February book review: Several Ways to Die in Mexico City – Kurt Hollander

Several Ways to Die in Mexico City is the autobiography of a Jewish artist and film director from New York who moved to Mexico City in 1989 on a whim and spent the rest of his life there.

The title is not just rhetorical. The author explains many of the particular dangers of living in Mexico City. The one he is most concerned with are germs. A substantial part of the book is spent talking about them. Given the filth of Mexico City, the history germs played in its shaping, and his own hellish infections it makes sense. But it’s not just pathogens. He believes that one of the reasons he will never fully assimilate is because he doesn’t have the necessary gut bacteria. This is just one of the factors that leads him to conclude that despite marrying a local woman, having kids, and living there a long time he knows inside he will never truly be a local.

This book is good for helping to understand the Aztec, which might  be useful since they will likely make up the majority demographic of our country within our lifetimes. The Aztec does two things very well. One, they reproduce like crazy. A normal Aztec woman might have 9 kids in her life. And this is good, because the second thing they like is to make human sacrifices.

Human sacrifice was at the heart of Aztec society, and the city’s architecture was literally built around the act. The first major construction in Mexico-Tenochitlan was the ceremonial center called the Templo Mayor…The Templo Mayor grew to become a small city made up of more than 70 constructions, including 25 pyramids, nine houses for priests, two ball courts, three bath houses, arsenals, workshops, a prison for the conquered gods of other tribes, seven walls constructed of skulls and two basements where the skin that had been flayed off the sacrificial victims was stored.

For the inaugural ceremonies of the Templo Mayor in 1487, thousands of prisoners and slaves, as well as a few dozen hunchbacks, midgets and freaks, had their blood splattered on the walls to consecrate the pyramid temples. The victims met their end through a variety of methods: shot full of arrows, stuck with spears, clawed or sliced to death, stoned or crushed, skinned alive, disemboweled, dismembered, burned or buried alive, or any combination of these techniques. Babies and children were sealed in caves or taken for a ride in a canoe and drowned in a a lake. The most common and the most sacred human sacrifices was the cutting out of the heart from a victims chest while he or she was tied down and stretched out upon a sacrificial stone. On special occasions, the victim would first be roasted over an open fire then pulled out by a large hook before their still-beating heart was extracted.

They would sacrifice on holidays. They would sacrifice when it rained. They would sacrifice when it didn’t rain. They would sacrifice the loser of games. They would sacrifice the winners of games, sending them to relay a message to the Gods to keep the agave liquor flowing.

To support their habit they made frequent raids on other nearby tribes to gather tributes. Mel Gibson actually made a pretty good movie about this called Apocalypto.

Holland describes the arrival of Cortes and the Conquistadors. Emperor Moctezuma greeted them warmly, thinking them to be Gods. In return, they kidnapped him and massacred the nobility. Cortes allied with the surrounding indigenous tribes to destroy the Aztecs, who were happy to have a way out of all the sacrificing that was happening. The Spanish killed many, but germs did most of the work. The Spaniards laid siege to the capital, cut off its water, and let the diseases ravage the population. The entire population of the region was lowered to almost 3 million.

Now, I hate to advocate for such a thing, but it makes you wonder what would have happened if the Spanish had finished the job. Latin America would have simply been like the US. The indigenous population all but destroyed and the country turned into a new world Europe. Instead, like pulling up morning glory, they left enough of the root in there and soon the plant came back and took over the entire garden. We might have avoided many current issues had they done so, but alas. There you go. They didn’t finish the job, which was maybe correct, but failure to do so meant that now we’re are all going to die. If Mexico was simply Spanish, well, we wouldn’t be in the midst of a Reconquista.

Spain ruled the region with a heavy hand, enforcing their language, religion, and customs on the population. The gold they sent back made the empire incredibly rich. Many words have been spoken about the injustice of Spanish rule, but at least once they got control they started killing fewer people rather than more. The Aztecs’ eyes would have watered at the size of the population available to sacrifice.

Returning to the present, Holland goes on to describe the many problems of what may be the worst city in the Western Hemisphere. Besides several African or war ravaged Middle Eastern megalopolises, perhaps the worst city on earth.

Mexico City is about a mile above sea level in a mountain valley. The amount of unregulated pollution, open burning, and simple filth makes an air quality that is equivalent to being a heavy smoker. A nonsmoker from Mexico City has worse lungs than a smoker from elsewhere.

Another way to die is from cars. The traffic was measured in 2011 as the worst in the world. Drivers act like it is Mario Kart, everything is a competition and rules are at best suggestions. Cars are high status and pedestrians better move away or else. To counter this, people will build their own speedbumps in the road, and there are thousands of black market, often quite severe, and often unmarked, speedbumps throughout the city. Traffic fatalities, more than anything else, make Mexico City the second most dangerous city in the world.

Describing the city makes you wonder why anyone would want to live there. Everything is made of concrete. Alcoholism is a major problem, as Aztecs, like many other natives, are not well adapted to hard liquor, and lots of crime and violence is the result. Pathogens spread easily through the air. Bribery is a way of life, which has prevented any anti pollution measures from being reliably enforced, among other things The polluters just bribe the inspectors and continue to choke up the air. Crime, drugs, corruption, and third world wealth distribution pervade the city. Even if you are among the small number with money you can’t escape the air, the grime, and the traffic.

All in all it sounds like one of the worst places on earth. The title of the book is no coincidence. The author is quite fixated upon death, but death is also a very culturally relevant issue for the Mexicans. Holland explains the death rituals, going into detail the practices for different dead – those killed in battle, babies who have never eaten, women dying in childbirth, etc. These were all important for the Aztecs, and modern Mexico has carried this fascination with death into their culture, having festivals like the Dia de los Muerte. Holland has a photo gallery online, included in which is some of the gore within Mexican Catholicism.

This was a weird, fairly enjoyable book about a strange expat giving the unpolished truth about life south of the border. It wasn’t very lively or full of interesting personal details, it was written with a very flat affect but I still had a hard time putting it down. 3.5/5 stars.




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