Tag Archives: Barbara Kingsolver

Five Meaningful Books About Mexico to Recommend and Why

I travel to Oaxaca, Mexico, regularly and someday, hopefully soon, I will be there more frequently for longer periods of time.  I am fascinated by the richness and vibrancy of the culture, archeology, history and art.  Art is everywhere.  From the food in the markets to the textiles and crafts to fine art expressed through painting and sculpture and the ballads vocalized by Lila Downs and Susana Harp.  There is tradition in Mexico that is manifested through form, color and texture.

As a consequence, I am most apt to select my reading material based on its relevancy to Mexico, Oaxaca, political and historical developments, and artistic expression.  I recently completed reading  (1)The Lacuna” by Barbara Kingsolver.  It is an extraordinary novel about a writer raised in Mexico and influenced by the icons of the thirties, Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and Leon Trotsky  The book explores the dichotomy of identity that is so prevalent among Mexican social and cultural position — the duality of indigenous and Spanish heritage, asking the question: Where do I belong?

(2) I just ordered and received “Oaxacan Ceramics: Traditional Folk Art by Oaxacan Women” by Wellesley College professor Lois Wasserspring.  I recently met Lois and we talked about the extraordinary pottery created by Dolores Porras who recently died and is featured in her book.  I am fortunate to have a few of Dolores’ pieces.

(3) Another favorite is “Zapotec Women, Gender, Class and Ethnicity in Globalized Oaxaca” by cultural anthropologist and professor Lynn Stephen who teaches at the University of Oregon.  The title says it all.  While it is a college text, it is a great read and if you are interested in women’s issues, roles and rights in Mexico, you’ll find this informative and not dense.

(4) Right next to that is “Made in Mexico: Zapotec Weavers and the Global Ethnic Art Market” by W. Warner Wood, assistant professor of anthropology and museum studies at Central Washington University.  He describes the economic forces that drive prices and production of handwoven textiles in Teotitlan del Valle.

(5) Finally, “Zapotec Weavers of Teotitlan” by Andra Fischgrund Stanton features fabulous photographs of handwoven tapestry rugs and other textiles made by master weavers in the village, including my friend Federico Chavez Sosa. It includes personal stories and family histories, along with weaving techniques and materials used for dyeing wool.

I never cease to be amazed by the talent in Oaxaca.  These books are treasures to enrich my understanding and appreciation of this incredible region.


Book Review: The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

Cover of "The Lacuna: A Novel"

Cover of The Lacuna: A Novel

If you want to understand Mexico and the U.S. more fully, read this book.

Subtle themes of identity, conflicts between people and countries, emptiness, loneliness and belonging punctuate Barbara Kingsolver’s most recent novel, The LacunaLacuna is a complex word and Kingsolver uses it with agility and depth. It means a gap, a hole, a missing piece, an extended silence, the lack of law or legal source.  In the novel it is a cenote, a hole in the earth and place to disappear or be swallowed up, to die and become reinvented.  The image that comes to my mind when I think about this concept is Edvard Munch’s painting, “The Scream” – a silent, gaping mouth that expresses all the pain in the world without emitting a single sound.

The Aztecs and Mayans used human sacrifice to appease deities by sending maidens, political opponents, and captured innocents to their deaths, pushing them into deep limestone, water-filled cenotes.  In the lacunae of modernity our political and social systems, and laws that codify authority sacrifice innocents as well as vocal opponents to the God of power, control, conformity, and profit.

The novel begins and ends in Mexico.  Mexico is at its heart.  Mexico is the thread that binds this story.  Kingsolver’s protagonist is Harrison William Shepherd, brought into the world as a result of a precarious union between an American man and Mexican woman.  They represent the conflicting gaps between two nations bound together by virtue of sharing the same continent, border, and struggle for nationhood that took different directions.

Shepherd, is a mestizo, though not by traditional definition.  The Mexican mestizo is considered by political and social commentators to be the embodiment of conflicted identity that emerged from the comingling of the conquering Spanish and indigenous Mesoamerican.  La Malinche, Cortes’ indigenous consort, is the symbol of the ultimate betrayal.

Kingsolver creates a mestizo who also does not belong fully to either parentage.  His American father is a Washington, DC bureaucrat, rule-bound, conservative, and emotionally unavailable.  His Mexican mother is bold, fiery, impetuous, and rebellious.  They see in the other what they want to become and are incapable of making the relationship work.   The mother flees the marriage, taking her young son to Mexico and the magnificent story unfolds.  It is filled with mystery and sublime description as Shepherd explores his own identity, where he belongs, his own voice as a writer of fiction, and role as an active or passive player in life.

The Lacuna takes us through a thirty-year span of political and social upheaval from the 1920’s to the 1950’s.  Through the eyes of fictional Shepherd and his personal secretary Violet Brown, along with Kingsolver’s humanizing portrayals of Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Leon Trotsky, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman, we understand the impact of the Russian Revolution, Stalinism, the Great Depression, World War II, the atom bomb, The Cold War, McCarthyism, sexual identity and the lacuna that fear creates in the hearts and minds of would-be decent human beings.

Washington Post Review by Ron Charles: