Antes del Cinco de Mayo

mexico-641595_1920The fifth of May will be here soon.

Perhaps you’ll celebrate by wearing a sombrero, but Mexican culture is much more than a hat, a taco or a margarita. So if I may, I’d like to suggest a few more books, movies and artwork from Mexican artists for consumption.

1. Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel

One of Mexico’s famous novels tells the story of Tita, who is not allowed to marry her love, Pedro. Instead, she has to take care of her mother, so she can only express her love through cooking.

Esquivel’s book is sweet and funny and lovely and sad. It also experiments with form. Each chapter begins with a recipe for a traditional Mexican dish that will later tie into the story.

Not only is Like Water for Chocolate a wonderful book. It also made for a great movie.

2. Pan’s Labyrinth

Guillermo del Toro is one of the most popular and successful directors in Hollywood; but (give or take Pacific Rim) he is best known for a Spanish-language film about an oneiric girl living in Franco’s Spain.

Pan’s Labyrinth mixes fairy tales and frightening reality as the girl must face the magical denizens in her garden to save her mother. However, her final threat does not come from the world of magic.

You will smile several times while watching, but you’ll finish the film in tears.

3. Frida Kahlo & Diego Rivera

I intended to write separate entries for both of these artists, but they are so often paired together that it seemed unnatural. Of course, these artists were married (and divorced) (and then remarried;) but they are just as important as individuals as they are a couple.

Kahlo’s best known for her self-portraits; but, by painting herself, she depicted the female form and experience without compromise. Her work celebrated both Mexicans’ national and indigenous traditions.

Meanwhile, Rivera is best known for his frescoes and his role in establishing the Mexican Mural Movement. He painted murals in Mexico City (including in the National Palace), Cuernavaca, Detroit, New York and San Francisco. His murals sometimes included elements of culture, politics and religion (which he regarded as a collective neurosis.)

4. The Poems of Octavio Paz

Octavio Paz is a singular poet. I could tell you his awards. (He’s won the Nobel and Miguel de Cervantes prizes.) Discuss his subject matter. (Reality, revolution, love.) Try to give you comparisons. (Walt Whitman meets Jorge Luis Borges, maybe?)

But none of that cuts to the quick, and the quick is this: Paz is an intense, thoughtful poet. His words will move you.

5. The Book of Life

Jorge Gutierrez’s first feature film uses Mexican folklore and the celebration of the Day of the Dead to tell the story of three friends’ love triangle.

Gutierrez said one of his goals for the movie was to “show you what I think are a hundred of the thousands and thousands of ideas of what a Mexican is.”

6. Ugly Betty

You’re snickering or indignant right now. I just lumped in Ugly Betty with Frida Kahlo and Octavio Paz. How dare I?

But the telenovelas on which Ugly Betty is based and emulated are a big part of Latin American culture. Also, don’t be so judgmental. Ugly Betty was great. (Jane the Virgin‘s incredible too, if you want to check it out.)

7. Y tu Mamá También

Before Alfonso Cuaron directed Harry Potter or Gravity, he wrote and directed this story about two teens who travel across the country with an older woman. However, their mutual attraction for the woman threatens their friendship.

Beyond this septet of suggestions, we have hundreds of books, films and albums about Mexico, its history and culture. Check it out! You never know what you’ll learn.

(You can still have the margarita too.)

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