Here at Book Riot, we’ve been going around the world listing some of the best historical fiction set in different countries like Japan, China, or India. I loved reading my fellow Rioters’ posts, and so I wanted to make one of my own. Of course, what better way to do that than to talk about my home country? So today I’m here to share with you 20 must-read works of historical fiction set in Mexico!
Before we dive into that, I do want to talk about some of my choices for this post. For starters, the books on this list are focused on more recent history — from the 19th century or so onwards. I did try to include different time periods. But I also wanted to pick authors that are either Mexican, with their works in translation; of Mexican descent; or in some cases authors that lived for years in Mexico. Most of that literature is much more recent though, especially when you take into consideration that we’re looking for books that have an English edition.
There’s another factor too. When I set out to write this list, I knew I wanted to highlight female authors. That’s because I know that the most popular books that get translated are written by men. And there are just so many incredible female writers from Mexico that deserve more recognition. So while those are the main reasons why I chose to narrow the time periods a bit, I should say that this list is by no means complete or comprehensive. There are many more incredible works of historical fiction set in Mexico out there you can read.
But without further ado, let’s dive into the past with these must-read historical fiction books set in Mexico.
Must-Read Historical Fiction Set in Mexico
Silver Nitrate by Silvia Moreno Garcia (July 18)
How can I not kick things off with one of my all-time favorite authors? Any of Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s books could fit this list, from her fantasy novel Gods of Jade and Shadow to her super-famous Mexican Gothic. But she also has a new book coming out, and that’s the one I picked!
Silver Nitrate is a dark horror/thriller set in ’90s Mexico City. The story follows friends Montserrat and Tristán, whose lives are forever changed when they meet cult horror director Abel Urueta. The legendary director claims to have an unfinished magical film that was made by a Nazi occultist — and he wants Montse and Tristán’s help so he can finish it and lift his own curse.
Malinche by Laura Esquivel
There’s one book on this list that goes back further in time than the rest, and that’s Laura Esquivel’s Malinche! Compared to her other historical novel, Like Water for Chocolate, this isn’t nearly as popular. But it’s an incredible book in translation that talks about the days of La Conquista.
That’s when Hernán Cortés arrived in the early 16th century and Mexico was conquered by the Spanish. In order to do that, Cortés used a Nahua woman as his interpreter. Her name was Malinalli, and she was one of the many people who believed that Cortés was the reincarnation of a powerful deity named Quetzalcóatl. This novel reimagines her story and how she fell in love with Cortés — before she realized that his thirst for conquest knows no bounds.
Recollections of Things to Come by Elena Garro
Moving on to a classic set roughly between 1910 and 1926, in the small fictional town of Ixtepec, Oaxaca. Also a book in translation, Recollections of Things to Come tells the story of this town’s residents and how their lives are upended by violence and oppression. It all begins with the arrival of General Francisco Rosas, who rules the place with an iron fist and floods the streets with corpses. Things get even worse for Ixtepec when a stranger shows up and escapes with Julia, General Rosas’s reluctant beloved.
Tear This Heart Out by Ángeles Mastretta
The next work of historical fiction set in Mexico takes us to 1940s Puebla. Tear This Heart Out is also a novel in translation, and it’s the coming-of-age story of a young woman named Catalina Guzmán. She falls in love with a much older man named Andrés Ascencio, a General with big political aspirations. The two end up getting married, but he’s a violent partner and ruthless politician who doesn’t let Catalina have a voice of her own.
A Ballad of Love and Glory by Reyna Grande
Moving on to a book that is mostly set in Mexico, but that I still included because it talks about the Mexican-American War of the 1840s. A Ballad of Love and Glory begins when the U.S. Army marches south to fight for the Río Grande Boundary. That’s where Ximena, a gifted Mexican nurse, meets John. He is an Irish immigrant who found the war sickening, so he crossed the border and joined the Mexican Army. Slowly but surely, the two of them fall in love. Their fight for freedom also becomes a fight for a future together.
The Murmur of Bees by Sofía Segovia
The Murmur of Bees will take you to the town of Linares in the early 1900s, a time period which involves both the Mexican Revolution and a devastating influenza epidemic. Translated from Spanish, the story follows a boy named Simonopio. He was adopted by a couple of landowners who love him like his own — even if the rest of Linares dislikes him because of his gift. That’s because he’s always surrounded by a swarm of bees, and he can see visions of the future too. This ability will prove especially helpful, as it will allow Simonopio to keep his family safe from the upcoming storm.
The Hummingbird’s Daughter by Luis Alberto Urrea
The next work of historical fiction set in Mexico will take you back to 1889. The Hummingbird’s Daughter follows a young woman named Teresita, who knows very little about her past or her family. She was taken in by an elderly healer named Huila, who taught her how to cure others with plants before Teresita discovered she has a magical gift. Teresita can heal people with her touch too. But this gift might also be her downfall. For once the government hears about her powers, it will do anything to destroy a threat to its power.
In the Shadow of the Angel by Kathryn S. Blair
Moving on to another novel in translation. This one is mainly set in early 20th century Mexico, as it reimagines the life of the famous Antonieta Rivas Mercado. In the Shadow of the Angel talks about her short life, as she died by suicide when she was 30 years old. Throughout it, Antonieta defied tradition time and time again, from being a “scandalous” woman surrounded by famous artists, to her divorce, and her political career. The latter is where she met presidential candidate José Vasconcelos. They had similar views, so she decided to help him, only to be caught in an electoral fraud that would follow her for the rest of her life.
Battles in the Desert by José Emilio Pacheco
Battles in the Desert is another classic of Mexican literature in translation. It’s also a coming-of-age novella in which the protagonist recounts his memories as a child during the 1940s and 1950s. His name is Carlos, and his story begins when he defends a classmate named Jim in a fight. That’s how Carlos ends up meeting Mariana, Jim’s mom. Carlos quickly falls in love with her, even if it’s more than impossible. But still, this crush will unravel Carlos’s life in ways he never imagined.
The Untameable by Guillermo Arriaga
The next work of historical fiction set in Mexico is a translated thriller that takes place during the 1960s! The Untameable follows the story of Juan Guillermo, a young man who plots revenge against the Catholic fanatics who murdered his older brother. The problem is, those men are well trained. Plus they’re allies of a corrupt and influential police commander — which means they’re pretty much untouchable. Still, Juan Guillermo will stop at nothing to enact his revenge.
Sea Monsters by Chloe Aridjis
Sea Monsters is a great portrait of a young woman growing up in Mexico during the ’80s. Her name is Luisa, and one day she decided to hop on a bus with a boy she barely knows rather than return home after class. That’s because Luisa is a woman on a mission. She wants to find someone who can always remain a mystery to her. This takes her all the way to a beach community in Oaxaca, where she will continue to search for her mystery as she wanders the shoreline.
The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño
This popular book in translation is mostly set in Mexico during the ’70s, although the main characters travel quite a lot in the book’s second section. The story follows Alberto Belano and Ulises Lima, the founders of the visceral realist movement. They’re leaving Mexico with a quest: to find a vanished poet named Cesárea Tinajero. This mission will take them all over the world, where they will meet people who crossed paths with Cesárea, until it eventually takes them back home.
Vampires of El Norte by Isabel Cañas (August 29)
The next work of historical fiction set in Mexico hasn’t been published yet, but it’s a great horror novel full of vampires! Plus the author’s other novel, The Hacienda, would certainly fit the bill too. Set in the 1840s, Vampires of El Norte follows the Nena and Néstor. They were childhood sweethearts, but then Nena was attacked by a sinister creature and Néstor ran away thinking she was dead. Nine years later, the two joined the fight against the U.S. and finally get the chance to see each other again. But their happiness is short-lived since another nightmare full of sharp teeth roams the night again.
Here’s to You, Jesusa! by Elena Poniatowska
Let’s visit early 20th century Mexico again with this book in translation. Here’s to You, Jesusa! tells the story of the eponymous Jesusa Palancares. She’s a working-class woman that joined the cavalry during the Mexican Revolution. But now that the conflict is over and her husband is gone, Jesusa takes on different jobs in order to support herself. She is an independent woman in a time in which women were not supposed to be — and we’ll get to see her face many a challenge with grim determination.
The Book of Lamentations by Rosario Castellanos
Moving on to a criminally underrated classic in translation. The Book of Lamentations is set in 1930s Chiapas, and the story follows a fictionalized Maya uprising. It has a big cast of characters, but among them stands out a landowner with political aspirations named Leonardo Cifuentes, as well as an Indigenous prophet named Catalina who is also instigating rebellion among her people. Both sides will clash spectacularly as Castellanos explores the relationship between victim and tormentor as the story progresses.
Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros
Most people are familiar with The House on Mango Street, but did you know Sandra Cisneros also wrote this sprawling family saga that is set in both Mexico and the U.S.? Caramelo follows the Reyes family who, every year, pack up and visit Little Grandfather and Awful Grandmother’s house in Mexico City. Among them, the character of Lala stands out. She’s an observant young girl struggling to find her voice — and she’s the one who’s telling us the story of her family going back generations.
The Death of Artemio Cruz by Carlos Fuentes
The next work of historical fiction set in Mexico is a classic in translation and one of Carlos Fuentes’s most famous works. The Death of Artemio Cruz follows the eponymous Artemio Cruz, a former revolutionary turned wealthy landowner. He lies on his deathbed, which prompts him to look back on his life, from his time in the revolution to his rise to power — which was full of corruption and treachery. All of which his family is gathered around to hear.
Pedro Páramo by Juan Rulfo
This classic in translation is set in the early years of the 20th century and it’s probably one of the best-known novels of Mexican literature! Pedro Páramo tells the story of Juan Preciado, who promises his mother to find his father: the eponymous Pedro Páramo. That’s how Juan ends up in a haunted village known as Comala. As the story moves forward, the ghostly inhabitants of Comala will recount their lives to Juan, as well as the town’s relationship with his father.
Cartucho and My Mother’s Hands by Nellie Campobello
This book binds two of Nellie Campobello’s most famous works of fiction. Translated from Spanish, both Cartucho and My Mother’s Hands are semi-autobiographical vignettes of Campobello’s memories of the Mexican Revolution. They’re mainly narrated from her perspective as a child, and they paint a portrait of some of the best-known historical figures of the era. The whole thing shows a more unique perspective of the time, especially since Campobello and her family had a close relationship with prominent figures such as Pancho Villa.
No One Will See Me Cry by Cristina Rivera-Garza
Last but certainly not least, this criminally underrated (even in Spanish!) novel in translation is set in 1920s Mexico. No One Will See Me Cry follows a photographer named Joaquín Buitrago, who works at the Castañeda Insane Asylum. One day he meets Matilda, a patient he swears he used to know before coming to the asylum. And so begins his obsession with unraveling Matilda’s past, which we gradually get to know alongside Joaquín’s own life.
If you want to learn more about the history of the country, we have a great list of Mexican history books. You can also dive into our historical fiction archives for all kinds of quizzes, lists, and essays on the genre!