Twenty-three years ago, writer Kurt Hollander fled a rapidly gentrifying New York City and settled 2,500 miles south in Mexico City. As the burgeoning megacity’s art scene expanded, he edited the magazine Poliester, ran a pool hall and a bar in the neighborhood of Condesa, directed films, and published several books on Mexican popular culture. Then he got sick. I spoke with him over Skype about his new book, Several Ways to Die in Mexico City: An Autobiography, and how to survive in a city that all too often seems like it’s out to kill you.
Bookforum: At the beginning of your book, you allude to the chronic stress of living in a place where you can never really fit in. How has being an expat from the US influenced your experience of Mexico City?
Kurt Hollander: I mean, “ex-pat”—I was never a patriot or a real American. Even in New York I felt kind of like an odd man out. In Mexico City, I’m obviously more so. I’m taller than most, I’m whiter than most, I was the first skinhead in my neighborhood, so I definitely stuck out. But after I learned Spanish and really got to know the city, I could easily hold my own, so that wasn’t a problem. And in fact, there are a lot of cultural advantages in coming from a place like New York City and going to a place like Mexico City. New York City was, for a long time, a cultural vanguard that was ahead in a lot of aspects. Though I dressed really scruffy, it seemed that my credentials from New York City made me somebody special.
A lot of the artists that came down here, like Francis Al˙s and others, did the work they did and became such great artists because they were outsiders. I’ve done a couple books on popular Mexican culture, one is called El Super, which is about Mexican consumer products, and the other is about Sonora Market, where magic products are sold. The fact that I’m not from here and I don’t see those things as normal allows me to appreciate them a lot more than people from here. So being a foreigner, being an outsider, gives you a kind of privileged perspective with which to appreciate local culture.
Bookforum: You’re also a photographer and Several Ways to Die includes some great images of Mexico City. I especially like the ones of the really grotesque religious icons that are so common there. How would you define the aesthetic environment of Mexico City?
Kurt Hollander: I’ve always loved gore. And the Aztecs, of course, do amazing paintings and sculpture related to gore. And then the Spanish, when they came, were even gorier. They basically exterminated ninety percent of a whole race and slaughtered them in all different ways. The photos that I took of all that “holy gore” are figures from the oldest churches in Mexico. That’s where you see the original artwork—absolutely gory images of Christ on the cross and other saints being completely mutilated. I love the aesthetic—the artists really go beyond what people normally present in terms of blood and wounds—but it’s also part of a history that’s incredibly violent and brutal.
Bookforum: In your book, you don’t address the conversations that usually take place about death and dying in Mexico—the drug war, narco violence, kidnapping, all these horror stories you hear on both sides of the border. Was that a conscious choice to pivot away from that conversation and toward things that don’t get as much attention, like water, food, and air?
Kurt Hollander: I just examined the main ways that people die. And people die from circulatory disease, liver disease, heart disease, and cancer. Violent death is low down and as for narco activity, it’s like it doesn’t even exist in Mexico City. By really talking about what affects people most, you understand that it’s not the drug trade that’s killing people: It’s the government, because it doesn’t regulate industry. It doesn’t force people to maintain certain standards of hygiene in restaurants and other places. By focusing on the ways people die and following that to their causes, which are water, air, food, alcohol, toxic substances, and parasites, I got a real idea of how it is that megacities in the developing world interact with their inhabitants.
Bookforum: Even though you get away from the image of Mexico City as overrun with violence, are you at all concerned with perpetuating stereotypes about the dirty food and water?
Kurt Hollnder: No. I’m very specific about why the water remains dirty. There are two causes: One is the toxic waste, and that is because of industry. The other thing, the parasites, is due to the government. Because the government is corrupt and lives for short-term gain like the parasites do, it does not invest in infrastructure. So there’s leakage in the pipes, and the sewage mixes with the drinking water, which creates a high level of parasites in the water. That is a specific thing that the government is responsible for. I definitely take pains to really show the history of sewage leakage and water supply in the city, and to show that there are real economic and political reasons why the water is dirty.
Bookforum: You live in the Condesa and you write about watching your neighborhood really change from being a pretty mixed-class place to one that’s a lot more globalized, corporatized, and gentrified. What has it been like living there throughout that recent transformation?
Kurt Hollander: What I saw really change were the kinds of people who came to the neighborhood, a lot of kids with disposable income looking for entertainment. The Condesa became the destination for everyone who wanted to get drunk. The economy became directed towards people from outside the neighborhood. Same thing happened to the Lower East Side and much of New York City. It’s a tourist- and consumer-oriented economy. And that just makes for a huge change in neighborhoods.
The government is definitely the wedge for gentrification here. You see it in the city center as Carlos Slim, the wealthiest man in the world, buys up a lot of the real estate there and converts it into an artsy kind of place. And that happened at the same time that rent control ended and all the working-class people were run out of the neighborhood. Because I love popular culture, because I really respect it and see it as the continuation of thousands of years of indigenous tradition, it really unnerves me to see whole cultures being run out of certain neighborhoods.
Bookforum: Are you hopeful about the future of Mexico City? There’s a lot less pollution than there once was, it’s currently one of the safest places to live in the country, and there are a lot of improvements happening in public transportation. Do you see consider these real improvements or do you think they are just illusions?
Kurt Hollander: I have to take exception with the examples you gave. For instance, the air: The air definitely looks cleaner, but it’s not necessarily cleaner. They did get rid of the lead and some of the ozone, but the microparticles, the ones that are especially dangerous and deadly, are way off the charts because the economy is built around cars and gasoline. And although you say transportation is getting better, that’s really just for a couple of neighborhoods.
Also, when you say safer—dangerous cities are dangerous because of the governments and businesses, not because of the people. And dangerous cities affect the people who live there—not so much the tourists and wealthy people who come slumming. This city has become very dangerous for working class people. So although things look like they’re getting better in certain neighborhoods, I’m really not so convinced.
Bookforum: The turning point of the book is when you get sick. Your relationship to the city and your relationship to your body both change a lot. Can you tell me a little about your diagnosis and how it changed your daily life?
Kurt Hollander: I got salmonella. I didn’t really deal with it quickly enough and was prescribed lots of antibiotics and other really harsh medicines without really knowing what I had, and that all made it worse. It set off something called chronic ulcerative colitis, which is basically when your body views your large intestine as a foreign agent and attacks it. I lost all my defenses and became an open wound. So I no longer had the defenses to deal with everything in Mexico City—all the parasites and even the toxic stuff—that I had dealt with pretty well before that. The city was killing me pretty quickly.
Bookforum: Are you feeling better now?
Kurt Hollander: Yeah. The book has a happy ending—I don’t die. And after going to all types of doctors, I hooked up with a homeopathic doctor who really got to work on strengthening my own defenses, my gut flora. And he has managed, over the last few years, to help my own body defend itself against the world around it. I’m not a completely normal person but it’s a vast improvement.