"Oaxaca, Mexico: An

Expatriate Life"

Writing by Stan Gotlieb

Pictures by Diana Ricci

Books and CDs we like

[Every book and record on this page is part of our own personal collection. These items may be purchased on Amazon.com, by clicking on the cover picture. There are hundreds of books and CDs on Amazon that have to do with Mexico. We have not read (or listened to) all of them, and some of the ones we have, did not resonate with us. We have only listed those that did, and are still in print. If you order them from this site, we get a cut, and it doesn't cost you a penny more. However, if you have a local independent bookstore left in your town, we strongly urge you to forget about helping us out (really our cut is very small) and do your business through them.]

 

 

"Pecados y Milagros":  Lila Downs' latest release, it won a 2013 Latin Grammy award. Another trophy for her shelf, and some fine performances for your shelf. Listen to snippets on www.liladowns.com

 

 

 

"Running Out the Pain":  Robert Joe Stout is a reporter by trade and a writer by persuasion. This, his latest book, combines his love of baseball, his keen powers of observation, his ear for voices and his simple, spare style: this is a darned good read.

 

"Santo Gordo":  Charles Kerns has spent at least some of his time in Oaxaca for years. This book, based on some real events, some fictitious characters (this is, after all, a work of fiction...), some pithy observations about the Oaxaca scene, the behavior of gringos, and the state of "law and order", spins a yarn of heroic deeds, fate, and discrete retreats. Additionaly, this book - with its' recipes, restaurants, and culinary surprises, smells and tastes like Oaxaca. Read it.

 

"Lila Downs y La Misteriosa en Paris Live":  The band – La Misteriosa - is terrific, full of interesting sounds and surprises; and they appear to be having a real fun time, playing off and into each other in a good groove. The material is a nice combination of new songs, and old songs with both new and old arrangements; old and new voicing. The filming, while it gets in the way very briefly in one or two places, keeps the interest focused. Mostly, though, it's Lila. Her treatments. Her voice. Her mastery. Her voice. Her honesty. Her voice. Her all-out commitment to do her very best. Her voice, always and all ways, her voice.

"Protest Graffiti Mexico Oaxaca":  In her introduction titled "The Walls Scream", Lila Downs evokes the mood of Oaxaca in 2006, when, for five months, the citizens became the government, under seige by their elected officials. Elaine Sendyk captured much of the spirit of the time wandering up and down the streets using a "throw away" camera. If you appreciate poster and wall art as we do, this is a don't miss book.

"Mexico Unconquered":  "In Mexico, it's not an accident that the country's 12 million indigenous people are some of the poorest people in the land or that government statistics show that the poorest municipalities in the country are all heavily indigenous municipalities. The legacy of colonial invasion and conquest in the creation of poverty is apparent. Indigenous people were literally pushed out of the valleys they were farming and cultivating. They were enslaved and brought to Spanish haciendas [estates] and mines to work.

"That legacy of colonial violence was transformed slowly through the independence and post-revolution eras but never ended. That legacy is actually the engine of the creation of poverty."

Gibler is a freelance journalist who, along with Jill Friedberg, and Nancy Davies, among others, was on the ground and with the people during the 2006 rebellion. His contextualized coverage of Brad Will's death contributed greatly to the understanding of who the players were during the great upheaval. His in-depth look into the circumstances of the murder of human rights worker Sali Grace is, so far, the definitive work on the subject. I have not read this book yet, but I'm going to. Don't wait for my review, you can't go wrong with Gibler.

"Mexico In Focus":  John Ross on Mexican history and contemporary conditions (as of ten years ago when the book was written) is, as one might expect from his nimble mind, a quirky, acerbic, jaundiced and incisive overview of six hundred years. It is condensed into 80 pages, to fit the format of the "In Focus" book series.

"Gods, Gachupines and Gringos: A People's History of Mexico":  I'm not a historian (or any other kind of "ian" that takes a lot of study and discipline). I appreciate the work of those who are. I especially appreciate it when the work is "accessible": easy to read, easy to follow, revealing of its assumptions and prejudices, and informative. This book by Mexico-phile Richard Grabman scores high on all four criteria. Like the history of any entity as big as a country, Mexico's has a scope and a depth that is impossible to analyze in any definitive way in one book (even one as thick as this). For this reason, any "short history" will be limited to a particular sector, period, or point of view. For me, this limitation is also a liberation, because I am not going to sit down and work my way through a five-foot shelf, but always have some time for a thoughtful one-book presentation. Agreed, this means that my knowledge will be more limited, and subject to the author's viewpoint; but it also means that - unless I'm being naive, something I haven't been accused of for some time - I come away knowing more than I did when I started. Along with Lynn Foster's "Short History of Mexico" and John Ross's "Mexico in Focus", an informative historical read..

"Mexican Days: Journeys into the Heart of Mexico":  Prolific writer Tony Cohan has produced a well-written and evocative series of snapshots of some worth-visiting Mexican destinations, including Oaxaca. Cohan is an accomplished wordsmith with a fine eye for detail and an obvious appreciation of his subject.

"The Wondrous Toy Workshop":  Nancy Miller's book on the work of Hanni Sager, herself a sufferer of Muscular Dystrophy, who developed a methodology for using the construction of simple toys as a means of fostering self-worth and incidentally earning some income for children whose "disabilities" all too often relegated them to a dark corner of a back bedroom in the towns and villages of Oaxaca.  Includes templates for making the toys, a tutorial on how to organize the work, and Hanni's own testimony to the frustrations, failures, and successes she has encountered.

 

"Narcocorrido: a journey into the world of drugs, guns and guerrillas": Elija Wald, a pretty darn good guitar picker himself, spent a lot of time traveling Mexico and California in search of the roots of the modern narco ballad, and assessing its' evolution, right up to a few years ago. The cast of characters are many and varied, and all interesting.

 

"The Americano": Aran Shetterly weaves testimony and research into a complex story of the rise and the fall of an American who fought for the Cuban revolution only to be executed for betraying it.  I was fascinated by the "back story" of the conflicting propaganda lines and sometimes menacing reactions of those whom he approached both in and out of Cuba.

 

"Transborder Lives": Lynn Stephen's ethnography about Oaxacans who emigrate - both within Mexico and to California and Oregon - and the villages they leave behind, is sufficiently annotated and footnoted to satisfy the most demanding anthropologist, while at the same time bringing to life the people involved. Asserting that "cross-border" does not begin to explain the complex relationships between those who emigrate and their home villages, as well as the interactions between destination communities, she weaves a powerful picture.

"La Cantina, entre copa y copa": Lila Downs' fifth album is both a celebration of her roots (her mother sang Ranchera to her from infancy) and her musical abilities (she has taken the Ranchera form and transmuted it into something uniquely hers). Utilizing the talents of Norteño greats such as Flaco Jimenez, as well as the members of her traveling band, she and partner Paul Cohen have produced a tight, sometimes funky, sometimes soulful, and always entertaining 15 cuts.

"Oba's Story" by George D. Coleman. The story is a complex but compassable tale of the parallel development of one man, one family, and two renaissances, one religious and the other political. It takes place against the background of the waxing of Rastafarianism and the waning of British colonial rule in the eastern Caribbean, and recounts some of the ways that the one influenced the other. It is not a stale tale for academics, however. Far from it. Colman is as interested in the players as the game; in the complex realities of current affairs in the region; in the forces that shaped a young tear-about from St. Vincent into the man who marched onto a cricket field during a welcoming ceremony for an African prince in the Vincentian capital, dressed in the colors and waving the flag of Africa.

"Life Imitating Death " by Les Barba. An adventurous tale of love, death, rebirth and mystery.
Set in Oaxaca and Chiapas, this partly-fictional tale combines realpolitic, mysticism, history and social analysis as it tells a story of discovery and betrayal; revolution and oppression. Not great literature - the prose is at times too turgid and sometimes too self-conscious - it is nevertheless a good read.

"La Sandunga": A reissue of Lila Downs's first album, much improved by being remixed and reshuffled, it comes with one of the two original takes of "Pinotepa", and the addition of "Parfuma de Gardeñas". A fine presentation of Oaxacan classics, from La Llorona to the title song, it is vintage Lila that proves that there really was a lily beneath the gilding.

"Yutu Tata / Tree of Life": Lila's second album, with songs in Spanish, Mixtec, Zapotec and Náhuatl, this is a "roots" album, paying homage to the Native Oaxacan side of Lila's cross-border life and songs. This is an homage which avoids all hint of sentimentalism; a finely produced album with a talented and entertaining bunch of musicians.

"Mexican Lives": Judith Adler Hellman's book combines hisorical and economic analysis of 20th century Mexico with the narratives of individual Mexicans from all walks of life. ALthough it is over 10 years old, it is as up to date as today's news. If you have any interest in the historical building blocks of today's Mexcio, this bood provides an invaluable insight.

"Swift As Desire": I never did read "Like Water for Chocolate", but I did pick up this book by the same author. It's a delightful piece about a Mexican family and their trials, joys, and closeness. Almost a fable in its narration, it is definitely an "upper".

 

"Enchiladas, Rice and Beans": For those of you who, like me, are coming on this 11-year-old book a bit late, don't let that stop you. A series of tales based in the Baja California border town of Tecate, this book evokes the spirit - and the reality - not always one and the same - of life in a bi-national town, before the era of the maquilladoras.

"Head For Mexico" Don Adams' book concentrates on the states of Jalisco and Nayarit, but the information in it is mostly good no matter where you are. A mix of nuts-and-bolts and subjective tales by Don and others about their Mexican experiences, it's a good read and a good resource. If you loved The People's Guide, then you will like this book.

"A Brief History of Mexico" by Lynn V. Foster, a well-researched, meticulously documented overview of a complex and sometimes baffling country, from ancient times to the present. The revised edition, recently released, is not a dry tome, but rather a highly accessible 304-page fun read. Even if Lynn were not a friend and fellow Oaxacan, we still would recommend the book highly.

"Line of Sight" by Michele Gibbs, a collection of poetry, drawings, sculpture and essays. A born-to-the-left activist, teacher, poet and fellow Oaxaca expatriate, Gibbs' limning of her struggles and the struggles of the displaced African peoples of our hemisphere, from the days of capture and transportation until the present, is insistent without being strident; sad without being bitter; hopeful without being pollyana. This is a talent of unplumbable dimensions. If you don't buy another book this year, don't miss this one.

"Hat Dance" is a nice yarn about a group of bumbling Americans, their urban mexican friends, some peasants, avillage fiesta, a venal army officer, a mercenary killer and some Maryknoll martyrs. Laugh, cry, and enjoy a good - if mildly stereotyped - read.

"Una Sangre / One Blood" is, simply, the most ambitious, the most provocative and evocative, and the most professionally done of Lila Downs' albums to date. If you ever liked anything that Lila did, this is a "must have" album.

"Crafting Traditions": Michael Chibnik is an anthropologist and an afficionado of "alebrijes", the carved and painted wooden figures that, as much as Rodolfo Morales, Francisco Toledo, the ceramacist Aguilar family, the potter Dolores Porros, and the rug weavers of Teotitlán del Valle, have put Oaxaca on the arts and crafts map of the world. Well illustrated and heavily documented, the book looks at the marketing patterns as well as the carving tools, painting styles, and personal viewpoints of the craftspeople, middlepersons, and government organizers involved. This is not light reading (although it is not by any means a dusty tome), but for anyone interested in the "who" and the "how" and the "what's next" of the trade, it's a must read.

"Crossing Over": An over-the-years, in-depth look at the fortunes and misfortunes of families from Cherán, in the mountains outside of Zamora, Michoacán as they cross and re-cross the border to the U.S., establish themselves in their new homes, attempt to move up in the job market, and relate to each other and to the Anglo - and sometimes Afro - communities around them. Charán itself is presented in detail, forming a well-rounded context for those who come and go from the “other side”. Part sociology, part reportage, part mythology, it is a personal narrative of a common odyssey, and while it is not exciting, nor suspenseful, nor literary, it is an easy-to-read, informative narrative. Well worth the trouble.

"Oaxaca Journal": Oliver Sacks is a writer, and a devoted fern chaser. Oaxaca has a greater variety of fern than any other state in Mexico. The combination is a natural. While this book is mostly for plant lovers, it does not lack description of the larger ecology -- human and floral - that he discovers along the way. Plants are illustrated with line drawings, not photos, and Sacks clearly loves Oaxaca. A short, sweet, easy to read book. Diana is a "plant person", and recommends it.

"Children of Cain": A must read for all those who believe that "it couldn't happen here". Tina Rosenberg's study of how people of principle who care about their Latin American countries become compliant, complaisant, and unprincipled in the face of perceived threats to their way of life is a lesson all of us Gringos should study in these days of uncertainty. Her belief that the middle class is the natural instrument of change leads her to a lot of flawed political analysis, but her portraits of the people involved in the horrors are chilling and illuminating.

"Casa Mexicana" by Tim Street-Porter. Tim is a prolific writer and photographer of books on architecture and lifestyle, and this book, subtitled "Mexican architecture, design and style" looks at haciendas, townhouses, beach houses, and even one "primitive" house, both in Mexico and in Los Angeles (which for all intents and purposes is in many areas a part of Mexico). From the colonial to the ultra-modern, this is an in depth study of some great houses.

"Oaxaca, the Spirit of Mexico" by Judith Cooper Haden, photographer, with notes by Matthew Jaffe, is a loving and respectful book. It isn't just the execution -- all the pictures are technically brilliant; it's the choice of subject matter, and more importantly, it's the connection Judith makes with her subjects - she even got the elusive artist Francisco Toledo to pose for a picture - which comes through in her photos, and gives the book a special place among the many fine photo essays of Oaxaca that have been published in recent years. While I would much rather have read her own comments -- I came to appreciate her point of view during a brief exchange of insights and information in the Zócalo one evening -- I enjoyed Jaffe's notes, which do much to tie each section of the book together.

"True Tales From Another Mexico". Sam Quiñones is a brilliant and captivating writer. Even where I (occasionally) disagree with his conclusions, his skill as a reporter /writer keeps me coming back for more. This collection of stories from the late '90s, focusing on the poor, the indigenous, and their attempts to make better lives for themselves -- whether at home dealing drugs or in far away places picking tomatoes or playing basketball -- is a must read for anyone who seeks a better understanding of how -- and from what -- Mexico is evolving into the new century.

"Border / La Línea". Lila Downs tackles the border head on. While it will probably be best remembered for her marvelous melding of Woody Guthrie's classics "This Land Is Your Land" and "Pastures of Plenty" with her own lyrics (When did you come to America?, she asks), her diva's rendering of the classics "La Llorona" and "Nunca Muera", and her usual mix of ranchero, ethnic indigenous, and corrido songs prove that once again, Lila Downs has outdone herself. The arrangements and backup music are of the highest professional quality.

"Zapotec Weavers of Teotitlan" is more than photos of rugs, although there are plenty of those. It is also a portrait of the people, and their way of being. The excellent photos by Jaye R. Phillips are easily matched by Andra Fischgrund's narrative, which evokes the history and the economics of the weaving trade, as well as the changing life styles of the weavers. It's also dear to me because I own a rug with the same design as is on the cover (although mine was done by a different weaver).

"Portraits" is a very special book. In the first half of the 1900s, Edward Weston photographed everyone who was anyone -- and some who were not -- in Mexican cultural and left political circles (usually one and the same). Many of his subjects struck their own poses, leaving us with not only images, but self-caricature. His nude studies (as is evident on the cover) are sensual as well as intimate.

"Images of The Spirit" is Graciela Iturbide's latest photo collection. Much praised by the critics, and a friend of literati such as Francisco Toledo, Iturbide concentrates her focus on the marginal, the poor, the less-known folks. Although she lives in Mexico City, we have seen her at photo exhibit openings here in Oaxaca, and have been fortunate enough to attend a couple of her one-woman shows at the Alvarez Bravo gallery here.

"Endangered Mexico" is an examination of the on-the-ground reality of environmental degradation in Mexico. Told from personal experience and observation, as well as interviews with those living the realities, Simon's book balances the need for conservation and preservation against the need for the peasants to feed their families. Simon, a reporter, manages to make a well-researched book with a large bibliography into a good read. Out of print, but good quality used copies are available.



"The People's Guide To Mexico". Carl Franz and Lorena Havens' blockbuster, best-selling hosanna to sponteneity is now in its umpteenth printing. Pictured is our own treasured copy of the special 25th anniversary issue. Crammed full of the kind of useful information that makes being spontaneous safer, this personal, quirky, positive and playful bible for Latin adventure contains the secret of life: everywhere you go ... there you are.

"The Annexation of Mexico", by John Ross. Both prolific and profound, Ross has been living in, and writing from, Mexico City for almost 20 years. A personal hero of mine, Ross is the quintessential "foreign correspondent", going where others fear to tread and bringing back the truth, however angry it makes the authorities. Subtitled "From the Aztecs to the IMF: One Reporter's Journey Through History", "Annexation" has the feel -- and the stature -- of Howard Zinn's classic "People's History of the U.S." For those of us who search beyond the corporatist interpretations of history and contemporary affairs that are offered by the establishment media, this book is a "must read".


"On Mexican Time" is Tony Cohan's personal journal of a fifteen-year love affair with San Miguel Allende. I am ever so grateful that he wrote it in 2000, or my own work might look somewhat derivative. Necessarily sketchy (15 years is a long time), this book is a "good read" for anyone who ponders living life fully, in two cultures at once. Lyrical, personal, ruminative and self-critical writing brings the reader into his journey of discovery, frustration, growth and contentment.

"Streets, Bedrooms and Patios", by anthropologist Michael Higgins, and Tanya L. Coen, explores the "seamier" side of Oaxaca, the so-called "zona libre" or "zone of toleration": the red light district, where prostitutes, trans-sexuals, and others who live marginal, often dangerous lives, work and play. Higgins, who has made his home in Oaxaca for many years, gives us an intimate, non-judgemental, no-jargon insight into a little known portion of life in Oaxaca (and by extension, all of Mexico).

"Four Hands". What do Stan Laurel, an obscure "dirty tricks" department of the CIA, a reporter from Mexico and one from the U.S., and some survivors of the Spanish Civil War have in common in the '90s? Find out for yourself; read this entertaining bit of mostly-fictional fantasy by one of Mexico's most important living writers.

[Read a selection of "Letters From Oaxaca, Mexico"]

[Read a sample "Oaxaca / Mexico Newsletter"]