Halloween has always held a special place in my heart, due in large part to my family’s enthusiastic celebration of the holiday. When we were growing up, my mom would take me and my brother around New Jersey, visiting all sorts of pumpkin patches and haunted houses, listening to spooky stories on tape, like “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”
However, there’s another holiday at the same time that has always held my fascination. Full of its own traditions and stories, I first learned of Día de los Muertos in school. A Mexican tradition celebrating one’s deceased family members, the Day of the Dead has been practiced as a holiday for more than 3,000 years. Special foods and altars are prepared to commemorate lost loved ones, and the day is often accompanied by colorful festivals and parades. Having seen this holiday depicted on TV and in movies, I set out to find examples of its celebration in literature, and although this collection of books may not include the holiday specifically, they are full of the rich history and customs of Mexico and its people.
Taking place on the Day of the Dead, Malcom Lowry’s novel tells the story of an alcoholic British consul and his unhappy marriage. Over the course of a day, the consul travels through his small town with his estranged wife, reminiscing about their relationship, encountering family and neighbors, and succumbing to his addiction amid the enchanting Mexican scenery.
Set before the Mexican Revolution, this richly detailed novel captures the essence and grandeur of Mexico City at the start of its political upheaval. Following a young doctor and his aristocratic wife, Michael Nava’s story weaves an engrossing story about the family and the revolt against the changing climate and the tyrannical president Don Porfirio Díaz.
This romantic and magical bestseller is infused with recipes and a deep understanding of the expectations in a traditional family. Born in the kitchen among spices and cooking, Tita’s bewitching fares only further the attraction of Pedro, the man she loves but cannot be with due to the expectations of her family. The emotion Tita pours into her cooking reflects the frustrations and sorrow of a life bound by tradition.
Food and rampant emotion are melded together in this magical realist romance in which each of the twelve sections begin with a Mexican recipe, all of which are cleverly incorporated into the plot of the book itself.
Scottish writer Fanny details in letters her travels to Mexico from 1839 to 1842 as she accompanied her husband, Spanish diplomat Angel Calderón de la Barca. Though it may sound like an academic look at life in Mexico before the revolution, it is instead a beautifully written, honest, and funny adventure into the life of a woman eager to experience and share all that she can. Her well-put renderings of the geography, people, and culture of Mexico paint a living picture of that time period in the capital.
This cross-generational search for the stories behind one family’s heartache and happiness is spearheaded by Lala, the youngest child and only daughter of the Reyes clan. During her family’s annual trip to visit “Little Grandfather” and “Awful Grandmother,” Lala attempts to uncover what makes her grandmother so awful. Just as much an exploration of storytelling as of family, CARAMELO is full of humor and heart.
Any novel about Mexico in the late nineteenth century would be remiss to ignore the heavy presence of religion, and Luis Alberto Urrea expertly tackles its influence in THE HUMMINGBIRD’S DAUGHTER. This fictionalized account of the real Saint of Cabora’s young life is mystical and dramatic. Urrea imbues a sense of wonder into the story of a strong, brave girl who rises from an early and violent death to heal the masses and satiate her independent spirit.
Santiago, a village by the sea, is the setting for the saga of a family whose hopes and misfortunes are at the whim of fate. A couple, Chayo and Candelario, blessed with the child they didn’t think they could have, is subjected to a curse brought upon them by Chayo’s spiteful sister, Marta. Although the lives of Chayo and Marta are the focus of this novel, the voices of other villagers and their lives are explored in Sandra Benitez’s award-winning book.
This charming, otherworldly coming-of-age story is set in a small town in Mexico and focuses on the memories of a young woman living abroad and those of her grandmother back home. Intertwining magical realism with political commentary, Carmen Boullosa is a strong writer who brings her characters and their fantastical stories to life in a delightful read.
Fantasy and reality blur in this exploration of two cultures clashing on the border of Mexico and America. A son’s abandonment of his family and his Jewish faith to search for gold leads him to the mountains across the desert, while his wife defies tradition and takes a lover. A family’s history is melted down and rebuilt in a lyrical look at Mexican history.
Every year, the monarch butterflies—las mariposas—fly more than 2,000 miles to return to their winter home in Mexico. Now Luz Avila makes that same perilous journey as she honors a vow to her beloved grandmother to return her ashes to her ancestral village. When Luz is reunited with a woman from her past, the two cross not only the Mexican border, but the borders between past and present, truth and lies.