My Favorite Books About Mexican History

As a historian, I naturally have a growing library of books about history. Some of these books are fun to read, some are well-researched and some are both. Here, in no particular order, are a few of my favorite titles concerning Mexican history.

01
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The Olmecs, by Richard A. Diehl

Olmec Head at the Xalapa Anthropology Museum
Olmec Head at the Xalapa Anthropology Museum. Photo by Christopher Minster

Archaeologists and researchers are slowly shedding light on the mysterious Olmec culture of ancient Mesoamerica. Archaeologist Richard Diehl has been on the front lines of Olmec research for decades, doing pioneering work at San Lorenzo and other important Olmec sites. His book The Olmecs: America's First Civilization is the definitive work on the subject. Although it is a serious academic work often used as university textbooks, it is well-written and easy to understand. A must-have for anyone interested in Olmec culture.

02
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The Irish Soldiers of Mexico, by Michael Hogan

Riley.JPG
John Riley. Photo by Christopher Minster

In this critically-acclaimed history, Hogan tells the story of John Riley and the St. Patrick's Battalion, a group of mostly-Irish deserters from the US Army who joined the Mexican Army, fighting against their former comrades in the Mexican-American War. Hogan makes sense of what is on the surface a baffling decision - the Mexicans were losing badly and eventually would go on to lose every major engagement in the war - clearly explaining the motives and beliefs of the men who comprised the battalion. Best of all, he tells the story in an entertaining, engaging style, proving yet again that the best history books are the ones that feel like you're reading a novel.

03
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Villa and Zapata: a History of the Mexican Revolution, by Frank McLynn

Emiliano Zapata
Emiliano Zapata. Photographer Unknown

The Mexican Revolution is fascinating to learn about. The revolution was about class, power, reform, idealism and loyalty. Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata were not necessarily the most important men in the revolution - neither was ever president, for example - but their tale is the essence of the revolution. Villa was a hardened criminal, a bandit and legendary horseman, who had great ambition yet never seized the presidency for himself. Zapata was a peasant warlord, a man of little education but great charisma who became - and remained - the most dogged idealist the revolution produced. As McLynn follows these two characters through the conflict, the revolution takes shape and becomes clear. Highly recommended for those who love a rousing historical tale told by someone who has done impeccable research.

04
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The Conquest of New Spain, by Bernal Diaz

Hernan Cortes
Hernan Cortes.

By far the oldest book on this list, the Conquest of New Spain was written in the 1570's by Bernal Diaz, a conquistador who had been one of Hernán Cortés' footsoldiers during the conquest of Mexico. Diaz, a battered old war veteran, was not a very good writer, but what his tale is lacking in style it makes up for in keen observations and first-hand drama. The contact between the Aztec Empire and the Spanish conquistadors was one of the epic meetings in history, and Diaz was there for all of it. Although it's not the sort of book that you read cover-to-cover because you can't put it down, it's nevertheless one of my favorites because of its priceless content.

05
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So Far From God: the U.S. War with Mexico, 1846-1848, by John S. D. Eisenhower

Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna
Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. 1853 Photo

Another outstanding book about the Mexican-American War, this volume focuses on the war as a whole, from its beginnings in Texas and Washington to its conclusion in Mexico City. Battles are described in detail - but not too much detail, because such descriptions can get tedious. Eisenhower describes both sides in the war, devoting important sections to Mexican General Santa Anna and others, giving the book a well-balanced feel. It's got a good pace - intense enough to keep you turning the pages, but not so quick that anything important is missed or glossed over. The three phases of the war: Taylor's invasion, Scott's invasion and the war in the west are all given equal treatment. Read it along with Hogan's book about the St. Patrick's Battalion and you'll learn all you'll ever need to know about the Mexican-American War. Buy from Amazon »