When I travel I always look for a specific souvenir – a book. Specifically, I always buy a book by an author native to whatever country I am in. Bonus points if it is about the country I am in.
The world is looking a lot different these days. Since a lot of us have more time on our hands, why not spend it with a good book.
Physical travel may have taken a pause, but that doesn’t mean you can’t explore the world. Reading can (and will) transport you to another time, another land, and an unforgettable journey.
Let’s travel the world through our bookcases and see what there is to explore! Each week we will go on a journey to a different region of the world where we will highlight authors and stories from the region and diaspora.
*Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links – this means I get a commission at no cost to you on any purchases made through the linked books below
I’d like to start our world book tour in a region where I personally enjoy reading. Now I may be biased because I am Latina but Latin America has some of the most influential writers of all time. Not to mention a genre that has dominated Latin American reading culture – magical realism.
All of these books are available in at least English and Spanish. While I personally prefer to read Latin American authors in Spanish, some authors are from their respective diasporas and have originally published in English! Ready? Let’s dive right in!
OK OK I know what you’re thinking, of course la Cubana is going to put Cuba first. Well you got me there. Home is where I am most comfortable and where some great works of literature lie.
Oh, the Cuban diaspora is a tricky beast. Cubans deal with heavy generational trauma from leaving the island. In this book you see three generations of Cuban women; Celia, la abuela who has stayed in Cuba & whose memories and imagination run wild, her daughter who has left Cuba for New York, and her granddaughter Pilar – a Brooklyn raised Cuban-American who isn’t sure where home is. This book has elements of magical realism, as well as real feelings that (us) Cuban-Americans navigate on the fine line of “where do we belong?
In various points of view across different short stories, Ana Menendez accurately depicts the mixed feelings of Cubans and Cuban-Americans. These stories capture the pride of being Cuban, the frustration of trying to assimilate in the United States, and the pain of missing home.
While the title is pretty self explanatory, the book is about Reyita, and Afro-Cuban woman born in 1902. Reyita herself recounts her life to her daughter who has managed to capture her incredible voice and powerful memories of being a black Cuban woman throughout a century of experiences. These experiences include prejudice, internalized racism, sexuality, and politics. This book is extremely important because of the large Afro-Cuban population that for many years had their voices silenced by white counterparts on the island.
*Bonus book for the little ones:
I am obsessed with the bilingual Lil Libros books for young children. I had the Celia and El Chavo books on my baby shower registry. So when they dropped the Havana book you know I needed it for my son’s growing collection. I just about cried when I read it to him because the illustrations are not only beautiful, but they somehow capture the island’s energy.
As much as I wanted to put books by Jose Marti, Fidel Castro, and if you want to count Che Guevara (he was a Cuban citizen after all), they are well known and you would have expected it! So I’m here to keep you on your toes. If you ever want more Cuba book recommendations, feel free to reach out as half my library is filled with books about/based in Cuba.
Colombia’s most well known author, Gabriel Garcia Marquez (or Gabo) is one of the most influential authors OF ALL TIME in the genre of magical realism. 100 Years of Solitude anyone? I will admit, that was rough for me to get through in English or in Spanish. I prefer to read Gabo in Spanish as the magical realism within his books are painted more vividly. I’ve read almost his entire collection and his style of writing is unmatched.
If you’re looking to get some insight to the drug and paramilitary wars that ravaged the country in the 1980-90’s might I suggest the following:
Pablo Escobar’s son depicts a firsthand account of the life and crimes of one man. While Escobar’s story has been told time and time again, no account has taken us this close to the man who is arguably the most infamous narco of our time.
This book discusses Colombia post-Pablo and the lengths the paramilitary went to maintain fear and control throughout the 1990’s. It also discusses the ties the Colombian government had to these paramilitary groups and a group of people who never stopped fighting for the truth.
While the author is not Guatemalan, the story is based on true events of Juan Gerardi – a Guatemalan Bishop and activist who was killed in the 1980’s. It depicts how gangs ran rampant in this small town and how one man, Bishop Gerardi, fought hard to create safety in his home.
Here we meet Olivia, a girl raised in the lush mountains of Guatemala. It seems as if her fate is that of many other girls in the area – poor, forced to work in the plantations, and abused by those in power. Until a nun crosses her path and offers her the chance at schooling in the capital city. It depicts not only the physical journey Olivia takes, but the journey of loving herself and loving her humble, indigenous roots.
I can’t write a book post on Mexico without Como Agua Para Chocolate by Laura Esquivel. A beautiful and moving story but please whatever you do, do not watch the movie, it has none of the magic of the book.
Luis Alberto Urrea is an incredible writer with works such as Into The Beautiful North. This story depicts a town where all the men have disappeared to work in the United States. One girl decides to venture north to bring them home to protect their town from the mounting gang influence. I would absolutely recommend Urrea’s other works such as The Hummingbird’s Daughter and The House of Broken Angels.
While this book isn’t only about Mexican migrants, Jorge Ramos is a Mexican journalist and this takes place at the US-Mexico border. A heartbreaking true story about an avoidable tragedy. A number of migrants were killed after crossing the border in search for a better life. This is an absolute must read to get a glimpse of the dangers immigrants put themselves in, and the reasons for doing so. I cried more than I ever have when reading this book.
One of my favorite authors is Gioconda Belli. A former Sandinista, she recounts her incredible life during the Nicaraguan revolution in the 1970s. An incredible true life story of love for her homeland, love for her family, and the desire to fight for what she believed in. I could not put this book down! A fast paced, must read for an intimate look on a Latin American Revolution.
Puerto Rico 🇵🇷
When I was Puerto Rican is an absolutely raw and at times heartbreaking account of Santiago’s childhood on the island. It also depicts when she was abruptly forced to leave behind her life for one in New York City. Santiago really lets us walk in her shoes when she talks about her homeland, and at the same time we can feel her confusion when she is forced to assimilate in the US.
Fair warning – do not open this book if you’re hungry! Jessica aka The Dining Traveler has traveled throughout her homeland of Puerto Rico and dives deep into lesser known areas. She shares the diverse landscapes (and foodscapes) of the island with stunning photography that will make you feel like you are there. She interviews people from different communities across Puerto Rico who share their favorite things to see and places to eat.
If you made it this far, comment on my latest Instagram post “I want to go to Puerto Rico” for an entry to win a signed copy of The Dining Traveler’s Guide to Puerto Rico!
The World Awaits
I could write all day about Latin American literature, but then I’d have a 20 page blog post. We needed to make way for the rest of the world! However I do need to mention these countries as they have some of the most popular and most influential authors of all time.
Brazil has the incredible Paulo Coelho. Creator of The Alchemist, Veronika Decides to Die, Manuscript Found in Accra – I could go on forever. I’m sure you have read him and if you haven’t you should. His books are life changing.
Chile has Isabel Allende (born in Peru), she has dominated popular magical realism with incredible books such as La Casa de los Espiritus (The House of the Spirits), Eva Luna, The Japanese Lover among so many more. As well as the internationally acclaimed poet, Pablo Neruda.
Dominican Republic has Julia Alvarez, author of Before we were Free and In the Time of the Butterflies – a remarkable take on Las Hermanas Mirabal – real life sisters who were involved in clandestine activities to overthrow the dictator Rafael Trujillo.
Take a break, grab a book
I hope this has inspired you to travel through the pages of a book – or your e-reader, I don’t judge! The books and authors I have chosen to highlight are a small taste of what these countries have to offer.
I have many more books, stories, poems, and authors to share with you all from around the world! If you’d like more information on any of these books or regions, I am only a click away! Connect with me through email or social media. Let me know if you’ve read any of these. If you have a favorite that maybe I didn’t mention or a suggestion for a new book reach out!