The best classic books for understanding Latin America

June Carolyn Erlick Author Of A Gringa in Bogotá: Living Colombia's Invisible War
By June Carolyn Erlick

Who am I?

I accidentally fell in love with Latin America, a love that has lasted my lifetime. When I was young, I lived in a Dominican neighborhood in New York, learning Spanish from my neighbors. After I graduated from Columbia Graduate School of Journalism I got a job covering the Cuban community in New Jersey because I spoke Spanish. Eventually I ended up living in Colombia and then Managua as a foreign correspondent. Now I edit a magazine at Harvard about Latin America. It's not just the news that interests me; I love the cadence of the language, the smell and taste of its varied cuisine, the warmth of the people, the culture, and, yes, soccer.


I wrote...

A Gringa in Bogotá: Living Colombia's Invisible War

By June Carolyn Erlick,

Book cover of A Gringa in Bogotá: Living Colombia's Invisible War

What is my book about?

To many foreigners, Colombia is a nightmare of drugs and violence, even as it struggles with peace. Yet normal life continues. This paradox of perceptions drew June Carolyn Erlick, who had lived in the country for almost a decade in the 70s and 80s, back to Colombia to try to understand how Bogotá, its capital, had changed. She creates her portrait of Bogotá through a series of vivid vignettes that cover many aspects of city life. A must-read for anyone who plans to travel or who has a Colombian in their family. 

The books I picked & why

Shepherd is reader supported. We may earn an affiliate commission when you buy through links on our website. This is how we fund this project for readers and authors (learn more).

Cry of the People

By Penny Lernoux,

Book cover of Cry of the People

Why this book?

Long before people talked about the importance of the church in Latin America, veteran Bogota-based journalist (1940-1989), a book about the struggle for human rights in the region, shone a vivid narrative light on the emergence of a church that upheld the preferential option for the poor. Her book, a classic in its own right, feels very relevant today because she discusses the role of the U.S. government in fascism, torture, murder, and the persecution of the progressive church in Latin America.

Her powerful book is not abstract analysis. She travels to dozens of countries to talk with nuns, priests, activists, peasants, and the urban poor. A must-read for anyone wanting to understand Latin America, yesterday, today, and tomorrow. I've spent years covering Latin America and I learned so much from this book.  

Cry of the People

By Penny Lernoux,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Cry of the People as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.


The Heart That Bleeds: Latin America Now

By Alma Guillermoprieto,

Book cover of The Heart That Bleeds: Latin America Now

Why this book?

Mexican-born, Bogotá-based New Yorker writer Alma Guillermoprieto writes about Latin America in a vivid, compassionate way, using individual stories to tease out trends and shed a light on history. I've loved all of Guillermoprieto's books, including her wonderful chronicles about dancing in Cuba and Brazil, but this volume is a true classic. She captures the feeling of the spirit of Latin America and Latin Americans. Even when I've been to the places she describes, she makes me see them in a different way through her meticulous reporting and lush descriptions.

What I like best about Guillermoprieto is that she looks into ordinary lives, ranging from Mexican garbage pickers to the window-pane fixers who make a living in Bogotá after glass is shattered by bombs.

The Heart That Bleeds: Latin America Now

By Alma Guillermoprieto,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Heart That Bleeds as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An extraordinarily vivid, unflinching series of portraits of South America today, written from the inside out, by the award-winning New Yorker journalist and widely admired author of Samba.


Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala

By Stephen Schlesinger, Stephen Kinzer,

Book cover of Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala

Why this book?

This book reads like a thriller. The first time I read it, I just couldn't put it down. And every time I reread it, as history unfolds in Latin America, I see how this classic book about the U.S. overthrow of the legitimately elected government in Guatemala in 1954 is actually describing the fundamental basis of intervention in the Cold War that laid the ground for so many of the region's dictatorship.

Bitter Fruit is a brilliant piece of investigation and a story well-told.

Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala

By Stephen Schlesinger, Stephen Kinzer,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Bitter Fruit as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Bitter Fruit is a comprehensive and insightful account of the CIA operation to overthrow the democratically elected government of Jacobo Arbenz of Guatemala in 1954. First published in 1982, this book has become a classic, a textbook case of the relationship between the United States and the Third World. The authors make extensive use of U.S. government documents and interviews with former CIA and other officials. It is a warning of what happens when the United States abuses its power.


How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic

By Ariel Dorfman, Armand Mattelart,

Book cover of How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic

Why this book?

Despite its garish cover, How to Read Donald Duck is not about cartoons. It's a penetrating analysis from a Marxist and nationalist perspective that helped me understand the influence of Disney in particular and U.S. entertainment exports in general in Latin America. The book was originally published in Spanish as "Para Leer el Pato Donald." The book was considered so dangerous that the Chilean Navy dumped the entire third edition into the sea during the dictatorship. 

The book was my first insight into what's known in leftist circles as U.S. cultural imperialism. A lot has changed and lot has not since the book was first written, but it makes me reflect on the role U.S. cultural products play in Latin America today.

How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic

By Ariel Dorfman, Armand Mattelart,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked How to Read Donald Duck as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

First published in 1971, How to Read Donald Duck shocked readers by revealing how capitalist ideology operates in our most beloved cartoons. Having survived bonfires, impounding and being dumped into the ocean by the Chilean army, this controversial book is once again back on our shelves.

Written and published during the blossoming of Salvador Allende's revolutionary socialism, the book examines how Disney comics not only reflect capitalist ideology, but are active agents working in this ideology's favour. Focusing on the hapless mice and ducks of Disney, curiously parentless, marginalised and always short of cash, Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart expose…


The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America

By Greg Grandin,

Book cover of The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America

Why this book?

Greg Grandin is a historian's historian, a brilliant researcher, a captivating writer. It's honestly hard to pick which of his books to feature here. But since The End of the Myth won the Pultizer Prize, I'll choose it as my favorite. What I loved about this book is that it gives me a new perspective about the history of my own country—about which, frankly, I do not know that much—and the region I have reported on for most of my life, Latin America. He makes connections and does so in a compelling fashion.

The book focuses on the United States and the border, but it sheds much light on how the myth of manifest destiny has shaped the way we think of ourselves and our relationship with our southern neighbors.

The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America

By Greg Grandin,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The End of the Myth as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

WINNER OF THE PULITZER PRIZE

A new and eye-opening interpretation of the meaning of the frontier, from early westward expansion to Trump’s border wall.

Ever since this nation’s inception, the idea of an open and ever-expanding frontier has been central to American identity. Symbolizing a future of endless promise, it was the foundation of the United States’ belief in itself as an exceptional nation – democratic, individualistic, forward-looking. Today, though, America hasa new symbol: the border wall.

In The End of the Myth, acclaimed historian Greg Grandin explores the meaning of the frontier throughout the full sweep of U.S. history…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Latin America, international relations, and politics?

7,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Latin America, international relations, and politics.

Latin America Explore 72 books about Latin America
International Relations Explore 175 books about international relations
Politics Explore 480 books about politics

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Toward- Freedom, Pan-Asianism and Japan's War 1931-1945, and The Night Watch if you like this list.