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Kurt Hollander: Several Ways to Drink in Mexico City

October 18, 2012

The proprietor of Mexico City’s first American-style bar reflects on how history and politics have changed the ways the city indulges and what this means for his neighborhood.

http://www.guernicamag.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/pulque2.jpg
Images courtesy of Kurt Hollander

By Kurt Hollander


I Serve Alcohol

When I opened Barracuda in the Mexico City neighborhood of La Condesa about 15 years ago it changed the way people drank in the city. It was one of the city’s first “bar” bars, as opposed to the cantinas or beer halls that had serviced almost exclusively men up until then. Barracuda was a place where young women and men could go out at night, to mingle to the sounds of funk and Latin beat in a renovated Art Deco restaurant that had been in the neighborhood since the 1930s.

The Condesa wasn’t yet a neighborhood when the Jockey Club (with its dog track and polo field) was built here at the end of the 19th century, attracting the local gentry who came to wine and dine, as well as to place bets. After the Revolution tore down the playgrounds of the rich across the country, the racetrack was converted into Parque Mexico, one of the largest green spaces in Mexio City. A community soon grew up around the park, populated in part by European Jewish immigrants and characterized by the Art Deco architecture they brought with them from the Old World. For most of the 20th century, the Condesa was a heterogeneous neighborhood, a mix of working-class and homeowners, residential and commercial.

When I first moved there in 1989, only a couple cantinas serviced the neighborhood. To go drinking with friends, I would mostly head to El Centro, the historic part of the city. Little did I imagine at that time how a shift in drinking—not only what people drank but how they drank it—would change my neighborhood so much.

When I opened Barracudea in the 90s, a few years after the US-Mexico Free Trade Agreement had gone into effect—imported liquor had already flooded the local market, promoted by multinational companies with large advertising budgets. The upscale drinkers who drove their imported luxury cars and suburban vehicles to my bar tended to shun tequila in favor of rum, vodka and gin mixed into exotic, fruity drinks or martinis that were a big hit with all those who wanted to considered themselves international.

It was prohibited to beat or insult drunks during the celebrations, as they were under the protection of the pulque gods.

I made a lot of money pimping for the multinational spirit industry and serving alcohol to the thirsty hordes of yuppies and juniors (sons of wealthy businessmen). My bar enjoyed all the benefits alcohol companies lavish on their faithful customers: huge loans paid off in purchases, free awnings, glasses, mixers and shakers, and attractive models for special promotions. Alcohol companies paid for the fliers for all the live music and DJ events every weekend, paid for the huge photomurals that I took of urban cityscapes around the Americas (Havana, Panama City, Lima, Brooklyn). They trained my bartenders, and they even sent my managers to Scotland for a course on whiskey.

Although I was constantly surrounded by bottles of all varieties of alcohol, I took not a drop to drink. This wasn’t due to any professional code, but rather to the fact that I had gone to Peru and gotten sick just as the bar was about to open. My doctor had told me I had to give up alcohol, so the last drink I had was the sixth martini at the inauguration of my bar. Everyone commented on how healthy, physically and economically, it was for me to not consume my own product, but alcohol was precisely what I needed to disconnect from my business concerns and to help me forget about the fact that I was suffering from a horrible case of chronic, ulcerative colitis that left me physically drained and skeletally thin, an open wound exposed to the harsh environment of Mexico City that so often left me bleeding out my ass and running to the bathroom twenty times a day.

Agua Viva

The freshest, most delicious pulque I ever drank was on the curb of a concrete traffic island frequented by stray dogs and teporochos (homeless alcoholics), under a highway overpass rattled by heavy truck thru-traffic, one block from a minimum security prison, smack in the middle of one of the most heavily industrialized zones of Mexico City, at an improvised bar with plastic buckets functioning as stools and jars as glasses.

It wasn’t always this way. During the Aztec empire, pulque—the naturally fermented sap of the agave plant, bubbly when fresh and slimy when not—was the drink of emperors and warriors, used by high priests to communicate with gods who lived in the plants and oversaw the drunkenness in its consumer. During the Colonial period it was the most popular drink and one of the regions’ biggest industries.

But the sad setting in which I tasted pulque has become increasingly common. Even though its production and consumption are among the few pre-Hispanic cultural practices that survive today—or perhaps, because of that—pulque is considered bottom-of-the-barrel alcohol and the few pulquerías that still exist in Mexico City are located in the poorest neighborhoods and are frequented by the lowest social strata.

Known as agua viva (living water) because it contains three bacterial cultures (Saccharomyces, Zymomonas and Lactobacillus) that continue to ferment the liquid even outside the plant and even within one’s stomach, pulque introduces earth’s beneficial bacteria into human gut flora, providing a healthy equilibrium with the microscopic world. (In comparison, the distillation of the agave sap is designed to kill off all microorganisms; thus tequila and mescal—which have far higher alcohol content than the beer-like pulque—do not provide the same health benefits.)

During the Aztec empire, and even centuries before, pulque was considered nectar of the gods and a panacea for mortals. Senior citizens were allowed to drink pulque to warm their blood and help them sleep, and women drank it after giving birth to help them recover their strength and to produce milk. Sick people were administered pulque mixed with herbs and seeds to help ease pain, heal wounds and treat venereal diseases, and it was also used as an anti-inflammatory. During times of scarcity, pulque served as a food substitute due to its high level of proteins and carbohydrates, and substituted for water during droughts.


A Heavenly High

Precisely because pulque was such a potent quaff, commoners were prohibited from drinking except during special celebrations: the end of the harvest, rain ceremonies, marriages, births, funerals and religious feasts. The celebrations of the dead were five-day binges in which everyone was encouraged to drink til they dropped, it was prohibited to beat or insult drunks, as they were under the protection of the pulque gods. During the festivals dedicated specifically to pulque, a giant stone rabbit representing a pulque god was filled with the liquid and everyone drank from straws stuck in its head. There were four hundred rabbit gods, each representing a different state of pulque intoxication (such as the head-opener, the hanger and the drowner).

Although it was impossible to keep everyone from enjoying this delicious, intoxicating liquid in between festivals and ceremonies, severe punishments for recreational drinking helped control the abuse of pulque in Aztec society. Those caught drunk in public places had their heads shaved and received a beating, while repeat offenders had their houses destroyed and were prohibited from holding public office. Young people and nobles caught drunk were stoned, hung or beaten to death with sticks.

With the fall of the Aztec empire, pulque was abandoned by its gods and its consumption and production was left in the hands of mere mortals. With the prohibitions gone, widespread alcohol abuse quickly spread quickly. At the same time, the Spanish began to import stronger alcohol for which the locals were biologically unprepared.

Pulque Resists

Wine, often prescribed as medicine and seen as a source of nutrition, energy and courage, flowed at all meals of the Spaniards. Cortés brought barrels of wine with him on his voyage to Mexico, introduced the very first European grape vines into the country, and when he became governor of New Spain, ordered the large-scale planting of vineyards. The first monks to arrive in Mexico in the 16th century brought vines to ensure a steady supply of wine for mass, and later established vineyards in their missions throughout the center and north of the country, making Mexico the first wine-producing country in the New World.

Some contend that the negative stereotypes of natives during the Spanish rule—especially widespread alcohol abuse—actually represented forms of resistance to colonialism.

Cortés and other enterprising Spaniards tried to convert wine into a national industry, but local production competed with Spanish imports, so the Spanish Crown eventually prohibited the planting of new vineyards and continued to do so throughout the 300 years of Spanish rule in Mexico, making exceptions only for Catholic missions. When the Spaniards realized that wine would never displace native alcohol, they seized control of pulque production and distribution, which soon became a very profitable business and a lucrative source of tax revenue for the Crown.

Economic interests often conflicted with religious and moral ones. At the beginning of the 17th century, the Church led an unsuccessful attempt to prohibit the sale and consumption of all local alcoholic beverages. Pulque was an especially thorny issue for the Catholic Church in Mexico—while the Church condemned the evils of drinking pulque (pulquerías were viewed as the Church’s main competition for souls), the agave plantations used for pulque production were owned by missionaries, and the profit from pulque sales built the cathedrals in Central Mexico and helped the Church maintain its power.

But pulque also represented a threat to colonial authority. In 1672, Mexico City’s poorer citizens—mostly natives, Africans, and mestizos—went on rampage protesting the lack of tortillas in the local markets while tons of corn was being sent to Spain. The protests coincided with a holiday when the city’s inhabitants tended to get totally wasted. The royal palace was burnt to the ground and Spaniards caught on the street were attacked. The authorities blamed these so-called Corn Riots not on the profiteering of food during hard times but on the over-consumption of pulque, and decided to run all non-Europeans out from the center of town.

They also prohibited the production and sale of pulque within the city, but when they realized how much tax revenue was being lost, the pulque flowed once again.

Dead Drunk

Before the Conquest, Aztecs had very low rates of alcoholism—drinking took place on certain social and religious occasions, when locals were encouraged to drink to excess. Indulging in pulque brought communities together to provided a regular catharsis of internal tensions, suppressed aggression and sexuality. Drinking along with one’s neighbors and under the guidance of religious leaders was a healthy act free from feelings of shame.

Alcohol has become the basis of La Condesa’s single-crop economy; my neighborhood is no longer a self-sufficient barrio with its own culture and an economy that serves its own residents.

But after the fall of Mexico-Tenochtitlan, the social, religious and even health benefits of heavy drinking on holidays disappeared—instead, drinking became associated with Catholic ideas of guilt and sin. Aztecs watched horrified as their whole culture (religion, language, economy and social standing) crumbled before their eyes and was violently replaced by a foreign, aggressive culture, casting the locals adrift in a sea of uncertainty. Some contend that all the negative stereotypes of natives during Spanish rule, including self-destructiveness, laziness, lying, cheating and especially widespread alcohol abuse, actually represent forms of resistance to colonialism. (One of the biggest headaches for the Colonial authorities was how to bury all the anonymous, naked corpses accumulated around pulquerías.)

Drinking large amounts of cheap booze in Mexico City has an even greater impact than elsewhere. Due to the city’s high elevation, drinkers here get drunk quicker, suffer more drunken symptoms and have worse hangovers than those who drink at sea level. Drinking and driving at high elevations can be a deadly mix—traffic accidents (pedestrians run over by cars, passengers killed in crashes, drivers who ram their cars into cement walls, trees or poles, flipped cars and passengers who fall from speeding vehicles, in that order) are the number one cause of violent death in Mexico City, more than homicides or suicides. More than half of all deaths related to traffic accidents occur between Thursday and Saturday, mostly after midnight, when teenagers and young adults return from bars and discos. Getting hit by a drunk driver while out walking, riding my bike, or driving, or getting into a fight with and shot by a drunk, however, are among the most likely ways I will die in Mexico City.

Though it won’t kill me, the strain caused by the thousands of yuppies, secretaries and businessmen driving in and out of my neighborhood most days of the week to get stupid drunk is more than me or my neighborhood—which up until just a few years ago was a quiet, residential area—can bear. The huge billboards advertising alcohol, the level of noise coming from the bars and restaurants, the insane traffic and honking that goes on late into the night, and the broken beer bottles and vomit on the street are merely the ugly symptoms of a much more serious disease: namely, the widespread corruption of the local government. The juicy kickbacks obtained from allowing dozens of bars and restaurants serving liquor to open without the proper permits, in buildings and locales that aren’t legally licensed for such businesses, has led directly to the mass nightly invasion.

When seen from a macro-economic perspective, the gentrification and urban transformations that have occurred in my neighborhood, and in many neighborhoods throughout the world (including my old stomping grounds of the Lower East Side), were in large part underwritten, designed and executed by multinational alcohol companies that supply cheap booze with trendy international brand names for the masses.

Just as consumers in the US who snort cocaine and smoke pot contribute to the narco-violence in Mexico, so too the vomiting multitudes lured by the promises of exotic alcohols have contributed to the widespread decimation of the Condesa. Alcohol has become La Condesa’s single-crop economy; my neighborhood is no longer a self-sufficient barrio, one with its own culture and an economy that serves its own residents, but instead an alcoholic theme park for the lowest level of global lifestyle consumers, the harbingers of the death of Mexico City culture.

Kurt Hollander is originally from New York City but has been living in Mexico City for the past 23 years. He is a writer, photographer, filmmaker, magazine editor and translator. This piece is adapted from his autobiography, Several Ways to Die in Mexico City: An Autobiography of Death in Mexico City, published by Feral House in October 2012. More info about Kurt can be found on his website.

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4 comments for Kurt Hollander: Several Ways to Drink in Mexico City

  1. Comment by Carlos Pascual on October 21, 2012 at 3:11 am

    This piece starts with such a lack of accuracy, that I thought it was a piece of fiction (maybe it is). (1) “Bar bar’s have existed in Mexico for most of the twentieth century and actually gave birth to the contemporary known cantina, through the combination of its characteristics with the ones from Spanish traditional “mesón” or “tasca”. (2) The Barracuda bar didn’t change anything in the way people drank in Mexico City. I would risk to say that 99.9% of the city’s population haven’t heard of it. (3) Calling Parque Mexico one of the largest green spaces in Mexico City, could be only done by somebody that thinks his posh neighborhood is the whole city. (4) Pulque was never a drink exclusive to emperors, warriors and high priests during the Aztec empire; its consumption was much more extensive.

    I couldn’t continue reading…

  2. Comment by kurt hollander on October 23, 2012 at 1:12 pm

    during the reworking of this edited version of my chapter on alcohol for publication in this magazine, the claims of the first paragraph seemed to have been extended to all of mexico city. replacing the neighborhood of la condesa in those places in the tag line and the first paragraphs where mexico city is mentioned will hopefully help restore order in the universe.

  3. Comment by Kim on October 24, 2012 at 11:32 am

    Kurt, i read your article with interest but mixed feelings. Interest about the history of Pulque and also about alcohol and Indigenous peoples ( I used to live in Mexico City but presently live in Ecuador where it is a very present theme). But I also feel you protest too much about the yuppie/privileged invasion of Condessa. As you say, you made a lot of money from them/with them–(surely you are one of the privileged minority too?). You’re complaining about noise/creation of theme park community etc which you have contributed to.

  4. Comment by Jorge Huft on October 25, 2012 at 2:22 pm

    What a load of bullocks! just for a rant … not even a piece of mildly interesting fiction …

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