What They’re Reading: Mexico’s Love of the Local

Think books are dead? Take a trip to Mexico City, where a market for fiction, self-help, and political works is thriving. FP recently spoke with Mexico-based publishing executive Cristóbal Pera to find out why.

Foreign Policy: What are people reading in Mexico?

Cristóbal Pera: There's a big market for political books, books that try to unveil corruption. Those that are a continuation of journalists' accounts are the kinds of books that become best-sellers here. Books are very hard on politicians who are successful. One book about Vicente Fox, the ex-president, [accused him] of possible corruption through his wife, and it has been a big success. Every year, there are one or two books that become big best-sellers because of what they expose.

FP: Unlike in much of the world, Mexicans and other Latin Americans seem to be buying books in greater numbers these days. Why are they bucking this global trend?

Foreign Policy: What are people reading in Mexico?

Cristóbal Pera: There’s a big market for political books, books that try to unveil corruption. Those that are a continuation of journalists’ accounts are the kinds of books that become best-sellers here. Books are very hard on politicians who are successful. One book about Vicente Fox, the ex-president, [accused him] of possible corruption through his wife, and it has been a big success. Every year, there are one or two books that become big best-sellers because of what they expose.

FP: Unlike in much of the world, Mexicans and other Latin Americans seem to be buying books in greater numbers these days. Why are they bucking this global trend?

CP: You have to take into account that the readership for a country of 100 million people is still very small. Now, there are some kinds of books that are read in huge numbers by that [poor] segment of the population: comic books, sex books, and so on. There is a cartoonist here named Rius, and he has published over 150 titles. [He] is very critical of the status quo. And he writes cartoon books explaining, "What is communism," "What is Cuba," or "What is the food that we eat, and why is it sh*t?" He explains simple things in a way that is easy to explain to a wide audience of poor people. He’s a hero in Mexico… a real reflection of the republic.

FP: So many other parts of the world elevate British and American translations to the top of their best-seller lists, but local works seem to enjoy a special popularity in Latin America, and in Mexico in particular. Why is that?

CP: I’ve wondered that myself. As a publishing company here in Mexico, we’re always trying to figure out why, if you publish a work by a local author, it will be a bigger hit than any Dan Brown or John Grisham novel. It may be nationalism. That sounds simplistic, but I think that’s part of it. Some of these books coming from America are good, they’re entertaining, but they’re not about us.

FP: Just a few decades ago, there was an enormous wave of interest, first in Europe and then in the United States, in Latin authors such as Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Jorge Luis Borges. But now, at a time when the world is supposedly more interconnected than ever before, Latin literature doesn’t seem to be making the same kind of impact abroad. How do you explain that?

CP: It’s true, it’s completely true. And there are many possible answers. But when those young authors appeared, it was a big surprise in the literary world, because their style, the stories they were telling, were completely new. In Germany, people couldn’t believe what they were reading when they [picked up] García Márquez, or Julio Cortázar. But the surprise factor has vanished now.

FP: Perhaps because so many people around the world have similar cultural experiences now?

CP: Because of that, and because the new Latin authors are not talking so much about Latin issues. The Latin American identity is not on the agenda of these young writers. They want to be international, they want to be loved [globally].

FP: How has the telenovela phenomenon influenced reading habits in Latin America?

CP: The mass consumption of telenovelas is even more relevant than [other forms of] fiction for the whole population. We have an author, Gustavo Bolívar, he’s Colombian. He wrote a novel called Sin tetas no hay paraíso (Without Breasts, There Is No Paradise). The title sounds horrible, but the novel sold 100,000 copies in Colombia. It came to Mexico, and we published it. And now NBC has paid $2.5 million for the rights in the States. So you can see in this case the clear connection between literature [and lowbrow culture]. Here is a novel about young girls who want [breast implants] because of peer pressure in Colombia… they feel it’s the only way out. And it has touched the imagination of everybody in Latin America.

Kate Palmer is deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy.

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