A city on the verge of greatness, a monstrosity on the verge of collapse. A vibrant playground of sights and smells, a chaotic urban mess. Each of these descriptions of Mexico City holds some truth. It’s a place both loved and hated by its inhabitants, with a new generation touting its possibilities and an old one mourning its greatness lost. Both its detractors and supporters would probably agree that it is a place that beguiles the urge to understand and resists the facility to be labeled. And yet there are hundreds of books about Mexico City that continue to try.
The more time I spend here the more I reach out to my fellow residents (both past and present) to contemplate the things about the city that seem to make no sense, the complex interworking of systems, the inequities and the overabundance. Along the way I have found many books about Mexico City that have been vital in breaking it all down, understanding the city in its various reincarnations and from its myriad of angles. My Mexico City reading list continues to grow, but here is a start:
First Stop in the New World – David Lida (Non-fiction)
This book served as my introduction to Mexico City and while it can be said that Lida’s stats and statements written almost 6 years ago are outdated in some regards, the way this book describes and narrates the illusive city and its inhabitants still rings true. Many of his musings finally put words to how I feel about this city, including: “Perhaps because of the stratospheric prices of real estate, it is increasingly harder to be surprised by anything in New York, Paris, or London, yet Mexico City is constantly improvising a new invention of itself.”
The book covers the beginnings of upscale Santa Fe as a toxic trash dump, the blurred gender lines of Lucha Libre matches and the city’s misleading reputation as a crime-ridden urban jungle. He posits that in a world that is increasingly focused around megalopolises and a North America that is becomingly increasingly Latino, Mexico City will only continue to grow as a cultural, culinary and economic star to become the capital of the 21st century. His unswerving love for the city is coupled with a critical eye to its struggles and anomalies. Lida provides his own list of go-to Mexico City literature at the end of his book, much more complete than mine, if you want some more suggestions for getting to know city on your own terms.
The Interior Circuit: A Mexico City Chronicle (el Circuito Interior) – Francisco Goldman (Memoir)
It’s been five years since the tragic death of Goldman’s wife Aura Estrada and in an attempt to trigger a new start for his life in Mexico City he decides that during the summer of 2014 he will take on the roads of DF and finally learn to drive in the city. Along with a diary of his trials and tribulations taking on roundabouts and grinding gears, the book tells the story of the recent history of Mexico City, covering the #YoSoy132 movement, narco violence, and the succession of majors that changed the city’s course in history.
While I love all of that, the real draw for me is Goldman’s delicious descriptions of the city: “A mysterious energy seems to silently thrum from the ground, from restless volcanic earth, but it is also produced, I like to think, by the pavement-pounding footsteps of the millions upon millions who labor every day in the city, by their collective breathing and all that mental scheming, life here for most being a steadfastly confronted and often brutal daily challenge, mined with potential treachery but also, in the best cases, opportunity, one sometimes hiding inside the other as in the shell game; also by love, desire, and not so secret sexual secretiveness, the air seems to silently jangle with all that, it’s like you breathe it in and feel suddenly enamored or just horny; so much energy that in the late afternoons I don’t even need coffee.”
Where the Air Is Clear (La Región Más Transparente) — Carlos Fuentes
Carlos Fuentes’ first novel, La Región Más Transparente, is a novel filled with Mexico City characters — bankers, prostitutes, every day people — all floating through the massive concrete jungle on the life raft of Fuentes’ poetic sentences. Admittedly the book is better to read in Spanish, with all the slang and colloquialisms adding to the fantasy of actually sitting in the seat of a red and brown cab or watching the nights go on across the sea of rooftops, or smoking in a silent room with a Mexican aristocrat.
The English translation has a beatniky, Jack Kerouac quality to it, which blends the voices of the capital city’s residents with local traditions, Aztec myths, and the dirt, chaos and classicism that is post-revolutionary Mexico City. It’s a hefty read but worth it.
The Savage Detectives– Roberto Bolaño (Fiction)
Part memoir, part poetic manifesto, part aimless wander, The Savage Detectives follows the lives of two young poets in the 70s in Mexico City and tells their stories through the eyes of the writers, prostitutes, friends and lovers they encounter in their literary quest. They rove the streets of a city seen through the eyes of Bolaño in the late 60s, early 70s when he lived here and much of the plot and characters are taken directly from his life. These young poets and their entourage are not only on a search to find the elusive Cesárea Tinajero, the supposed mother of the Visceral Realists, but also for themselves and maybe the very heart of literature. Split into three sections, only the first centers on Mexico City in an intimate way, but the rest of the book is so good I recommend you keep reading. This is one of those novels that will have you enthralled, then wondering where’s it’s going, you’ll put it down for a few days, only to pick up later and realize you had been at the cusp of its most lucid moment and you’re obsessed all over again.
This guide is packed with practical information from a savvy source with over 20 years of experience living in the city. The book doesn’t sugarcoat Mexico City by any means, but instead showcases Jim’s ability to look beyond the noise and traffic and truly appreciate a magical urban landscape. I love this in the book’s intro: “You don’t come to relax or ‘get away from it all.’ You come to be seduced by a flourishing 700-year-old culture, by people whose hearts are easily opened, and by the sheer audacity of it all.”
The book starts out with some need-to-know basics of the city — taking cabs, tipping, where to stay, what various street foods are — and continues as a break down for each of the city’s main tourism areas through a series of walking maps. If you have been before or know the city you are bound to have hit a lot of the main points of interest that Jim mentions, but along with the highlights he suggests his favorite back alley taco stands, local galleries and odd-ball cultural stops that you might not know about. As there is no better way to get to know a city than to walk its streets, the organization of this guide is fitting for dissecting the monster, one neighborhood at a time.
Good food in Mexico city: Food Stalls, Fondas & Fine Dining – Nicholas Gilman
An invaluable eating guide for both locals and residents, Gilman’s guide is neatly divided into types of food (street stands, cantinas, fonda, upscale dining, market stalls, etc), includes a food glossary, and has two helpful indexes in the back of the book — food by location and food by nationality. There are some basic maps and a great section on shopping in the city, which is particularly helpful for residents or long-term visitors.
Despite a short intro on Mexican food and its history the book is mostly nuts and bolts, perfect for a reference book in my opinion. Even though I don’t always agree with his reviews, I go back to this book again and again for suggestions on the best places to eat in the city. Gilman is one of Mexico City’s more famous English-language food bloggers, and you can find his more elaborate culinary musings on his blog goodfoodmexicocity.com.
This book happens to be the very first book I ever read cover to cover in Spanish—that should say something about how much I love tacos. It has now been translated into various languages, including, of course, English, and is available on amazon.com. The book is divided into types of tacos (birria, barbacoa, guisados) with descriptions of how each type is made, a little bit of history and some general kitschy commentary. While not solely focused on Mexico City, you are likely to find at least one suggested stand or restaurant in the city on each of the “best of the best lists” for each taco type.
Mexico City’s vast culinary melting pot means that you can find all the country’s regional cuisine in the same place. This book is a necessary guide for anyone looking for deeper street food knowledge or who simply doesn’t want to make a fool of themselves when ordering.
Miscelánea (Spanish) – Marie-Aimeé Montalembert & Ángeles Ruenes
An 11-year project of Montalembert and Ruenes, Miscelánea is the most detailed guide of one of the most complex places in the city — the Centro Histórico. It’s over 700 pages cut up the Centro into its most obvious divisions, by products and services offered. The amount of photos alone will give you a sensory overload. Each shop on each street gets its own bragging page describing their cowboys hats from Mexico’s Bajio region or guayaberas from the Yucatan or religious statues and paraphernalia.
It’s not a book to carry around in your pocket nor to cart around in your bag, it’s not even really for tourists if I were to be honest. This book is more aimed at the Mexico City-obsessed, those of us lost to its magic, looking for deeper insight into the chaos of Mexico City’s downtown. Short vignettes introduce each area of the Centro Historico, providing cultural context and local folklore to go along with the meticulous reviews of shops and stands, information about their proprietors and a slew of intricate maps to help you wrap your head around all the information.
I stumbled upon this book in the refurbished Patio 77 B&B in San Rafael about a year or so ago. Described by its authors as “121 portraits of contemporary life in the Metropolitan Zone” this book is more a collection of short stories than a practical guide. Each short sketch of an experience inevitably leaves the reader with a handful of questions and unrealized desire to see it for themselves. From street art to religious processions, outdoor markets and circus performers, you’ll learn just enough about the city to know that you know nothing at all.
Written ten years ago, the guide is still a source of inspiration for seeing the city through a different kind of lens. It’s a bit of a mysterious item in its own regard. It’s out of stock in Amazon, I have never seen it in a regular bookstore here and when I asked to purchase it at Patio 77, they had to get in touch with the author to find out the price. If you get a chance to get your hands on it, don’t let go.
Mexico City Streets: La Roma — Lydia Carey
Last but surely not least, is my own guide to Colonia Roma. This book is a guide to one of Mexico City’s most vibrant and artistic neighborhoods. Written for both locals and tourists, it will help you navigate alleyways and barstools while at the same time providing practical information about life as a Roma resident. A behind-the-scenes look at all of La Roma’s eccentricities and quirks, this book offers a carefully culled list of useful services, eating and drinking musts, hotels, shops, and cultural gems, stitched together by anecdotes and history.
Written as a love letter to my neighborhood and my adoptive home town, I hope that it will inspire you to come and see Mexico City in all its glory.
What’s on your list of favorite Mexico City books? Let me know so I can add it to my reading list!