Kurt Hollander discusses his book Several Ways to Die in Mexico City, a fascinating and ambitious book about the history, culture, economics, anthropology, and even aesthetics of death in Mexico City.
Kurt Hollander, a native New Yorker who was well known for publishing the Portable Lower East Side (PLES) magazine from 1983-1993, arrived in Mexico more than 20 years ago just to learn Spanish and to have a good time. He got married, had children, owned a billiard room and a bar, published the art magazine Poliester, directed the movie Carambola, then when everything seemed to be going great, became very ill and watched as his business empire crumbled. An ugly case of salmonella and the ensuing severe chronic ulcerative colitis turned his life around and made him think seriously about his own mortality. That led him to write Several Ways to Die in Mexico City, a fascinating and ambitious book about the history, culture, economics, anthropology, and even aesthetics of death in Mexico City. We met at a coffee house on First Avenue where he only drank a tiny bottle of Italian apricot juice. He seemed tired, but once he started talking about his book, his energy level rose.
Naief Yehya What influenced you to embark on such a vast and strange piece of literature?
Kurt Hollander The book started as a series of articles I wrote for the London Guardian. One was about a trip to Tepito [the center for pirated goods and a criminal stronghold of the city] where I found my film for sale months before it was released, another was on speed bumps, or topes, in the streets of Mexico City, and another on the demise of the old city morgue. But then I realized that I was really writing about death and that there was much more to write about. The first chapters I wrote were “Air” and “Water,” and then I added “Food” and “Alcohol.” I tried to do a very serious study of how these elements were involved in death in Mexico City, how the toxic substances and parasites within them were the major contributing factors to death in the city. I told the history of these elements since before Aztec times through the conquistadores up until the modern age.
NY Air, water, food and alcohol are body invaders.
KH The main causes of death in Mexico City are heart, liver and circulatory diseases, and cancer. The major contributing factors to all those diseases are the air, water, food, and alcohol in the city—the toxic substances and microorganisms they contain. What I basically found as I was writing the book is that it’s actually the city that kills people because it concentrates huge amounts of toxic substances and parasites and exposes people to them. When I moved to Mexico City in 1989, the city had one of the most polluted environments on earth. Decades ago the city became so overpopulated that the environment couldn’t absorb all the waste materials from industry, cars, and human activity, and toxic substances became an integral part of the city and part of the people in it. Because we are all permeable, the environment invades people’s bodies. The way people die historically is from parasites and diarrhea, but today the city itself turns out to be the leading cause of death in Mexico City. To understand how people die today, I really had to go back to the roots. I wrote a historical guide to death in Mexico City to introduce the larger issues of death within the culture (disasters, conquest, the Inquisition, etcetera), but then focused on the particulars.
NY I thought of Jared Diamond when I was reading the book.
KH Jared Diamond seems to me to be very indebted to Hans Zinsser and his book Rats, Lice and History. It’s a great book because it shifts the focus of human civilization from man to animals and then to insects, especially lice, in terms of disease and the consequences it provokes. It’s a very literary book with references to great thinkers and all of that, which my book lacks completely. It’s just not my style. I usually speak for myself and not through other people. What I offer in my book instead is a parasite’s-eye view of Mexico City. Guns, Germs and Steel is good but it’s not groundbreaking. Also I thought a lot about Mike Davis and his City of Quartz, his idea to take a city and examine it from its beginnings up until the present (with the most interesting chapter being about Chicanos). He describes the city through different people, but I have almost no one but myself in my book, so it’s a very different view. Davis also wrote Planet of Slums, in which he makes a great examination of megacities all around the world, and he’s a multidimensional writer and that also inspired me to delve into a lot of different realms.
NY It’s hard to tell who is the central character of your book: you or the city. In a way, Mexico seems to be a mirror image of yourself, or there is a symbiosis of your body and the city.
KH Initially I wasn’t in the narrative, it wasn’t an autobiography, but then someone said to me, why don’t you make it funny? (It was really dark and heavy.) So I thought of including myself as a narrator, and as a point of departure, since I was sick and dying at the time. I’m funniest when I talk about myself, and sick and pathetic can be funny if you like grave humor as much as I do. So the autobiographical part is actually the last part I wrote, but it became the introduction to the book and to each chapter. I basically take a fantastic journey through my large intestine and its vast, complex network of microorganisms as a way to speak about the megacity of Mexico City. This book is an autobiography, but it’s not only my autobiography, it’s also an autobiography of the trillions of bacteria, parasites, and viruses that migrated from the city into me. As I show in the book, the idea of a human being has changed in the last few years. The Human Genome Project has found that the human body has ten trillion cells, but the number of microorganisms in our large intestine is ten times larger than that, so most of the genes in the human body are not even human genes. Basically, what I am trying to show is that life and death are more than just human activities, they depend on and are influenced by what I call the microorganism megacity within our larger intestine, which influences mental health, cultural style, and even national characteristics (certain parasite infestation most commonly found in large cities has been associated with a high level of neurotic behavior). My idea is that each city has a different kind of microorganism megacity. There are different parasites in different parts of the world, depending on if you’re closer to the poles or closer to the equator. The equator has the greatest concentration of biodiversity, and the greatest biodiversity, of course, has to be bacteria, because bacteria are in every living organism. Most megacities are in the developing world, and they are located where you get the greatest bacterial and parasitic activity. Toxoplasma gondii (present in the majority of inhabitants of developing countries and mega-cities) can cross the blood-brain barrier and directly provoke physiological changes involved in the development of schizophrenia, bipolar disorders, Parkinson’s disease, Tourette’s syndrome, and attention deficit disorders, and psychiatric illness (especially depression and mood swings) are much more co-dependent on gastrointestinal disorders (such as colitis) than previously thought. So the development of humans and cities has to be viewed along with the development of microorganisms.
NY As one reads further into your book, it becomes clear that the book is not just about death but also very much about parasites and bacteria. At one point you write, “I’m probably the only person in the world that worships bacteria.”
KH One of the most original ideas in the book is that bacteria are god, or that god is bacteria. Bacteria were the first living organisms on earth, they are present in every single living organism, they help organisms adapt and develop and, since they mutate and evolve faster, they are, in essence, the driving force of human evolution and civilization. The vast majority of people died throughout history from microorganisms, and people didn’t even know of their existence until the last century. Bacteria are, like god, invisible, omnipresent, indestructible, and have the ability to kill you. People developed superstitious practices thinking microorganisms were spirits that had to be appeased. After writing those first four chapters, I started examining cultural aspects of death, such as the medical industry, the way people are buried, and religion. The first chapters were scientific, and then I moved on to more cultural domains. What I found, and it was kind of a revelation to me, is that civilization and culture, in general, were created to defend against death. Life on earth is very difficult, there are all these aggressive organisms out there that need energy and will kill you to get it. I now see culture as an accumulation of survival strategies. Everything from music, dance, art, food, architecture, religion, drugs—they all exist because they increase the probability of survival, they give humans an edge, they give them defenses.
NY It’s interesting that you start your book with “The End” and finish with a simple “Adiós.”
KH I think my greatest literary accomplishment in this book was to begin with the words “The End.” I focused on the end of life and then traced it back to how people live and the history of human civilization. By starting with death and putting it in rewind I came to understand what leads up to death. But death changes—it has changed radically in Mexico City in the last few decades. Death in Mexico is no longer Mexican. People die in Mexico City because of the air, and the air is polluted because of heavy industry, and imported cars and gasoline refined in the United States. In large part, the food is also the problem: 50% of all the food eaten in Mexico (mostly industrially-processed food) comes from the United States. Industrially-processed food no longer contains bacteria, which when present in plants provide natural antibiotics and probiotics that help regulate human gut flora. Our immune system is a virtual organ made up of bacteria in our large intestine, and those bacteria come in part from plants. The Mexican digestive system, the local bacteria, are not prepared to assimilate processed food. No human system is prepared for that, but much less one that subsisted for thousands of years with a diet of corn, beans, and local plants. Much of death in Mexico (from obesity, diabetes, circulatory disease and cancer) is now imported death, gringo death. Death in Mexico during the Conquest was Spanish death, from Spanish microorganisms. Many of the conquistadores fought in the wars against the moros, the Arabs, they travelled as mercenaries and were exposed to parasites from all over the world, but because they had lived with pigs and other animals infested with parasites they assimilated them and had adapted biologically to them. The horses, dogs, rats, and lice that came with the conquistadores were carrying biological weapons, and because the Aztecs were very hygienic—unlike the Spaniards, they bathed often, had a clean environment, didn’t live amongst dirty animals, and disposed of their feces—they had little resistance against the imported parasites and thus were wiped out by the millions.
NY You offer this dark view of Mexico City at a time when it’s considered a sort of oasis of peace from the narco-violence that desolates most of the country.
KH Historically, but especially now, Mexico has been represented in the US and in Europe as a dangerous place, and the danger is always focused on the criminals and guns. The foreign press, such as the Spanish newspaper El País and US media, focus almost exclusively on narcos; their correspondents offer a single representation of the country. Obviously, the way most people die in Mexico is not from narco-violence or from guns. What is most dangerous about Mexico City is not criminal activity, violence, or guns; it’s cars and alcohol—the latter of which is involved in most health related-deaths, accidents, and homicides. And where is the alcohol from these days? Alcohol, like the food consumed in Mexico, comes mostly from the US, from multinational companies based in the US. El narco is a business, and it has generated much collateral damage, a lot of people in the business die, but that is not the real problem. There have always been narcos in Mexico. El narco represents business as usual, although some organizations have become independent in the last ten to 15 years, and their functioning independently of each other is what creates so much violence these days. If you think of all the different industries in Mexico, the drug industry is not the most lethal, not at all. It is the most spectacular, though.
NY Why did you choose not to use footnotes or references?
KH I’m not an academic. I’m not a scientist. I am a writer. I have never footnoted anything since I left college. The opening section in the historical chapter mentions my sources, all the magazines, newspapers, scientific studies, and organizations, government, and business websites that I used. I got information from many different places. I basically lived in the Librería del Fondo, my local bookstore, where I could read all the books I wanted in their anthropology, history and science sections, for years. I am a big fan of academic and scientific writers in Mexico. I think that’s where some of the best writing is, not just because of their ideas but also because the writing is very rigorous. Journalism and essay writing are not so rigorous in Mexico. Also, footnotes and references often make me think of cultural mafias where you pay your respects to the guys who came before, the ones that help you get published. It’s an interesting kind of subgenre, the dedication alongside the references in the book show what school you’re from, whose side you’re on. I’ll have none of that. Basically, I’m very skeptical, even cynical, about the truth or accuracy of a lot of information. It’s impossible to say if newspapers are accurate. The reason to cite newspapers is to blame them and not yourself; you’re not showing that what you write is true, but rather you’re saying that if you’re wrong it’s because of them. In the book I mostly use statistics as adjectives: 70% would be very, 50% would be half, and so on.
NY But the absence of sources and references make it impossible to use your book as a source.
KH Who would want to use my autobiography as an urban policy paper or scientific guide? Besides, all statistics come with points of view, of course, and in Mexico that’s especially true. There is a real difference between what Greenpeace says and what the government or what Coca Cola say. Historically, in regard to all the Aztec ultra-violence, for instance, who the hell knows what really happened? It depends on who you ask: If you ask a radical Mexican scholar or a conservative European one, there will be huge differences in interpretation. Census and health records in Mexico City are incredibly inaccurate. It’s impossible to really follow what’s going on in a megacity. What I did, which is similar to what Alarma! [one of the oldest Mexican tabloids, famous for publishing the goriest pictures, and most lurid stories] does, was to choose the most dramatic facts and figures that served to generate a gruesome but gripping account. Is that inaccurate? Of course it’s inaccurate, but who has accurate statistics on death in Mexico City? You think every single car accident is recorded, and it’s cause duly noted? No way. I did my own research, I interviewed the director of the morgue, I interviewed anthropologists, entomologists, workers at the cemeteries, and I stitched together a Frankenstein monster by using bits of information from thousands and thousands of sources. In any case, I find it more interesting as a narrative to rewrite the history of Mexico from my own perspective, one that is tinted, tainted, and influenced by parasites, bacteria, my sickness, and my gringo paranoia—an autobiography of myself and my city that hovers somewhere between fact and sensationalism.
NY I imagine people take offense to your book because it offers no solution and presents Mexico City as an irredeemable death trap.
KH What can I say, megacities are death machines, and as long as the city allows the number of people and cars to keep increasing it will be responsible for the death of its inhabitants, but at least I try to show how the death Mexico City produces is also a motor for its greatest cultural activity. As far as a solution goes, it’s really a question of self-sufficiency, something that the country and the city have lost over the past few decades since the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement. I have only one simple solution to the problems of Mexico: revolution. Drive out the foreign corporate invaders, who act exactly as imported parasites, and create a nationalistic economy. Although that, of course, would lead to innumerable problems, such as the return of local political and economic mafias (local parasites) that control the whole economy, which can be just as bad. I focus on globalization as the biggest enemy of Mexico because over the last two decades I’ve seen what it’s done to the city. When I talk about my experience in New York, I talk about how globalization (along with real estate development, tourism, and gentrification) killed the city’s local culture. When I walk around the streets in Manhattan these days what I see is not a city that produces its own culture but rather a hyper-consumer, global corporate culture. Mexico City, throughout all of its history and up until a couple of decades ago, was a producer; it’s going the way of New York and so many other cities. Much of what I loved about New York City and Mexico City I have seen disappear before my eyes. I don’t know what the solution is, and that’s very scary. My kids will find the solution, but I am afraid they will find it on the internet and not in the real world. I still prefer the real world.
NY How do you feel about Mexico City now?
KH Over the last decade, I’ve really came to hate a lot of things in Mexico City and especially in the Condesa (the trendy neighborhood where I live). How the neighborhood is regarded as cool and avant-garde by hipsters and the international media, but how in fact it’s merely the latest outpost of global corporate culture. All locals hate certain things about their own city, and in Mexico City everyone hates the traffic and the police, and everyone who lives in the Condesa hates the weekend influx of loud, obnoxious, alcohol-starved mobs. I did not write the book to promote Mexico City—most of the books written by gringos on Mexico City these days have been promotional guidebooks, with some danger and pollution added to make it more exciting, and then they throw in the art scene and other trendy cultural things so they sell. Those books are published by corporations and get a big circulation and help increase tourism to the city, thus speeding up the gentrification and globalization process. My book is published by an independent, marginal press that publishes weird, religious conspiracy theories and the like. Mexico City has been one of the greatest cities in the world throughout its history, precisely because of its local culture, a culture created to deal with death. Even the narcos are a form of local culture, just like piratería (the bootlegging industry). Criminals tend to be cultural creators not only because they operate outside of established economic and social worlds, but also because they are the ones who live closer to death. I think piratas are doing much more to change technology and popular culture and the way we see the world than Mexican cinema or any other high art culture.
NY How do you see the connections between your previous work as the editor of the Portable Lower East Side and this book?
KH The Portable Lower East Side appeared during a transitional period, from 1983 to 1993, when local culture was starting to die off, during the last gasps of cultural resistance to gentrification. Mexico City is just so much deeper than the Lower East Side, with thousands of years of cultural resistance, resistance to the Aztecs, resistance to the Spaniards, resistance to modernization. Although few people see it as such, Mexico City is an immigrant culture: the population explosion from the ’70s was from waves of people coming from the countryside, people with indigenous roots from very different cultures. The lower class neighborhoods, especially where criminal activity is concentrated, are the direct continuation of a cultural resistance that goes back to indigenous history, racially and culturally. Communities fighting to survive and resisting the imposition of another culture is what keeps culture alive in the city against all the onslaughts of globalization.
NY And how is your health now?
KH Better. Which is why the book ends with a happy ending (I don’t die). I was watching helplessly as my life energy was being sucked from my body for over ten years, I was pretty close to hanging up my sneakers (as they say of death here in Mexico City). Now at least I am not dying so fast. And, with my book out, I’m seeing that there might actually be life after death in Mexico City.
Kurt Hollander is originally from New York City but has been living in Mexico City for the past 23 years. He is a writer, photographer, filmmaker, magazine editor and translator. Several Ways to Die in Mexico City: An Autobiography of Death in Mexico City was published by Feral House in October 2012. For more on Hollander, visit his website.