Literature -- It's pulp fiction at heart, but reading Gary Jennings' Aztec while traveling in Mexico is a surprisingly rewarding experience. Jennings, an American who wrote the book while living in San Miguel de Allende, unfurls the tale of Mixtli, a character with an almost omnipotent perspective on the state of Mexico's various indigenous societies in the years just before the arrival of the Spaniards. Jennings gets creative with some of his interpretations, but the important details are historically accurate and provide great cultural context for visiting pre-Hispanic sites.
The earlier novels of Carlos Fuentes, Mexico's preeminent living writer, are easier to read than more recent works; try The Death of Artemio Cru. Angeles Mastretta's delightful Arráncame la Vida (Tear Up My Life) covers the same subject -- Mexican society's values, contradictions, and pleasures after the Revolution from the point of view of a young woman in Puebla. In 2008, a wildly popular cinematic version of the book was released in Mexico and South America. If you want a good idea of period costumes and architecture, tracking down a copy is worth your while. Fuentes has an ironic touch and dips occasionally into the surreal. Mastretta's book is a well-written, straightforward narrative brimming with political gossip.
Another novel covering roughly the same period, but with fewer social observations and more magic realism, is Like Water for Chocolate, by Laura Esquivel. This book and the movie of the same title did much to popularize Mexican food abroad.
Guillermo Arriaga, screenwriter for Amores Perros, is a brilliant novelist, too. El Bufalo de la Noche, about a young man reeling from his best friend's suicide, is available in English. Retorno 201, a collection of stories set on the Mexico City street where Arriaga grew up, was published in 2005.
Juan Rulfo, one of Mexico's most esteemed authors, wrote only three slim books before his death in 1986. His second, Pedro Páramo, is Mexico's equivalent of Shakespearean tragedy and has never been out of print since its publication in 1955. The short novel of a son's search for his abusive, tyrannical father had a major influence on the magical realism movement. It has been translated twice into English and been made into film several times; Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna are working on a new adaptation.
History & Nonfiction -- For contemporary culture, start with The Labyrinth of Solitude, by the Mexican Nobel laureate poet and essayist Octavio Paz. It still generates controversy among Mexicans.
The Life and Times of Mexico, by Earl Shorris, is an in-depth analysis of Mexican history. It's really the only text you'll need to learn the history of the country, from Aztec rituals to the 70-year-rule of the PRI. For a more concise yet still thorough survey of Mexican history, try A Short History of Mexico, by J. Patrick McHenry.
For an overview of pre-Hispanic cultures, pick up Michael D. Coe's Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs, Nigel Davies's Ancient Kingdoms of Mexico, or Jacques Soustelle's Daily Life of the Aztecs. Richard Townsend's The Aztecs is a thorough, well-researched examination of the Aztec and the Spanish Conquest. For the Maya, Michael Coe's The Maya is probably the best general account. John L. Stephens's classic account of 44 Maya sites, the two-volume Incidents of Travel in the Yucatán, is still the most authoritative. Before his expeditions, beginning in 1841, the world knew little about the region and nothing about the Maya.
The best-title prize goes to Los Angeles Times columnist Gregory Rodriguez's Mongrels, Bastards, Orphans and Vagabonds: Mexican Immigration and the Future of Race in America. Rodriguez's skillful history of race relations in the Americas provides thought-provoking anecdotes that will have you thinking twice about what it means to be Mexican, American, Mexican-American, American-Mexican, or a citizen of the world.
Golden Age & Classics -- During Mexico's "Golden Age of Cinema" in the 1940s, studios stopped trying to mimic Hollywood and began producing unabashedly Mexican black-and-white films whose stars are still cultural icons in Mexico. Mario Moreno, aka Cantinflas, was a comedic genius who personalized the el pelado archetype -- a poor, picaresque, slightly naughty character trading on his wits alone and getting nowhere. Mexican beauty Dolores del Río ended up playing the steamy Latin babe in Hollywood. Pedro Infante, the singing cowboy, embodied the ideal of Mexican manhood.
Luis Buñuel's dark Los Olvidados (1950) was the Spanish surrealist's third Mexican film, exploring the life of young hoodlums in Mexico City's slums.
The New Cinema -- After a long fallow period, a new generation of filmmakers emerged in the 1990s. The first big El Nuevo Cine Mexicano (the New Cinema) hit outside of Mexico was Like Water for Chocolate (1992), directed by Alfonso Arau, then author Laura Esquivel's husband. He continues to make films, mainly in Mexico. The second, Sexo, Pudor y Lágrimas (1999), by director Antonio Serrano, is an unflinching look at the battle of the sexes in Mexico City.
After Alfonso Cuarón's debut film, the mordant social satire Sólo con tu pareja (1991), scored critical and commercial success in Mexico, he garnered international acclaim with his ironic Y Tu Mamá También (2001), which touches on class hypocrisy while following a pair of teenage boys on an impromptu road trip with a sexy older woman. Cuarón has since directed Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), the science-fiction thriller Children of Men (2006), and other international productions. Gravity, a space thriller with Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, is due in 2012.
In Amores Perros (2000), Alejandro González Iñárritu (director of 21 Grams  and Babel ) presents a keen glimpse of contemporary Mexican society through three stories about different ways of life in Mexico City that converge at the scene of a horrific car accident. His Academy Award-nominated Babel (2006), another tour de force, features a Mexican border scene that is realistic, exhilarating, and frightening all at once. Guillermo del Toro's debut, the dark, atmospheric Cronos (1993), won critical acclaim in Mexico. Moving into the international arena, he has directed similarly moody films such as Hellboy (2004) and Oscar winner Pan's Labyrinth (2006).
As part of a $100-million, five-feature partnership, Cuarón, Iñárritu, and del Toro will each direct his own movie, along with two projects from Colombian director Rodrigo Garcia (Nine Lives ) and Cuarón's brother and co-screenwriter of Y Tú Mama También (2001), Carlos Cuarón. Each director has experienced crossover success, and at least two of the films will be in Spanish. The first, Carlos Cuarón's Rudo y Cursi, reteamed the Mexican dynamic duo Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna and debuted in late 2008. Rodrigo Garcia's star-studded Mother and Child opened in May 2010 after premieres at the Toronto and Sundance film festivals. Iñárritu's Biutiful brought a best actor award for star Javier Bardem at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival.
Julie Taymor's Frida (2002), with Mexican actress Salma Hayek producing and starring, is an enchanting biopic about Frida Kahlo's life and work, from her devastating accident to relationships with Diego Rivera and Leon Trotsky. The exquisite cinematography captures the magic realism evinced in Kahlo's work.
Director Robert Rodriguez's breakout film, El Mariachi (1992), is set in a small central Mexican town. Made on a shoestring budget, the somewhat cheesy action flick is at least highly entertaining. His Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003) isn't as great, but it's fun to see scenes of San Miguel Allende. Ditto for San Luis Potosí in The Mexican (2001), with Brad Pit and Julia Roberts. With Machete, his over-the-top 2011 action/gore/humor flick, his aim is clear: to make a Mexican Jean-Claude Van Damme out of star Danny Trejo.
Views from the Outside: Films Starring Mexico -- Elia Kazan's 1952 classic, Viva Zapata!, written by John Steinbeck, stars Marlon Brando as revolutionary Emiliano Zapata. Orson Welles's 1958 film noir Touch of Evil (preposterously billing Charlton Heston as a Mexican narcotics agent) looks at drugs and corruption in Tijuana -- still compelling, even though it feels sanitized, compared with today's screaming headlines. The adaptation of Carlos Fuentes' novel The Old Gringo (1989), a love triangle set during the Mexican Revolution, was filmed with Gregory Peck, Jane Fonda, and a young Jimmy Smits in numerous locations in five Mexican states.
HBO's 2003 flick And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself, with Antonio Banderas, is the true story of how revolutionaries allowed Hollywood to film Pancho Villa in battle. Man on Fire (2004), with Denzel Washington as a bodyguard hired to protect a little girl, is full of great Mexico City scenes, though the plot is depressing and all too real. Dylan Verrechia's Tijuana Makes Me Happy (2005), focusing on Tijuana's humanity rather than its perceived sins, has won awards in Latin America and at U.S. film festivals. Stephen Soderbergh's Academy Award-winning Traffic (2000), with Benicio del Toro, has powerful scenes focusing on Tijuana's drug war, while the documentary Tijuana Remix (2002) unveils the city's unique and idiosyncratic culture.
Mel Gibson's controversial Apocalypto (2006) cast indigenous Maya to depict the Maya empire's waning days; the rainforests of Veracruz state stand in for the lush jungles that must have covered the Yucatán centuries ago. Loosely based on a true story, Nacho Libre (2006) is a highly stylized take on Mexican wrestling, shot entirely in rural Oaxaca state. Mexico, most notably an uglified Campeche, stood in for 1950s Cuba in Steven Soderbergh's Che (2008), a two-part epic focusing first on the Cuban revolution and then on his attempt to bring revolution to Bolivia; the film won the Cannes best actor award for Benicio del Toro.
Marimba & Son -- Marimba music flourishes in much of southern and central Mexico but is considered traditional only in Chiapas and the port city of Veracruz, whose bands travel to such places as Oaxaca and Mexico City, where they play in clubs and restaurants.
Son, a native art form from many parts of Mexico, is played with a variety of string instruments. Ritchie Valens' "La Bamba" popularized one of the most famous forms, son jarocho, in the '50s. Often fast paced, with lots of strumming and fancy string picking, it originated in southern Veracruz. Dancing to this music requires a lot of fast, rhythmic pounding of the heels (zapateado). Jarana, the Yucatán's principal dance music, is a form of son jarocho that adds woodwinds and a sensuous Caribbean beat.
Danzón & Bolero -- These musical forms came from Cuba in the late 19th century and gained great popularity, especially in Veracruz and Mexico City. Danzón is orchestra music that combines a Latin flavor with a stateliness absent from later Latin music. Bolero (or trova) is the music mainly of guitar trios, such as Los Panchos. It's soft and romantic, often with a touch of melancholy.
Mariachi & Ranchera -- Mariachis, with their big sombreros, waist-length jackets and tight pants, embody the Mexican spirit. The music originated from Jalisco state's son, arranged for guitars, violins, string bass, and trumpets. Now heard across Mexico -- Yucatecan trova music even has mariachi adaptations -- and much of the American southwest, it is at its traditional best in Jalisco and its capital, Guadalajara.
The national pride, individualism, and sentimentality expressed in mariachi's kin, ranchera, earn it favored status as drinking music. Many Mexicans know the songs of famous composer José Alfredo Jiménez by heart.
Mexican-American singer/songwriter Lila Downs updated ranchera and mariachi for a modern, bicultural audience. Her debut album, La Cantina, explored traditional favorites, while her latest, Shake Away, features collaborations with famous Latin artists like Mercedes Sosa and Enrique Bunburry.
Norteña, Grupa & Banda -- Norteña owes its origins to tejano music, coming out of Texas. Mexicans in south-central Texas encountered musicians from the immigrant Czech and German communities of the Texas Hill Country and picked up a taste for polkas and the accordion. Gradually, the music became popular farther south. Norteña music tweaked the polka for many of its popular songs and later borrowed from the cumbia, slowing the tempo a bit and adding a strong downbeat. It also incorporated the native corrido, a type of ballad popularized during the Mexican Revolution (1910-17). Norteña became hugely popular in rural northern Mexico though the 1970s, and later generated spinoffs known as grupera or banda, a style of norteña from the area of Sinaloa that replaces the accordion with electric keyboards. Grupera/banda is now heard nationwide. Los Tigres del Norte, who have released more than 50 albums, are the undisputed kings of banda; other notable groups and artists include Los Alacranes Musicales and Valentín Elizalde.
Rock en Espagñol -- Mexican rock forged its identity in the 1980s and exploded during the 1990s with bands such as Jaguares and Molotov out of Mexico City, and Maná, based in Guadalajara. Named for the 1920s cafe in the capital's Centro Histórico, Café Tacvba (pronounced Ta-cu-ba) has been at it since 1989. Their music is influenced by indigenous Mexican music as much as folk, punk, bolero, and hip-hop. The fast-rising Yucatán a Go Go -- hailing, despite the name, from central Mexico -- fuses a bouncy pop beat to lyrics firmly rooted in cultural tradition.
Latin alternative music, which was born as an alternative to slickly produced Latin pop exemplified by Ricky Martin or Paulina Rubio, has grown until it has become a genre in itself. Practitioners such as Panda, División Minúscula, and Zoé have achieved not-so-alternative success.
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