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¡Feliz Bicentenario, México!

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Today begins the celebration of Mexico’s Bicentennial.  At midnight on September 15, 1810, the priest Hidalgo uttered the "Grito de Dolores" which began the war for independence from Spain.

These days, we may be more inclined to think of Mexico as being held hostage by drug cartels than as truly independent.  Every week seems to bring news of more brazen murders of Mexican citizens and officials by drug hit men.

One such account is Murder City: Ciudad Juárez and the global economy's new killing fields by Charles Bowden.  Ciudad Juarez lies just across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas. A once-thriving border town, it now resembles a failed state. Infamously known as the place where women disappear, its murder rate exceeds that of Baghdad. In 2008 1,607 people were killed, a number that increased to 2,600 in 2009, making it the most murderous city in the world. In Murder City, Charles Bowden, one of the few journalists who has spent extended periods of time in Juarez, has written an account of what happens when a city disintegrates. Interweaving stories of its inhabitants, a raped beauty queen, a repentant hitman, a journalist fleeing for his life, with a broader musing on the town's descent into anarchy, Bowden reveals how Juarez's culture of violence will not only worsen, but inevitably spread north.

Another difficult issue with Mexico is that of illegal immigration into the United States.  In Midnight on the Line: the secret life of the U.S.-Mexico border, Tim Gaynor, a Reuters reporter, looks at the underbelly of the 2,000-mile border between the U. S. and Mexico.  He tells the story of smuggling—of drugs, people, guns, and money—interviewing former smugglers, migrants, coyotes (transporters), and border guards, both dedicated and corrupt, on both sides of the line.  Gaynor follows smugglers using cars, trucks, planes, and tunnels, and border patrol agents on horseback, or operating remote controlled scout aircraft.  Also, among a variety of others, he interviews Minutemen and Shadow Wolves, Native American trackers, and provides a fascinating look at the contemporary scene on the border.

Gonzo or immersion or participatory journalist Johnny Rico, "a typically spoiled American who doesn’t speak a lick of Spanish, takes it upon himself to try to cross the Mexican border into the United States illegally".  His book Border Crosser is the result. 

It may be that the safest way to experience Mexico these days is through books or video rather than by travelling there in person.  A Traveller's History of Mexico by Kenneth Pearce provides a chronological overview of familiar (Moctezuma, Cortes, Pancho Villa, Santa Anna) and unfamiliar (Freemasons, polka enthusiasts, the complexities of the caste system) aspects of Mexican history and culture.

Fiction often paints a true-to-life picture of a people and place that sparks an emotional involvement  making a place seem more real than nonfiction.  One novel that brings 20th century Mexico to life is The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver.  This is the story of Harrison William Shepherd, whose social-climbing Mexican mother and remote American father eventually divorce, and whose own search for identity takes readers to the forefront of the twentieth century's most turbulent events.  In the 1930s, Shepherd works for Mexican painter Diego Rivera and his wife, Frida Kahlo, who are communist sympathizers. After witnessing the assassination of their friend, the exiled Leon Trotsky, he is forced to flee to the U.S., where he becomes a target of the House Un-American Activities Committee.  Shepherd retells his remarkable story through a series of letters and diary entries.

A delightful, award-winning novel is the multi-generational saga Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros.  During her family's annual car trip from Chicago to Mexico City, Lala Reyes listens to stories about her family, including her grandmother, the descendant of a renowned dynasty of shawl makers, whose magnificent striped shawl has come into Lala's possession.

Another comfortable way to explore a culture is through its food.  Rick Bayless has written several books about authentic Mexican cooking.  The Tex-Mex Cookbook: a history in recipes and photos by Robb Walsh is chock full of historic photos and stories about Mexican traditions along the border.  Walsh explains the difference between burritos, fajitas, chalupas, enchiladas, and chimichangas, and makes the mouth water with chapters on "old-fashioned breakfasts: the Spanish missions and the cowboy culture", "chili con carne: the chili joints and the chili queens", "early combination plates: the original Mexican restaurant", "the lost art of the taco", and "sizzling fajitas: Tejano tastes from the valley".  And while Tex-Mex is more an American regional cuisine, influenced by Indian and Spanish as well as Texas and Mexican cooking, it suggests the warmth and charm of old Mexico. 

For a sumptuous melding of food, romance, home remedies and family life in turn of the century Mexico, try the magical fairy tale Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel.

For more about Mexico in history, travel, food or literature, visit us at or call 988-2541.

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