A few months back, an American friend who was thinking of moving to Mexico’s Baja California region recounted her experience of home-hunting with a real estate agent.
She’d explained to the agent in advance that she is the kind of person who really immerses herself in local culture, so she wasn’t looking for a luxury condo or a gated community.
Nonetheless, when she arrived in Baja, my friend was given a tour of condos where Mexican maids come in and fold towels in elaborate shapes– swans, flowers, and all manner of objects that appear impossible to my own fumbling fingers. The agent explained, with some degree of pride, that American expats had created these lovely gated communities where they could “be assured of water and electricity.”
The local Mexicans, meanwhile, had to haul buckets to a water truck a few times a week–if it came rolling through town at all–to source water, as the American expats had diverted the water to their own neighborhood.
My friend talked about her meeting with the expats, who complained about the loud music of locals, explained that their community policy prohibited Mexicans from living amongst them because “they have a ton of people in one home,” warned about going to the “Mexican” store for food rather than the “American” store, and who proudly flaunted the fact that they spoke little or no Spanish.
I’ve been thinking about these folks as I immerse myself in Mexico’s classical and contemporary literature, which has a rich, respectable, and long history. If I could recommend a few books American expats in Mexico should read, they’d include:
–Instrucciones Para Vivir en Mexico: by Jorge Ibarguengoitia
Translated literally, the title means Instructions for Living in Mexico. Far from being a how-to book, the late Ibarguengoitia, a journalist, brought his astute and acerbic wit to the page in order to offer a close-up examination on Mexican life. Though many of the short essays (most no more than 2 pages) were written in the 1970s, they remain powerfully relevant today. My favorite essays are in the section about bureaucracy and an essay about Mexican car horns. This book is great for the American who really wants to get beneath the surface of Mexican social and political life; it’s historical without being overly didactic, and it’s often quite funny.
–The Mexico Reader: History, Culture, Politics (The Latin America Readers): This anthology, published by Duke University Press, is a sweeping yet comprehensive overview of some of the most important historical and literary documents from Mexico’s history. The book is great to pull off a shelf and open to any page; consider it your daily lesson in Mexican history and culture. It’s also in English, so you’ve got no language barrier excuses!
–Africa en Mexico: by Marco Polo Hernandez Cuevas
Not all Mexicans know about the Afro-Mexican populations that live in Mexico’s coastal areas, but Marco Polo Hernandez Cuevas, a professor, specializes in the subject and has written several books about Afro-Mexicans. This one, in Spanish, is a great primer on the subject.
There are numerous other books I’d recommend, including cookbooks, art books, and memoirs, but these are a great start for the American who has recently arrived in Mexico. With the exception of The Mexico Reader, these books can be tough to find in the U.S. and online. In Mexico City, check the bookstore in the Palacio de Bellas Artes and the bookstore at the Cineteca Nacional, both of which have an extensive and impressive collection.
Are you an American expat in Mexico? What books would you add to this list?
Photo: Texas to Mexico (creative commons)