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Whether you are about to embark on a trip to a Latin American country or your are participating in the Embracing Diversity Challenge and looking for a good book to transport you into the intricacies of another culture, this list has the book for you. Here you will find the best books about Latin America for adults.
I must admit, since I majored in Spanish in college, I thought I had a giant arsenal of Latin American Literature stored in my head. However, as I began researching my favorite titles, I realized that most of them were written by people in the same two countries: Chile and Mexico. (Thank you Octavio Paz and Isabel Allende.) In an effort to make this a more well-rounded list, I scoured the book review sites to find at least one highly recommend title per country. So, if you hate the book, blame the book review sites and let me know so that we can find a better option. Meanwhile, enjoy your journey reading through Latin America.
P.S. If you know of any great titles that are missing from the list, please add them to the comments below!
The Best Books About Latin America and Mexico for Adults
For those of you participating in the Embracing Diversity Challenge, it may feel overwhelming to just pick one single, solitary country/culture out of the millions of options before you. Choosing a book that covers a span of countries and cultures, like these four, may be a good place to start.
Born in Blood and Fire: A Concise History of Latin America by John Charles Chasteen
For all of you history buffs out there, this book gives the history of Latin America written in a style that is enjoyable and easy to read.
The Buried Mirror: Reflections on Spain and the New World by Carlos Fuentes
In this book, Fuentes takes us deep into the culture of Latin America by starting at the beginning- Spain. He describes the history and development of Spain and then the voyage into the New World, the Americas. Fuentes also describes life in the Americas before the Spanish arrived and tells the tale of the Mayans, Incas, and Aztecs. He then shows how the two worlds collide to form what is now the culture of Latin America. One of the key points in his book is that the New World was formed out of diversity and, in essence, we are all “mixed”. Fuentes was already encouraging us to embrace diversity back in 1992!
The Motorcycle Diaries by Ernesto Guevara (South America)
I’ll be honest, I haven’t actually read this book but I did thoroughly enjoy the movie. The Motorcycle Diaries chronicle Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s six month journey across South America on his motorcycle with a friend. They travel from Argentina to Venezuela. In that time they fall in love with the vast diversity of the people and landscape of the country around them. Doesn’t it make you just want to sell it all and take a road trip on a motorcycle? Or maybe that’s just me…
Gran Cocina Latina: The Food of Latin America by Maricel Presilla
If you are more of a chef than a historian, why not explore Latin America through food? In this book, Presilla takes us on a culinary adventure through Latin America with more than 500 recipes. In addition to her delicious recipes and stunning photos, she adds information about culture and history to enhance our understanding of the story behind the mouth-watering dishes.
The Best Books about Latin America Divided by Country
If you are participating in the Diversity Challenge and your goal is to gain insight into a culture or people group, the more specific the better. Each country, and each community, has it’s own culture. If you are able to choose a specific country you want to learn about, you will gain a deeper understanding than if you set out to learn about Latin America as a whole. To help guide you, here is at least one book for each country in Latin America.
The Best Books about Mexico
Labyrinth of Solitude by Octavio Paz (Mexico)
This book was written by the great Octavio Paz, a very well-known poet. In this book he not only provides us with a view into Mexican culture but also touches on the peril that Latin America as a whole faces and the relationship with North America. If you are up for a little reading in Spanish, you can read El Laberinto de la Soledad.
The Diary of Frida Khalo: An Intimate Self-Portrait by Carlos Fuentes (Mexico)
For those artists out there, Frida Khalo’s diary is the perfect way to mix in a love of culture with a love of art. This novel is based on a diary Frida kept during the last ten years of her life. It is full of poems, dreams, reflections and drawings of her life.
The Best Books about Central America
Understanding Belize: A Historical Guide by Alan Twigg (Belize)
When I was looking for books about Belize, I mostly found travel guides or historical text books. Honestly, Thirteen Chapters of A History of Belize sounds fascinating because it focuses on the history of the country through the eyes of the common man and woman. However, the price tag seemed a little steep so I settled for this one as a happy medium.
Understanding Belize: A Historical Guide by Alan Twigg, gives us a glimpse into Belize back in the colonial days when it was a favorite hub for pirates, up to its current status as a hot spot for ecotourism. Twigg includes images and timelines to help us understand the country for what it really is and see the rich cultural complexity behind the beautiful flowers and pristine waters.
Silence on the Mountain: Tales of Terror, Betrayal and Forgetting by Daniel Wilkinson (Guatemala)
This book, written by a young human rights worker, tales the tale of Guatamala’s 36 year internal war. The tale begins when the author decides to investigate a mysterious fire that consumed a coffee plantation and learned there is much more than meets the eye. His investigation lead him deep into Guatemala’s silent civil war and the survival strategies that the people learned to keep them safe.
I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala (Guatemala)
This novel is about an Indian woman, Rigoberta Menchú, and the injustices and hardships she and the rest of her indigenous community endured. Menchú chose to learn Spanish and dedicate herself to the church. In these pages we see Menchú cling to her traditional beliefs while courageously seeking justice.
Senselessness by Horacio Catellanos Moya (Central America)
Horacio Castellanos Moya is an author who was exiled from Honduras. His novel is set in an unamed country but there is speculation that he is discussing El Salvador, Honduras, or Guatemala. This is one of eight fiction works by Catellanos Moya. In this novel, he tells the tale of a writer tasked with the chore of “cleaning up” a report for the country’s Catholic Archdiocse that tells of the murder of indigenous villagers by the thousands. The catch? The murderers are the very people still in charge.
Secrets and Lies in El Salvador by Sherrie Miranda (El Salvador)
This book tells the fictitious tale of an American woman witnessing the violence and bloodshed in war ridden El Salvador. It gives readers a firsthand look into the country during the 1980’s during a civil war between the rich government and the everyday people. Although Miranda’s book may not be the best choice for the faint of heart, she does weave threads of hope and love amidst the terror.
The Broken Village: Coffee, Migration and Globalization in Honduras by Daniel R. Reichman (Honduras)
In his book, Reichman brings us to “La Quebrada”, a small coffee-growing town that turned into a hub for undocumented migration into the US overnight. The author documents how this change transformed the community, family dynamics and the local politics.
For those of you interested in the current migration crisis, this is a great roundup of books that give us a view into the reality of immigration. If you prefer visuals over reading, Ada Trillo is an amazing painter turned photographer who documented the caravan this past year as she traveled alongside a friend.
Stories and Poems by Ruben Dario (Nicaragua)
Although Dario’s poetry often talks more of symbolism and sesnualism than everyday life, I felt I couldn’t mention Nicaragua without Ruben Dario, a famous Nicaraguan poet and journalist. This book is a collection of Darios best poems written in both Spanish and English.
The Ladies of Managua by Eleni N. Gage (Nicaragua)
This captivating novel tells of Maria’s return to Nicaragua for her grandfather’s funeral. However, her trip home means confronting more than her grandfather’s death. Maria was raised by her grandmother after the death of her own father, while her mother dedicated her life to becoming a revolutionary and is now a government official. As the three women are reunited, they are forced to reconcile their complicated relationships and let go of the secrets that have kept them apart.
Monkeys Are Made of Chocolate: Exotic and Unseen Costa Rica by Jack Ewing (C0sta Rica)
Oh how I wish they were! (Monkeys made of chocolate…) Jack Ewig moved to Costa RIca as a cattle farmer, after purchasing a farm there. However, he quickly became fascinated by the rich and exotic Costa Rican landscape. He became an environmentalist and a naturalist and his cattle farm turned into Hacienda Barú National Wildlife Refuge, a must see for Costa Rican travelers. In this book he shares his observations and interactions with the beautiful animals that he’s spent three decades getting to know. His tales gives us a glimpse into the beauty, culture, and rich wildlife of Costa Rica told through fun short stories.
The Tailor of Panama by Johon Le Carré (Panama)
This is the tale of Henry Pendel, a tailor for Panama’s elite. However, he is also a informant to British Intelligence with a hidden agenda of his own. However, when his secret plans go haywire and he finds himself with more than he can handle, he has to face the unthinkable consequences of his own lies and deceit.
The World in Half by Cristina Hernriquez (Panama)
After returning home to care for her sick mother, Miraflores discovers that the father she never knew actually deeply loved her and her mother. In an effort to heal her mother, Miraflores plans a trip to Panama to find her father and find the truth behind her identity. She brilliantly describes the landscape and culture while bringing to life her characters and her journey to define her sense of self.
The Best Books about the Caribbean
Conquistadora by Esmeralda Santiago (Puerto Rico)
This book comes to you highly recommend by my good friend and brilliant writer, Jennifer Schifano. Conquistadora tells the story of a young Spanish woman, Ana, who is fascinated by Puerto Rico. She marries a man named Ramon and finally has the opportunity to travel to the land of her dreams. There she helps run a sugar plantain. However, in the midst of her adventure, a civil war breaks out in the US and her life and livelihood are in danger. She does whatever it takes to maintain this land that has now become her home.
The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway (Cuba)
I felt like leaving out a classic such as this would make for an incomplete book list. “The Old Man and the Sea” is considered one of Hemmingway’s finest works. It tells of an old Cuban fisherman struggling to get by and his battle to overcome a giant marlin far out at sea. In reality, the theme of the book is overcoming trials of all kind, not just the marlins at sea. Although Hemingway doesn’t dig deep into Cuban life and culture it is a good read nonetheless.
Next Year in Havana by Chanel Cleeton (Cuba)
I struggled with this one. After visiting Cuba a few years ago, I wanted to find a book that reveals the complexity of Cuba and beauty of its landscape and people. It is like a pristine land frozen in time marred by oppressive politics. Unfortunately, I don’t think it is possible to capture all that in a book. Hopefully this one comes close.
Next Year in Havana tells of a young girl, Marisol, who is tasked with sprinkling her late grandmother, Elisa’s ashes in her homeland of Cuba. Elisa and her family fled Cuba during the revolution and her dying wish was to be returned to her homeland. When Marisol arrives, she is face to face with the exact things I described above, Cuba’s breathtaking landscape contrasted by the complex political state. As she begins to learn more about her family’s past, she meets a man who will require her to learn from her grandmother’s past in order to find the courage to move forward.
How the Garcia Girls Lost their Accents by Julia Alvarez (Dominican Republic and US)
Although this book is set in the US, it tells the story of a recently immigrated Dominican family and their struggle to adapt to their new lives. It gives us insight into life in the Dominican Republic as well as the reality of the struggles immigrant families face.
While the girls all find their place and are able to adjust to life in the US, their parents continue to struggle. This causes the girls to feel embarrassed by their parents and search for ways to rebel against them. As someone who works with immigrants on a daily basis, I can promise you that this struggle is real. This is a great read for anyone interested in the immigrant journey.
In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez (Dominican Republic)
Can you tell I am a fan of Julia Alvarez? In this brilliant work, Alvarez tells the story of three sisters who were found near their wrecked Jeep at the bottom of a cliff in the 1960’s. The news claims it was an accident but everyone knows the truth. The sisters were called “Las Mariposas” and they were leading opponents against Gen. Rafael Leónidas Trujillo’s dictatorship. Alvarez tells their story from each sister’s point of view, including Dede, the sister who did not die in the crash. This is the story of their courage amidst the oppression.
In a Sun-Scorched Land: A memoir of adoption, faith and the moving of Haiti’s Mountains by Jennifer Ebenhack (Haiti)
I am partial to this book because I actually had the opportunity to live a brief six weeks of the Ebenhack’s adventure as one of their interns in college. The Ebenhacks first went to Haiti to adopt two children. That trip turned into an eight year adventure in Haiti. She tells stories of ministry, danger, disappoint and dead ends, all while waiting for their adoptions to be finalized. Jennifer captures the beauty and complexity of the Haitian culture and people in a way that brings them to life from the pages.
The Farming of Bones by Edwidge Danticat (Haiti and the Dominican Republic)
Here we find Amabelle, a young Hatian woman living in the Dominican Rebuplic and working as a servant for a wealthy colonel. She is comfortable with her life and job and plans to marry a cane worker named Sebasiten. However, everything changes when dictator Rafael Trujillo leads a movement of genocide against the Hatian workers, called the Parsley Massacre. Amabelle finds herself running to Haiti, a land she barely knows or remembers, to survive.
The Best Books about South America
Crude Nation: How Oil Riches Ruined Venezuela by Raul Gallegos (Venezuela)
Venezuela is home to one of the world’s largest crude oil reserves. Yet, mismanagement of this wealth and potential prosperity has lead to an economic disaster. The author, who was once an oil correspondent based in Caracas, gives us an inside look into the country’s economic decline. While Venezuelans can fill a tank of gas for less than $1 USD, they struggle to find life’s basic necessities. Gallegos lays out the events that lead to Venezuela’s current state and what can be done to begin repairing the country.
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Colombia)
I couldn’t pass through Colombia without mentioning the great Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Really any title from this author will be a great read. I also like 100 Years of Solitude and Love and Other Demons.
However, Love in the Time of Cholera tells the love story of Fermina and Florentino. The fall deeply in love at a young age but Fermina decides to marry a wealthy doctor instead. Florentino is devestated but doesn’t give up hope. He spends his years jumping from one affair to the next waiting for opportunity to strike. When Fermina’s husband dies, Florentino attends the funeral. After fifty years of waiting, he declares his love for Fermina again.
The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vasquez (Colombia)
This book tells the story of Colombia that most of us are at least vaguely familiar with, the days of Escobar and the drug trade. This novel tells of the war between Escobar and the government and how it affected the lives of the average civilian, who didn’t choose to enter the war at all. The author gives brings us into an entire generation trapped in a nightmare with no way to wake up.
The Panama Hat Trail by Tom Miller (Ecuador)
Spoiler alert! The Panama hat isn’t actually from Panama. They are made in Ecuador. In this book, Tom Miller traces the journey of the making and selling of a Panama hat from beginning to end. He uses the hat as a symbol to take us on a journey through Ecuador, from the Andes to the Amazon. According to National Geographic Traveler, this is “one of the best travel books ever written”. So put on your Panama hat and pick up this book, together you’ll be in for a treat.
The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende (Chile)
Anything by Isabel Allende is guaranteed to be a great read. This captivating novel weaves the spirit world together with real life romance, tragedy and politics. The story spans three generations and ends at a coup against the elected government, who was actually Salvador Allende, the author’s uncle.
If you are a fan of Allende, you could also check out her memoir, My Invented Country: A Nostalgic Memoir Through Chile where Allende leads us through the intimate details of her home and family growing up. She reveals how the overthrow and death of her uncle lead her to become a writer and her feelings of being an outsider wherever she went. This memoir gives a poignant view into the life of an immigrant and the paradoxes that all of us have in our inner lives.
By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolaño (Chile)
This is short novel but don’t let that fool you. It requires your full attention as it takes you deep into life in Chile during the time of the Allende overthrow and Pinochet. It tells the story of a young boy who wants to be a poet but ends up as a Jesuit priest and literary critic instead. The author reveals the interesting relationship between church and state in Chile during this time.
Fully Empowered by Pablo Nerudo
I had to include one more for my poetry lovers. Since Nerudo was considered one of the best poets of the 20th century and he was born in Chile, I am including it here with the other Chilean writers. This book includes 36 of Nerudo’s favorite poems. If you are looking for an insight into Chilean life through poetry, don’t miss “The People” or “El Pueblo” in Spanish. This is one of Nerudo’s most famous poems and it tells of the life of the Chilean working man from past to present.
With Love, The Argentina Family: Memories of Tango and Kugel; Mate with Kinshes by Mirta Ines Trupp (Argentina)
This book offers an interesting perspective of a girl from Argentina living in the US. It tales the tale of her family’s struggle and sadness of leaving their family back in Argentina and this young migrant girls battle to combine the threads of her Jewish, Argentinian, and now American identities.
Turn Right at Machu Picchu: Rediscovering the Lost City on Step at a Time by Mark Adams (Peru)
Mark Adams sets out on an adventure to retrace the steps of Hiram Bingham, the explorer who discovered Machu Picchu back in 1911. This book is an engaging and humorous account of Adam’s quest to discover what exactly was Machu Picchu?
Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of the 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine and the Miracle that Set them Free by Hector Tobár (Chile)
If you prefer modern-day literature over historic fiction, this award-winning work is your ticket into life in Chile. Tobár gives us an inside look into the lives, thoughts, and struggles of the workers who were trapped for 69 days underground in the mine and whose lives will never be the same.
Deconstructing Brazil: Beyond Carnival, Soccer and Girls in Small Bikinis by Simone Torres Costa
This book helps us understand Brazil beyond the stereotypes. The author, who is a Brazilian interculturalist and psychologist, dives into the multicultural history of his country. His book is aimed at helping people understand how the cultural formation impacts personal and professional interactions. For anyone planning to move to Brazil or even just visit, this is a must read.
Evo Morales: The Extraordinary Rise of the First Indigenous President of Bolivia (Bolivia)
According to James Dunkerley, the author of Bolivia: Revolution and the Power of History in the Present, Evo Morales is the most well known Bolivian since Simon Bolivar. As the first indigenous president of Bolivia, Morales has fearlessly spoken out against injustices, reached out to his enemies and made his mark as one of the most important figures in South American politics. This book takes us from his humble childhood to where Morales stands today.
At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig: Travels Through Paraguay
As I was looking for books about Paraguay, all that came up were travel books. Although I secretly love flipping through travel books to mentally fly across the world a see new lands, travel books don’t generally do deep dives into culture and lifestyle.
Although the title of this one threw me off a little bit, the reviews say it is a very entertaining chronicle of the complexities of Paraguay, “an island surrounded by land”. The author relies on irony and humor to portray the beauty, charm and also horror of this intriguing land.
My deepest apologies to Uraguay, Guyana, French Guana, and Suriname but it was so hard to find anything that wasn’t a travel guide that I decided to publish what I’d found so far and keep looking. If you know of any great books that should have made this list, please comment below and I will be sure to add them!