When Your City Is Killing You
You might not notice it, but your city is probably killing you, however slowly. Polluted air affects how well you breathe. Local cuisine alters your digestive tract. In his book Several Ways to Die in Mexico City, Kurt Hollander explores these interactions – both in the past and present -- in his adopted hometown.
The author’s own story shapes the book. A native New Yorker, Hollander moved to Mexico City 23 years ago. For roughly a decade, he ate whatever he wanted from street stands all over the city. Then, unexpectedly, he became ill and never fully recovered. Hollander recently spoke to The Atlantic Cities about his illness and at least a few "ways to die" in Mexico City.
You grew up in New York City and moved to Mexico City as an adult. How has being from somewhere else shaped your relationship with the city? What impact has it had on your body?
I had my share of diarrhea during the first ten years in Mexico City, but nothing that altered my system, and nothing very different from what locals experienced. But things changed after I got a severe case of salmonella. I had it treated with aggressive medicine and antibiotics that decimated my gut flora, that is, my body's defenses. That led to a case of chronic ulcerative colitis. Having become an open wound, my body could no longer defend itself against the city's parasites, and for years and years I got sick every time I ate out.
What are some ways that people from Mexico City, a stressful and polluted city, preserve their mental and physical health?
Culture is the accumulation of survival strategies, that is, all the ways people and communities have adapted to the threats posed by their environment. When Mexicans eat street food they always douse it with salsa and lemon because chiles and citric acid kill off parasites in the food. Pulque, the most common alcoholic drink in Mexico for thousands of years, has active bacterial cultures that replenish the gut flora and help defend against parasites.
[For many years], the number one cause of death was gastro-intestinal problems, which is to say death by parasites, which is to say a natural death. These days, people die from circulatory disorders, heart disease, liver disease and cancer. All of those are created by man-made substances and what Mexico City does -- and all the mega cities in the developing world -- is concentrate all those things. All of those things are the collateral damage from unchecked capitalism and globalization within the city.
But also religion – especially extreme acts of faith and worshipping – lowers levels of stress and activates certain chemicals in the brain that stimulate the body's defenses. These are all ways that Mexicans have been keeping themselves healthy.
Why did you feel the need to discuss Aztec traditions and the Spanish invasion of indigenous Mexico?
What happened with the conquest is a whole kind of social project, which continues today -- which is imperialism. People still think in indigenous languages, eat indigenous food, drink indigenous alcohol. There are certain social structures. I’m not saying that culture is perfect and pure and great here. But I’m showing how traditional culture that has lasted for 500 or a thousand years is now finally being threatened.
The death knell is sounding for certain things that have lasted so long. So it was basically how to set the scene and showed how the Spaniards tried to eradicate local culture. The church tried to eradicate local culture, how the Europeanized government of [Mexican president] Porfirio Diaz tried to kill local culture and how modern Mexico tried to kill it. And finally now how global and multinational corporations are getting closer to killing it off than anyone’s ever done before.
What can other megacities learn from Mexico City, in terms of planning for the future?
It seems to me that urban planning is often part of the problem. Although cleaning up a city and making it more habitable is a noble goal, [it] often comes at the expense of the working class and lower class communities. I think the survival of cities depends upon the survival of inner-city barrios that maintain much of their own economic and cultural self-sufficiency and resist becoming consumers of global goods and products. There are still many neighborhoods in Mexico City, such as Tepito, the criminal stronghold and center of pirate activity, that have been around since before Cortes arrived in the New World and still resist culture imposed upon them from outside.
What kinds of reactions did you get from friends and family when they learned about this book?
I kind of kept it pretty close to my chest. I didn’t tell many people I was working on this. And the people I told just kind of laughed. The book is going to be translated and published here, and the reaction will be interesting. I mean there is definitely a kind of sensitivity on the part of locals, having a foreigner -- and especially a gringo -- talk about the way things are. And it definitely is a criticism of the city, but it’s a criticism of certain things going on in the city, which is basically the process of modernization and globalization.
I feel that since I’ve been here, which is 23 years, which coincided with the North-American Free Trade Agreement and globalization, there’s been real radical transformations of the city.