Tuesday, June 30, 2015


(Coney Island and the 20th Century Avant-Garde)
 Kurt Hollander

In the late 1980s I wrote my last short story, Skinny Takes a Walk, which I self-published at that time in my magazine The Portable Lower East Side. In the story I take the subway out to the last stop in Brooklyn, walk over to a residential building a few blocks away, ride an elevator up to the twelfth floor and stand in front of a door behind which my father is living. In the end, though, I don’t ring the bell, but rather turn around and take the elevator back down and walk around the Coney Island amusement park, boardwalk and beach. Instead of actually avoiding my father, all I think about that fictional day are the stories he used to tell me about hanging out here as a kid. My trip to Coney Island in the short story is aimless, devoid of any great adventure and without any real connection to the place, and the story ends on a depressed note, wondering how I can do anything of value in a world in which everything of any consequence has already been done, a world in which my father had done so much more than I ever will.

As I mention in the story, Ida, my grandmother, lived in Coney Island in the dozens of identical International Ladies Garment Workers Union co-op buildings. As a young kid, the gangs of elderly Jews sitting on benches outside the buildings sunbathing and gossiping as they awaited approaching death used to scare me, as did the plastic seat covers on the toy-like furniture and the smell of camphor in my grandmother’s cramped apartment. Ida was a tiny old white-haired woman by the time I knew her, an immigrant from Odessa who had come over as a child during the pogroms and worked in Manhattan sweatshops throughout the Depression. At the beginning of the 20th century, more than one-third of NYC residents were immigrants, most from Europe and Russia, and although the majority of Russian and Eastern European Jews settled in the Lower East Side many moved out to Brooklyn neighborhoods such as Williamsburg (where my father was born) and to Coney Island, where his mother moved after he ran away from home at the age of 16.

My grandmother died in the 1970s, and my father, an artist living in funky studios on the Lower East Side, moved into her Coney Island apartment, where he was living when I wrote this short story. On the not-so-frequent occasions that I visited him there, my father would get stoned and bombard me with messianic diatribes and artistic rants. To bring him down to earth a bit I would try to get him to tell me more stories about his life growing up in Brooklyn. The story that most disturbed and fascinated me was how he used to go on the Cyclone rollercoaster with the pinhead girls from the Freak Show and as the car careened around the curves and the pinheads were screaming in fear my father would reach over and squeeze their titties. The fact that my father as a young man (along with his friend and future filmmaker Mel Brooks) had worked as a barker for the Freak Show to get people to “Come on in and see the show,” meant that he had taken part in a significant piece of New York City history, while the pinhead breast-squeezing was a detail better than anything I could invent in fiction. Which is probably the reason I gave up semi-autobiographical fiction and began writing semi-autobiographical nonfiction, instead.

If Skinny Takes a Walk has anything of value beyond what I lifted directly from my father’s life it’s the references to Coney Island’s unique history. As I research this history more seriously today, I realize how my own experience of using Coney to bolster my own (meager and minor) literary production was common practice, and that in fact Coney Island provided not only essential material but also, more importantly, a fantastic, fictionalized esthetic to many of the leading artists, writers, performers and thinkers responsible for producing the 20th century avant-garde.

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Although neither they nor any other indigenous group actually lived there, the Canarsie Indians would comb the Coney Island beach, which they called the “land without shadows,” for seashells to barter for other goods. When he sailed the Half Moon through uncharted territory in 1609 for the Dutch East India Company and first caught sight of this small beach island off the Atlantic coast of Brooklyn, the English Capitan Henry Hudson was one the first Europeans to behold what would eventually become the United States of America. Much like the famous purchase of Manhattan (which Hudson discovered the following day), the Dutch bought Coney Island from the local Indians for a few guns, gunpowder and beads, among the sweetest real estate scams ever conducted.

 In 1839, the pirates Gibbs and Wansley, after having jacked the treasure from the Vineyard as it sailed to Philadelphia, buried the chests of Mexican gold and silver coins within the uninhabited dunes in Coney Island. Caught soon afterwards, they were given the opportunity to return the treasure they had stolen and have their lives spared, but as the shifting sands had rearranged the monotonous landscape, the pirates wound up swinging from a rope. Almost ten years later, during an exceptionally low tide, one local resident stumbled upon a thousand coins and a mini-gold rush overtook Coney Island. Since that time, Coney Island has been a constant destination of treasure seekers, gold diggers and fortune hunters from all over the world, especially those who traded in ideas and images.

The earliest seaside hotels in Coney, built the 1840's, enticed NYC’s wealthy and cultural class to make the long trip in carriages for fresh air and tranquility. Few visitors of that time, however, actually went into the water, as most feared drowning or having the sea leech them of their essential salts, and it took decades and the assurance of doctors to convince visitors that it was not risky to bathe in the ocean. Herman Melville, Washington Irving and Edgar Allan Poe all wandered around Coney Island, and Walt Whitman was a fan of Coney’s “long bare unfrequented shore… where I loved after bathing to race up and down the hard sand, and declaim Homer or Shakespeare to the surf and seagulls by the hours.”

The Coney Island Elephant, one of many hotels designed to attend the needs of the increasing crowds of visitors, was built in 1885 out of wood and tin in the shape of a giant pachyderm, 122 feet high and seven floors tall. A cigar store operated out of one leg, several body parts were used as hotel rooms (and at times as a brothel), and the head was an observatory that offered vistas of the Atlantic Ocean through the eyes. The Elephant Hotel was merely the first of a long line of fantastic constructions in Coney, as three huge amusement parks soon rose up in Coney Island, each one more spectacular and surreal. Steeplechase Park, Luna Park and Dreamland boasted hundreds of extreme rides, lavish performances and improbable structures, the latest and greatest in vernacular visionary esthetics. Like the magic tricks performed within the parks, the architecture relied more on sleight of material and facades than actual foundations and constructions.

The Elephant Hotel was built one year before the Statue of Liberty, but even after the Iron Lady began officially greeting immigrants in the New York City harbor, the first glimpse of America that the “tired, huddled masses” saw as their ships arrived in the New World were the quixotic constructions and bright lights of Coney Island. Coney Island’s dream world was the perfect greeting card advertisement for America, a country that has always sold itself to the world not so much a land of freedom but rather as a fantasy world where the most extravagant dreams come true.

Like Hollywood today, Coney has always fueled people’s fascination with death and disaster. Spectacular fireworks provided the special effects for the recreation of famous battles, such as the defeat of the Spanish fleet at Manila or that of the Russians at Vladivostok. Other natural disasters, such as the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, a tenement fire, and The Last Days of Pompeii (a show recreating the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, complete with a cast of 400 extras), were reenacted several times a day.

Miniature cities were erected in Coney to simulate exotic cultures. The Streets of Cairo, which opened in 1897, boasted Egyptian architecture and Kasbah-like alleyways. Besides offering camel rides, the attraction featured the wonders of the Turkish dancer named Little Egypt, the first and most famous hootchy-kootchy, muscle and belly dancer in all of America. Thousands of natives from far-off lands were brought to live permanently in Coney, including a tribe of more than two hundred Spanish-speaking Filipinos who spent their workday blowing poison darts through reeds and making crafts; eighteen Algerians who did tricks on horseback; a tribe of over a hundred Somali warriors with self-inflicted scars on their bodies; nineteen near naked Wild Men from Borneo and a real Hindu village transplanted intact to Coney.

Beauty and ugliness, physical prowess and physical deformity were all equally exploited in Coney. Lilliputia, a half-scale city built to resemble 15th century Nuremberg, housed three hundred midgets from all over America who enjoyed their own Parliament, a Midget City Fire Department and their own beach. Midgets were publicly married and divorced daily (unintentionally leading to dozens of children born out of wedlock). The Dreamland Circus Sideshow, the first major freak show in America created in 1911, included albinos, a man billed as a tattooed ‘art gallery’, a human salamander, a legless man, the tallest and the fattest lady in the world, and the very popular Zip, also know as "What is It," a black-skinned pinhead with a small tuft of hair on his head. Several other freak shows sprung up in Coney Island to compete with the original, often employing simulated freaks (such as the famous Mexican Siamese twins who after a fight during one of their shows each walked their separate ways).

Many of the scientific wonders associated with Coney were actually imported or copied from the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago and later World’s Fairs. While these Worlds Fairs displayed the latest technological advances to educate people and to advance science, Coney Island used technology to titillate people’s morbid curiosity. The Infant Incubator, basically a small hospital that housed a dozen or so iron-and-glass incubators heated by hot-water pipes connected to a central boiler, was designed to care for hundreds of babies that had been born prematurely. The fact that the emaciated babies could die at any moment made this one of the most popular exhibits in Coney.

Even more so than any single theme park or act, the greatest new technology on display in Coney Island was electricity. Only recently invented, electricity powered the futuristic rides and at night lit up the amusement parks’ million electric light bulbs. Thomas Alva Edison, America’s most prolific inventor, not only patented the first electric light bulb he also patented a system to distribute electricity in 1880 and supplied much of NYC (including Coney) with direct current (DC).

Edison’s monopoly, however, was threatened by the higher voltages and cheaper distribution costs of alternating current (AC), invented by the Italian Nikola Tesla and promoted by George Westinghouse. To take out the competition, Edison devoted much of his time and money convincing people that AC was dangerous by creating the electric chair just to illustrate the lethal potential of his competitor’s electricity. Edison offered public displays of the dangerous AC current in which he electrocuted (or as he referred to it, “Westinghoused”) all sizes and species of animals up to and including horses and cows. His greatest publicity stunt came in 1903 when Topsy, an elephant at Coney’s Luna Park Zoo, squashed three handlers (including one who had fed her a lit cigarette) and had to be put down. Copper wires attached to her feet were connected to an electrical plant and a 6,600-volt AC charge slammed through her body, frying Topsy instantly.

Besides killing animals in public, Edison was also responsible for another form of entertainment first introduced to the masses in Coney Island. Edison was granted a patent for the motion picture camera Kinetograph and for the Kinetoscope, a peephole viewer, both first publicly exhibited in 1891, and in 1896 the Vitascope, also manufactured by the Edison factory, was used to project motion pictures in public screenings in nickel theaters and outdoors at night. By 1906 as many as thirty moving picture venues were operating in Coney Island, with hundreds of tents and movie boxes showing films, as well.

Not only were the earliest films being viewed there, but Coney also served as the ideal location for producing films. In 1896, Edison started to film the rides, acts and theme parks at Coney Island, and continued to do so over the next ten years. Between 1895 and 1905, over 50 films were shot at Coney Island, including films of Harry Houdini performing such acts as the Substitution Trunk or Metamorphosis Illusion.

Films by the French producer Éclair brought Coney’s unique dreamlike theme parks and architecture to Europe and influenced a whole generation of artists and thinkers, including the avant-garde filmmaker George Méliès, known as a “cinemagician.” A Trip To The Moon, one of Luna Park’s most popular rides (850,000 tickets sold during the first summer), was installed in 1902, the same year that A Trip to the Moon, directed by Méliès and credited as the first science fiction film, was shot, and the film’s theatrical sets and futuristic effects are surprisingly similar to the ride of the same name in Coney Island. Méliès was unable to release his film in the United States but Edison managed to get his hands on the film and made pirate copies that he distributed in movie venues in Coney Island and throughout the country, netting him a huge profit.

Coney Island dreamland architecture and theatrical extravaganzas might have been a major inspiration for the dream-drenched artwork and films of the European Surrealist movement, but their influence was even more direct in the creative horizon of many other avant-garde US and European filmmakers. Little Fugitive, directed and shot by photographer Morris Engel in 1953, portrayed a day in the life of a kid lost in Coney Island, filmed in and around the amusement parks, boardwalk and beach with camera in hand. The film won the Silver Lion prize in the Venice Film Festival and was a major influence on Francois Truffaut and his film 400 Blows, as well as a major influence on French New Wave Cinema.

Coney also provided the film world with future stars of the big screen. The Marx Brothers first performed together in Coney Island in 1908, while Buster Keaton’s first appearance was in Fatty Arbuckles’ 1917 movie entitled Coney Island. Although not shot in Coney Island, Freaks, directed in 1932 by Todd Browning (who had just made the box office success Dracula with Bela Lugosi the year before) was cast with many of the freaks from Coney Island’s Sideshow, including the bearded lady, midgets, pinhead girls and Zip. (The idea of treating freaks as real human beings created such a scandal that Browning’s career never recovered.)

Even more than the featured performers, in Coney the crowds were the protagonists and the biggest attraction. Marilyn Monroe’s famous pose, with her white dress fluttering up in the air over a subway grating, might very well have come from Coney’s crowd-pleasing air vent that lifted women’s dresses as they stepped off of certain rides. One ride, the Barrel of Love, forced strangers, both men and women, into intimate physical contact, or had them come tumbling out head over heels into the jeering crowd, creating a semi-erotic reality show for the crowd’s enjoyment.

Walt Disney loathed Coney Island for he saw it as too crude and vulgar and too full of low-rent immigrants. Although the urban, erotic, exotic Coney was the opposite of the all-American fairy tales Disney created, one of Disney’s finest films, Dumbo, about a female elephant who turns on her trainers when provoked, was based on the story of Coney’s Topsy. Even though Disney films dominated the animated film market in the US, Disney’s amusement parks could never match the success Coney Island enjoyed for decades (only 5 million people went to Disneyland the year it opened in 1955, compared to the 46 million people who visited Coney in 1943).

Although Disney attempted to avoid Coney Island’s cultural anarchism and cheap thrills, his work was very much inspired by the comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland. Little Nemo, the dream-child of Winsor McCay and first published in the New York Herald at the beginning of the 20th century, was arguably the most surreal children’s comic ever, and by far the most avant-garde in its design and layout. Living in nearby Sheepshead Bay, McCay lifted many of the most fantastic architectural landscapes within his comic strip directly from Coney’s theme parks, the typography and titles were inspired by its sideshow posters and signs, while the very name Slumberland in the comic’s title was surely inspired by Dreamland. McCay’s versions of Coney Island’s Human Roulette Table, the Laughing Mirror Gallery and the Loop the Loop, as well as the air vents in the floor routine, were amongst the most striking images within Little Nemo. Like many other artists, the settings of Little Nemo’s worldwide adventures that McCay didn’t get from firsthand travel experience were mostly likely borrowed from Coney Island’s theme park ‘cities.’

Due to all the film and cultural production that was inspired by its theme parks, Coney Island’s fantastic allure reached far and wide, stimulating the European subconscious. Intellectuals and artists from all over the world were irresistibly drawn to the buzzing lights of Coney. Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung stood and watched Coney Island pass by as their ocean liner, The George Washington, was tugged into the New York harbor in 1909. On deck that day Jung gushed about how they were bringing enlightenment to the New World, to which Freud dryly replied that they were bringing with them the plague (the dreamland he called psychoanalysis). Freud, an analyst of dreamlands of the mind, also remarked: “The only thing about America that interests me is Coney Island.”

The Russian writer Maxim Gorky came to Coney Island in 1907 and, wowed by the electric lights and fantastic constructions, wrote about the “fantastic city all of fire”. “Fabulous and beyond conceiving, ineffably beautiful, is this fiery scintillation.” Another visit in the daytime changed his views. In his essay Boredom, Gorky went on to note: “The city, magic and fantastic from afar, now appears an absurd jumble of straight lines of wood, a cheap, hastily constructed toy house for the amusement of children. (…) Everything is stripped naked by the dispassionate glare. The glare is everywhere, and nowhere a shadow,” (unknowingly referring to Coney’s original, indigenous name). Along the same lines, E. E. Cummings remarked how in “the theater we are merely deceived, at Coney we deceive ourselves.”

In 1926, the Mexican José Juan Tablada, a longtime New York City resident and the man credited for bringing Mexican poetry into the modern era, wrote about the Coney Island Freak Show: "… long before Coney Island rose out of the ocean like a common, commercial Venus, Montezuma had jesters, dwarves and hunchbacks, caged beasts and botanic gardens."

José Martí, another longtime New York City resident, realized Coney Island’s importance to American culture, calling it “that immense valve of pleasure opened to an immense nation.” Yet this champion of popular culture and democratic values wrote disparagingly about the crowds at Coney, condescendingly noting that "such people eat quantity, we quality." Martí wasn’t referring so much to the hotdog, invented and sold by the millions in Coney Island, but about the whole Coney experience, which he believed epitomized the cheapness and excesses of the American imagination.

Federico Garcia Lorca felt the same as Martí, describing Coney Island as, “monstrous,” as well as “stupendous although excessive.” Yet it is just the monstrous American technological and cultural excesses best epitomized by Coney Island that gave rise to the surreal, grotesque flights of fancy in Lorca’s own poetry. In his Landscape of a Vomiting Multitude (Dusk at Coney Island), his greatest poem from the collection Poet in New York (1929), an afternoon trip to the amusement parks inspires delirious images that perfectly mirror the spectacles in Coney and helped ushered in European avant-garde poetry.

With jammed-packed crowds of summer beachgoers and fun-seekers letting it all hang out and playing up to the camera, Coney Island has long provided the raw material for some of the 20th century’s greatest photographers. Weegee’s best known photo was taken of the Coney Island beach on the 4th of July in 1938, while Coney provided Diane Arbus and many other photographers with some of their most iconic images of freaks, decadence and failed dreams.

The mere inclusion of Coney Island within their work has given many artists and writers a huge boost in both critical and commercial success. In his 1935 story In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, Delmore Schwartz uses the Coney Island boardwalk and amusement parks as the backdrop for a filmic recreation of the day his father proposed marriage to his mother. Written when he was only 21 years old and hailed by the poets Wallace Stevens and TS Eliot for ushering in a new narrative form, the story achieves its vanguard status in large part by introducing Coney Island’s working-class culture and history into a highbrow literary medium (my own short story, inspired in part by Delmore’s work, created no such literary excitement).

Lou Reed, a student of Delmore and his greatest fan, struck gold as well with his 1975 album Coney Island Baby, in which the title track, despite its name, is actually about his football team in a Long Island school and only mentions his ‘Coney Island baby’ in passing at the end of the title song. In 1958, the San Franciscan Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti published a collection of poems entitled “Coney Island of the Mind.” Even though it was barely referred to within the book, Coney Island’s presence in the title and a photo of one of its theme parks at night made it the best selling American book of poetry ever and showed just how much influence Coney exerted on the American highbrow imagination.

By the mid-1960s, the three main amusement parks that had inspired so many filmmakers, poets, artists and thinkers from all around the world had burned to the ground (a victim of their own electric fantasies), marking the end of the Coney’s golden age. Despite the fact that some rides and games survived, and despite the fact that the boardwalk and beach still attracted millions of visitors in the summer, Coney Island ceased being America’s favorite dreamland destination. Like other inner-city neighborhoods with large minority populations in New York City during the economic downturn in the late 60s and 70s, social services were slashed, the white middle- and upperclasses fled to the suburbs, and Coney Island was overrun by gangs and crime. Low-income housing projects, with mainly black and Puerto Rican families stuffed into tiny apartments, replaced much of the area the amusement parks had occupied. At this time, right when I first starting going out there with my family and then later on my own, most tourists kept away from Coney except during the summer weekends or holidays, and the elderly, Jewish residents, such as my grandmother, tended to huddle nervously within their apartments.

The dreamlike fantasy of Coney that had so inspired poets and intellectuals for decades was replaced by a tough, crime-ridden world. Yet, even during these hard times Coney managed to find its way into and inspire some of the greatest works of urban realism, including Sol Yurick’s 1965 novel Warriors (adapted to the screen by director Walter Hill in 1979), a tale of New York City gangs that travel from the Bronx all the way to their home turf in Coney Island. Hubert Selby’s 1978 novel Requiem for a Dream (decades later directed for the screen by Darren Aronofsky), the story of the amphetamine addiction of an elderly Jewish woman living in the Jewish housing projects and the crimes her son commits to feed his heroin habit, all take place within the bleak backdrop of Coney Island.

Yet just when it seemed that the Coney Island dream world had smashed against the daily grind, a new wave of Russian Jewish immigration began to repopulate the area in and around Coney Island in the 80s and 90s. Jews were among the few people allowed to emigrate from Russia before the Berlin Wall came down, and Odessa in the Ukraine supplied the largest portion of early immigrants to Brighton Beach (which soon became known as Little Odessa), settling along a beach community that remarkably resembled the city they had just left. (The sea-front city of Odessa had itself been an artistic motor, home to a group of avant-garde Jewish writers that were eventually executed for being “rootless cosmopolitans” during the 1949 Stalin-orchestrated Night of the Murdered Poets).

Although much of the immigration was organized and populated by the Russian mafia, it helped “whiten” the neighborhood, lower crime and increase real estate value, thus eventually making the area attractive for larger, corporate developers. In 2005, a developer purchased Coney Island's last remaining amusement park and razed it to install three expensive, Disneyworld rides. This same developer has been lobbying to receive permission to build a shiny glass and metal, Las Vegas-style hotel complex so tall it would dwarf the Wonder Wheel. While approval for this hotel complex is currently pending, several decades-old boardwalk restaurants have been torn down and replaced by venues where middle and upper class families can consume behind thick windows that buffer the noise and sight of the “huddled masses” outside.

In his book Delirious New York, superstar architect Rem Koolhaas dedicated a chapter to Coney Island in which he describes it as the “fetus” of what was to become Manhattan’s skyscraper center. Yet it is precisely this corporate skyscraper culture, the same one which recently decimated the ethnic and cultural hotbed that was once Times Square, that now threatens to drag Coney Island into the global tourism market. As it inevitably tilts toward mid-American and European package tourism, as glass towers and insurance-friendly rides displace the old theatrical facades and haunted houses, and as corporate interests consolidate their stake in the area and national chains such as Hooters are set to arrive, the artistic and intellectual attraction of Coney Island has finally ended.

Due to its bawdy excesses, cheap theatrics and technological innovation, its prefab fantasy and futuristic fictions, Coney Island remained at the forefront of modern life and culture for nearly a century, and more than any other single place on this planet figured prominently in and inspired the work and imagination of some of the greatest American and European avant-garde thinkers and creators. This privileged cultural position has been lost, and Coney Island will never again provide material for our era’s greatest fictional fantasies.

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Twenty-five years after writing my epic short story entitled Skinny Takes a Walk, I step off of the elevated subway in Coney Island and walk through the 4th of July heat and crowds on my way to visit my father. I abandoned New York City, which I felt had betrayed its long, oppositional history, more than two decades ago to live in Mexico City, where corporate culture is only now devouring the city and its working class culture, but I’m back here now on assignment to write about and photograph Coney Island for a Mexican cultural magazine that paid my plane ticket and expenses. I spend the day smoking pot and taking photographs of all the people sitting on the boardwalk benches, and in the afternoon I walk over to visit my dad.

After having lived and painted for a couple of decades in upstate New York in a twenty-room house with half a barn in front of a river and train tracks, my father is currently spending what’s left of his life in a retirement home twenty blocks from Coney Island. Within this modern ‘home,’ elderly Jews, Russians and Brooklynites shuttle around the hallways in wheelchairs in no hurry to go anywhere. Although I wish my father would once again recount to me his early adventures, filling in some of the blanks of his early life and what it was like hanging out in Coney Island over seventy years ago, he will never add a single word to his past stories, as he suffered a massive stroke over ten years ago and is now semi-paralyzed and unable to speak.

I unsteadily wheel my father out through the huge revolving door of the retirement home and then speed up, exaggerating the curves and maneuvering him over to the oceanfront walkway as if we were making a run for it. Instead, I slam the brakes on and then sit down on a bench next to him, watching the seagulls fly overhead, the dirty waves bumping against the concrete wall, and take a few photos of him in front of the Atlantic Ocean. The Wonder Wheel, the Cyclone and the abandoned Parachute Jump, locally known as the Brooklyn Eiffel Tower, colossal structures that have witnessed the rise and fall of “America’s Playground,” appear as dim lines in the background of the photos.

The sun beats down hard on my shaved head and when I can’t take the heat any longer I stand up and slowly wheel my father back inside the air-conditioned building. An image of the elderly people here ramming their wheelchairs into each other like the Coney Island bumper cars I used to ride as a kid flashes through my mind but quickly fizzles out as we arrive at my father’s room. The reality of aging and dying is just too overpowering to let imagination take wing within these grey-green walls. I park him in front of the television and kiss him goodbye on his forehead in a clumsy, ashamed and sad way, not knowing when or even if I will see him or Coney Island ever again.

Saturday, November 1, 2014


Having just gotten divorced after more than two decades of marriage my future is open-ended. I can do anything I want now, like fly to a city I know next to nothing about to meet a woman I know next to nothing about to see if my future lies in that direction.

I live in Mexico City but with Facebook there’s nothing easier than flirting with a woman in Tampico (about 300 miles away) and having instant access to a whole range of information about her (her age, education, what she looks like, her social circles, etc). Like stalking women on Facebook, the Internet also offers similar access to cities everywhere around the world. Tampico, a city far off the beaten track, a city that never figures prominently in tourist maps or guidebooks and to which not many people who are not from there have reason to go to, looks like just my kind of city.

I rent a cheap hotel room and buy my plane ticket online with a few clicks on the computer and, in just a matter of days, I am sitting in the lobby of Hotel Regis in el centro histórico of Tampico waiting to meet my new FB friend. A car pulls up and I watch as a woman inside kisses a man on the lips, exits the car that slowly pulls away and then enters the lobby with a big smile. It turns out that my FB woman friend has a real-life boyfriend, which she neglected to mention. We nonetheless spend a very nice day eating shrimp and drinking beer in a restaurant on the other side of Río Pánuco in the state of Veracruz with a wonderful view of a gas refinery on the Tampico side, and then having furtive sex on the dunes overlooking the Gulf of Mexico before saying adios forever.

Cities live longer than human beings and often people’s relationships with cities are longer, more intense and more rewarding than with other human beings. Although I often make the mistake of being attracted to attractive, sexy, flirtatious young women, my taste for cities is quite the opposite. I’m a sucker for old, dilapidated cities, cities that were once thriving and modern but are now depressed and neglected and afflicted with all forms of urban blight.

Most people consider the future as technological advancement and progress but this is not the case with all cities, as many cities of the future will be anything but futuristic. In Mexico, people have been living in the same place in much the same way for thousands of years and thus the past often dominates the present and limits the future. Even Mexican cities with no trace of an indigenous past can still be weighed down by a certain period of urban expansion and construction, as is the case of Tampico.

Tampico was founded in 1823 as one of Mexico’s first ports, rerouting African slaves to New Orleans and shipping out silver to Spain, but the port and the city were built to serve black gold. In 1886, the first refinery was built in Tampico to distill US oil and by the start of the 20th century several US oil companies had refineries lining the Pánuco River. In 1904, the first commercial oil well in Mexico (owned by gringos) was drilled in Tampico, and soon after Standard, Royal Dutch Shell and other foreign companies invaded the city and began extracting oil from Mexican soil. By WWI, Tampico had become the second most important port in the world for oil exports.

In 1923, Mexico’s largest oil deposit dried up and two years later the Mexican government passed a law that restricted foreign ownership of the land to 50 years (instead of in perpetuity as it had been). Without the assurance of an infinite future, the foreign oil companies began a massive migration from Mexico to Venezuela and, as a result, the oil production in Mexico plummeted by 75%, the local economy collapsed and thousands of fired workers fled the city.

Mexican oil was nationalized in 1938. Although this didn’t restore the golden years of oil extraction it did offer great jobs to the more than one hundred thousand union members working in the government-controlled oil industry, many in Tampico where the union boss was from. Seen from the inside, working for the government-owned oil industry was a socialist paradise, with job security, excellent health and education benefits and decent pensions, living proof that socialism was the most humane system. Seen from the outside, it was a corrupt union that offered privileges to its employees that almost no one else in the country enjoyed, a criminal organization run by a Mafioso who was known as the King of the Poor yet with a personal net worth estimated somewhere around three billion dollars, living proof that socialism was a lie.

In 1988, in an effort to grease the wheels of the North American Free Trade Agreement, then-President Salinas privatized the banks and most other government-owned businesses and put the oil industry’s union boss in jail, thus ending the autonomous reign of Mexico’s most powerful union and, as an unintended byproduct, further driving the local economy in Tampico into the dirt. The city’s port finally closed in 2007.

The Historic Center of Tampico, built during the Europeanized reign of Mexico’s great dictator Porfírio Díaz and paid for by the oil boom, had been the pride of the country, often compared to New Orleans for its French-style buildings with ornate steel balconies and arte nouveau details, its rich musical tradition, its whore houses and its draw as a tourist destination. These days, however, after several waves of mass exodus from the city over the last few decades, due to economic or physical violence, Tampico resembles post-Katrina New Orleans, empty, abandoned, economically devastated, a ghost town.

For decades, the oil and gas shipped to the US from Tampico fueled the local economy, while today, cocaine, marihuana and meta-amphetamines smuggled in to the US represent the city’s largest source of income. Narcos began operating in Tampico in 2004, and since then they have penetrated all aspects of society. Most of the local law enforcement officers were on the narco payroll until the army recently decommissioned the police (only traffic cops are to be seen on the streets of the city these days). Narcos control the newspapers, publishing warnings to rival cartels or announcements for people to stay in their homes to avoid being shot, and often kill reporters and editors who disrespect them (the state has the highest kill rate of journalists). Narcos control the taxis, city buses and the armored trucks that deliver cash, they have bank executives hand over information about clients with accounts of more than half a million dollars and make notaries sign away properties at gunpoint.

At the beginning of 2010, twelve kilos of cocaine were confiscated in Tampico. The bosses in Reyonsa, on the US border, told the narcos in Tampico that they had to cover the losses, and this led to a wave of kidnappings. In September 2010, with the kidnapping of Fernando Azcarraga, former mayor and cousin of the owner of the Televisa media empire, the wealthy citizens fled the city. When the wealthy left town the narcos began targeting doctors and other middleclass professionals for kidnappings. Since then over 200 hotels, restaurants and cafes, including over half of all businesses in the centro historico, have closed down.

As I walk around the neighborhood at night, there are no tourists or groups of alcohol-drenched partiers staggering around the neighborhood, the few bars still open have closed early, only a few skanky prostitutes can be seen sitting bored on the curb in front of low-rent hotels. To make the neighborhood seem even more eerie and otherworldly, dozens of buildings, including some of the largest and most impressive, lie sabandoned. Mostly built between the boom years of 1900 and 1950, these buildings’ structures and facades are in perfect shape and could easily stand for another century yet now are mere empty shells. Looking closer, however, I realize that these buildings are in fact not empty, for huge trees have burst through the roofs and out the windows, as if the trees were now the dominant life form on the planet.

I take a collective taxi to the Miramar beach, a twenty-minute ride from my hotel. Having seen photographs of this beach during Spring Break and heard it described as “a four-mile cantina” I am a little hesitant to go there, but my desire for a swim and some sun wins out. The beach, however, turns out to be little more than a long stretch of dirty gray sand covered with driftwood and oceanic debris, and shallow gray-green water with ankle-high, ceaseless waves. To make matters worse, a giant gas refinery squats right on the edge of the beach, huge flames and black smoke belching out of the top of several towers and a sweet-sickly smell filling the air. Even though it is a sunny Friday afternoon, the few restaurants and bars that aren’t boarded up are without clients, the few condos facing the beach have been left unfinished, decaying palm-thatched palapas stretch for a hundred yards, and except for one family playing soccer and a few stray dogs barking at each other the beach is empty.

Across the street from the gas refinery I come across a large-headed, bald, green-skinned creature. The existence of an alien life form on this beach doesn’t really seem all that out of place, and I stop and take the time to read the dedication plaque which states that this life-sized concrete bust was inaugurated just couple of days before (henceforth the Day of the Martian will be celebrated in Tampico the last Tuesday of every month). More than just a quirky tourist draw (which doesn’t seem to be working very well yet) the bust is dedicated to the aliens believed to be living in an underwater base a few miles off the coast of the beach. Photos have been taken of flying objects on the horizon, small discs of lights over the water have been captured on videos (available on Youtube), and locals say that they have seen UFO’s fly in from their base to refuel their ships from the oil towers.

Since the arrival decades ago of these superior life forms from outer space (said to be either very tall and skinny or very short), the city has been miraculously spared from the devastating effects of hurricanes that sweep in from the Caribbean every year (Hilda was the last hurricane to actually hit the city full-on and that was in 1955). Residents of Tampico have watched as dozens of mighty hurricanes predicted to do major damage to the city mysteriously and magically shifted direction at the last minute, thus saving the city from destruction (instead wreaking serious damage in the USA, much to the delight of the locals).

One psychologist quoted in a Tampico newspaper believes that the idea that “superior beings protect our city” is a result of “magic-fantasy-animation type thinking deposited in the right hemisphere of our brain” and activated during crises when people “have lost the power of control.” According to this expert this mass fantasy can occur when hurricanes are about to hit, although it can also be attributed to economic crises and narco violence, both of which Tampico now suffers from. Another, less psychological explanation for alien sightings could very well be the constant, invisible yet overwhelming presence of gas fumes in the air from the refinery across the street from the beach, as gas fumes have long been associated with hallucinations, often of a religious nature. Another plausible explanation is that the spacecraft actually come from a secret US military base and are probably just drones or spy planes monitoring the activity of narcos within the city.

After returning from the beach I attend a lecture by Eugene Gogol from Oregon, who speaks about Marxism and revolution. Gogol’s fame, if he has any, is that he was the private secretary of a private secretary of Trotsky. In 1936, Trotsky first arrived in Mexico by ship, landing in the port of Tampico, where Frida Kahlo was there to meet him and to take him to Mexico City. Trotsky and Frida, who was married to the great art Mafioso Diego Rivera, would later have an affair together and it is rumored that this, more than his split from Stalin, is what got him killed. Sensing that his future was going to be brief (there had already been assassination attempts), Trotsky wrote a testament days before his male secretary (Gogol had worked for one of Trotsky’s female secretaries) jammed an ice pick into his head in his house in Mexico City: “Life is beautiful. Let the future generations cleanse it of all evil, oppression and violence, and enjoy it to the full.”

After a long-winded explanation of Marxist theory delivered in very broken Spanish in a cramped room with no air conditioner, Eugene Gogol speaks about the relevance of revolutionary movements, such as the Zapatistas in a jungle in a corner of the poorest part of Mexico, which he believes will spread and lead to the creation of socialist societies in the future. Sitting here in Tampico, a city in which no indigenous people have lived for centuries and where the most brutal form of capitalism reigns supreme, the future of socialism that Gogol evokes seems like fantasy.

Fantasy, however, has always been a very important aspect of revolutionary theory and socialism, not to mention science fiction. Looking Backward: 2000-1887, one of the earliest modern science fiction novels, written by Edward Bellamy in 1887 (just a few years after the death of Karl Marx), was a bestseller that inspired hippy communes, politically progressive book clubs and was often cited by Marxist scholars as proof of the inevitability of socialism. The novel tells the story of a young man at the end of the 19th century who is hypnotized and falls asleep for one hundred and thirteen years, waking up to find that the United States has been transformed into a socialist utopia where everyone happily shares the benefits of an industrialized economy.

Although in Bellamy’s future scenario the government, which controls every aspect of the economy and culture, is portrayed as benign and enlightened, in science fiction future socialist states are usually cast as evil empires. Communism and socialism’s public image within the United States was surreptitiously and insidiously shaped during the Cold War by Hollywood sci-fi films that cast aliens in the role of commies attempting to spread their individual-less way of life to unsuspecting and hardworking Americans.

Regardless of whether the future is red, white and blue or just red, whether it’s utopic or dystopic, the radical shifts societies take in these imagined futures are usually brought about by revolution or alien invasion, which for Hollywood is often the same thing. Mexicans have never been such rapid anti-communists nor so anti-aliens as gringos (perhaps because they have always been labeled as illegal aliens when they cross the border in search of work) and instead have usually been open to the positive aspects of both.

In Tampico, the most extreme forms of capitalism and socialism have alternated. After the pillage of Mexican oil by foreigners, the nationalization of the oil industry brought thousands and thousands of workers into the strongest union in the country for decades, but recently the Mexican government broke the power of the oil union and is now about to sell the oil industry back to European and American companies. When Mexican oil, like the food, cars, entertainment, alcohol and most everything else consumed within the country’s formal economy today, is once again foreign-owned, one of the very few Mexican-owned multi-billion dollars businesses left will be the cultivation and/or distribution of marijuana, meth-amphetamines, cocaine and heroin.

Narco activity (which includes prostitution, pirated goods, kidnapping, drugs, etc) generates more profits and employment in Mexico than the country’s oil industry and thus wields real power within the society. Mexico’s future will be the alternation of power and pillage between foreign corporations and local mafias, which despite certain differences are both ruthlessly anti-socialist, anti-union and anti-worker. That is, unless an alien invasion from outer space or from the jungles of Chiapas topple the present system.

When I was married I dreamt about being single and having affairs in exotic places, but now that I’m single and have affairs in exotic places I flirt with the idea of hooking up with one special woman. Most sci-fi novels and films, radical Marxist theory and helpless romantics envision a future that will usher in an alternative lifestyle that will provide what we most lack and bring with it a solution to our unhappiness. The future, like the past, is thus always cyclical.

Back in my hotel room I chat on FB with a friend who he tells me that a woman who works for him is from Tampico and is here now and that I should give her a buzz. Within minutes I’ve befriend her on FB, chat with her a bit and set up a date for the evening. We meet in the city cemetery, just a couple of blocks from her home and where her grandparents are buried, and take photos of each other in front of graves as the sun goes down. She’s young, intelligent, has a ring through her nose and there’s no boyfriend in sight.

When the cemetery closes we kiss each other goodbye (she’ll be moving to Mexico City soon so we’ll meet again) and I cross the avenue and head into El Porvenir (The Future, or literally, What’s Coming), Tampico’s most famous cantina. The cantina has a motto: “We’re doing better than those in front.” Looking out of the window, I see on the cemetery wall graffiti that reads: “Here lie those who drank in front.” I take a last slug of my beer and suck out the last meat from my plate of fresh crabs and step out into the warm Tampico night, my last in the city, and walking past the cemetery I’m ready to embrace my future, whichever way it lies. [published in The Ascender 2013]

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Several Ways to Die in Mexico City An Autobiography Published by Feral House (October 2012) Reviews, interviews and excerpts: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/10/14/this-week-s-hot-reads-oct-15-2012.html#hollander http://www.nyjournalofbooks.com/review/several-ways-die-mexico-city-autobiography-death-mexico-city http://redhen.org/losangelesreview/book-reviews/book-reviews-july-2013/#several http://bombsite.com/issues/1000/articles/7015 http://www.bookforum.com/interview/10640 http://www.theatlanticcities.com/jobs-and-economy/2012/11/when-your-city-killing-you/3877/ http://blog.colinmarshall.org/?p=1396 http://morbidanatomy.blogspot.mx/2013/02/holy-bones-from-book-several-ways-to.html http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kurt-hollander/mexico-citys-santa-muerte_b_2083611.html http://www.guernicamag.com/daily/kurt-hollander-several-ways-to-drink-in-mexico-city/ http://www.vice.com/es_mx/read/kurt-hollander http://www.frente.com.mx/kurt-hollander/

Saturday, June 4, 2011


Three years ago I visited the Mexican army’s Museo de Enervantes (Narcotics Museum). At that time President Calderon had just started his drug war and the government was optimistic about ending Mexico’s narco problem quickly. The army, which had until then been mostly just a spectator of the drug war, began a full-frontal assault against traffickers throughout the country. As part of its daily activity, the army decommissioned shipments of illegal drugs and dismantled clandestine laboratories. Besides the drugs themselves, rifles, vehicles, agricultural and laboratory equipment, as well as personal items of the traffickers, were also confiscated. While (in theory) most of drugs were destroyed, many objects were kept as evidence. Some of these objects, especially the most extravagant and unique pieces, wound up in a very special museum that you will never visit.

Located on Military Industry Avenue, hidden away on the seventh floor of a fortified concrete bunker inside the central military compound in Mexico City, off-limits to all but military personnel and high-ranking police officers, this is one of the most high-security museums in the world. A unique concept when it was founded in 1985, it is no longer the only drug museum on the planet. In 2000, the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) created a drug museum inside its offices in Washington, D.C., since 2002 Myanmar has its Drug Elimination Museum, and China recently opened the doors to its Anti-Drug Museum. Unlike their Mexican counterpart, however, these museums are all designed for a general audience, a fact that fundamentally influences their curatorial approach to drugs and drug culture.

On a wall at the entrance to the Mexican Drug Museum, above some (perfectly legal) potted plants, hangs a dedication to all the soldiers who have “offered their lives in the line of duty” in Mexico’s war on drugs. The plaque lists the name and rank of each of the soldiers who have sacrificed their lives combating traffickers of controlled chemicals. Over the last few years, the number of fallen soldiers and officials who have had their name etched onto this metal plaque keeps climbing, with 2010 listing more than twice the number of deaths just three years ago.

Just inside the entrance, a new mural painted by a retired officer depicts soldiers in a poppy field bravely defending civilization as balls of fire fall from the sky. Although the museum is presented as a showcase of the military’s achievements in its war against drugs, in the first of the museum’s ten sections, World History of Drugs, it also faithfully documents the wide varieties of psychoactive substances that have existed in the country for thousands of years. In Mexico, indigenous priests and shamans utilized in their religious practices various hallucinogens and stimulants, including plants, weeds, flowers, cacti, mushrooms, tree bark and even toads. Recreational use of these substances was restricted for royalty only (Moctezuma was famous for his magic mushroom orgies) and unauthorized use was severely punished. One glass display case exhibits pre-Hispanic drug objects, including a pipe (used with tobacco), a hollowed-headed figurine in which peyote buttons were stored, and a knife used in religious rituals to remove still-beating hearts from sacrificial victims (both priests and the victims were usually tripping their brains out from a mix of hallucinogens and pulque). One fact that isn’t mentioned in the museum is how, after the Spaniards decimated the local population, destroyed their temples and pyramids and burnt all their books, they made a point of outlawing the consumption of all ‘drugs’ associated with pagan religious practices. The indigenous people who continued to supply the shamans and other religious practitioners with traditional psychoactive substances after the Conquest thus became the first narco traffickers in the Americas.

Although the Spaniards considered indigenous Mexicans as drug-addled pagans, marijuana was in fact first brought to Mexico by conquistadores. During WWII, the US actually helped Mexico produce opium to supply it with the morphine needed to treat its wounded soldiers, a practice that eventually led to the birth of the first Mexican drug cartels (also not mentioned within the museum).

During the last few decades, Mexico has become the largest exporter to the United States of marijuana, heroin and, most recently, methamphetamines, and is as well as the main point of entry for Colombian cocaine (an inflatable globe on display shows the main drug routes around the world with colored arrows). The United States sees its southern neighbor as the source of much of the problems that drugs are wreaking among its citizens, and the US government continually complains that Mexico is not enough to crackdown on narco traffickers. In fact, though, it is the use of these controlled chemicals within the United States, the largest consumer of illegal substances in the world, that is the reason why Mexican drug trafficking exists, and it is the US-made weapons, both those supplied by the US government, licensed arms dealers and the Texan gun shops that sell directly to narcos, that are responsible for much of the hyper-violence within Mexico these days.

As can be seen in the museum, although the drug trade is a multi-million dollar industry the local farmers supplying them still use rustic, hand-made equipment (such as homemade wooden knives to scrape the poppy bulbs, empty battery casings to receive the sap, and improvised water sprinklers made from scrap metal) for the cultivation of plants and the drugs’ extraction. In one elaborate installation in the museum, a peasant sits calmly, a rifle on his lap, a cigarette in his hand, a hat pulled down over his eyes, some simple food cooking on a rustic stove, giving the appearance of a typical campesino working in the fields. Upon closer inspection, however, the accoutrements of criminal activity become visible: the presence of a shortwave radio, a wolf trap, a board containing long rusty nails covered in human excrement (to infect the wound inflicted on unwary soldiers), and low-lying cables strung above the poppy and marijuana fields (stretching off into the painted horizon) designed to bring down spying helicopters.

As in the cultivation of the drugs, narcos tend to rely more on ingenuity than high-tech means to smuggle their products across the US border. As the photographs and objects in the exhibition bear witness, drugs can be concealed in almost anything, including dictionaries, concrete bricks, canned goods, quesadillas, tacos and donuts, dolls, a stuffed armadillo, a hot water heater, a surfboard, truck wheels, inside a framed painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and even inside women’s bodies (one photograph shows bags of cocaine that were concealed within a woman’s buttocks, while a female mannequin shows a mula who faked being pregnant). To illustrate the military’s strategy in the war on drugs, detailed dioramas of dramatic operations have tiny military action figures in armored vehicles, helicopters and high-speed boats battling narcos in poppy and marijuana fields, spraying fields with pesticide (represented by thin strips of plastic streaming down from a helicopter) or intercepting a large tractor-trailer transporting drugs.

What makes this drug museum different than all the others around the world is this museum’s willingness to show in detail the splendors of narco culture, rather than treating them just as faceless criminals or ignoring them completely (the other museums show only military or undercover police memorabilia). Within the section entitled Narco Culture, a dark-skinned, handsome male mannequin wearing a cowboy hat, cowboy boots and sunglasses displays the latest in narco fashion and bling accessories. Three years ago this same mannequin was dressed in a shirt decorated with a colorful cockfight, a belt buckle emblazoned with a cannabis leaf, and a gold chain with a skull and crossbones. The same mannequin now sports a snake-skin and leather vest, a shirt decorated with wild horses, a belt buckle with a rooster and several gold necklaces, one with a green marijuana leaf, and a diamond-studded, gold-plated cell phone.

This section also includes a real wooden door carved with the portrait of a narco, rifle in hand and marijuana leaves all around him, which opens up to reveal a wall painting of his ranch house’s Greek columns, glitzy chandeliers and bubbling fountain. Mexican outlaws tend to be very religious, though not always in Church-approved ways, as can be seen by the recreation of an altar to Jesus Malverde, the “generous bandit” who was hung by a wealthy landowner at the end of the 19th century and has recently become the preferred narco saint, and there is also a display case full of figures of La Santa Muerte and trolls. Hung on one wall are photographs of customized narco vehicles, including an armor-plated pick-up truck that fires smoke, tear gas, oil and tacks.

The most prized possessions of the museum collection, however, are the weapons. Several glass cases proudly display the silver and gold-plated and/or diamond-studded guns and rifles (AK-47s, of course) confiscated from some of the most important capos. The most recently acquired weapon is a cuerno de chivo confiscated from Comandante Amarillo, a leader of the Zetas, gold plated and customized with dragons and tigers. The exhibits in this section are surprisingly similar to the exhibitions in Mexico City’s Anthropology Museum that illustrate the daily life (clothes, jewelry) and work (tools, weapons) of indigenous cultures in Mexico. This reveals how those who created the museum viewed narcos as a legitimate, though marginal, social group with particular cultural characteristics worthy of study.

In order to keep the military and police officers that visit the museum abreast of the latest trends in consumer drug culture, the last part of the exhibition is dedicated to drug paraphernalia. Among all the pipes, rolling paper, and marijuana and LSD memorabilia is a copy of Antonio Escohotado’s encyclopedic Historia General de las Drogas (A General History of Drugs, still untranslated in English). Despite the book’s groovy psychedelic cover, it is, in fact, a well-documented indictment of drug wars throughout history, from ancient sacrifices of scapegoats and medieval witch hunts through the Spanish Inquisition and US Prohibition, and up to contemporary US drug hysteria. The book illustrates how socially-accepted psychoactive substances used for religious and medicinal purposes become persecuted as a pretext to debase traditional beliefs and cultures, monopolize the sale of substances, and justify governmental wars against it own citizens, an argument which tends to undermine the museum’s glorification of Mexico’s own war against drugs. Yet, despite its contradictions, by respectfully pay homage to a millennial tradition of drug use, as well as realistically depicting a unique outlaw culture, the Mexican Drug Museum captures much of this complex social phenomenon.

Although only minor changes have been made within the museum over the last few years, things have changed radically outside the walls of the museum, and this of course affects how the museum is perceived. Three years ago people in Mexico and abroad were fascinated by the style and eccentricities of Mexican narcos. They were seen as peoples’ heroes and the cutting edge of Mexican culture (they made popular the cult of Malverde, narco corridas and Mexican bling). Songs touting their exploits were composed and sung by some of the country’s most popular bands. Today, 35,000 narco-related deaths later, people’s perception of narcos has changed a bit. The war between rival cartels, exacerbated by political favoritism and the military’s incursion into narco territory, has completely changed the face of drug trafficking. After dozens of the musicians who sang the glories of narcos were brutally murdered, the radios stopped playing narco-corridas and they soon went out of fashion. Although narco culture is still coveted by cultural connoiseurs, and although people are fascinated by the huge sums of money generated and by the extreme measures taken to protect their profits, there are no particular narcos that people (at least those not on the narco payroll) hold in high esteem.

Over the past three years, The New York Times and El Pais (to use only two examples) employed full-time writers to report only and exclusively on narco violence and ran front-page news of narco violence practically ever day. After years of photos of ever-greater atrocities, people outside of Mexico have become either repulsed by or at least habituated to Mexican narco ultra-violence, and today narco news is almost nowhere to be seen within the major international news sources.

Within Mexico, however, the culture industry still owes much to narcos: the highest grossing films, novels, artwork and soap operas all deal with the drug trade, and local news is still mainly centered on narco activity. Many of these cultural works, though, seem out of step with the current reality, portraying a nostalgic, romanticized or merely comic view of narcos and their milieu, one that doesn’t coincides with the daily slaughter that an increasingly competitive drug trade demands.

Due in part to the brutal tactics now being employed to compete with rival gangs in an effort to control markets and smuggling routes and to escape detention by the military, narcos have become dehumanized within the media, devoid of any particular personality that is not related to violence. All the cultural subtleties and details that this museum has so carefully documented have been washed away by bloodshed. Perhaps that explains why the museum hasn’t been adding material and updating the documentation of narco culture, as the only data of interest these days is the body count on both sides of the war.

Friday, August 27, 2010


[published in The Ecologist 8/10]

In Mexico, insects have been an integral part of people’s diet for thousands of years. When horses, wolly mammoths, camels, antelopes and other large mammals became extinct in Central Mexico around 7000 BC, people needed another steady source of protein. Insects fit the bill perfectly. The indigenous groups in Mexico had no word specifically for insects, instead referring to them as “the meat we eat.” When Europeans arrived in Mexico, although they deigned to consume certain edible insects, especially during Lent, in general these heavy meat eaters considered eating insects a barbaric, pagan practice and believed that creepy crawlers were the devil’s helpers.

And, yet, a case could be made that insects are man’s best friend and that humans couldn’t survive without them. Insects perform many of the basic functions necessary to maintain life on this planet, including recycling dead organic matter, creating topsoil suitable for plant life, and aiding plants in the pollination process. They also provide a plentiful source of food for animals and even humans. Within central and southern Mexico there are thousands of species of insects, about 500 of these fit for human consumption. Of these, almost 100 edible species are eaten and commercialized throughout the country, including grasshoppers, worms, ants, bees, butterflies, grubs, gnats, flies, mosquitoes, wasps and beetles, as well as their eggs, caterpillars and larvas.

Edible insects are an excellent source of protein, calcium, vitamins and minerals, and they even contain more healthy polyunsaturated fat than fish or fowl. One hundred grams of dried fly is made up of 54 grams of protein, almost 50 milligrams of iron and important quantities of essential amino acids and B vitamins. Stinkbugs have a high iodine content and are a good source of riboflavin and niacin. While only one-tenth of all food eaten by beef cattle is converted into meat, insects convert food to meat at a much higher rate and, as a result, offer more protein per pound than any bird or mammal. Grasshoppers provide twice as much protein as beef while a single earthworm provides the nutritional equivalent of 50 grams of meat.

Eating insects instead of animals could do great things not just for peoples’ diet and health but for the planet, too. Insects are infinitely less inexpensive to breed and harvest than animals, they are readily available almost everywhere on the planet (and thus very little fossil fuel is consumed to transport them to market), they don’t need to be refrigerated, they don’t lose their nutritional value even after being cooked or when dried out, and they need no added chemicals or machinery to reproduce or grow. In addition, insects are blessed with the ability to reproduce way faster even than rabbits. A female cricket can lay up to 1,500 eggs in one month, termites lay over thirty thousand eggs a day, while ants can pump out over three hundred thousand a day. All of this makes insects the ‘greenest’ meat on the planet.

Being that insects have been around so long, are so well adapted to life on earth, have such short life spans and reproduce so often and in such great numbers, all species of insects should be positively flourishing. Unfortunately, this is not the case with edible insects in Mexico, where the numbers of the most commonly consumed insects are dropping like flies. Several dozens species of edible insects in Mexico could be threatened with extinction if forests continue to be converted into timber and are paved over by urban sprawl, and if lakes continue to be polluted, over-exploited and dried out.

Perhaps the greatest current risk to the survival of several species of edible insects, however, is the rising popularity of insects among fine diners. Dr. Ramos Elorduy, one of the world’s foremost expert on edible insects and a researcher at the Biology Institute of the UNAM in Mexico City, is the author of Creepy Crawly Cuisine: The Gourmet Guide to Edible Insects, published in 1998. Although she is still a staunch promoter of insects as food, Dr. Ramos Elorduy has seen first hand how certain species have become depleted over the years due to food trends.“Sales of edible insects, both in Mexico and internationally, are continually increasing. In major cities around the world, including Tokyo, Sydney, NYC and Hong Kong, insects are commercialized by Japanese or US companies who buy them for pennies in Mexico and elsewhere and sell them for dollars in gourmet stores or five-star restaurants.”

The success of these fat, juicy insects at the dinner table, however, is thinning out the ranks of edible insects in the field. Due to the scarcity of the most-valued insects, less succulent species are now often being substituted, with a loss of taste, texture and nutritional value. Even when you get the insect you pay for, its integrity is often compromised before it reaches your plate. Besides threatening their survival, the widespread use of herbicides and pesticides, as well as a steady diet of pollution and human waste, load insects down with a heavy burden of toxic chemicals. The presence of lead and other toxins in edible insects makes eating them a risk and has made exporting them more difficult. Lead levels in some grasshoppers have been found to contain as much as one hundred times the maximum recommended dose of lead for young children and pregnant women.

To ensure clean, toxic-free grasshoppers for human consumption, Dr. Ramos Elorduy has developed a patented, toxic-free breeding method for grasshoppers which she hopes one day will be adopted as a standard insect breeding environment. As she points out, in order to preserve the hundreds of species of edible insects, in order to produce enough healthy edible insects to feed increasingly larger populations of people, ancient traditions and innovative technology will have to come together with fair trade and environmentally progressive strategies.


Chapulines (grasshoppers) are perhaps the most common edible insect in Mexico. They are hunted mostly in alfalfa fields with the use of long nets. In Oaxaca, grasshoppers are so common they are nibbled as finger food at baseball games and as a salty snack in cantinas, with lemon and chile often sprinkled onto them, and even come served as a topping on pizza.

Gusanos de maguey pop up on the menu in many up-scale restaurants. These gusanos are not actually worms but rather butterfly larva. In the state of Hidalgo, from September to January, these gusanos are so common they are sold alongside the highway in plastic bags. Maguey plants, often confused with cactii, not only give shelter and sustenance to this larva, they also provide the precious sap that is made into pulque, tequila and mezcal. These gusanos de maguey are the insect that floats on the bottom of mezcal bottles (Mexicans usually don’t swallow it, gringos do), and are often ground up and added to powdered chile to accompany shots.

Chinicuiles, or red maguey worms, are a different butterly larva that live in the roots of the same plant. They tend to be smaller and are considered less of a delicacy than the white worms. Both are often wrapped in leaves of the plant and cooked over coals or on a comal. Other butterfly larva that live in corn stalks, mezquite, or several other varieties of trees (including the one that gives the chia seeds), are also edible, and the larva that reside in cedar trees are very large, and just a couple of them are enough to fill up a taco.

Escamoles, the larvae of giant black ants harvested from the roots of magueys, are considered a delicacy and are often referred to as insect caviar. The larva are white little balls with the consistency of coagulated milk that melt in your mouth like butter (in which are their normally fried).

Flying red ants called chicatanas swarm onto lampposts and electrical posts in the state of Guerrero during the month of June, falling to the ground as they die. People pick them up off the street, bring them home and grill them. Once cooked they can last for months. In certain areas of Veracruz, people use the abdomens of these large ants to give their salsa a little extra texture.

Axayácatl, a water fly known as boatmen, are caught in nets thrown over lakes and are usually eaten fried. Their eggs, called ahuautle, are an even more prized catch. The Aztec Emperor Montezuma was brought freshly caught ahuautle daily for his breakfast, while people today usually eat them cooked in egg batter or fried, and also in tamales and mixiotes, and used instead of breadcrumbs for tortas.

Jumiles and chumiles are stinkbugs found mostly in the state of Guerrero, where they are used as an ingredient in salsas and are eaten in tacos, often still alive.

Chicatanas, black reproductive ants mostly found in Guerrero, which curl up into little armored balls. Most expensive of all insects due to the fact that they are only available for a few weeks a year, in November. In addition, people in Mexico also have a long tradition of eating fleas, butterflies, dragonflies, mosquitoes, flies and lice, though these don’t pop up on many menus.

Sunday, January 31, 2010


[unpublished article]

Beauty in Mexico goes much deeper than the skin. To begin with, the image of beauty displayed on television, in ads and throughout the pages of glossy magazines in Mexico tends to be tall and thin, fine-featured, light-skinned and blond. Taking advantage of the fact that the vast majority of women in Mexico have indigenous blood running through their veins and thus dark skin, hair and eyes, multinational corporations make millions of dollars each year offering Mexican women the opportunity for an extreme cultural make-over, with skin creams that whiten, hair dyes that lighten and contacts lenses that brighten.

A sizable chunk of women’s income in Mexico City is invested in beauty treatments and products. Although imported beauty products can be more expensive by weight than gold powder, there are also thousands of cheap locally produced or imported beauty products sold in neighborhood markets, inside the metro stations or in street stalls. These products tend to contain much higher levels of toxic ingredients than costly imported products, and some are never even tested on animals or humans. The long-term use of heavy doses of cheap foundation, mascara, lipstick or hair dye can lead to the absorption through the skin of high levels of toxic substances, especially lead. In addition to threatening their own health, the hundreds of thousands of dyed blondes and painted beauties in the city are responsible for heavy doses of toxic chemicals dumped into the air and water supply, chemicals that eventually reenter humans’ bodies as microscopic particles.

Mexico City’s dangerously high levels of pollution, aggressive parasites in the food and water, and constant stress all do their part to drain people of the life force that makes them beautiful. If health is beauty, then the quality of substances people put into their own bodies is more important than what they smear onto their skin or gob onto their eyes lids. A culture's diet shapes local concepts of beauty. The modern Mexican diet of imported junk and processed food, rich in the four basic food categories of fat, sugar, nicotine and alcohol, pumps up women's bodies, and although love-handles and cellulitis are many a woman's worst enemies, Mexican men consider these extra curves as added attractions.

The fact that, added to a poor diet, almost half of the population does no exercise at all is responsible for the fact that Mexico has the second highest level of obesity after the USA. Not coincidentally, after the USA Mexico is second in the world in terms of cosmetic surgery. Cosmetic surgery, like magic products or religion, is consumed in the belief that it will help women find a lover, solve marital problems, cure depression and help get a better job. The most common surgical interventions in Mexico City are nose jobs, breast and butt implants, as well as the removal and/or introduction of fat into various parts of the body.

To help women fulfill their dreams, one bank in Mexico City offered loans of up to $25,000 USD at 24% interest for desperate housewives and aspiring models to undergo cosmetic surgery. Wealthy women in Mexico City often fly to the United States for surgery, and one Mexican airline recently offered an all-inclusive package that included round trip flights from Mexico City to San Antonio, Texas, hotel, and medical procedures in the Methodist Healthcare System at the hands of bilingual doctors. The trip includes an extra couple of days to relax and shop at local malls until the bandages come off.

Women unable to afford costly surgery within Mexico or in the States have lots of cheaper options in their own neighborhood. Besides the many certified surgeons, there are thousands of unlicensed, untrained doctors within the city who tend to gravitate to cosmetic surgery and weight loss, some of whom advertise on hand-painted signs hung on trees or lampposts. To keep costs affordable, pirated products are often used, such as breast implants imported illegally from China. The cheap materials increase risks of infection and disease, as well as the probability of the body’s rejection of the foreign matter. This same dangerous disregard for women’s bodies can be found in the Mexican drug smuggling industry, where women are coerced into swallowing or stuffing bags of coke into various bodily cavities, or using their breasts and butts as virtual suitcases.

Adding curves to women’s bodies is a common practice in Mexico City, with women’s buttocks representing around half of these interventions, followed by breasts, legs, thighs and hips. The most common liquids injected into women in Mexico are paraffin and silicon, but even cheaper liquids, such as baby, vegetable and car oils, are often used. Many of the people who inject these chemicals into women’s bodies are not doctors, licensed or unlicensed, but rather housewives or neighbors looking to supplement their income. Although the curves tend to melt eventually, thus demanding regular follow-up injections, side effects such as pain, lumps, skin thickening, hyper-pigmentation, vein and arterial malformations, inflammation and arthritis often become chronic, and the accumulation of these and other substances in the body over time can cause death from blood poisoning.

Women in all cultures have always paid highly for their good looks, but in Mexico these days the expression “looks that kill” refers more to the health costs women must pay than to any display of beauty.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009


[unpublished article]

When the Spanish conquistadores landed in the New World, they came into contact with not only indigenous people but also indigenous microorganisms, including those responsible for syphilis, malaria, warts and intestinal problems. Due to the wars the Spaniards had waged throughout Europe and Africa, the conquistadores were more resistant to new microorganisms and so only a few died from diseases caused by contact with these American strains. Being that Mexico had had no contact with Europe before the conquistadores arrived, the Old World microbes responsible for colds, flu, diphtheria, bubonic plague, leprosy, typhoid fever, scarlet fever and yellow fever decimated as much as 90% of the indigenous population according to some accounts. More than any weapon or technology, viruses paved the way for the conquest of Mexico-Tenochtitlan, the mighty Aztec nation, and the establishment of what is today Mexico. While the full-scale extermination of the indigenous people by imported viruses has largely been forgotten, Moctezuma’s Revenge, a colloquial term for the stomach problems that tourists often experience when they come into contact with Mexican microorganisms, is something every foreigner knows and fears.

In the past couple of weeks, Mexico has been accused of being responsible for a new, particularly virulent virus that has spread to the US, and many people in the US media have clamored for the closing of the border. This is nothing new. Over the centuries, the USA has constantly accused Mexico of being the source of some of its greatest problems, including illegal immigration, drug trafficking and epidemics, all considered serious threats to the existence of the American way of life. But, really, who’s infecting who?

It is quite possible that this latest virus was born in Granjas Carroll, a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest multinational porcine company. On a small strip of land in tropical Veracruz, one million pigs are packed tightly together, force-fed antibiotics, hormones (some of which are illegal in the USA) and genetically-modified corn. The toxic waste created by the massive quantity of pig shit and diseased carcasses, added to the chemical cocktails injected into the animals, provides just the right environment for viruses to mutate. Even if it turns out that the virus, originally dubbed swine flu and then changed to A H1N1, didn’t originate in this pig farm, this multinational company’s impact on the health of the local people, half of who now suffer from respiratory illnesses, and on the now-contaminated local environment, has been devastating.

Since the North American Free Trade Agreement went into full effect, multinational companies based in the US have been transforming the Mexican economy to such an extent that Mexico is now a consumer of other countries’ culture. Half of all the food eaten in Mexico today comes from the US. The processed, sugar and fat-saturated, genetically-modified imported food being sold throughout the country has profoundly transformed the local diet and has turned Mexico into the fattest nation after the USA, which in turn has increased the rates of diabetes (also second only to the USA) and heart and circulatory diseases.

Not only are US and multinational corporations responsible for Mexico’s new diet, they are also responsible for treating the illnesses this diet helps create. Multinational pharmaceutical companies profit from the unchecked consumption of antibiotics and other potentially harmful drugs in Mexico, where doctors regularly prescribe antibiotics for cold symptoms and people tend to self-medicate (most prescription drugs are available in pharmacies without a prescription). Due in part to this indiscriminate use of antibiotics, as well as the consumption of foods that are genetically modified to contain antibiotics as part of their new gene structure, 16% of the Mexican population currently suffers from asthma and almost 20% from allergic rhinitis, thus creating additional profit potential for the drug companies. Many of the drugs designed to kill off bacteria, parasites and viruses tend to put increased pressure on these microorganisms to mutate while at the same time weakening an individual’s autoimmune system. Based on the scant information coming from the local authorities, it seems as if many of the people who died in Mexico after contact with the virus were already chronically ill (many with diabetes).

The dominance of US and multinational franchises in Mexico was well illustrated during the epidemic. The fear and hysteria generated by the Mexican government at the behest of world health organizations kept everyone shut inside their homes to protect against an invisible enemy, and only ‘essential’ businesses were allowed to open in Mexico City. The ‘essential’ businesses that most profited from this virus, besides the phamaceutical companies, were Walmart, Costco, 7/11, Domino’s Pizza and Blockbuster Video, all purveyors of the American Way of Life, that is, convenience consumerism.

Up until the epidemic, Mexico City was considered one of the ten wealthiest cities in the world in terms of production and level of consumption (the virus will have changed that soon enough). At the same time, out of over 200 cities, Mexico Ctiy was ranked amongst the bottom five in terms of quality of life based upon cost and availability of health care, infectious disease, environmental pollution, garbage removal, water quality and harmful parasites, all of which serve to help incubate deadly new viruses and deplete people’s immune system. The recent increase in government military spending to fight the ‘epidemic’ of narco-violence, dictated by the US in its Merida Plan as a way to monopolize arms sales, added to the recent financial crisis imported from the US, has meant an even greater decrease in social spending, especially in the public health sector. The sad state of Mexico’s public health sector, which services the lowest strata of society, contributes to the fact that people infected with this new virus have been dying in Mexico while surviving elsewhere.

Viruses are among the simplest organisms around, mere genetic material wrapped in a membrane, and yet they are among the most resilient and deadly. Viruses enter into foreign bodies, inject their own genetic material into their host and convert them into breeders that replicate and distribute the virus. By the same token, US and multinational franchises in Mexico, such as Starbucks, import identical chains to foreign countries, transforming the local culture in their own image and draining the country of resources. Pumping up humans with antibiotics and other medicines that substitute for the normal functioning of their immune system, while at the same time debilitating them with a poor, unhealthy diet, is an ideal way to make people prone to future illnesses and drug-dependency. Pumping up a developing economy with loans and supplanting local products with imported ones is a sure way to weaken an economy and its future autonomy. After the A H1N1 virus has come and gone, Mexico will have lost even more economic and cultural self-sufficiency, while the USA will have been troubled only by a slight case of Moctezuma’s Revenge, perhaps even of its own making.

Saturday, May 9, 2009


[published in Salon.Com 5/09]

Mexico City is currently enjoying a stretch of beautifully clear, hot days, and the city streets are wonderfully clean and quiet. The schools, movie theaters and sports stadiums are all closed, as are most of the restaurants and local businesses. Less cars circulate around the city and the Metro and city buses are uncharacteristically uncrowded. The only thing that indicates that this is no holiday, however, are the kind of masks most people are wearing.

Mexico City has been ground zero for the latest swine flu pandemic. It is the city where the most people have been infected by this deadly virus and where the most people have also already died from it. One of the world’s most populated and most densely packed urban areas, the city is a perfect petri dish for cultivating viruses. Physically sealed off from the rest of the world by a ring of volcanic mountains, Mexico City is becoming increasingly isolated as more and more countries are halting flights in and out of the city and chilangos (residents of Mexico City) are no longer welcome in hotels and resorts in other parts of the country. Even if chilangos aren’t traveling outside the country so much these day, images of the city continue to appear on the front pages of newspapers and during primetime newscasts all over the globe. The images shown, inevitably, are of people in Mexico City wearing masks.

Mexicans are known throughout the world by the masks they wear. The Aztecs are best known for their tourquoise or obsidian masks in the shape of hybrid animals or death skulls, and variations of these masks are still used in indigenous and regional festivals all over the country, with masks of devils and skeletons being the most common. Octavio Paz, Mexico’s most famous poet, claimed that the national identity was defined by the masks the people wear, both the festive ones as well as the social ones (smiles that hide hatred, cheerfulness that hides loneliness, etc). Lucha libre masks are one the most identifiable export icons of Mexican culture, while the Zapatista mask, worn by a group of indigenous insurgents in Chiapas, became a universal symbol for social protest. The bandanas used to cover protestors´ faces during the most violent student and worker confrontations over the last few years are a much-needed disguise to keep police from identifying them and jailing them and their whole family.

Along with disease and masks, epidemics leads to viral expansion of conspiracy theories on the web that no or filter can stop. Due to the conflicting facts and figures announced, most people in Mexico doubt the official version and are thus ready to believe just about anything. One credible theory currently floating around the city is that the unhealthy conditions created by a million pigs living in industrial farms run by the world’s largest multinational pig breeder in the state Veracruz gave birth to this new strain of swine flu. The company had already been accused of polluting the local lagoons, half the town suffered from respiratory illnesses months before the outbreak, and the first person to have contracted this new strain of virus was child from this town. Others believe that the CIA, still controlled by the Bush clan, planted a weapon-grade virus in Mexico City to test its effectiveness, divert attention from possible indictments of high-level officials involved in torture in Guantánamo, generate healthy profits for multinational pharmaceutical companies of which Bush’s cronies are major stockholders, and ruin Mexico´s economy so much that the bailout loans come with a rider demanding the privatization of its oil industry. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch of the imagination to imagine the outbreak of this deadly virus at the moment it happened as an elaborate plot to assasinate President Obama, as he was given a private tour of the anthropology museum by a man who died of a suspicious case of pneumonia the following day.

Today, with a deadly virus floating around the city and no one really knowing where it came from and how much damage it is doing, chilangos cling to their masks as if their life depended on it. The intimate, physical greetings that characterized contact between Mexicans, including lots of body hugs and cheek kissing, have already been sacrificed, and chilangos now remain hidden and isolated behind thin masks. Fear of invisible enemies has reached such a point that many people even wear masks while they drive by themselves in their car with the windows down, while others wear them at home alone. With so much mask hysteria, these masks have long been sold-out in all pharmacies and stores. Along with flu vaccines, anti-viral medicine, antihistamines, antibiotics and any medicine that treats flu symptoms and which people throughout the city are using to self-medicate in this time of crisis, the manufacturing of masks will be one of the few profitable businesses within the city this season.

To most people in Mexico City, these face masks are seen as the last line of defense. The only problem, however, is that the masks don’t protect against this swine flu, or any other flu for that matter, as airborne viruses, being microscopic, can easily pass through paper or cloth masks. If this information gets out it could cause widespread panic within the city, unless people were also told that, in fact, viruses can only survive in the air a couple of seconds, and it would take a direct hit from a sneeze to infect someone else. So, in the end, the ubiquitous face masks that have come to define the image of this new deadly disease are at best mere fashion accessories, and at worst, when not disposed of properly, a perfect source of infection as viruses do survive up to two days on objects or surfaces.

The Mexican Center for Epidemic and Disease Control is well aware of the limitations of masks, and no one in their offices even bothers to wear them (as one reporter from El Pais recently discovered). Nonetheless, the Mexican government has handed out millions of face masks in an effort to make people feel they are protected and to keep them calm (violent people in masks are the government’s number one nightmare). Perhaps, though, this misinformation is a good thing, for without the masks, without any visible image of the possibility of being infected and dying, people wouldn’t take the epidemic seriously and wouldn’t follow other preventive procedures. Even if most people in Mexico City knew that their masks were mere props, though, many of them would probably still wear them, as mask culture has always been an essential part of life, and death, in Mexico City.

Sunday, March 29, 2009


[published in the London Guardian Weekly 3/09]

Every weekend, young American and European tourists, corporate workers and students, as well as locals with disposable income, flock to Mexico City’s trendy Condesa neighborhood to eat out in any one of the dozens of bistros, trattorias or Asian fusion restaurants concentrated within a few city blocks. The rise in international dining options in what had long been a very traditional food scene reflects not so much an evolution of taste buds as the radical transformation of the food industry within Mexico. Since the North American Free Trade Agreement went into full effect, half of all food eaten in Mexico is now grown in the USA, and most of the ingredients used to concoct these exotic dishes are US imports sold in Walmart and Costoco mega-stores throughout the city.

Delicious, healthy, inexpensive food that doesn’t displace local crops, however, can still be enjoyed in the Condesa, though you’ll have a hard time finding it in any international restaurant or gourmet shop. The greatest variety of such food, much of which harkens back to indigenous cooking developed long before any European set foot in the city, is to be found on the street. Yet, most of the foreigners and locals who flock into the Condesa for a noisy, crowded dining experience shy away from street food, in part from fear of parasites. Aggressive microorganisms are a real risk when eating food from the street, as street stands lack running water and the food prepared and displayed outside tends to absorb floating particles of dubious origin. However, as the local government does not enforce proper food handling within restaurants, the risk of infection is just as great indoors as out.

It is not just the food served but also the outsider architecture of the street stalls that gives the experience of eating on the street such a unique Mexican flavor. Traditional ‘markets-on-wheels’ set up their stalls on different streets each day within the neighborhood, offering not just fresh produce and raw fish but also stands that sell seafood cocktails and deep-fried foods. Pushcarts with glass display cases roam the neighborhood offering plastic cups chock full of sliced mango, papaya and other native fruits, with lemon and chile powder sprinkled on top. Fried plantains and camotes (sweet potatoes) are sold from a metal tub mounted on a three-wheel pushcart, a home-made portable steam table that resembles a steam engine (announcing its arrival with an earsplitting steam whistle). An oversized tricycle with a flatbed rigged to the front crisscrosses the neighborhood selling Oaxacan-style tamales (stuffed with chicken in mole or tomato sauce and wrapped in banana leaves), calling to potential clients by means of a portable loudspeaker hooked up to a tape-recorded loop. Once a week a pickup truck parks in front of Parque Mexico, its cab overflowing with goods brought in from Oaxaca, including corn tostadas, various flavors of solid mole, and bags of large, crunchy grasshoppers.

Some street stands have been located on the same sidewalk spot for years, outlasting most of the neighborhood’s trendy restaurants. Every weekend in front of the Nuestra Señora de Lima Church you can nibble on corn nibblets scooped from a large gas-heated pot or chomp on a corn-on-the-cob smothered with mayonaisse, lemon, chile and crumbled cheese. The quesadilla stand that sets up in front of a US-owned convenience store is manned by a stout woman fanning the flames of a coal stove, spooning fillings such as beans, squash flowers and nopales from plastic Tupperware tubs into tortillas and flipping the quesadillas on a cast iron pan.

Even though they operate out of a commercial space so small only the kitchen and counter fit indoors, Tacos Hola (known to locals as El Güero) shares much more with traditional Mexican street food than it does with the glut of international restaurants that have popped up all around it. El Güero serves tacos stuffed with daily stewed specials scooped up from large ceramic pots, ladled onto fresh tortillas and served with pinto beans, guacamole and green chile sauce. These tacos bear no relation to the hard, tasteless Taco Bell tacos or to the dry meat tacos sold by local chains in the neighborhood. The wide range of stewed meat fillings, such as fried pigskin and blood sausage, are the culinary legacy of the first Spaniards to settle here, while the vegetarian options, including rajas, squash and quelite (a cross between an herb and a shrub), have been common fare since long before the Aztecs moved into the Mexico City Valley.

El Güero has been serving tacos to people willing to stand and eat them on the sidewalk for over four decades. Due to the unchecked expansion of the neighborhood’s commercial culinary makeover, rising rents are forcing smaller locales to sell out to more luxury-oriented businesses. Even the cult status of El Güero (they’re in Facebook as Tacos Hola) might not be sufficient to ensure the survival of its space, currently squeezed between a corner café and a new luxury condo, and caddy-corner from a Walmart-owned supermarket chain.

In the Condesa, radically different economies, cultures and cuisine overlap, though the coexistence is far from peaceful, as there are large commercial interests struggling to dominate people’s taste buds. If it’s true that you are what you eat, then what people eat when they eat out in the Condesa helps define the future of the culture of Mexico.