The Life and Times of Mexico

The Life and Times of Mexico is divided into three sections that correspond with the mind, the heart, and the liver, all aspects of an Aztec vision of the world. The book is huge in all senses: it is a large tome, and its range is extremely wide, from the pre-Aztec society to contemporary Mexican lives. In the three thousand year scope of his project, Earl Shorris emphasizes what many historians have seen as the key moments in Mexican history: the rise to power of the Aztecs, the Spanish conquest led by Hernan Cortes, the complexities of the independence movement, the 1910 Revolution, and the downfall of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). In all aspects of the drama of the Mexican experience, Shorris is able to make the history feel contemporary, and to make the contemporary lives feel the burden of history.

The greatness of this book can be measured by the range of Shorris’s expertise. He seems as comfortable and knowledgeable when talking about the lives of workers in assembly plants along the United States border as he is when speaking about Diego Rivera’s art or Sor Juana’s poetry. In all moments of the book, Shorris’s enthusiasm for the nation—the national treasures and the national nightmares—shines through.

The book is not merely a chronological account of Mexican history, art, philosophy, politics, and economics. Shorris always shakes things up, so a chapter might begin with a discussion of the 1990’s revolutionary movement in Chiapas led by Subcomandante Marcos, and move to the sixteenth century Protestant Reformation, and then the Aztec view of literacy.

Although many of the ideas in Shorris’s book may seem familiar to those who have read Octavio Paz, Mexico’s Nobel laureate and great explicator of “all things Mexican,” the drive of the book comes from Shorris’s inventive organization and the links he draws between contemporary mores and norms, and the past.