Read Your Way Through Mexico City

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Juan Villoro, who spent over two decades perfecting one book about Mexico City, recommends reading on the city he loves. “Mexico is too complex,” a visitor said. “It needs to be read.”
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This story is part of a series exploring the world through books. We’ve asked some of our favorite writers to recommend reading that helps you get to know their cities — from Stockholm to Mexico City to Cairo and beyond. Explore the whole series here.
Álvaro Pombo, a Spanish author, came to Mexico City in 2004. He’d written a novel that took place during the religious revolts of early 20th century Mexico, and wanted to know what the country he’d studied in books was like, he said.
So he installed himself in a hotel in the city center and went for a walk. He saw the murals of the Palacio Nacional, the Aztec dancers outside the cathedral, the ruins of the Templo Mayor and the skulls alluding to human sacrifice. Later, he toured a street market filled with a baroque assortment of fruit, animals and Chinese goods. He bought a nail clipper that immediately fell apart in his hands, breathed air charged with chiles and spice, saw people who looked like they’d walked out of a Frida Kahlo painting, heard a trumpet blare and finally decided to return to his hotel.
Overwhelmed, he picked up the phone and called me.
“Mexico is too complex to understand with the naked eye,” he said. “It needs to be read.”
Let’s start with the 16th century. Already an old man, the former soldier Bernal Díaz del Castillo wrote “The True History of the Conquest of New Spain” in an attempt to reap with his pen the rewards that had eluded him with the sword. As a narrator, he lacks the necessary vocabulary to describe this unknown civilization, opting for a perspective of bewilderment. He shows that it’s possible to describe with passion even what we don’t fully understand.
In the 17th century, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz was the pre-eminent author of the Spanish language. Her “Selected Works” reveal a poet with interests in astronomy, theology, gastronomy, dreams, urban life and gender inequality: “Foolish men who accuse women without reason,” she writes in one poem. Sor Juana entered the convent of the Hieronymite nuns because it was the only way she could exercise her intellectual vocation. Even so, she was censored and forced into silence in her later years. Describing a flood in the capital, she wrote that the water covering Mexico City’s streets was, in reality, a baptism. Her poetry is a comparable deluge.
In the 20th century, our culture took up an extreme sport: defining what it means to be Mexican. A standout example is “The Labyrinth of Solitude,” by Octavio Paz. Published in 1950, Paz’s essay endures for its imaginative associations and musical prose, though it is contentious: Some anthropologists and historians consider his definition of Mexicanness to be Manichaean and contrived. The same can be said of “Where the Air Is Clear,” Carlos Fuentes’s 1958 novel that features Mexico City as its protagonist. When the book was written, the capital had around five million inhabitants and could still sit for a portrait as a whole. Today, you would need a conference of authors to fully capture the metropolitan area’s 20 to 23 million residents — our margin of error alone is the size of a European city. Although Fuentes’s chorus of colloquial voices has aged, the book remains a foundational work on the Mexican capital.
Jack Kerouac once wrote a letter to his friend William S. Burroughs asking if it was dangerous to travel to Mexico. Burroughs, who was living in the country at the time, answered roundly, “Don’t worry: Mexicans only kill their friends.”
Many foreigners have benefited from Mexico City’s peculiar hospitality, where hell is mixed with heaven. Close to the capital, in Cuernavaca, Malcolm Lowry encountered the delusions that allowed him to write his powerful saga of the mind, Under the Volcano. D.H. Lawrence bore witness to the moment that Aztec idols were disinterred like emissaries from a different time. Lawrence’s Mexican novel, “The Plumed Serpent,” can’t match his short stories or “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” but it nonetheless offers an impressive record of the ways in which an ancient past still influences the present.
In The Savage Detectives,” the Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño, who had deep roots in Mexico City, suggests that there is no more poetic act than that of life itself, but finding enlightenment requires you to live in a new way. Bolaño’s poets are secret investigators of experience: savage detectives, indeed.
Describing Mexico to the rhythm of a highway has always been a literary temptation. When former President Donald J. Trump declared that Mexicans were a threat to the United States, the American writer Paul Theroux — the dean of travel writing — decided to meet his alleged enemy. Having spent a lifetime boarding trains around the globe, Theroux crisscrossed Mexico by car until he reached the Zapatistas in Chiapas. The result, On the Plain of Snakes,” is a brilliant travelogue.
Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season deals with the violence that has devastated Mexico, leaving us with a death toll akin to that of a civil war. According to Reporters Without Borders, Mexico is one of the most dangerous countries in the world in which to be a journalist. Melchor shows that the most terrible news can only be delivered in a novel.
Valeria Luiselli reconstructs the microcosm of a working-class neighborhood in The Story of My Teeth.” Originally written to accompany an exhibit in an urban art gallery, the novel traces the map of a deteriorated suburb and reinvents it through its imaginary inhabitants.
In the second half of the 20th century, Carlos Monsiváis operated as a nonstop chronicler, a one-man press agency covering all the layers of reality. “Mexican Postcards” is a collection of his best work. One of his obsessions was trying to understand the irresistible magnetism of Mexico City; its pollution and danger do little to prevent people from being drawn to a place so full of energy. A Monsiváis aphorism sums up the passion of belonging to this urban labyrinth: “The worst nightmare is the one that excludes us.”
It was in that spirit that I wrote Horizontal Vertigo: A City Called Mexico.” The product of 25 years of writing, the book attempts to recreate a city that, despite its apparent dehumanization, remains a cherished place in which to live. On the last page I write, “You belong to the place where you pick up the trash.” It’s easy to be proud of a city’s palaces and glories: The true test of belonging is being willing to deal with its waste.
It is no accident that the truest face of a chilango — an inhabitant of Mexico City — appears in the wake of disaster. After the earthquakes of 1985 and 2017, Mexico City residents became a rescue team, proving that the rubble and ruins were ours. In “Nothing, Nobody,” Elena Poniatowska collects the testimonies of those who lived through the 1985 quake. She brings the same rigor to “Massacre in Mexico,” which features voices of survivors of the Oct. 2, 1968, tragedy, when police officers and the military opened fire on unarmed students in Tlatelolco Plaza. In both books, Poniatowska reaffirms that heroism in Mexico is a fact of daily life.
In 1977, Fernando del Paso wrote an encyclopedic novel that takes place in the center of the capital, called “Palinuro of Mexico,” which follows a medical student during the student movement of 1968. As he learns anatomy, he also discovers connections with the other body that surrounds him: Mexico City itself.
This organic appropriation of the urban landscape was more recently explored in The Body Where I Was Born,” by Guadalupe Nettel. Her protagonist lives in the Olympic Village, a housing complex built for athletes to use during the 1968 Olympics that was later transformed into a compound for exiled Chileans and Argentines. The narrator feels alienated from her own body, and identifies an unsettling correlation between her unstable identity and the neighborhood of misfits.
In The Mutations, Jorge Comensal adds humor to this literary trend. His main character is a lawyer who loses the power to speak because of tongue cancer. A parrot becomes his confidante, leaving the man who once litigated in court silenced by his body and reliant on another species to express himself.
In the south of the city, the immense Librería Gandhi, which just celebrated a half-century since its opening, has served as a substitute university for multiple generations. In the city center, Donceles Street is full of old bookstores where luck and curiosity can lead to miraculous discoveries.
Translated by Benjamin Russell.
“The True History of the Conquest of New Spain,” Bernal Díaz del Castillo
“Selected Works,” Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz
“The Labyrinth of Solitude,” Octavio Paz
“Where the Air Is Clear,” Carlos Fuentes
“Under the Volcano,” Malcolm Lowry
“The Plumed Serpent,” D.H. Lawrence
“The Savage Detectives,” Roberto Bolaño
“On the Plain of Snakes,” Paul Theroux
“Hurricane Season,” Fernanda Melchor
“The Story of My Teeth,” Valeria Luiselli
“Mexican Postcards,” Carlos Monsiváis
“Horizontal Vertigo: A City Called Mexico,” Juan Villoro
“Nothing, Nobody” and “Massacre in Mexico,” Elena Poniatowska
“Palinuro of Mexico,” Fernando del Paso
“The Body Where I Was Born,” Guadalupe Nettel
“The Mutations,” Jorge Comensal
Juan Villoro’s award-winning writing crosses genres and includes “The Reef,” a dystopian novel about tourism that is being adapted for television, and “The Wild Book,” about a book that refuses to be read, which has been translated into more than 10 languages and is being adapted into a movie by the actor and director Gael García Bernal.
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