The best books to fall in love with Yucatan’s ethnography

Why am I passionate about this?

I grew up in Valladolid, a semi-rural city of Yucatan. My parents loved the history and archaeology of the Yucatan peninsula, which not long ago was a single cultural and linguistic entity. I grew up dreaming of becoming an archaeologist. With time, I became fascinated with people and sociality within and beyond Yucatan, so I became an anthropologist. I trained as an anthropologist in Mexico and Canada, and have done research in Canada, Italy, Mexico, and Spain. I live and work in Yucatan, as a professor of anthropology. Good ethnographies are what anthropology is about, and those I write about here are some of the best.


I wrote...

Beautiful Politics of Music: Trova in Yucatan, Mexico

By Gabriela Vargas-Cetina,

Book cover of Beautiful Politics of Music: Trova in Yucatan, Mexico

What is my book about?

My book features the history and description of the world of trova music, which emerged at the end of the 19th century in Cuba and Yucatan and continues to be part of life in the cities and towns of the Yucatan peninsula. It also describes “the beautiful politics,” a unique way to do politics in Yucatan. At the beginning of the 21st century the right-wing government of Yucatan state tried to undermine the preeminence of local folk music, including trova, on most public stages. Yucatecan trova musicians, their associations and patrons engaged in those beautiful politics to reclaim the place of trova as the music of Yucatan.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of Incidents of Travel in Yucatan, Vols. I and II

Gabriela Vargas-Cetina Why did I love this book?

I read this book when I was a teenager growing up in Yucatan.

Stephens’ description of both the everyday life of Yucatecans in local villages and cities, and of the imposing ruins left by the Maya are enchanting. Catherwood’s drawings and plates are both accurate and dream-like representations of Yucatecan life, Maya ruins and artifacts at the time.

The book left vivid pictures in my mind; I could and still can see across Yucatan the traces of what Stephens described and Catherwood caught with his drawings and plates.

This book has resisted the passage of time as a story of travel and discovery. As a tale of adventure and wonderment, it was and remains a brilliant prelude to the ethnography of the area.

By John Lloyd Stephens, Frederick Catherwood (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Incidents of Travel in Yucatan, Vols. I and II as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Both volumes of John Lloyd Stephens epic accounts of the Yucatan are united in this single volume, complete with over 100 illustrations of encounters on his journeys in Central America.

Prior to the 1840s, when J. L. Stephens published this superb account of his explorations, the Yucatan was only crudely charted by Western explorers. Yet their descriptions of the odd ruins and beautiful landscape intrigued the young John Lloyd Stephens, who spent years yearning to explore and better chart the faraway lands. After a number of years spent traversing Europe and Egypt, Stephens was in 1839 commissioned as a Special…


Book cover of The Two Milpas of Chan Kom: Scenarios of a Maya Village Life

Gabriela Vargas-Cetina Why did I love this book?

This book is many things: A wonderful ethnography, a tribute to the Mexican and foreign ethnographers who preceded Re Cruz’s in the area, a call to ethnographers for writing creativity, and, glowingly, a show of respect for local people, their agency, and their understandings of the world.

Chan Kom, as Re Cruz reminds us, has been an ethnographic laboratory since the first decades of the 20th century. Re Cruz chose to structure her book following the script of a local play performed by high school students. For anthropology students this is a good example of an engaging ethnography.

For historians of the recent past this is a record of the cultural impact that the emergence of Cancun had on Yucatecan rural life.

By Alicia Re Cruz,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Two Milpas of Chan Kom as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An ethnographic account of Chan Kom, a contemporary Maya community in Yucatan, Mexico that focuses on the social schism within the community resulting from an accelerated process of migration to Cancun, a major tourist center.


Book cover of Foodscapes, Foodfields, and Identities in Yucatan

Gabriela Vargas-Cetina Why did I love this book?

I grew up, like many other Yucatecans, convinced by my family and friends that Yucatecan cuisine is one of the best in the world, and it took many years and an anthropology degree for me to see this as a form of ethnocentrism.

Ayora-Diaz examines and deconstructs this belief, deep-seated in Yucatecans' minds, through his sophisticated study of Yucatecan regionalism through the lens of food and gastronomy.

The author proposes that what is now understood and acknowledged as “Yucatecan food” has been created out of three converging threads: home kitchens, recipe books, and restaurants. Through food, Yucatecans have carved a regionalism almost in opposition to a “Mexican” identity.

Weaving theory, ethnography, and food anecdotes, this book will leave you hungry, wanting to try all the food in Yucatan.

By Steffan Igor Ayora-Diaz,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Foodscapes, Foodfields, and Identities in Yucatan as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The state of Yucatan has its own distinct culinary tradition, and local people are constantly thinking and talking about food. They use it as a vehicle for social relations but also to distinguish themselves from "Mexicans." This book examines the politics surrounding regional cuisine, as the author argues that Yucatecan gastronomy has been created and promoted in an effort to affirm the identity of a regional people and to oppose the hegemonic force of central Mexican cultural icons and forms. In particular, Yucatecan gastronomy counters the homogenizing drive of a national cuisine based on dominant central Mexican appetencies and defies…


Book cover of Stuck with Tourism: Space, Power, and Labor in Contemporary Yucatan

Gabriela Vargas-Cetina Why did I love this book?

In the 1970s, my parents took me and my siblings to the Camino Real, one of the first hotels ever built in Cancun.

We sat on canvas chairs on the beach and my dad played the guitar. Fiddler crabs walked around us, the stars shone brightly, and we enjoyed the music and the sound of crashing waves. Tourism and its evils, however, soon became a nightmare for peninsular Yucatecans.

Through the city of Cancun, the natural reserve Calakmul, the village of Tekit and the hotels in former sisal haciendas, this ethnography shows how, even when living standards improved, local people have become geographically immobilized and resource-impoverished.

The tourist industry is predatory. It destroys natural resources, transforms places into what the rich think of as paradise, and displaces and disempowers local people.

By Matilde Cordoba Azcarate,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Stuck with Tourism as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Tourism has become one of the most powerful forces organizing the predatory geographies of late capitalism. It creates entangled futures of exploitation and dependence, extracting resources and labor, and eclipsing other ways of doing, living, and imagining life. And yet, tourism also creates jobs, encourages infrastructure development, and in many places inspires the only possibility of hope and well-being. Stuck with Tourism explores the ambivalent nature of tourism by drawing on ethnographic evidence from the Mexican Yucatan Peninsula, a region voraciously transformed by tourism development over the past forty years. Contrasting labor and lived experiences at the beach resorts of…


Book cover of On Being Maya and Getting by: Heritage Politics and Community Development in Yucatan

Gabriela Vargas-Cetina Why did I love this book?

There are two Ek’ Balam settings in Yucatan state: One is an outstanding, mesmerizing archaeological site, with a well-preserved representation of the mouth to the infra-world, and angel-like figures suspected to represent dancers.

The other one is a little village of the same name, next to the archaeological site, where people attempt to catch and enchant tourists who look for an alternative experience.

Life is hard in rural villages of the Yucatan peninsula, and tourism is promoted by the national and state authorities as a way to bring development to local settings. This book shows the incredible resilience and good humor characterizing Maya-speaking peoples in Yucatan.

Following a single family and their engagement with tourism through several years, this book endears the inhabitants of Ek’Balam to the reader, and also manages to place their ordeals within the larger literature regarding the tourist industry and its daily effects on people’s lives.

By Sarah R. Taylor,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked On Being Maya and Getting by as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

On Being Maya and Getting By is an ethnographic study of the two Ek’Balams—a notable archaeological site and adjacent village—of the Yucatán Peninsula. When the archaeological site became a tourist destination, the village became the location of a community-based tourism development project funded by the Mexican government. Overt displays of heritage and a connection to Maya antiquity became important and profitable for the modern Maya villagers. Residents of Ek’Balam are now living in a complex ecosystem of natural and cultural resources where the notion and act of “being Maya” is deeply intertwined with economic development.
 
The book explores how Ek’Balam…


You might also like...

The Pianist's Only Daughter: A Memoir

By Kathryn Betts Adams,

Book cover of The Pianist's Only Daughter: A Memoir

Kathryn Betts Adams

New book alert!

What is my book about?

The Pianist's Only Daughter is a frank, humorous, and heartbreaking exploration of aging in an aging expert's own family.

Social worker and gerontologist Kathryn Betts Adams spent decades negotiating evolving family dynamics with her colorful and talented parents: her mother, an English scholar and poet, and her father, a pianist and music professor. Their vivid emotional lives, marital instability, and eventual divorce provided the backdrop for her 1960s and ‘70s Midwestern youth.

Nearly thirty years after they divorce, Adams' newly single father flies in to woo his ex-wife, now retired and diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Their daughter watches in disbelief as they reconcile and decide to live together again. She steps in to become her parents' eldercare manager when her mother’s condition worsens, facing old family dynamics and disappointing limitations to available services. Throughout, she attempts to help her parents maintain their humanity in their final years.

The Pianist's Only Daughter: A Memoir

By Kathryn Betts Adams,

What is this book about?

Grounded in insights about mental health, health and aging, The Pianist’s Only Daughter: A Memoir presents a frank and loving exploration of aging in an aging expert's own family.

Social worker and gerontologist Kathryn Betts Adams spent decades negotiating evolving family dynamics with her colorful and talented parents: her English scholar and poet mother and her pianist father. Their vivid emotional lives, marital instability, and eventual divorce provided the backdrop for her 1960s and ‘70s Midwestern youth.

Nearly thirty years after they divorce, Adams' father finds himself single and flies in to woo his ex-wife, now retired and diagnosed with…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Mexico, Central America, and New Mexico?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Mexico, Central America, and New Mexico.

Mexico Explore 206 books about Mexico
Central America Explore 33 books about Central America
New Mexico Explore 61 books about New Mexico