This article is from the February 2003 The Mexico File newsletter.
Back Issues and Subscriptions available.

Book Review
The Reader’s Companion to Mexico

edited by Alan Ryan. Harcourt,Brace, 1995. ISBN: 0-15-676021-5. 

Reviewed by Lynne Doyle 

Every time I enter a bookstore, I look around for anything I can find about Mexico, and whenever I’m planning a trip to Mexico, I shop for paperbacks to take along. I found this little treasure in the travel section at Border’s and bought it mostly because its editor Alan Ryan suggests in his Introduction that when you travel to Mexico, you should be reading about Mexico.  

Ryan speaks movingly of wishing for a book that would be like having a trunk filled with letters from imaginary family and friends who have traveled for many years in Mexico. “Some loved the country and made it their own,” he writes of his imaginary penpals; “Some married and set up housekeeping, some went into business, other had terrific adventures. Still others remained skeptical but stayed on. Some visited briefly, saw what there was to see, and left. A few disliked the country, complained about everything, and couldn’t wait to get away. All of them sent back reports.”   

Since Ryan knew of no such book, he proceeded to create one himself. His only restrictions were that the inclusions be first-hand observations (for the vividness), authored within the last hundred years (“you have to draw the line somewhere¼”) and written by foreigners (“I am a foreigner in Mexico and I wanted to know about the experiences of other foreigners”). The commentaries were to touch on everything Mexican – food, people, places, arts, crafts, historical events, culture, personal impressions.  

Some of the accounts included in the resulting collection are excerpts from full books about Mexico and others are taken from magazine articles, newspapers and autobiographies just touching on Mexico. In some cases, there are several selections offering varying impressions of the same place, and in the case of Mexico City, various pieces viewing the city at different times. Not all accounts are favorable. In some instances, the writing works too hard to be clever, and oftentimes, the authors are strenuous in their positive – and negative – opinions. But each of them has offered a unique and fiercely individual – and frequently riotous – view of the marvelous contradiction that is Mexico.  

Many of the contributors are names we all know. In 1924, D. H. Lawrence wrote in full color of the Zapotec Indians of Oaxaca, Graham Greene is scathing in his description of traveling in Chiapas in 1938, and John Steinbeck’s essay on Cabo San Lucas in 1940, without electricity or cold beer, is memorable in the extreme. Several of the authors are names familiar to those of us who love to read about Mexico. Sybille Bedford’s descriptions of Mexico City in 1950, originally published as “The Sudden View” and eventually retitled “A Visit to Don Otavio” and published again in 1960 and 1986, actually moved me to get out and explore that great city. The excerpt from Rosa King’s 1935 “Tempest Over Mexico” (I received this lovely book as a gift when I graduated from college) breathlessly relates the arrival of Emilio Zapata at her home in Cuernavaca. The passage from Charles Flandreau’s book, “Viva Mexico,” published in 1908, addressing his view of the use of gold leaf in decoration, I think is one of the funniest paragraphs ever written.  

A significant number of the essays included are by people I had never heard of at all who simply were so affected by the country they were compelled to write about it. John Hilton writes glowingly of the flora and fauna of 1940’s Guaymas, a port on the Gulf of California, television personality Ilka Chase is hilarious in recounting a 1971 visit to Merida on the way to South America, and writer Paul Theroux paints an engrossing picture of crossing the border at Laredo on foot in 1978.

For me, however, the real miracle of this book lies in the prefaces that Ryan uses to introduce each writer’s work. He passes on information about each author and seeks to explain the circumstances connecting him or her to Mexico. Most exciting, though, is the inclusion of the many titles these pieces are drawn from. With my appetite whetted by this marvelous reader, I found not only the original works but also, in many cases, several other books about Mexico by the same authors.

For instance, in addition to her 1953 memoir “My Heart Lies South,” from which the side-splitting chapter “An American bride in Monterrey” was taken, Elizabeth Borton de Trevino added a second volume “Where the Heart Lies” in 1962, as well as the novels “The House on Bitterness Street,” “The Fourth Gift,” “The Heart Possessed,” and, in 1994, “Leona.” She has also written several award-winning children’s books designed to introduce the country of Mexico to young people. A writer of great charm and humor, Sra. de Trevino’s best work is that in which she describes her efforts to understand and adapt to foreign traditions, but all of her books are significant in their detailing of the physical and cultural landscape of mid-century Mexico. 

Another favorite writer I found in Ryan’s book is William Spratling, the self-proclaimed inventor of the silver industry in Taxco. Trained as an architect in Alabama, Spratling spent several summers in Mexico, eventually moving to Taxco permanently in 1930. A highly creative and shameless self-promoter, Spratling also takes credit for brokering the deal between US Ambassador Dwight Morrow and Diego Rivera resulting in the mural at Cortes’ Palace in Cuernavaca, and for the original design of the Hotel Rancho Taxco-Victoria, as well as for the invention of the margarita. Trading on his endless contacts among the movers and shakers of the era, in 1932 Spratling wrote “Little Mexico,” a funny if somewhat disorganized little book about his travels and experiences in Mexico. In 1967, he published his autobiography, “File on Spratling,” from which the hilarious chapter in Reader’s Companion on the building of his house in Taxco was taken. Ryan describes this book as “bluff, boastful, name-dropping, clever, pretentious and fascinating – like the man himself.” I can’t recommend it highly enough. 

Although Ryan is discouraging about the reader being able to access these mostly very old books, I was able to find many of them through Barnes and Nobel’s web-site under Out-of-Print Books. In turn, several of them mentioned works by other writers not included in Reader’s Companion –  all in all, a virtual gold mine to anyone looking to read about a lot of different Mexico’s.