As you may have suspected, the life of a freelance writer is no cake walk. But there are perks. Like getting free books in the mail. The other day I received the latest from Tony Burton, Mexican Kaleidoscope: Myths, Mysteries, and Mystique. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but I have high hopes. Burton is one of the best. Which got me thinking about my favorite Mexico books and reminded me that it’s been some time since I contributed to From the Stacks*.
Today’s topic: Gringos writing about Mexico
Ever since John Reed jumped on a horse to ride with Pancho Villa, foreigners have been attempting to solve the riddle of Mexico. If you know Mexico, you know that’s not something that can be accomplished by those who travel the beaten path. Luckily for us readers, plenty of writers have answered the call and devoted lifetimes to Mexico’s back alleys and back roads. Here’s a few particularly notable books from gringos who went that extra mile.
El Monstruo by John Ross
Beat poet John Ross moved to Mexico City in 1957 and eventually took a room in the crumbling Hotel Isabel. For 64 years, he collected stories from the streets of the Centro Historico. El Monstruo is his ode to the city he loved best. Drawing from street gossip, interviews with local characters, dusty news archives, and the writings of the city’s finest scholars and troublemakers, Ross has created a masterwork that is at once a colorful left-wing diatribe, a serious work of scholarship, and a hell of a story.
Here’s my further ramblings on this topic.
Alcohol in Ancient Mexico by Harry J. Bruman
Originally published in 1940 as as a P.h.D dissertation, Alcohol in Ancient Mexico is one of the earliest works of scholarship on one of my favorite topics. To study brewing traditions and folkways, Bruman spent years tramping through the back country. The book includes chapters on pulque, tesquino, and mezcal, as well as explorations of more obscure indigenous beverages such as Yucatecan balché bark mead and toad-infused chicha. Fascinating appendixes called things like “checklist of intoxicating beverages” are also a pleasure to peruse. As you may gather, Alcohol in Ancient Mexico is pretty much for nerds only…But if you’re a brew nerd or a serious student of Mexican culture, Bruman is your guy.
Here’s my long-form review.
Life in Mexico by Fanny Calderon de la Barca
In 1840 Fanny Calderon de la Barca moved to Mexico with her husband, the first Spanish ambassador to a newly independent Mexico. Fanny was born in Scotland and spent her adult life in the United States, and this book of vivid and amusing letters offers 19th C Mexico through the eyes of an interested and respectful outsider. From upper crust gossip to detailed descriptions of food, buildings, and clothing, this is truly an amazing foray into the past.
A History of Mexico by Henry Bamford Parkes
The book that turned me into a history nerd. Written in 1938 (but later updated and revised), A History of Mexico captures the weird, the wild, and the wicked. In Parkes’ able hands, history is stories, lively and peppered with humorous turns of phrase. Long out of print but well worth finding.
Journalist John Reed rode with Pancho Villa and wrote this book about it. Need I say more?
Stay tuned for the next installment, on Mexican historians.
*If you’re new:
As travel writers and folk art experts, my parents began collecting books on Mexico in the 1960s, and I’ve continued the family tradition. My bookshelves bulge with Mexico books–from classics like El Laberinto de Soledad to obscure travel pamphlets from the 1930s. From the Stacks is my ongoing exploration of these shelves.