.

Montserrat Castro Gómez is a freelance writer and translator from Querétaro, México.


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